“A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” was recently published in Harper’s Magazine and co-signed by dozens of writers, authors, and academics from all corners of the political spectrum. The letter praised the new wave of activism that has swept the nation in response to the murder of George Floyd, but expressed concerns about the growing zealousness of the emerging Left, and warned of an “intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.”
The letter goes on to lament cancel culture in all of its forms, citing a “spirit of panicked damage control” among institutional leaders which causes them to inflict excessively harsh penalties upon authors, editors, researchers, professors, or anyone in their orbit who defies what they see as an ascendant and increasingly narrow-minded ideological orthodoxy.
Though it’s easy to agree that draconian punishment for participation in free and open debate is to be opposed, this letter also reads as a condemnation of those who question the motives of truly dubious characters. It seems to say we ought to afford the benefit of the doubt to everyone who expresses a political opinion and assume they are all sincere in their beliefs and pure in their motives.
For example, the letter states:
“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.”
This passage rightly condemns censorship, but it doesn’t stop there. It goes further to suggest there’s something illiberal about ascribing ill will to bad actors like David Frum, a signatory of this letter and speechwriter for George W. Bush who devised the hideous propaganda campaign which led the United States into the Iraq War. It insinuates that moral clarity, a necessary character trait for any serious political actor, is somehow a stubborn rejection of complexity and nuance that yields an inflexible, and thus undesirable, “moral certainty.”
But a strong sense of morality is a good quality, and a necessary one to employ when debating certain issues with certain people. Let’s take, as another example, Fareed Zakaria, who also signed this letter. Over the past year, he has spoken out against Bernie Sanders’ agenda, including Medicare For All, and has also chided Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez for her opposition to Amazon’s proposed Queens headquarters.
In AOC’s case, she was essentially proven right in her position by the fact that Amazon came to New York City anyway, despite not receiving the $3 billion in tax breaks and financial incentives they were originally seeking. As for Medicare For All, as if the case wasn’t clear enough before the coronavirus, the fact that nearly 27 million people lost their medical insurance due to a pandemic-induced spike in unemployment is about all the evidence any fair-minded person would need to denounce our employer-based for-profit healthcare model.
Simply put, people who take cruel and indefensible positions on issues of life and death ought to be prepared to have their motives called into question, especially when they work for the very companies who are the beneficiaries of such discredited policies. Zakaria makes his money at CNN, a cable news corporation which rakes in millions of dollars a year from pharmaceutical companies, and The Washington Post, which happens to be owned by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, who really wanted those perks from New York City before he agreed to open up shop there.
And while I would agree that calling for Zakaria’s firing, or “cancellation,” would be antithetical to the spirit of the First Amendment and a free and open society, simply calling his good faith into question is perfectly within such bounds. Because whether he has adopted these corporate-friendly positions because of his associations, or whether his associations were facilitated by his sincere opinions that happen to overlap with corporate interests, he is still part and parcel of an institutional structure with blatant self-serving biases. Appeals for genteel conversation with such people encourage us to ignore these biases altogether and assume (or perhaps even pretend) that everyone is entering these discussions with the same interests at heart, which obviously isn’t the case.
So while this letter does voice the obvious truth that disagreement and debate must be welcome in any functioning democracy, it also traffics in the problematic conflation of moral conviction with zealous absolutism. The liberal establishment has weaponized this misconception to great effect against the Left in recent years, calling us “divisive,” “my-way-or-the-highway,” or even “Trumpian” types who are the intellectual brethren of the reactionary Right. This letter wears that comparison on its sleeve:
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.
But the Left should embrace, and celebrate, and evangelize, that our positions are the moral ones; that’s why we hold them in the first place. Healthcare is a human right and must be distributed in accordance with that principle. War is hell, and should be avoided whenever possible. Predatory lenders who crush graduates with crippling interest rates are morally obscene, as are those who do their bidding in the political arena. These are not intolerant views; these are good views. And their opposing views are so bad that it naturally and rightfully leads us to question the character of those who espouse them. There’s nothing “illiberal” about any of that. This letter could lead you to believe otherwise, which is why, despite its fairer points, we ought not fully endorse it.