Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications, and the co-host of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce.” He co-wrote Jackie Chan’s best-selling autobiography, “I Am Jackie Chan,” and is the editor of three graphic novels: “Secret Identities,” “Shattered” and the forthcoming “New Frontiers.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his. Read more opinion on CNN.
It’s already being referred to as “the letter” – a brief, but somehow still wordy missive, formally titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” initially signed by 153 writers, artists, academics and journalists, and published by the venerable Harper’s Magazine (it appeared online July 7 and will be printed in the October issue). In it, this cohort of artists, intellectuals and public figures decry a landscape in which “intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty” have, in their eyes, become rampant.
The result, from their perspective: a “stifling atmosphere” that leaves no room for “experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes”; one that makes “good-faith disagreement” impossible, punishes those who “depart from the consensus” and “makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.”
I’m sure many of those who signed it believe they’re taking a courageous moral stand with their screed, released, as it was, on the anniversary of so many historical moments associated with freedom of expression and defiance of convention: The posthumous acquittal of Joan of Arc for the crime of heresy in 1456; the radio debut of Elvis Presley in 1954; the nomination of Sandra Day O’Connor as the first female Supreme Court justice in 1981; and the ruling in 1992 by New York’s Court of Appeals that women have the same right as men to go topless in public.
But while Thomas Chatterton Williams, who reportedly championed the effort behind the letter, has taken pains to point out how its signers represent a diverse cross-section of races, genders, sexual orientations and political perspectives, they also all have access to enormous public platforms and an outsized ability to project their personal opinions to the world. As a result, it’s hard not to see the letter as merely an elegantly written affirmation of elitism and privilege.
Williams has acknowledged concern over the timing of this effort. But noting the bad timing does not excuse that it was, in fact, bad timing. As thousands die from coronavirus, these signatories are expressing concern over viral hashtags. As the streets fill with protesters shouting “Black Lives Matter,” they’re metaphorically shouting “Our Words Matter.” As society becomes increasingly aware of the devastating impact of police brutality, these signatories have chosen to shift attention to an imaginary political correctness police.
Concerns over PC culture seem to have long been a preoccupation for the letter’s ringleaders. Williams has previously written in the pages of Harper’s about his concerns over the left’s “fanaticism” and “totalitarianism.” Mark Lilla, who according to the New York Times was involved in early conversations that sparked the letter, has spent much of the past four years denouncing efforts to bring diversity and inclusion initiatives to politics and calling for society to move beyond identity politics. George Packer, another early participant in discussions that led to the letter, has used his prestigious platforms at The New Yorker and The Atlantic to warn at length of how culture wars are threatening our children, in the form of privilege checklists, gender-neutral bathrooms and school integration.
In short, none of what’s in the letter is new for the men cited by the New York Times as initiating the discussions from which the letter took form (and yes, all of them are men, and all but one are white, and the one nonwhite man, Williams, wrote a book about abandoning his Blackness in favor of a postracial self-image).
What’s different now is that these men have roped in seven score of their friends, colleagues and mutual admirers.
More than a few of them are high-profile individuals with views that voices among marginalized communities have said make them feel further diminished or threatened: New York Times editor Bari Weiss has been excoriated for celebrating cultural appropriation. Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker has faced criticism for asserting that gender disparities in the sciences are more rooted in biological difference than discrimination. He has also come under scrutiny for more recent tweets saying things like “Police don’t shoot blacks disproportionately” in 2015 and that a “focus on race distracts from solving (the) problem” that “police kill too many people, black and white” in 2017.
And most recently, “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling has been at the center of a firestorm for repeatedly asserting that trans women should not be considered real women, and comparing hormone replacement treatments to gay conversion therapy.
Each has also, in the face of resultant backlash, dismissed rebuttals and positioned themselves as beleaguered victims of the current culture, turning their support for open debate and free expression into an example of stark hypocrisy or sly gaslighting.
And now that the letter has been published and the full list of signatories has been revealed, some are choosing to withdraw from it. Historian Dr. Kerri Greenidge tweeted that she “did not endorse” the letter and noted author and transgender activist Jennifer Finney Boylan apologized for signing, noting that she would not have had she known who her fellow signatories were.
That’s because even if the letter were warranted — even if it weren’t an off-note, Olympian statement that reads as self-interested and elitist at best — it’s sure to be used by serial bad actors on the list as a shield against legitimate criticism.
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And in this uncertain, turbulent era especially, beset as it is by crisis and challenge but also suffused with real hope for transformative change, it’s puzzling that these prominent individuals would choose to stand athwart history. The strata of racism, sexism and systemic exploitation in this nation have been laid down across centuries. So many of those who have been brutally silenced beneath them have had just a few months to exercise their voices with newfound mainstream support — and already there are calls to change their tone.
The signatories should swallow their own medicine. If, as the letter itself suggests, the way to defeat bad ideas is “by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away,” let the people expose, argue and persuade — rather than silencing them, or wishing them away.