I’ve always disliked the phrase “I told you so”. It reeks of bitterness wrapped in arrogance, especially coming from a young person. Yet I don’t see any other way to encapsulate my frustration with the recent open letter from Harper’s American magazine titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”.
Signed by over 150 writers, intellectuals, journalists, historians and academics, the letter generally advocates for a culture that encourages open debate and greater tolerance towards differing opinions.
I think Bridget Phetasy put it best:
To everyone who signed The Letter: Welcome to the alt right.
— Bridget Phetasy (@BridgetPhetasy) July 8, 2020
Notably, among those signatures were Harry Potter novelist J.K. Rowling, Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, David Frum, and co-founder of Vox.com Matthew Yglesias.
As expected, it didn’t take long for many of these signatories to walk back their involvement. Guilt by association is alive and well in 2020 cancel culture, with many apologising for being unaware of some of the other signatories.
Jennifer Finney Boylan indicated ignorance on her part in saying, “I did not know who else had signed that letter… I am so sorry.”
I did not know who else had signed that letter. I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company.
The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.
— Jennifer Finney Boylan 🐕 (@JennyBoylan) July 7, 2020
In Matthew Yglesias’ case, he was berated for associating with a letter full of transphobes, supposedly like J.K. Rowling who recently landed in hot water for declaring that there are only 2 biological sexes. An uncontroversial statement, according to former sex researcher Debra Soh.
Yet a full mea culpa is offered as Yglesias declares “I have committed to not doing contentious stuff on Twitter anymore”.
I have committed to not doing contentious stuff on Twitter anymore, so I seriously can’t comment on this and would appreciate being taken out of the thread.
— Matthew Yglesias (@mattyglesias) July 8, 2020
Welcome to 2020, where the American first amendment is branded as ‘contentious stuff’.
Ladies and gentlemen, behold some of the best minds our modern society has to offer.
Our apparent moral betters have no spine to demonstrate the courage of their convictions.
On another level, many of them have openly advocated for the cancelling of others in the past when it was socially expedient for them to throw stones.
In the case of J.K. Rowling, in 2018 she played the racism and sexism card when cartoonist Mark Knight depicted the US Open Final where Serena Williams broke her racket.
Well done on reducing one of the greatest sportswomen alive to racist and sexist tropes and turning a second great sportswoman into a faceless prop. https://t.co/YOxVMuTXEC
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) September 10, 2018
So to you J.K. Rowling and those that signed this letter, I would like to say: “Time was your ally but now it has abandoned you.” The window of opportunity you had to shut cancel culture down was vast, and the perception that it was closing was blatantly clear. Yet here we are.
How many conservatives and provocateurs did you watch get purged from social media platforms over the last four years? Most of you have stood idly by and watched or even threw stones when the mob came for the free speech of others outside and in your professions.
So no, I don’t welcome your washed-down, apologetically-worded letter. Nor do I respect the fact that many of you are distancing yourself from it as the infernal purge continues.
The numerous cancellations in recent weeks have reminded me of the protests against former professor at Evergreen College, Bret Weinstein, back in September 2017. Bret was a vocal critic of an Evergreen State College event that asked white students to leave campus to highlight the historical wrongs against ‘coloured America’.
Bret Weinstein attempting to reason with a crowd at Evergreen State College:
It may be presumptive of me, but I believe that Bret would be in agreement with me when I say to the signatories of this letter, “Welcome to the party pal. What took you so long?”
We need to put an end to this ‘unwinnable game’, as Douglas Murray puts it in the Madness of Crowds.
Everyone can be cancelled for at least one aspect about themselves. Even though my immigrant parents and grandparents are walking examples of successful integration, I will still be cancelled and called a racist for advocating for less immigration to allow for our infrastructure to catch up.
So how do we solve this “circular firing squad”, as Barack Obama put it in April 2019?
Well, we need cancel culture herd immunity.
If 50% of people get cancelled, then it will nullify the concept of being banned, because everyone else is also deemed persona non grata.
If wisdom is the ability to understand consequences and courage is the ability to point them out, I think it’s safe to say that our society has a severe courage deficit after recounting the events surrounding this open letter.
So if you’re looking to find the bastions of free speech and open discourse, do not look to academia — you will be sorely disappointed as I was.