Sometimes truths are unintentionally revealed by those who should know better. The portentously entitled ‘A Letter on Justice and Open Debate’, published this week online by Harper’s magazine, said a lot about the intellectual climate we are currently enduring. It wasn’t an edifying read. The impressive list of signatories, including Martin Amis, Malcolm Gladwell, Jonathan Haidt, Noam Chomsky, JK Rowling and Gloria Steinem, put their names to a text that, in its use of dissembling and often euphemistic language, unknowingly conceded what we already knew: that in the culture war they have tentatively entered, only one side is winning, and it ain’t them. Their words, and the tone of the letter itself, showed that genuine debate is now impossible to sustain outside agreed parameters. Clearly, these writers no longer set those limits: instead they struggle desperately to convey an impression of independence.
It is particularly dispiriting to see highly-respected writers self-censoring on the page
These proud defenders of free expression entered this debate on their knees: genuflecting, surrendering, seeking to appease those who they want to condemn, but could not bring themselves to do so explicitly. Words – their lingua franca – failed them, but educated us. They had to establish their own, woke credentials before they could be heard, like radicals in ermine, timid revolutionaries with generous contracts and tenured positions, all now under threat. The first sentence is telling, prioritising, vaguely, ‘our cultural institutions’ that are facing a ‘trial’, a word which signals not attack, but balance, legitimising the very sources of those who are threatening them.
It is particularly dispiriting to see highly-respected writers self-censoring on the page. ‘Defund the police’, an extremist demand sprayed across burning statues has had a blue pencil put through it, re-drafted as simply ‘an overdue demand for police reform’. The double standards employed by universities, the demand that museums turn down sponsorship from ‘problematic’ donors, the sacking of leading journalists who try to retain editorial breadth, all these and more are conveniently described as merely the ‘wider calls for greater equality and inclusion…in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts’. Indeed, this ‘needed reckoning’ is ‘applauded’.
And then they play to the gallery, predictably invoking Donald Trump’s name for an easy chorus of boos: it is he (an elected representative of the people), not the Twitter mobs and self-appointed guardian of new moral propriety, who is the ‘real threat to democracy’. The mollifying language continues, with a liberal use of inclusive pronouns: ‘the democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out…’, consciously aligning themselves with those who have created the ‘intolerant climate’ they now shudder in, exposed. But do these writers really fear Trump? Bullying and boorish though he is, is it he who inhibits freedom of thought and expression? It seems unlikely. If anything he seems to be the opposite: the inspiration for countless op-ed pieces in the liberal left press and publishing industry.
They are right, of course, to claim that ‘the free exchange of…ideas’ is ‘daily becoming more constricted’; again, they blame, inevitably, the ‘radical right’, but why are they surprised that it comes from ‘our culture’. Why do they sound shocked to find that illiberalism can exist on the left of politics? Have they not read Orwell? Have they not read their own books? The second paragraph is almost a study in avoidance and euphemism: a whole litany of unreferenced incidents are trotted out, but for some reason they are unwilling to be specific, to name names, to apportion blame to any one cause, or movement, or to any individuals. Why? Are they scared of the consequences? In a moment of startling dramatic irony they admit that they are ‘already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers’. Their silence, here, is highly articulate.
The final paragraph continues their concessionary, conciliatory tone, little realising that ‘argument and persuasion’ is dying because writers such as these are unable to put into words what their real fears are, or who they see as the main threats to liberty. They are wrong, too, to state that ‘the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure’: today, too often, good, bad and indifferent ideas remain unborn, dead before public utterance, because of the threat of exposure. Ideas die in the darkness of the cancellation culture, and this letter is the latest timid missive from that growing, silent territory. Indeed, no sooner was it published than some of the signatories took a vow of silence, or started to distance themselves from it, proclaiming innocence, or ignorance. We live in an age when writers are afraid of their own thoughts, where certain words can no longer be used.
We need writers’ bravery, their contrarian views, their willingness to name those who seek to silence them, irrespective of identity
Orwell’s ghost hangs over much of this letter of course, but so, too, does that of his great champion, Christopher Hitchens. It was Hitchens who was truly brave enough to stand up for freedom of thought, and to oppose the illiberal left-wing establishment which was once his home, seeing among its advocates a growing intolerance for dissident views. George Packer, the latest winner of The Hitchens Prize recently reminded us that ‘writers are now expected to identify with a community and to write as its representatives. In a way, this is the opposite of writing to reach other people.’ It is also the opposite of what we need from writers today. We need their bravery, their contrarian views, their willingness to name those who seek to silence them, irrespective of identity. We need them to be bold enough to write the words they want to write, independently, and be the stronger for that. Because if they can’t do it, who can? If they are silenced by themselves, who’s next?
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