On July 7, an open letter signed by 153 writers, artists, and public intellectuals appeared in Harper’s. Arguing that a growing “vogue for public shaming and ostracism” has led to “greater risk aversion” among those who “fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement,” the letter affirmed the value of the “free exchange of information of ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society.” I spoke with Thomas Chatterton Williams, one of the originators of the letter, about its genesis, the varied reactions it has provoked, and the importance of principles that transcend partisanship.
Ash Carter: You’ve written about these issues for some time now. Why an open letter?
Thomas Chatterton Williams: It’s been going on for a while, but the mood was getting more stifling. All of these things started happening in the wake of George Floyd’s horrific murder, and we didn’t know what to do with that because we didn’t want to be seen as reacting to the very valid unrest and dissatisfaction with the long history of police abuse in this country.
We tried to make clear that it’s coming from the right, for sure, and it’s coming from the left. You’ve got the fact that Trump called for Colin Kaepernick’s employment to be canceled. You’ve also got the National Book Critics Circle [resignations], the David Shor incident. What happened at the Poetry Foundation is one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen in my life—and has nothing to do with helping the lives of people like George Floyd.
So, we were e-mailing each other, and it came to the point where it was like, “Should we just write a letter? And maybe we can get some people to sign? And who do we even send it to? Or do we just put it on a Web site?” And then we thought, “Maybe a magazine would host it.” It was an organic process coming out of a conversation among the five of us.
A.C.: The five?
T.C.W.: [George] Packer, me, [Mark] Lilla, Robert F. Worth, and David Greenberg.
A.C.: Once you got Harper’s to agree to host it, who were the first people you approached?
T.C.W.: People were just reaching out to people they knew. The first people I reached out to were Kmele Foster, Coleman Hughes, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Orlando Patterson, John McWhorter, and Glenn Loury. Loury said, No, I’m not a liberal. And I don’t think Trump is the biggest threat. But lots of the people I reached out to said sure—Olivia Nuzzi, Chloé Valdary. When Jennifer Finney Boylan was like, I never saw the whole list—well, no one saw the whole list. There was no big conspiracy to hide from her the fact that at some point I realized, Why don’t I try to reach out to J. K. Rowling? She follows me on Twitter, so I D.M.’d J. K. Rowling, and she answered me!
A.C.: At what point did the language get locked? Or was it evolving throughout the process?
T.C.W.: So many drafts happened. Even among the five of us, we did multiple drafts. But many of these people are really important writers and they have ideas about phrasing, or about certain key points that have to be in. And some people who said no had very good, long responses that were very insightful. I’d say 20 people, at least, contributed language over the course of a month.
It wasn’t like we were trying to make it appeal to the least common denominator. It was more like a lot of important people have to have their views reflected in this document. So it kept having to take into account that one person felt it had to be slightly less America-centric, or one person felt that it had to be slightly stronger in its denunciation of Trump.
A.C.: Presumably not everyone you approached agreed to sign. What sort of reasons did people give for declining?
T.C.W.: The most common reason people didn’t sign was I agree with you, but it’s not the right time. Can we wait until after November? Or some such. Some people said, I agree with this, I wish I could sign, but I got nailed a year ago in my own small cancellation, and my wife told me that we can’t afford if you lose your job. One person said, I’m 50, I wish I could sign, but I’m not confident I could get rehired.
A.C.: In terms of the timing, did that give you any pause?
T.C.W.: We talked about it for a while, and the feeling was that there’s no good time. There’s no telling that in November it’ll be better. And things could be much worse down the road. The news cycle moves so fast, it could be a more hostile climate. People could lose nerve; lots of different things could happen. We waited a few weeks longer than we might have, but the feeling was we need to get this out now.
A.C.: No doubt you knew there was going to be some backlash. Of the criticism you’ve received, what have you found to be thoughtful and constructive, and what do you push back against?
T.C.W.: Sarah Jeong tweeted that she never heard from us despite being a poster girl for cancellation. She seemed to assume we didn’t reach out because we don’t share her politics, but the truth is that we had discussed her name but figured she probably wouldn’t want to sign. We had 150 names and we just moved forward. In retrospect, I really wish we had asked her.
