Harper's free speech letter has 'moved the needle', says organiser

Alexandra Topping

The organiser of an open letter decrying “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism” has said companies such as Netflix and the New York Times will have to take into account the views of its signatories, after a counter letter accused the first letter’s backers of failing to recognise those “silenced for generations”.

A debate about free speech, privilege and the role of social media in public discourse continued over the weekend as the writer Thomas Chatterton Williams, who signed the first letter along with more than 150 prominent authors, thinkers and journalists including JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie and Margaret Atwood, argued that it had “moved the needle”.

Speaking to NPR, Chatterton Williams said: “Someone has to look around and say: ‘Well, actually, a lot of these people on the list I do still want to work with. I do still want to make Netflix adaptations of some of their work. I do still want them to make podcasts or report at the New York Times or the New Yorker,’” he said. “‘And so I have to take into consideration their point of view too, not just these kind of whipped up mobs online that are faceless.’”

The letter, which was published in Harper’s Magazine on Tuesday and signed by cultural figures also including Noam Chomsky, Malcolm Gladwell and Gloria Steinem, said the spread of “censoriousness” was leading to “an intolerance of opposing views” and “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism”.

On Friday a counter letter signed by 160 journalists and academics said the signatories of the Harper’s letter were writing from a position of privilege.

“They miss the point: the irony of the piece is that nowhere in it do the signatories mention how marginalised voices have been silenced for generations in journalism, academia and publishing,” they wrote in a response published in the newsletter the Objective.

“The signatories, many of them white, wealthy, and endowed with massive platforms, argue that they are afraid of being silenced, that so-called cancel culture is out of control, and that they fear for their jobs and free exchange of ideas, even as they speak from one of the most prestigious magazines in the country.”

At least two original signatories of the first letter distanced themselves from it after they saw the names of others who had signed. Asked about the accusation that signatories included people accused of transphobia, such as Rowling, Chatterton Williams said: “I think that part of what the letter is trying to do is trying to argue against the idea that you have to look around and Google every statement that anybody on the list has ever said to know if you feel comfortable signing it. The point is that that’s irrelevant.”

Billy Bragg, who in the Guardian on Friday said the George Orwell quote etched on the outside of the BBC – “if liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear” – made him cringe because it was “not a defence of liberty” but rather “a demand for licence”, said it was hypocritical to defend free speech while decrying “online mobs”.

“The so-called Twitter mob is nothing more than a bunch of individuals exercising their right to freedom of expression,” he said. “I am not against free speech, it’s the absolute foundation of a free society, but it has to be balanced with accountability and respect for the views of others.”