Skip to content

So, What’s Up with this “Letter” You’ve Been Hearing About?

What do Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, Malcolm Gladwell, Garry Kasparov, Salman Rushdie, JK Rowling, and Gloria Steinem have in common? They are all signees of a recent open letter denouncing the “restriction of debate.”

The letter is notable for the heavyweights who signed it; recent controversies swirling around some of the signees; and because the letter comes at a time when the world is grappling with racial and social reckoning.

We share this because writers should be aware of this literary controversy, and of the various perspectives represented.

The letter asserts:

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 letter speaks out against “cancel culture,” which it says only propagates “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.”

Harper’s Magazine published the letter on July 7.

The letter has come under scrutiny from outlets such as The Los Angeles Times, and at least one author has revoked their endorsement of the letter.

Others, such as Richard Kim, HuffPost’s enterprise director, refused to sign the letter initially because he could see it was “fatuous, self-important drivel that would only troll the people it allegedly was trying to reach.”

So how did this all even come together in the first place? The letter was the brainchild of Thomas Chatterton Williams, “a Harper’s columnist and New York Times Magazine contributor who is the author of, among other books, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race.”

Asked why the letter was published, Williams cited several recent incidents, including fallouts at the National Book Critics Circle and at the Poetry Foundation following their respective statements on the Black Lives Matter movement, and the firing of data analyst David Shor, who tweeted a study linking looting and the election of Richard Nixon.

The letter concludes:

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.

So, lots to think about.

Where is the line between honest debate, justified call-outs of insidious words, and illiberal intolerance? What effects has social media—such as the blog you’re now reading—had on our public discourse?