Some criticism was that marginalized voices have dealt with a form of cancellation since time immemorial. That’s obviously true. But it seems like a lot of people who make that argument are arguing for a world in which simply we make white people as vulnerable as the most vulnerable minorities were ever treated in the past, as opposed to: Why don’t we try to make everybody as secure as white people used to be? The impulse is just to tear down instead of to build up, which I really do disagree with.
A.C.: There are different ways of looking at a list of names attached to an open letter. One is to say, “These people might disagree about a lot of other things”—and this is certainly the case with your letter—“but they’re able to put that aside to make common cause on a principle they hold dear.” Another way to look at it is to say, “X person has signed this document, and they’re guilty of Y. Therefore, anyone who signs the same document is guilty by association.” How do you think about these things?
T.C.W.: Malcolm Gladwell actually had the best response to that. He said, “I signed the Harpers letter because there were lots of people who also signed the Harpers letter whose views I disagreed with. I thought that was the point of the Harpers letter.” How can you know everything everyone thinks on every issue and how can that be relevant if what you’re trying to do is find values that cut across ideological differences? Because we didn’t have certain [Intellectual Dark Web] types or hard-core right-wingers or anyone from the alt-right. We don’t have any Trump supporters on there to my knowledge, but it’s a pretty ideologically diverse list. I mean, Noam Chomsky and Gloria Steinem and David Frum and Francis Fukuyama—those are very different people! They don’t all belong to the same tribe at all.
If the sun is shining and the bigot says the sun is shining, I will also say the sun is shining because my loyalty is to the truth, which I think is hard for people to stomach when they really object to somebody, but that’s exactly what we’re arguing for in the letter. Let’s expose bad ideas and arguments to the light of day and defeat them. Let’s not just say that ideas are contaminated because of certain personalities through which they might pass.
A.C.: A counter-letter which appeared a few days later characterized the signatories of your letter as powerful people “endowed with massive platforms” who are “afraid of being silenced.” But many canceled people only become known to the public at the moment of their cancellation, after which they’re swiftly forgotten. So another way of looking at it is that the people who signed this letter are doing it because they’re secure enough to stick their necks out a little bit.
T.C.W.: Absolutely. Margaret Atwood doesn’t have to do this for herself. Or [Salman] Rushdie or Martin [Amis] or Jeffrey [Eugenides]. They’re making it a little bit easier for some editorial assistant to speak up or some academic without tenure. And that’s who has flooded my in-box. We’ve had some famous people saying thank you, but also a lot of people who are like, “I am nobody, it wouldn’t matter if I signed this document, but the fact that you all put this document out there gives me some hope. It gives me a sense of being less isolated, less crazy.” This is also what Noam Chomsky said when asked about the controversy. He responded, “You’re seeing half of it. The other half is a stream of letters from left-wing academics and activists relating their experiences, but not wanting to be identified because of the toxic culture.”
I would also say that’s a very willfully misrepresentative way to describe the list. Because Kian Tajbakhsh, he was tortured in an Iranian prison, and then under house arrest for years. This is a guy who knows what it’s like to have free expression curtailed. He’s on the list, stands by it. None of the people that have been through real shit are caving to these Internet criticisms. [Reginald Dwayne] Betts. Roya Hakakian is a refugee. Kamel Daoud lives with a fatwa on his head, as did Salman Rushdie for a decade. These are not coddled white elites.
A.C.: This is a human impulse that dates back pretty far, but clearly social media has turbocharged it, and in ways that I don’t think that any of the inventors of these programs ever anticipated. It’s almost like the metaphor of Pandora’s box was waiting for this. Can the toothpaste be put back in the tube, or does it just have a life of its own now?
T.C.W.: If we don’t agree on adhering to certain principles, I don’t think we’re going to get the toothpaste back in the container, which is one of the reasons why we wrote this letter. It’s like, “Wait a minute, let’s slow down. This is out of control.” Everybody senses something’s wrong. Let’s have some basic value system we can all agree on, or that we can try to persuade more and more people to agree on. ’Cause it’s nuts. It’s pandemonium. People get together for a 24-hour cycle to tear somebody apart, and then they move on to something else, and this person’s life has been wrecked. Oftentimes, it’s not legitimate.
A.C.: These days, if you aren’t affirming someone or some group, you’re accused of erasing them. And if you aren’t actively dismantling oppression, you’re said to be complicit in that oppression. “Tolerant” is a word you used in the letter that asks only that you “accept or endure someone or something unpleasant or disliked with forbearance.” Is that a potentially more durable ideal in a multi-ethnic democracy?
