'I'm glad I signed it': Jeet Heer argues Harper Magazine's free-speech letter advocates for basic, 'anodyne' principles

An open letter denouncing social restrictions on free speech and public debate, signed by more than 150 writers, academics, public intellectuals and other specialists, is sparking ample debate, although not all of it the sort its authors likely hoped for.





Published online by Harper’s magazine





, “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” was signed by people as famous as author J.K. Rowling, Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie, and as unexpected as jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and choreographer Bill T. Jones.





As befits a manifesto, the current wave of protest and social activism is described as “a moment.” The anti-racism movement is “powerful,” demands for police reform are “overdue” and calls for wider inclusion across society is part of a “needed reckoning,” the letter declares.





But there’s a “but.”





“But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”





The signatories “applaud the first development,” but “raise our voices against the second,”





the letter says within its 532 words





.





“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.”





If the letter’s writers were prone to brevity it might have just decried cancel culture and Twitter mobbing, and if they dallied in cliché, it might have said, don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. They aren’t, they don’t and they didn’t.







While Atwood is among those grabbing top billing in headlines around the world, other Canadian signatories include Michael Ignatieff, former Liberal Party of Canada leader; Malcolm Gladwell, a best-selling author, including of





The Tipping Point





; David Frum, a political commentator and former speechwriter for President George W. Bush; and Jeet Heer, a national affairs correspondent for





The Nation





.





The letter was announced on Twitter. That ensured its message sparked a familiar, messy pattern of discourse.





There first came a blast of tweets from those who signed it, touting their reasons for supporting it.





Then came a backlash of criticism — it is elitist; the people complaining of silenced voices have large platforms; some people who signed it have said hurtful things and deserve censor; some are hypocrites; and some are so powerful they can never be canceled no matter what they might say.





Then followed a few supposed supporters who backtracked, or said they were wrongly listed as signing it. Historian Kerri Greenidge said she never agreed to be listed as a supporter; author Jennifer Finney Boylan said she regretted appearing alongside others named.





Coincident with the criticism came a wave of mockery, such as people revealing unflattering proclivities about signatories, and making fun of some as has-beens or unknowns.





And finally, a blast of tweets from people who said they had been asked to sign the letter but declined to, because of one reason or another.





Rowling was a particular point of contention. The





Harry Potter





author is perhaps the most famous of all the names on it, but she is also among the most controversial.







Rowling recently faced angry condemnation for several comments widely deemed to be anti-transgender. Boylan, a trans woman and transgender activist, distanced herself from the letter because of Rowling being on it, unbeknownst to her when she agreed to sign it, Boylan said.





The connection between the two was aggravated by





Harper’s





official launch of the letter on Twitter, which highlighted just seven people, but included both Rowling and Boylan.





Heer, who is a regular commentator in print and on Twitter, and who, years ago, was on the





National Post





staff, said he wasn’t aware of the full list of signatories when he was first approached for support. He recalled some names were mentioned, including Chomsky’s.





“When it was sent to me, it seemed, frankly, a bit anodyne. Very simple, basic free speech principles and I felt why would I not sign it?” he said in an interview. “It’s good to express these principles at this time. I’m glad the letter exists, I’m glad I signed it.”





There is room for criticism, he said.





“Those principles are worth affirming and it doesn’t matter, in some ways, who signs it, and to the extent that someone who signed and they’re a hypocrite, that’s a useful thing, a way to develop a critique of someone’s hypocrisy.





“If you’re involved in any collective activity, it’s going to be with people you don’t agree with everyone on. The only alternative is either to be a purist and a hermit,” Heer said.





There is diversity in some ways to the signatories — such as the political spectrum (although skewing decidedly left it includes some conservative names), fields of endeavor and racial representation — but not others.






J.K. Rowling criticized for comparing hormone treatments to gay conversion therapy
Rex Murphy: The right to your own opinion is a keystone of a true democracy
Rex Murphy on COVID-19: The power to censor speech and other great ideas from our Liberal overlords






“I’m one of the youngest people on the list and, as you know, I’m not a young person,” Heer said. He is 53.





“I would have made more of an active effort to recruit younger people and, if you aren’t getting younger people onboard, find out what the issues are and try to solve some of that,” Heer said.





One passage in the letter seemed to draw particular public criticism, given the rarefied circumstance of many of its signatories.





“The restriction of debate,” the letter says, “invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.”





Many derided the idea of elite thinkers and writers punching down on the masses who speak through mass protest because, individually, they have no voice.





That’s why Robert Reich, an American economist and Berkeley professor who served in the administrations of both Republican and Democratic presidents, said he declined to sign the letter.





“Trumpism, racism, xenophobia, and sexism have had such free rein and baleful influence in recent years that we should honor and respect the expressions of anger and heartache finally being heard,” he said on Twitter.





The letter is scheduled to appear in Harper’s October’s print issue.





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