Why Harper's "Letter on Justice and Open Debate" is dumb

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2020/07/09/why-harpers-letter-on-just.html


‘Free speech’ doesn’t mean that rich people of privilege get to say whatever they want with no negative consequences.


This ever-relevant XKCD from 2014 is always a favorite of mine in times like this.

Comic’s Alt-text:

I can’t remember where I heard this, but someone once said that defending a position by citing free speech is sort of the ultimate concession; you’re saying that the most compelling thing you can say for your position is that it’s not literally illegal to express.


See also:


It’s seriously flawed on so many levels. They just jumped out at me one by one. For example:

resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting.

A fallacious slippery slope argument that assumes the worst of liberals and progressives while assuming that right-wing demagogues have much traction outside their hardcore Know-Nothing 27% base or have any real commitment to free speech beyond paying lip service to it when convenient.

Editors are fired for running controversial pieces;

This is about the Cotton piece in the NYT. Which the editor in question didn’t read (despite defending it), which the Times admitted didn’t meet the outlet’s publication standards, and which proposed measures against peaceful protests that posed more immediate dangers to a liberal society than the piece itself being pulled.

books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity;

This is probably about American Dirt, a novel promoted as an authentic and insightful look at the ordeal of an undocumented Mexican immigrant (complete with “authentic dialect”) written by a privileged white woman. Or, as others have pointed out, it could be about the controversy surrounding JT Leroy. The books were not censored, but the hype intended to make them bestsellers (complete with blurbs from some of the letter’s signatories) was certainly deflated.

journalists are barred from writing on certain topics;

Yes, if there’s a clear conflict of interest. Which happens very rarely (more often it’s the case of someone like Sydney Ember, a veteran of Wall Street, being assigned to cover Sanders throughout his primary bid despite her obvious antipathy toward his policies).

professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study;

Yes, if it’s clear they did so thoughtlessly or if there’s a strong suspicion they did so with malicious intent. Otherwise academic tenure remains as strong as ever (at least for older faculty who escaped eternal adjunct status), for better and worse.

and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.

Heavens forfend that someone given a well-paid executive position not be given a second chance after one (or several) major screw-ups. The people who signed this letter are the kind of people who keep the “glass floor” in place because they’ve invested their own reputations in their career success. When you ask why fabulists like Stephen Glass or Jonah Lehrer or James Frey are given chance after chance after chance despite screwing up, consider that it’s people on this list who give them those chances (because they’re “in the club”).

We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.

This is the core flaw of the letter: there is no good-faith disagreement with someone when there is obvious and consistent bad faith on the other party’s part. Nazis, white supremacists, Identitarians, TERFs, and the post-Gingrich GOP (etc., etc.) can be safely assumed not to be dealing in good faith, and can be safely assumed to be trafficking in long-discredited ideas that don’t deserve a reputable platform or serious consideration from the kind of people who signed this letter.

America’s cultural elite, at least as represented by the names still on this list, needs to get over its privilege and realise that 99% of Americans have never had a chance to participate in open debate in reputable public forums – frequently because they’ve been barred from them by gatekeepers like the signatories. They might also want to re-acquaint themselves with Popper’s Paradox.


which was signed by a diverse body of writers and public intellectuals

I reject that part of the premise. All who signed are part of the same writer/pundit class who believes (apparently) that the proper flow of information is from them and their peers, to the rest of us. They are the proper arbiters of opinion and culture, not the rabble to which they speak.

I’ve posted this elsewhere, but I think Sarah Jaffe hits on something important in her criticism of them:


Further exploration from twitter:


The Harper’s letter is nonspecific whinging, but to me the 2 key clauses are:

  1. “weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences”
  2. “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion”

1. Not everyone (myself included) thinks this country currently has norms of open debate and tolerance, and the norms we do have need weakening. This is critical to the differences

2. Bad ideas are never defeated through exposure. The overexposure of bad ideas is a major problem in the modern world. The reason the flat-earth society hangs around is not because not enough people are exposed to it. Any argument that is not in good faith or grounded in reality can’t be defeated by exposure and should be ignored and quarantined


MIke Pesca presented an interesting point of view on the Harpers letter and the responses it has generated. His spiel starts at 19:45.

(From Assigned Male Comics )


I think it’s more complicated than that.
Sometimes “cancel culture” hits people that we like,
often people who don’t deserve it.
They often pay a tremendous toll.
Sometimes leaving off whatever it is that they were doing to draw such ire.
Lindy West has a few things to say about this.
So do Laina Morris, and Natalie Wynn.


Now THAT is a good example of actual useful use of Twitter. Agreed 100%.

Carry on!

Also- until Trump gave it a name I have never heard the term cancel culture. I think this is something people finally named recently or at least that’s how I came to see things. Maybe I’m just outta the loop.


That’s not responsive. There are three things they say defeat bad ideas: exposure, argument, and persuasion. While you’re correct that exposure alone doesn’t defeat bad ideas, that’s about as useful an observation as responding to “Diseases are defeated through symptom observation, diagnosis, and treatment” by saying “Symptom observation doesn’t defeat disease.”

The real sticking point with their position is that there’s generally an awfully big leap between argument and actual persuasion, and the latter may never happen at all when opinions are hardened into dogma.


I used the flat-earth example intentionally. There have been countless people painstakingly attempting argument and persuasion. Persuasion is only possible when dealing with good faith arguments. Exposing bad Increasing exposure of ideas based on bad faith arguments makes things worse regardless of whether its followed by counter arguments.

eta: Obviously, I agree that good faith arguments should be met with debate and presenting counter arguments. Its just that the letter is mostly upset about over-reaction to people doing and saying bigoted things, which were primarily not in good faith


I don’t recognize all the names on that list, but almost all of the ones I recognize are people who got burned for some variety of what I call “asshole speech.”* The most recent example is Rowling, whose response to being called out for having an asshole opinion was to double down on being an asshole.

Though I no longer care to remember the particulars, Amis and Rushdie fall into that category, though they also fit into the category of “A Dick,” as does Steven “supersplainer” Pinker.

*By “asshole speech” I mean the union set of “opinions are like assholes we all have one” and “the person saying this is being an asshole.” Asshole speech is some asshole saying some asshole thing that a lot of assholes believe, and these assholes spend so much time kissing each others’ assholes that they don’t realize how full of shit they are. Assholes.

NB: No assholes were harmed during this post; I have an asshole, and I use it daily; also I sort of like assholes, so long as we’re all clear that an asshole is actually an asshole and not a rose by another name.

Frankfurt, Harry G. On Bullshit. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1988.
James, Aaron. Assholes. NYC: Knopf, 2012.


when entire industries deflect public discontent onto scapegoats for the benefit of plutocrats?


That’s not responsive. The question being debated is whether the proper strategy to deal with bad speech is to limit the countermeasures to “exposure, argument, and persuasion.” Carry on.


I double on Martin Amis.


Forgive this if it’s too meta, but I have a question of what you are referring to by “exposing.” Because I think I agree with you to the extent that I (we?) reject the notion that intentionally giving exposure to bad ideas (particularly those made in bad faith) in order to provoke debate is beneficial.

But if the “exposure” takes the form of “here’s a bad idea that’s out there in some capacity, and here’s why it’s a bad idea,” then I think that’s usually, if not always, beneficial and is the heart of the marketplace of ideas.

It’s that latter version of “exposure” that I think the signers got fundamentally wrong about what is currently going on–they simply have a problem with the speech going in the wrong direction.


Before someone tells me about how useful it is to persuade people of things, I’d like them to tell me about a time they persuaded someone of something in a debate and a time they were persuaded by debate.

It doesn’t fucking work.