T.C.W.: It used to be the standard that we all sought to achieve. And now it’s considered the least you can possibly do, and possibly, as you said, complicit with wrongdoing, even. The Ibram Kendi–ization of the discourse is really bleak, because everything is binary. But we know that every single idea, policy, or action can’t be either racist or anti-racist. There are so many gray areas that this kind of thinking eclipses.
A.C.: A common retort that I’m sure you’ve heard is that de-platforming and calls for cancellation are not threats to free speech but acts of free speech. There is certainly some truth to that, but I do wonder sometimes whether the people who make this case would feel as strongly about it if their side weren’t in the ascendance—if the shoe were on the other foot politically.
T.C.W.: Everybody seems to forget that we have these rules not to protect people in power but to protect people out of power and minorities. One of the best responses I got was from a Black guy on Twitter with very few followers, who was just like, No one has yet explained to me how my life as a Black man in America is ever made better by having more free-speech restrictions. And he’s right. These are protections for people without power because the shoe does get on the other foot.
I think that we’re underestimating how much of this is just the sheer pleasure of punishing, when you get the chance to punish. It’s not about making society safer or better or holding people accountable. It’s Now I’ve got the fucking lash in my hand! There’s a kind of perversity to that, that I think we don’t really talk about openly. We try to couch it in righteousness and moral indignation, but there’s this thrill of the auto-da-fé, of Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery.”
A.C.: One of the incidents you alluded to in the letter is the resignation of James Bennet at The New York Times. Putting aside the contents of the Tom Cotton op-ed for now, what does that episode say about the changing nature of power in contemporary America?
T.C.W.: One of the most powerful positions you can take in the American discourse these days is the victim. Donald Trump has played the victim his whole political career to quite a lot of success, preying upon people’s sense that he’s aggrieved and needs to be vindicated. And it works the other way around, too.
When you couch things that could be argued in the language of safety, that becomes very different than “I disagree with this.” You can’t disagree with someone being unsafe. You have to take into consideration a whole other set of concerns. We didn’t reference James Bennet directly, because there are multiple situations that fit that description, including Ian Buruma and others. We didn’t want to get bogged down in the particulars of: Why didn’t he read this op-ed? We want to talk about the actual problem of H.R. decisions being dictated by Twitter pile-ons that may not even be representative of what most people out there, including most readers, really think.
A.C.: I’m sure you’ve seen the polling from More in Common showing that large majorities of every minority group in America seem to have some misgivings about this turn.
T.C.W.: Yeah. I mean, the thing that’s amazing is, like, this is all being led by a kind of white progressive that’s to the left of most Blacks and Latinos. People telling me, Tom, you’re going to be canceled by a white progressive for being anti-Black! But that’s where we are. Ninety-eight percent of Latinos by one study don’t like, or don’t know, the term “Latinx.” More than 50 percent of all Black people do not define themselves as liberals. This is why Joe Biden is the nominee.
Blacks and Latinos are also far less negative in their assessment of whites than white progressives are! These are the kind of complexities of the American cultural, political landscape that get occluded and flattened in the kind of discourse you get on social media, where you have white progressives and a small group of extremely online Black and Latino super-progressive voices who skew our understanding of these minority groups as a whole.
A.C.: What do you make of the call made recently by Wesley Lowery, among others, for greater moral clarity in journalism?
T.C.W.: Who defines what moral clarity is? If it’s Robin DiAngelo, if it’s Ibram X. Kendi, then I’m quite uncomfortable and I’m much more in favor of a less emotionally driven kind of investigation and analysis. Of course, Trump has thrown a wrench in our ideas of how to report on things where people are fundamentally denying objective reality or willfully bending the truth. There aren’t two sides to some debates. But I think you have to err on the side of caution, as opposed to erring on the side of activism. Journalism and activism are both important endeavors, but they’re not the same endeavor, and journalism needs to not just be activism or catharsis.
A.C.: Rush Limbaugh certainly doesn’t lack moral clarity. He probably has an excess of it.
T.C.W.: Jihadis believe that they’re operating from a place of perfect moral clarity. That’s why I think we should operate from a place of moral and intellectual humility.
Ash Carter is the Features Editor at AIR MAIL