Harper’s Cancel Culture Letter Is an Indicator Where Present Cultural and Intellectual Dialogue Stands — It’s Been Canceled!

On July 7, as probably anyone who found his/her way to this site already knows, Harper’s Magazine published a letter entitled “A Letter On Justice and Open Debate.” The letter, after a number of standard center-left dogwhistles about “social justice” and “inclusion” and the obligatory attack on President Trump, stated the obvious.

My way of putting it, not theirs: we now inhabit a social and cultural environment of raging intolerance. In this environment you can be “canceled” (not argued with) if you get out of line in even the slightest way. You can have your career ruined and your life turned upside down over anything the Mob, I will call it, deems “offensive.”

Much as I don’t like linking to Twitter, the best definition of cancel culture I’ve run across comes from someone there I don’t know and had never heard of before, a Eugene Gu, MD (scroll down):

Read it again: Cancel culture is the suspension of due process and presumption of innocence so that the mob can serve as judge, jury, and executioner based on accusation alone without any examination of the underlying evidence.

This is nothing new, of course. This is how totalitarian societies work, it is how those seeking to build them work, and this is the direction Western culture is presently heading apace as our specific brand of what political philosopher Sheldon Wolin called inverted totalitarianism changes and evolves in our post-logic, post-truth world to fit the mood swings of a Mob which is utterly clueless about the globalist power structure its antics are really serving.

Let’s look at the Harper’s letter. Its main substance is contained in the final two of its three long paragraphs:

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.

The letter was signed by 153 authors, academics, artists, and other public intellectuals, many of them highly visible in the public conversation, others far less so (there are any number of names there I don’t know).

The point can be made (and would have been obvious back in the days when logic was respected) that the names and number of signatories is not what validates and legitimates a public statement. It is validated and legitimated by the truth of its premises and the strength of its arguments, leading to the conclusion I put in my own words at the outset.

How old school, of course, given our present moment’s non-standards!

Thus the invective from the Mob in the Twitterverse, coming on swiftly and furiously. How dare they? is the substance of what you’ll find there, and no, I’ve no intention of wasting bandwidth space linking to select examples.

The Twitterverse Mob doesn’t realize that however indirectly, and with no sense of the irony involved, it is confirming the substance of the Harper’s letter.

A few writers could actually articulate specific criticisms of the letter. One Hamilton Nolan, for example, wrote:

The letter is certainly not about any reasonable definition of “Justice,” and is about Open Debate only to the extent that people who make very healthy salaries arguing in public for a living seem to have a bizarre aversion to being argued against. This aversion, I’m afraid, now borders on the pathological. We have entered a brave new world in which those waving the banner of “Free Speech” accuse their opponents of being unable to take criticism while waging a histrionic campaign against anyone who dares to criticize them. Accusing your opponents of doing exactly what you are yourself guilty of is a classic propaganda technique. It works well, unfortunately.

Nolan’s complaint seems to be about the “elite” status of the signatories, the fact that they are visible and paid very well for their work. He accuses them of being unable to take criticism, of saying, in effect, “we’re the experts so sit down and shut up!”

As far as the “elitism” charge goes: of course!

What was Harper’s supposed to do? Seek out instructors at the various Podunksville State Community Colleges around the nation, or any of the thousands of struggling invisible writers who lack the professional networks that are necessary conditions for visibility today?

Naturally Harper’s went to people who are visible, because people like Francis Fukuyama, Noam Chomsky, Fareed Zakaria, Margaret Atwood, J,K. Rowling, and Salmon Rushdie (who has direct experience with deadly threats of personal “cancellation” after all!) are more likely to be listened to than John Doe or Joe Blow or even Steven Yates. I wasn’t invited to sign the letter, most likely because no one in the Harper’s orbit or its audience knows me from Adam. Do I resent this? Not really, and I’m not sure I would have signed it anyway, mainly because of those dogwhistles I mentioned.

The extremists on the left don’t respect you because you’ve adopted some of their language. They definitely don’t respect you if you apologize and grovel before them. They feel only contempt. The last thing you should do is apologize to a Mob. All you will accomplish is embolden it, while degrading yourself.

If anything, this letter illustrates the contrast between the center-left and the extreme left. Behind the former are the liberal values that due to their own moral fuzziness set us up for this disaster decades ago. Among the signatories I don’t see any names I associate with philosophical or other intellectual conservatism. Maybe I just don’t know them, from not moving in those circles. I’ll allow that possibility. What I did catch was this:  we have come to expect [censoriousness] on the radical right not identifying or referencing who is being talked about, or providing any examples.

There is no mention of conservatism at all … probably because there are almost no intellectuals alive today who both profess philosophical conservatism and have any visibility, much less tenure and good salaries at major universities.

Were I to have written such a piece, there would have been no dogwhistles, and I would have noted at some point that I (and others) began warning roughly 30 years ago that something like this could happen, that the academic culture to which the label politically correct would be applied was surrounding its own moral certitude about, e.g., preferential policies and eliminating speech it found “offensive” with a climate of arrogance and a willingness to bully those who disagreed.

