That bizarre ‘cancel culture’ letter is more proof that the privileged can’t stand being challenged

Many of those who have signed this letter have big, public platforms to get their views out, but others affected by such views rarely have the same opportunities

Kuba Shand-Baptiste@kubared
Wednesday 08 July 2020 17:42
JK Rowling in lengthy explanation over transgender comments

It’s difficult to admit you’re wrong. I, like many quietly strong-willed people, have been trying to figure out the best way to do it since childhood. But one thing I’m glad to say with certainty that I left behind in the playground is the obnoxious assumption that my convictions are worthy of praise, simply because I’m stubborn enough to hold on to them.

Struggling with that very concept this week are 150 public figures who’ve penned “a letter on open justice and debate”, arguing that “the free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted”.

The letter, published in Harper’s Magazine on 7 July, includes signatories such as JK Rowling, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Noam Chomsky and more. It opens with the reminder that, no, this is not a condemnation of the “cultural institutions” that are rightly “facing a moment of trial”, specifically in terms of “overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society”; what it is, apparently, is a need to strengthen “norms of open debate and toleration of differences” instead of striving for “ideological conformity”.

So far, so logical. Almost. In the current global climate – with autocrats gaining power around the world and many journalists and campaigners facing difficult environments – there is a need to argue for the right to freedom of speech.

But doing so while ignoring the complexities of the debates that some of the signatories of that letter have themselves been at the centre of – and faced much criticism for (issues that the letter dare not spell out in plain terms) – is a little rich.

“Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics”, the letter hints, stopping short of providing the details of the more controversial of the “perceived transgressions” that this 150-strong intellectual elite deems worthy of defending: Rowling’s comments around transgender people; The New York Times opinion desk’s decision to publish an article calling on Donald Trump to “send in the troops” to deploy “an overwhelming show of force” against Black Lives Matter protestors; a vague, nebulous and yet somehow global cross-publication editorial policy that has apparently barred certain writers from covering certain issues.

In oversimplifying and reframing these issues as innocent attempts at healthy debate, we’re ignoring the fact that the people whose outrage or fear over the actions alluded to in this letter rarely have opportunities to be uplifted in the same way after they’ve spoken up.

Bari Weiss, a signatory of the letter, New York Times opinion writer and one of the defenders of the choice to publish the “send in the troops” article, has herself been incredibly outspoken about what she reduced to a “civil war” between younger “wokes” and older liberals, touching on the idea that certain arguments should be given weight in publications if enough people believe in them. When Vox, among other publications, covered the issue, it was noted that several staffers who disagreed with Weiss’s assessment requested to remain anonymous in interviews “for fear of retaliation”.

It is not lost on me that many of those who have signed this letter have big, public platforms to get their views out. However, creatives I know from underrepresented groups in these industries are still left with no choice but to keep quiet about ongoing discrimination. In the majority-white media, and across the majority-white landscapes of many other industries, marginalised groups know the penalties they’ll probably face if they dare to speak up. They’re still keeping quiet.

Bar the individual opportunists who take things to the point of death threats in any debate – whether it’s about the sanctimonious effort of defending “true” free speech from those pesky social justice warriors, or who, out of Britney, Beyonce and Lil’ Kim deserves the title “Queen B” – the pushback against free speech this letter so strongly denounces isn’t nearly as pronounced as it makes out.

What this boils down to, at least to me, is a preoccupation with an assumed right to be adored, no matter what. It’s an attempt to allow public figures with bruised egos to intellectualise their way out of understanding a very simple idea: when you – particularly the famous – do things to perpetuate or legitimise ideas or actions that contribute to further harming others, you are not entitled to remain liked by some members of the public.

The added suggestion that individual consequences for specific misdeeds are a sign that things have gone too far is just as absurd. Like the “forces of illiberalism” discredited in this letter, many of those who’ve added their signatures in support of it simply wish to remain steadfast in their beliefs without having to engage in exactly the kind of discussions this letter suggests should happen. That’s the thing with glossing over the ugly or difficult issues to bolster your argument – shards of them inevitably push through the cracks.

We can, as individuals, take responsibility and not feed into similarly damaging responses, but let’s not play games here – calling people out isn’t in and of itself evidence a movement of suffocating intolerance; it’s a necessary means of holding people accountable.

Rapper Noname is a wonderful example of how to gracefully approach taking criticism. Between having to fend off tone-policing from J Cole, facilitating an online book club and generally providing accessible resources for her community while trying to amplify some of the central demands of the US Black Lives Matter movement, she has shown what it means to listen to legitimate concerns, go away, learn something, and return more informed than before.

In a tweet posted on 7 July, she decided to reflect on the “awful mistakes” she believes she has made during her career, including the use of a slur in her former stage name, her defence of capitalism and her decision to perform in Israel, ending with the observation: “let this be a reminder that growth is an embarrassing but necessary process”.

Noname’s personal politics aside, she could teach us a thing or two about getting over the shame of being wrong. I know a few public figures in particular who could do with digesting that message.

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