In Defense of the Harper's Letter on Freedom of Expression

If history has taught us anything, it’s that disagreement is a necessary precondition for progress. The evolution of society depends on maintaining open forums in which good-faith arguments can be dissected, analyzed, and either accepted or rejected based on their own merits.

Before women could win the right to vote, someone had to disagree with the prohibition on women’s suffrage. Before racial discrimination in the workplace could be outlawed, someone had to stand up in support of the right of black people to earn a living. Before gay couples could legally wed, someone had to challenge the then-popular idea that marriage was the exclusive domain of religious institutions. Disagreement is perhaps the most effective catalyst for change the world has ever known, which is precisely why we must make as much room as possible for those who wish to step up and speak their piece, including both those with expansive platforms and those who have historically struggled to be heard. 

That’s not to say that public discourse should be free of any boundaries whatsoever. On the contrary, one of the primary objectives of debate is to determine where exactly those boundaries should be placed and how they should be enforced. But those boundaries must be allowed to develop organically. When they are thrust upon society by self-appointed gatekeepers of acceptable discourse, at least some of whom are acting on dubious political motives, the only appropriate reaction is to try and tear those boundaries down and continue the hard work of settling disputes that remain unresolved. 

Whether it’s enforced via the threat of imprisonment by authoritarian regimes or the threat of excommunication from polite society by authoritarian activists, censorship has never been a legitimate means of discrediting ideas. It is nearly impossible to defeat an allegedly bad idea by telling people that they can’t or shouldn’t talk about it. When inquiring minds are instructed not to indulge their curiosity, they will always do the opposite. And when they do, it is of the utmost importance that for every genuinely bad idea they encounter, there will be many more good ideas, supported by reason and evidence, that effectively neuter the bad ones, thereby preventing the proliferation of toxic and destructive ideologies. That cannot happen in a culture that tries in vain to eliminate bad ideas by threatening punitive action against anyone who dares to even discuss them. 

But our society is losing sight of that fact, as evidenced by some of the more troubling developments cited by the authors of an open letter published this past week in Harper’s Magazine. The letter, entitled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” laments that “it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought” and affirms “the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters.” 

The letter references a series of recent events as evidence of a bipartisan attack on the free exchange of ideas, including the firing of David Shor, a data scientist who dared to tweet the results of an academic study showing that nonviolent protests produce better electoral results for Democrats than violent protests do. It also mentions journalists being “barred from writing on certain topics,” which could very well be a reference to the allegation that the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette prohibited two African American employees—one a reporter, the other a photographer—from covering demonstrations relating to the death of George Floyd, and then decided to suspend coverage of Black Lives Matter protests altogether.

There are, of course, plenty of other examples worth noting, such as the recent Orwellian attempt to get Harvard Professor Steven Pinker removed from both the Linguistic Society of America’s list of distinguished academic fellows and its list of media experts. That incident drew a great deal of (negative) attention from a number of signatories to the Harper’s letter, including well-known academics like Nicholas Christakis, John McWhorter, and Jonathan Haidt

As soon as the letter was published, the counterarguments came rolling in. Some critics characterized the letter’s central premise as an attack on “cancel culture,” and then proceeded to imply that the letter’s signatories are only lashing out now because they are distraught over seeing privileged white men be held accountable for their actions. Yet dozens upon dozens of the journalists, academics, and other notable figures who signed the letter are prominent women and people of color, such as authors Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood, feminist Gloria Steinem, and CNN’s Fareed Zakaria.

Other critics tried to discredit the letter through guilt by association, arguing that it was a thinly veiled attempt at normalizing transphobia because several of the signatories have taken controversial positions on transgender issues, like Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling. Rowling has fielded heavy criticism recently for some of her opinions about “people who menstruate,” transitioning, and other topics relating to transgenderism. But the letter itself never explicitly refers to any transgender issues, and the vast majority of its signatories do not regularly comment on such issues. 

To be clear, this isn’t just about cancel culture, transgenderism, or the shifting power dynamics in contemporary America; it’s about an emerging dogmatism on both sides of the spectrum that continuously intensifies in direct proportion to the ongoing polarization of American society. Left unchecked, that dogmatism will eventually overwhelm academia and the media alike, leaving behind no safe havens for the intellectually curious and seekers of truth. 

Furthermore, it must be understood that freedom of expression is much more than just a constitutional right. It’s also a foundational principle born out of respect for the fact that the temptation to abuse certain powers is often too great for many people to resist, including the power to regulate speech. That’s one of the reasons why we don’t entrust the government with that kind of power. It should not be assumed, however, that state-sponsored censorship is the only form of censorship that can be harmful to society. 

As exemplified by the aforementioned firing of David Shor, the temptation to censor speech we don’t like or approve of is ubiquitous, even when the speech being censored is the product of legitimate empirical data. Therefore, to mitigate the censorious impact that ideological biases and overzealous activism can have on political discourse, the process of determining what is and isn’t acceptable speech must be collaborative, and it must include representatives from every level of society. We simply cannot permit a small but vocal group of politically motivated actors to serve as the exclusive, unelected arbiters of acceptable speech. They do not deserve that power, nor can they be trusted with it.

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