JK Rowling joins 150 writers, academics and activists calling for end to cancel culture – with an open letter in a major magazine
JK Rowling and Margaret Atwood are among 152 public figures to sign an open letter in Harper’s Magazine bemoaning the “restriction of debate” in modern culture.
“A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” is signed by a broad range of writers, academics and activists from across the political spectrum, including Salman Rushdie, Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem, Garry Kasparov and Jeffrey Eugenides.
They applaud the “needed reckoning” on systemic racism, but argue that it has “intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments” which they claim are stifling free speech in favour of ideological conformity.
“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” the Harper’s Magazine letter reads.
“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.”
The signatories claim they value robust counter-speech but reject the “swift and severe retribution” that comes when public figures are forced to be held accountable for their offensive opinions.
“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.”https://t.co/4zPjuPNXBu
— Harper’s Magazine (@Harpers) July 8, 2020
Although the letter doesn’t include the phrase ‘cancel culture’, many of its writers have faced backlash for the controversial views they hold, and they condemn the “disproportionate punishments” they believe they have been dealt “for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes“.
They suggest that “the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away”, and stress the need to preserve the possibility of “good faith disagreement without dire professional consequences”.
After the letter’s publication, JK Rowling tweeted: “I was very proud to sign this letter in defence of a foundational principle of a liberal society: open debate and freedom of thought and speech.”
Harper’s Magazine letter attracts criticism.
While many of the signatories are to be expected, a few names were a surprise to some. Margaret Atwood’s inclusion came as the author took a stand for trans rights, writing on Twitter that the spectrum of sex and gender “appears to be undeniable”.
The magazine is now being accused of lacking transparency as it appears that some of the people it approached were not informed that problematic figures would be joining them in the list of signatories.
The US author and trans activist Jennifer Finney Boylan recanted within hours of the letter being published.
I did not know who else had signed that letter. I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company.
The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.
— Jennifer Finney Boylan 🐕 (@JennyBoylan) July 7, 2020
“I did not know who else had signed that letter. I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming,” she wrote on Twitter. “I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company.
“The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.”
One author, Kaitlin Greenidge, said that she refused to sign the letter but that her sister Kerri Greenidge’s name was added without her consent.
That @Harpers letter came to me last week and I was so mad about it when I read it and have been angry about it for days. My sister does not condone it either and does not agree with its contents. This is a mess. pic.twitter.com/qMzo6MBr3H
— Kaitlyn Greenidge (@surlybassey) July 7, 2020
Kerri Greenidge confirmed that she does not endorse the letter’s message and had been in contact with Harper‘s for a retraction. Her name has now been removed.
Wajahat Ali, Virginia Hefferman, Richard Kim and Viet Thanh Nguyen are also among those who were approached by the magazine but refused to sign.
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Others have pointed out the irony in a series of public figures with large platforms writing an open letter in an internationally-published magazine to decry the supposed loss of their freedom of speech.
“This letter perfectly illustrates my issue with the ‘cancel culture’ trope,” tweeted Washington journalist Judd Legum. “The signatories of this letter have bigger platforms and more resources than most other humans. They are not being silenced in any way.”
He continued: “If the signatories really cared about making it more difficult to fire people, the letter would discuss more due process rights for workers or perhaps reforms to increase unionisation. But many of the signatories actively oppose things like that.”