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Intellectual community pushing back against “Ideological conformity”

Intellectual community pushing back against “Ideological conformity”

Dozens of well-known North American academics, authors and historians, including Canada’s Margaret Atwood, have put their name to an open letter that expresses concern about the so-called “cancel culture” that has become a dominant trend in public discourse. The letter says: “The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.” The below letter will be appearing in the Letters section of Harper’s magazine’s October issue. Harper’s are encouraging responses at letters@harpers.org,  The full letter follows:

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. 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. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. 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. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.

Elliot Ackerman

Saladin Ambar, Rutgers University

Martin Amis

Anne Applebaum

Marie Arana, author

Margaret Atwood

John Banville

Mia Bay, historian

Louis Begley, writer

Roger Berkowitz, Bard College

Paul Berman, writer

Sheri Berman, Barnard College

Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet

Neil Blair, agent

David W. Blight, Yale University

Jennifer Finney Boylan, author

David Bromwich

David Brooks, columnist

Ian Buruma, Bard College

Lea Carpenter

Noam Chomsky, MIT (emeritus)

Nicholas A. Christakis, Yale University

Roger Cohen, writer

Ambassador Frances D. Cook, ret.

Drucilla Cornell, Founder, uBuntu Project

Kamel Daoud

Meghan Daum, writer

Gerald Early, Washington University-St. Louis

Jeffrey Eugenides, writer

Dexter Filkins

Federico Finchelstein, The New School

Caitlin Flanagan

Richard T. Ford, Stanford Law School

Kmele Foster

David Frum, journalist

Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University

Atul Gawande, Harvard University

Todd Gitlin, Columbia University

Kim Ghattas

Malcolm Gladwell

Michelle Goldberg, columnist

Rebecca Goldstein, writer

Anthony Grafton, Princeton University

David Greenberg, Rutgers University

Linda Greenhouse

Rinne B. Groff, playwright

Sarah Haider, activist

Jonathan Haidt, NYU-Stern

Roya Hakakian, writer

Shadi Hamid, Brookings Institution

Jeet Heer, The Nation

Katie Herzog, podcast host

Susannah Heschel, Dartmouth College

Adam Hochschild, author

Arlie Russell Hochschild, author

Eva Hoffman, writer

Coleman Hughes, writer/Manhattan Institute

Hussein Ibish, Arab Gulf States Institute

Michael Ignatieff

Zaid Jilani, journalist

Bill T. Jones, New York Live Arts

Wendy Kaminer, writer

Matthew Karp, Princeton University

Garry Kasparov, Renew Democracy Initiative

Daniel Kehlmann, writer

Randall Kennedy

Khaled Khalifa, writer

Parag Khanna, author

Laura Kipnis, Northwestern University

Frances Kissling, Center for Health, Ethics, Social Policy

Enrique Krauze, historian

Anthony Kronman, Yale University

Joy Ladin, Yeshiva University

Nicholas Lemann, Columbia University

Mark Lilla, Columbia University

Susie Linfield, New York University

Damon Linker, writer

Dahlia Lithwick, Slate

Steven Lukes, New York University

John R. MacArthur, publisher, writer

Susan Madrak, writer

Phoebe Maltz Bovy, writer

Greil Marcus

Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center

Kati Marton, author

Debra Mashek, scholar

Deirdre McCloskey, University of Illinois at Chicago

John McWhorter, Columbia University

Uday Mehta, City University of New York

Andrew Moravcsik, Princeton University

Yascha Mounk, Persuasion

Samuel Moyn, Yale University

Meera Nanda, writer and teacher

Cary Nelson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Olivia Nuzzi, New York Magazine

Mark Oppenheimer, Yale University

Dael Orlandersmith, writer/performer

George Packer

Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University (emerita)

Greg Pardlo, Rutgers University – Camden

Orlando Patterson, Harvard University

Steven Pinker, Harvard University

Letty Cottin Pogrebin

Katha Pollitt, writer

Claire Bond Potter, The New School

Taufiq Rahim, New America Foundation

Zia Haider Rahman, writer

Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, University of Wisconsin

Jonathan Rauch, Brookings Institution/The Atlantic

Neil Roberts, political theorist

Melvin Rogers, Brown University

Kat Rosenfield, writer

Loretta J. Ross, Smith College

J.K. Rowling

Salman Rushdie, New York University

Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment

Daryl Michael Scott, Howard University

Diana Senechal, teacher and writer

Jennifer Senior, columnist

Judith Shulevitz, writer

Jesse Singal, journalist

Anne-Marie Slaughter

Andrew Solomon, writer

Deborah Solomon, critic and biographer

Allison Stanger, Middlebury College

Paul Starr, American Prospect/Princeton University

Wendell Steavenson, writer

Gloria Steinem, writer and activist

Nadine Strossen, New York Law School

Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., Harvard Law School

Kian Tajbakhsh, Columbia University

Zephyr Teachout, Fordham University

Cynthia Tucker, University of South Alabama

Adaner Usmani, Harvard University

Chloe Valdary

Lucía Martínez Valdivia, Reed College

Helen Vendler, Harvard University

Judy B. Walzer

Michael Walzer

Eric K. Washington, historian

Caroline Weber, historian

Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers

Bari Weiss

Sean Wilentz, Princeton University

Garry Wills

Thomas Chatterton Williams, writer

Robert F. Worth, journalist and author

Molly Worthen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Matthew Yglesias

Emily Yoffe, journalist

Cathy Young, journalist

Fareed Zakaria

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