What’s Left When Talking To Each Other Becomes Impossible?
It’s not the fact that we disagree that should worry us.
Yesterday morning, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter entitled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”. The letter has, at the time of this writing, been signed by over 150 prominent writers, journalists and lecturers. As the title suggests, it addresses the fear that as cancel culture grows more prevalent, engaging in a debate is becoming an increasingly risky proposition.
The penalties for expressing the wrong opinion currently range from threats and personal attacks at one end of the scale to the loss of privacy and even employment at the other. As a result, teachers, authors and scientists, people whose job it is to think and speak about the world we live in, are understandably reluctant to do so openly.
I strongly encourage you to read the whole letter (it’s not long) but I particularly want to draw attention to this passage:
Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.
This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. 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.
You could be forgiven for thinking that during a time where discourse has become so polarised and our trust in the good faith of others so fractured, we could all get behind a message like this. But if you were thinking that, it’s my sad duty to remind you that it’s 2020 and that’s not how things work anymore.
Instead, today, the New York Times reported on the backlash that raged across social media in response to the letter. The main problem doesn’t seem to have been the content of the letter itself, but rather the views of some of the people who agreed to sign it. The fear of guilt by association then led to several signatories distancing themselves from the letter, including one anonymous signatory, who claimed she “did not know who all the other signatories were when she agreed to participate, and if she had, she may not have signed.”
Let’s just let that sink in for a moment. The entire reason that this anonymous signatory believes that she needs to remain anonymous, is to avoid being attacked for supporting a letter. A letter which explicitly condemns the growing tendency to attack people for their views. Despite this, she claims that she may have refused to support this letter if she had known that certain other people happened to agree with her on this issue. This may well be the most severe case of cognitive dissonance I’ve seen since this guy.
Objections to the letter weren’t even limited to the opinions of the signatories though. Some commentators found a way to take offence to problems that were completely imagined. Take Emily VanDer Werff for example. Emily, who is a critic at Vox, wrote to her editors expressing her disappointment that a fellow Vox writer, Matthew Yglesias, had signed the letter, which she described as ”containing many dog-whistles toward anti-trans positions”.
When asked to explain how she had managed to read the letter as anti-trans, Emily retweeted the following screenshot which in her own words; “neatly expresses the way I read the letter as a trans woman”.
To be as clear as it’s possible to be in these times when one can be pilloried for words that they didn’t write, there is absolutely no part of me that believes this is how trans-people see the world. In fact, I very much hope that this degree of narcissism is entirely limited to Emily and the woman who made these “helpful edits”. Nor am I trying to argue that transphobia isn’t a real and serious problem facing our society. It is. But to claim that a letter which doesn’t in any way mention trans people or trans issues is nonetheless transphobic because it’s possible to insert the words “trans people” into it, is terrifyingly Orwellian.
The word “trans” appears in this letter precisely zero times, the same number of times the words “black”, “Jewish”, “woman”, “you people” or any other phrasing that could possibly be construed as targeting minorities or minimising the issues they face. The reason for this is that the letter has nothing to do with targeting anybody, and everything to do with the larger questions of how we talk to each other, how we disagree with each other, and what the consequences of those disagreements are. The fact that a letter appealing for moderation on theses points has been met with ANY RESISTANCE WHATSOEVER, is exactly the problem which it attempts to highlight.
To believe in freedom of speech only when it applies to those who agree with you, is to not believe in freedom of speech at all. The ability to disagree with the consensus, to make mistakes, and even to be flat out wrong, are important because it’s through these very natural human failings that we learn, grow, and come to understand each other. A healthy society encourages its citizens to express differing opinions and to discuss them openly and sincerely. Disagreeing isn’t a problem, it’s only when disagreement stops being possible that we should begin to worry.