That Harper's letter is cause for hope

It shows you can criticize cancel culture, not get cancelled yourself, and even bring a fair number of leftists along for the ride.

I wasn’t asked to sign the Harper’s “Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” but I think it’s a good letter, one that offers some hope that the narrowing of what it calls the “boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal” is not so great as the signatories fear, nor so permanent as their critics might wish.

Part of the problem is that employers, especially in the media, haven’t yet learned that a viral tsunami of denunciation on Twitter or Facebook is not the mortal threat that they perceive—not most of the time, anyway. In assessing demands for public beheadings, businesses need to focus more on the substance of these complaints and less on their volume.

The Harper’s letter notes, correctly, that the climate of dogma and coercion and fear remains much more pervasive, and much more dangerous, on the right. The GOP has graduated from rigidity on matters like taxation, abortion, and regulation to a cultish (and largely feigned) devotion to its extremely erratic leader, Donald Trump. 

Nothing like that has happened on the left. But it’s never been easier to get somebody fired for giving highly-attenuated umbrage to some identity-based constituency. If, for example, scattered episodes of vandalism amid largely peaceful demonstrations protesting the appalling death of George Floyd strike you as politically unwise, best to keep that to yourself. (The vandalism does seem to be alienating some Republican voters who were initially sympathetic to the protests.) Merely acknowledging that “cancel culture” exists can prompt a coworker to complain to your boss that you’re making her feel less safe. (She did not call for this person to be punished, however, and the haters now leveling violent threats at her on Twitter should stop, immediately.)

The good news is that the signatures on the Harper’s letter of Noam Chomsky, Katha Pollitt, Adam and Arlie Russell Hochschild, and Jeet Heer suggest that there remain plenty of voices on the left that continue to value discussion and debate over retribution and cancellation. Indeed, it’s my sense that the true divide over cancel culture isn’t left-right, or Black-white, or LGBTQ-cis/straight, so much as generational. (So props to Olivia Nuzzi, 27, for signing, too.)

In general, I’m inclined to think that the revival of the sort of leftist excess described in the Harper’s letter is a sign of liberalism’s health more than anything else. It didn’t exist when liberalism was on the ropes in the 1990s and the aughts; liberalism was far too weak then to sustain much of a left flank. I’m on record arguing that conservatism is the ideology in crisis these days, not liberalism. I stand by that judgment (though the rule of law absorbed more blows than I anticipated in the year since I wrote that piece).

More important, the left’s revival hasn’t brought only dogma and ritual defenestration for public guardians of the Overton window (though yes, it has brought that). It’s also brought a critique of liberalism that liberals are starting to take to heart. It’s certainly raised the collective consciousness concerning police violence against Blacks. I’d like to see it prod liberals into pushing harder for union rights, too. And while I’m never going to like seeing crowds pull down public statues, I am rather pleased to see that Dan Snyder is finally preparing to change the name of his Washington football franchise.

Liberals and leftists have a common interest in the outcome of the November elections, and they have a lot to learn from one another. The left can teach liberals to address with greater urgency inequalities based on race, gender identity, and social class. Liberals can teach the left that cities are always going to need police departments, so your best bet is to reform them, not call for their elimination. But the conversation has to be a real one, and not an exercise in mutual contempt or ostracism. The Harper’s letter is a good place to begin.