Thomas Chatterton Williams On Debate, Criticism And The Letter In ‘Harper’s Magazine’

A few articles over the Harper’s letter, starting with the Harper’s editor who organized it:

Thomas Chatterton Williams, along with more than 150 prominent journalists, authors and writers, published a letter decrying what it called the “intolerant climate that has set in on all sides” of debate in Harper’s Magazine on Tuesday, fueling a heated controversy over free speech, privilege and the role of social media in public discourse.

“The free exchange of information and ideas,the lifeblood of a liberal society is daily becoming more constricted,” the letter states. “While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty.”

The letter cites various harms it says have been caused by this state of affairs and concludes that “the restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”

Williams, an author and columnist for Harper’s Magazine and a contributor to The New York Times Magazine, told NPR the letter was meant to defend everyone’s “right to argue back and to take ideas, if they’re faulty, expose them to the light of day and counter them effectively.”

The letter immediately faced backlash. At least two signers distanced themselves from it. Some critics argued that including signatures from certain writers, including J.K. Rowling — who has made comments seen as transphobic on Twitter — took away from the sentiment of the letter altogether. A group of more than 160 writers, journalists, academics and others responded with a letter of their own in The Objective, which argued that the very problems the Harper’s Magazine letter lays out are not trends at all.

“In reality, their argument alludes to but does not clearly lay out specific examples, and undermines the very cause they have appointed themselves to uphold,” the counter-letter read. “In truth, Black, brown, and LGBTQ+ people — particularly Black and trans people — can now critique elites publicly and hold them accountable socially; this seems to be the letter’s greatest concern. What’s perhaps even more grating to many of the signatories is that a critique of their long held views is persuasive.”

Some people signed the counter-letter anonymously but included professional affiliations. (At least four people purportedly associated with NPR signed the counter-letter; no current NPR News employees signed the Harper’s letter.)

Williams talked with NPR’s Michel Martin on All Things Considered about why he helped spearhead the crafting of the letter, what it was meant to accomplish and how it was received by the public.

Interview Highlights

On what motivated him to write the letter

It was not one event in particular, it was a kind of mood or a climate that myself and several of the other drafters have been discussing for some time now and it was in late May, early June that we began thinking that maybe we would get together and write something and see if anybody would sign it.

On the criticism that some of the signers have been accused of transphobia and that their presence on the letter is seen as excusing their bigotry

These are principles that anyone could sign and that everybody should actually be able to uphold. And I think that part of what the letter is trying to do is trying to argue against the idea that you have to look around and Google every statement that anybody on the list has ever said to know if you feel comfortable signing it. The point is that that’s irrelevant.

On if he accomplished what he hoped to

What I think we did is we moved the needle a little bit in some of these spaces. Someone has to look around and say, “Well actually, a lot of these people on the list I do still want to work with. I do still want to make Netflix adaptations of some of their work. I do still want them to make podcasts or report at The New York Times or The New Yorker.” And so I have to take into consideration their point of view too, not just these kind of whipped up mobs online that are faceless and that kind of I’ll never interact with but somehow are now penetrating the inner sanctums of the HR department.

I think we’ve moved the needle a little bit in making people understand that there’s not actually nearly as much consensus on some of these impulses as it may sometimes seem if you spend too much time on Twitter.

Source: Thomas Chatterton Williams On Debate, Criticism And The Letter In ‘Harper’s Magazine’

And on the counter letter:

Three days after an open letter signed by more than 150 cultural luminaires darkly warning of a growing “intolerant climate” stirred intense response on the internet, another group issued a counterblast on Friday accusing them of elitism, hypocrisy and complicity in the bullying they decry.

The first letter, titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” was posted online on Tuesday by Harper’s Magazine. Signed by prominent figures in the arts, media and academia, including Margaret Atwood, Wynton Marsalis and J.K. Rowling, it warned of a growing tide of illiberalism and a weakening of “our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”

The response letter, titled “A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” chided the Harper’s statement for what it characterized as lofty generalities, as well as ignoring the realities of who actually gets to be heard. If its more than 150 signers were far less well-known, that was perhaps part of the point.

The Harper’s letter “does not deal with the problem of power: who has it and who does not,” according to the response, published at The Objective, a news and commentary site that explores “how journalism has interacted with historically ignored communities.”

“Harper’s has decided to bestow its platform not to marginalized people,” it said, “but to people who already have large followings and plenty of opportunities to make their views heard.”

It continued: “The letter reads as a caustic reaction to a diversifying industry — one that’s starting to challenge diversifying norms that have protected bigotry. The writers of the letter use seductive but nebulous concepts and coded language to obscure the actual meaning behind their words.”

Almost as soon as it appeared on Tuesday, “That Letter,” as Twitter quickly began calling the Harper’s statement, set off rounds of debate about free speech, privilege and the existence or nonexistence of so-called cancel culture.

Akela Lacy, a politics reporter at The Intercept who signed and helped edit the counter-letter, said it grew organically out of a conversation in a Slack channel called Journalists of Color. Initially, there was some wariness of feeding what she and others on Twitter wryly referred to as “letter discourse.”

“There are so many more important things going on in media right now,” Ms. Lacy said, citing in particular threats and harassment experienced by journalists from marginalized groups.

“But the fact is there are a lot of people, particularly Black and trans, expressing very valid concerns about the climate right now,” she said. “Letting this very lofty position go unanswered didn’t feel like it was benefiting anyone.”

The prominence of the Harper’s signers has been a flash point in the conversation, with some deriding that letter as the whining of “assorted rich fools,” as a writer for The Daily Beast put it. The response letter characterized it as a defense of “the intellectual freedom of cis white intellectuals,” which “has never been under threat en masse.”

On Friday, after the response letter was posted, the writer Thomas Chatterton Williams, who spearheaded the Harper’s letter, highlighted the more than two dozen Black and other nonwhite intellectuals who signed his letter.

“You know, just a bunch of privileged solipsistic elites worrying about problems that don’t exist,” Mr. Williams, who is Black, tweeted. “So far, haven’t seen any of the formerly imprisoned signatories or the ones who have experienced fatwas cave to the social media backlash, though,” he added.

His dig was a reference to the fact that criticism of the Harper’s letter centered as much on who signed it as its content. And within hours of its publication, some who had signed distanced themselves from it, saying they would not have joined if they had been aware of some of the other signers. The inclusion of J.K. Rowling, who has drawn condemnation for a series of recent comments widely seen as anti-transgender, drew particular ire.

The new letter included one person, the historian Kerri Greenidge, who had signed the Harper’s letter, according to emails reviewed by The New York Times, but then asked that her name be removed, saying on Twitter, “I do not endorse this @Harpers letter.”

It also included a number of people signing anonymously, including three listed as journalists at The New York Times. (The Harper’s letter was signed by four Opinion columnists at The Times, who used their names.)

Ms. Lacy said she was aware of the “irony” of an open letter that included redacted signatures, but said that some people who criticized the Harper’s letter had gotten threats or feared workplace retaliation.

“There’s a difference between being canceled in the way Harper’s letter is talking about and actually getting threats of violence,” she said.


About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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