JK Rowling and Margaret Atwood are among 150 signatories who have signed an open letter objecting to “cancel culture”.
The letter, published in Harper’s Magazine, warns of an “intolerant climate” for free speech and comes amid a debate over “cancel culture”, the idea that public figures face criticism and shaming for what some perceive as offensive opinions.
“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” the letter says.
“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.”
Another part of the letter reads: “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.”
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.https://t.co/noh8VRHMyN
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) July 7, 2020
The publication of the letter comes after Rowling was recently criticised for a series of social media posts and an essay that some described as “transphobic”.
The Harry Potter author has also faced a recent backlash for comparing transgender hormone replacement to gay conversion therapy.
A statement signed by 150 people incl. Bill T. Jones, Wynton Marsalis, Jennifer Finney Boylan, Noam Chomsky, J.K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood, and Salman Rushdie expresses concern over the illiberal trend intensified by our national reckoning.https://t.co/4zPjuPNXBu
— Harper's Magazine (@Harpers) July 7, 2020
The letter goes on to condemn what it describes as “disproportionate punishments” dished out by institutional leaders conducting something the signatories refer to as “panicked damage control".
It continues: “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a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 organisations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.”
The open letter adds: “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.”
The release of the letter has since lit up social media with many heading to Twitter to express their views.
Trying to sum up my thoughts on the #harpersletter debate:
1. We have the right to say and write anything we want.
2. We do *not* have the right to set the terms on how what we say and write is received. At that point, the right of others to criticise is equally valid.
— Stu Brown (@stu_bro) July 8, 2020
Also, free speech is not freedom to hate or discriminate against others.
Racism is not free speech.
Sexism is not free speech.
Homophobia and transphobia aren’t free speech.
Any speech meant to attack another person’s existence and human rights is not freedom but oppression.
— Eugene Gu, MD (@eugenegu) July 7, 2020
Social movements are meant to be uncomfortable. Put down your privilege for 5 minutes and read the room!
— Amy Siskind 🏳️🌈 (@Amy_Siskind) July 7, 2020
I mean really how dare members of the public respond critically to words all of these people voluntarily put out there for pubic consumption.
— s.e. smith (@sesmith) July 7, 2020
Looks like a list of people who don't like hearing feedback
— primo ballerino (@ilovepets420) July 7, 2020
While many suggested the signatories were merely shying away from people criticising their views, others pointed out that the right to free speech doesn’t include using that right to spread hate.