I would have noted how this culture already exhibited moblike aspects. In just a few years this culture spread from left-leaning faculty to students in academia, to mass media (including television) through journalism schools and their networks, into the legal system through leftist law professors, and into public schools generally through education schools which would ensure that the entire next generation tilted far left.

Soon that culture was visible in the military and in business of all sizes, and that the careers and livelihoods of anyone dissenting were already on the ropes. It had the endorsement of celebrities; it had role models on television sitcoms; its mainstreaming didn’t take much more.

It goes without saying, almost no one listened to isolated white guys like me, trying to make arguments. Eventually I realized I’d brought a knife to a gunfight.

You can’t reason with people who sincerely believe reason is a “straight white male construct” and a product of “privilege.”

What struck me, at one meeting where I’d presented some standard criticisms of affirmative action it had been possible to formulate back then, how believers I’d been willing to engage and listen to would not look me in the eye.

All one such person, her eyes averted, had to say was, “I’ve heard all this before!”

People who won’t make eye contact with you are telling you all you need to know.

That was then, this is now. And in the now, eye contact is the least of our worries. We have no meaningful debate or dialogue over the issues dividing Western civilization, or even agreement on what the truth is. In an environment where people fear for their careers and sometimes even their personal safety, meaningful debate and dialogue simply isn’t going to happen. The majority, whatever their opinions, are going to tend their own gardens as it were, and keep their heads down.

It is as easy as it ever was to say, in here, that cancel culture must be stopped.

We tried that 30 years ago.

Any success possible back then would have depended on someone with resources willing to take the lead and support networks of independent scholars and bankroll “parallel institutions.”

It didn’t happen, of course. A few such entities were created in the early online world, but they never achieved visibility. It was clear that as soon as they did, they would be demonized by an extreme left that had already become quite skilled at weaponizing language.

Today, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, the Mob has been unleashed. The demise of truth is evident in the fact that everyone with visibility is reporting this as a murder of a black man by a white cop when it was not a murder; Floyd died from a lethal cocktail of Fentanyl and other drugs in his system (go here where you’ll find a link to the medical examiner’s report; or, if my linking to my own content bothers anyone, go here instead).

What to do, what specific action steps to take? Other than keep out of the line of fire.

Today’s extreme left is far larger and more widespread. It is far better financed, with George Soros’s Open Society Foundation money but hardly him alone. For a short list of those lending financial support to Black Lives Matter go here; if you want a deeper dive, go here.

The extreme left is now a Mob, using sites like Twitter to its full advantage. We did not have social media back in the 1990s.

The Mob is thus far more pervasive, powerful, and destructive than it was in the 1990s. Its power is seen in the fact that two of the signatories of the Harper’s letter have rescinded their signatures and apologized/groveled, although fortunately not all.

I fully expect the Mob to explode into an orgy of violence and destruction if President Trump is reelected. The lame-to-nonexistent responses to the George Floyd riots proved to them that they can get away with it.

So what to do? I am open to suggestions.

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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1 Response to Harper’s Cancel Culture Letter Is an Indicator Where Present Cultural and Intellectual Dialogue Stands — It’s Been Canceled!

  1. Samuel says:

    Very good article, again, with the most fittingly ironic part being those who originally signed the letter ‘cancelling’ their signature because they don’t agree with somebody else who signed it as well. LOL Talk about “in a nutshell”… Education being the biggest reason this country currently finds itself in a place of lies being substituted for truth, constant scrambling to keep ahead of the expertly indoctrinated socialist, anarchist, communist mob intent on erasing white / male / Judeo-Christian history; it seems that education would be the road out of this mess, but how? Yes, that IS the question. Institutional instead of intellectual indeed.
    My only disagreement is with the characterization of George Floyd’s death. Yes, I went to the site linking the M.E.’s autopsy report and saw the presence of fentanyl, methamphetamine and THC, among others, but I went through the whole thing and missed the part where it stated that drug overdose was the definitive cause of death. I am not an exceedingly bright person so maybe it does express exactly that just in terms I couldn’t understand.
    CASE TITLE: CARDIOPULMONARY ARREST COMPLICATING LAW ENFORCEMENT SUBDUAL, RESTRAINT, AND NECK COMPRESSION
    In the final diagnosis it states he “became unresponsive while being restrained by law enforcement officers”. All of that tells me that he may have taken dangerous drugs, especially considering his underlying heart condition, but the video(unless it was somehow tampered with or manipulated) is pretty clear that he died because Derek Chauvin cut off his blood/air supply for over 8 minutes with a knee on his neck while he was laying face down with his hands cuffed behind his back. There is no doubt in my mind that, had Chauvin taken his knee off Floyd’s neck and let that man breathe, George Floyd would be alive today. I’m not a doctor, Ph.D., or trained forensic technician, but do have over 53 years of life experience and it tells me that Chauvin is, at least, partly responsible for the death of George Floyd.
    But I could be wrong so, absolutely, have a fair and impartial trial and may justice be served.

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