The letter, which was published by Harper’s Magazine and will also appear in several leading international publications, surfaces a debate that has been going on privately in newsrooms, universities and publishing houses that have been navigating demands for diversity and inclusion, while also asking which demands – and the social media dynamics that propel them – go too far.
And on social media, the reaction was swift, with some heaping ridicule on the letter’s signatories – who include cultural luminaries like Margaret Atwood, Bill T. Jones and Wynton Marsalis, along with journalists and academics – for thin-skinnedness, privilege and, as one person put it, fear of loss of “relevance.”
“Okay, I did not sign THE LETTER when I was asked nine days ago,” Richard Kim, enterprise director of HuffPost, said on Twitter, “because I could see in 90 seconds that it was fatuous, self-important drivel that would only troll the people it allegedly was trying to reach – and I said as much.”
The debate over diversity, free expression and the limits of acceptable opinion is a long-burning one. But the letter, which was spearheaded by writer Thomas Chatterton Williams, began taking shape about a month ago, as part of a long-running conversation about these issues with a small group of writers, including historian David Greenberg, writer Mark Lilla and journalists Robert Worth and George Packer.
Williams, a columnist for Harper’s and contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, said that initially there was concern over timing.
“We didn’t want to be seen as reacting to the protests we believe are in response to egregious abuses by the police,” he said. “But for some time, there’s been a mood all of us have been quite concerned with.”
He said there wasn’t one particular incident that provoked the letter. But he did cite several recent ones, including the resignation of more than half the board of the National Book Critics Circle over its statement supporting Black Lives Matter, a similar blow-up at the Poetry Foundation, and the case of David Shor, a data analyst at a consulting firm who was fired after he tweeted about academic research linking looting and vandalism by protesters to Richard Nixon’s 1968 electoral victory.
Such incidents, Williams said, both fuelled and echoed what he called the far greater and more dangerous “illiberalism” of President Donald Trump.
“Donald Trump is the Canceller in Chief,” he said. “But the correction of Trump’s abuses cannot become an over-correction that stifles the principles we believe in.”
Williams said the letter was very much a crowd-sourced effort, with about 20 people contributing language. Then it was circulated more broadly for signatures, in what he describes as a process that was both “organic” and aimed at getting a group that was maximally diverse politically, racially and otherwise.
“We’re not just a bunch of old white guys sitting around writing this letter,” Williams, who is African American, said. “It includes plenty of Black thinkers, Muslim thinkers, Jewish thinkers, people who are trans and gay, old and young, right wing and left wing.
“We believe these are values that are widespread and shared, and we wanted the list to reflect that,” he said.
Signatories include leftist Noam Chomsky and neo-conservative Francis Fukuyama. There are also figures associated with the traditional defence of free speech, including Nadine Strossen, former president of the American Civil Liberties Union, as well as some outspoken critics of political correctness on campuses, including linguist Steven Pinker and psychologist Jonathan Haidt.
The signers also include some figures who have lost positions amid controversies, including Ian Buruma, former editor of the New York Review of Books, and Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., a Harvard Law School professor who left his position as faculty dean of an undergraduate residence amid protests over his legal defence of Harvey Weinstein.
There are also some leading Black intellectuals, including historian Nell Irvin Painter, poets Reginald Dwayne Betts and Gregory Pardlo, and linguist John McWhorter. And there are a number of journalists, including several opinion columnists for The New York Times.
Pardlo said that as somebody who has felt the “chilling effect” of being the only person of colour in predominantly white institutions, he hoped the letter would spark conversation about those “chilling forces, no matter where they come from.”
He said he was surprised by some of the blowback to the letter “from the left, or what I assume is the left.”
“It seems some of the conversation has turned to who the signatories are more than the content of the letter,” he said.
There was particularly strong blowback over the inclusion of J.K. Rowling, who has come under fierce criticism over a series of comments widely seen as anti-transgender.
Amid the intense criticism, some signatories appeared to back away from the letter. On Tuesday evening, historian Kerri K. Greenidge tweeted “I do not endorse this @Harpers letter” and said she was in touch with the magazine about a retraction. (Giulia Melucci, a spokeswoman for Harper’s, said the magazine had fact-checked all signatures and that Greenidge had signed off. But she said the magazine is “respectfully removing her name.”)
Another person who signed, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in an effort to stay out of the growing storm, said she did not know who the other signatories were when she agreed to participate, and if she had, she may not have signed. She also said that the letter, which was about internet shaming, among other things, was now being used to shame people on the internet.
But Betts, director of the Million Books Project, a new effort aimed at getting book collections to more than 1,000 prisons, was unfazed by the variety of signers.
“I’m rolling with people I wouldn’t normally be in a room with,” he said. “But you need to concede that what’s in the letter is worthy of some thought.”
He said that as someone who had spent more than eight years in prison for a carjacking committed when he was a teenager, he was given pause by what he called the unforgiving nature of the current moment. “It’s antithetical to my notion of how we need to deal with problems in society,” he said.
He cited in particular the case of James Bennet, who resigned as the editorial page editor of The New York Times following an outcry over an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., and cases of authors of young adult literature withdrawing books in the face of criticism over cultural appropriation.
“You can criticise what people say; you can argue about platforms,” Betts said. “But it seems like some of the excesses of the moment are leading people to be silenced in a new way.”