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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Free expression, but at what cost?

Author  J.K. Rowling was among other big

Author  J.K. Rowling was among other big names who signed a letter decrying the weakening of public debate. Credit: Joel C Ryan/Invision/AP/Joel C Ryan

The “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” that appeared on the website of Harper’s Magazine last week, signed by about 150 writers, artists, journalists and public intellectuals, created quite a stir. The controversy even made it to the front page of The New York Times — partly because of the “big” names, including best-selling novelists Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood and J.K. Rowling, veteran feminist Gloria Steinem and maverick scholar Noam Chomsky. who signed it. While many have welcomed the letter, it prompted an avalanche of opinion pieces, blogposts and tweets denouncing it as naïve, misguided, or even harmful to vulnerable groups. At least one “counter-letter” signed by dozens of progressive journalists and pundits has appeared as well.

As one of the less illustrious signers of the original letter, I have some thoughts.

While the letter starts out by acknowledging the rising threat of right-wing authoritarianism in the United States and other countries, its main focus is on the rise of illiberalism in liberal and progressive spaces: “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.” It mentions editors being fired, books withdrawn from publication, and leaders of organizations forced out after being attacked for alleged ideological transgressions (a climate often summed up as “cancel culture”). While the letter is short and does not go into specifics, all these claims have a solid factual basis.

Objections to the letter have focused on several points. One is that individuals and private organizations have every right to refuse to associate with people whose speech or behavior they find abhorrent (unless illegal discrimination is involved). And indeed, even the staunchest free speech defenders would likely have no problem with, say, a film studio dropping an actor who publicly called the Holocaust a hoax or advocated wife-beating.

However, in a free society, the lines of speech and ideas deemed “beyond the pale” in mainstream society should be drawn as narrowly as possible. In recent years, the range of “permissible” speech on race, gender and other hot-button cultural issues has been shrinking drastically, endangering debate on some vital questions. (When is gender transition, including medical interventions, appropriate for underage children with dysphoria? How much of a role does racism play in police brutality? How common are false accusations of sexual assault?)

Another criticism is that the signatories complain about being censored or silenced even though they are mostly successful people with access to major media platforms. But the letter never implies that the signatories are concerned about their own silencing. By such the logic, people have no business criticizing excessive incarceration if they are not in prison.

There’s also the argument that the signatories are privileged people who don’t like the fact that the less privileged now have the ability to criticize them. But to suggest that people like Rushdie, Atwood, or Chomsky can’t deal with criticism is absurd. In any case, there’s a huge difference between criticizing viewpoints you dislike and claiming that such viewpoints cause “harm” and should be denied a mainstream platform.

Lastly, it has been said that to focus on left-wing intolerance in the age of Donald Trump — and right-wing authoritarian governments in other countries — is to have one’s priorities in the wrong place. But the letter acknowledges the danger from the far right. It says that, for liberalism to be a viable force against that threat, it needs to combat the authoritarian climate in its own camp. And that is the most essential point of all.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.