Authors and academics such as Noam Chomsky, Gloria Steinem, Ian Buruma, Margaret Atwood, Mark Lilla or Martin Amis sign a letter against the “intolerance” of certain progressive activism. “We must preserve the possibility of disagreeing without dire professional consequences”
More than 150 writers, academics and intellectuals – including Noam Chomsky, Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem, Margaret Atwood and Martin Amis, among others – have signed an open letter in which they denounce a growing “intolerance” on the part of progressive activism American towards dissenting ideas. As stated in the letter, they consider that this makes a dent in academic and cultural environments, where there is pointing out and boycotting, “disproportionate punishments” and a consequent “aversion to risk” or self-censorship that impoverishes public debate. “We must preserve the possibility of disagreeing in good faith without dire professional consequences,” they say.
The text, published this Tuesday in the magazine Harper’s under the title A letter on justice and open debate, applauds the protests for racial and social justice, for greater equality and inclusion, but warns that this “necessary settling of accounts” has also intensified “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our standards of debate openness and tolerance of differences in favor of ideological conformity ”. “The forces of illiberalism are gaining ground in the world and they have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy, but the resistance cannot be allowed to impose its own style of dogma and coercion,” say the authors.
The letter addresses a heated controversy in the United States, about whether the new threshold of zero tolerance towards inequities such as racism, sexism or homophobia is also fueling some excesses that seek to silence any dissent. Critics often refer to this as cancel culture, whose literal translation would be “culture of cancellation” and which refers to vetoes and pointing out creators or teachers for any deviation from the norm; or woke culture (derived from English, wake up), which refers to an attitude of permanent alertness.
“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is becoming increasingly limited. It was expected from the radical right, but the censorious attitude is expanding in our culture, “says the letter, which does not directly mention recent specific controversies with names and surnames, but does expand on describing situations. “The heads of institutions, in an attitude of panic and risk control, are applying swift and disproportionate punishments instead of applying thoughtful reforms. Publishers are fired for publishing controversial pieces; books removed for alleged inauthenticity; journalists banned from writing on certain issues; professors investigated for citing certain works ”, describes the text, among other examples.
One of the recent controversies was the resignation of James Bennet as head of opinion of The New York Times, earlier this month. The reason was the publication of a tribune by Republican Senator Tom Cotton, in which the politician called for a military response to the protests and riots over the death of African American George Floyd. The torrent of criticism inside and outside the newsroom prompted Bennet to offer his resignation and apologize. He admitted that he should not have published that platform and that it had not been edited with sufficient rigor.
Following the same conflict, on June 10, the Poetry Foundation announced the resignation of two of its leaders after a letter of protest from 30 authors who considered the communiqué denouncing police violence tepid. The president of the National Circle of Book Critics also resigned and five other members amid criticism of racism and privacy violations for a scuffle on social media. An electoral analyst, David Shor, got fired from the Civis Analytics platform after the storm that was generated by tweeting the academic study of a Princeton professor who warned of the perverse effects of violent protests. As related The New York Magazine, some employees of the firm considered that Shor’s tweet “put their safety at risk.”
The debate over where zero tolerance for abuse ends and where discrepancy begins to “cancel” also extends to the current revision of statues and national monuments. President Donald Trump, who has embraced culture warfare as one of his campaign arguments, focused on this issue in a lengthy speech last Friday night, on the eve of the July 4 national holiday. “In our schools, our newsrooms, even in our boards of directors there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute loyalty. If you don’t speak their language, practice their rituals, recite their mantras and follow their commandments, you will be censored, persecuted and punished, ”he said.
The intellectuals in their letter describe the president as a “threat to democracy”, but warn: “The restriction of the debate, carried out by a repressive government or an intolerant society, harms those without power and reduces the capacity for democratic participation of all ”. “The way to defeat bad ideas is exposure, argument, and persuasion, not trying to silence them or wanting to expel them. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk-taking, and even mistakes. We must preserve the possibility of disagreeing in good faith without dire professional consequences ”, they conclude.
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