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Harper’s Magazine’s ‘Cancel Culture’ Letter Kicks Off Circular Firing Squad in Media

Harper’s Magazine’s ‘Cancel Culture’ Letter Kicks Off Circular Firing Squad in Media

It was the letter that launched a thousand tweets. Maybe even ten thousand—many of them, as happens so often on social media, brimming with insults and recrimination.

And that doesn’t even account for several impassioned essays, some pro but mostly con, that the so-called “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” has provoked among the self-avowed intelligentsia—a tiny yet purportedly influential group of academics, artists, philosophers and journalists—since it was released on Tuesday by Harper’s magazine.

“The controversy surrounding the letter shows the venom that these anodyne statements produced—statements that wouldn’t have been inflammatory ten years ago,” Harper’s Vice President Giulia Melucci told The Daily Beast on Wednesday as the tweets and manifestoes continued to pile up. The critics were reacting to a 532-word document that celebrates untrammeled free expression above all and rebukes the so-called “cancel culture” that might take offense and try to muzzle it.

“It’s now considered incendiary, and people are running and hiding in fear,” Melucci added.

Indeed, over the past day the blowback in this rarefied bubble has apparently been so harsh in some cases that at least one of the open letter’s signatories—transgender author, activist, and Barnard College Professor Jennifer Finney Boylan—has abjectly apologized for adding her name to the document whose 150-odd endorsers included Harry Potter impresario J.K. Rowling, whose recent musings on gender have been widely decried as transphobic

Boylan’s retroactive regret of her inclusion among the letter signers echoed the concerns of trans activists like ACLU staff lawyer Chase Strangio, who wrote that some of its signatories were a “who’s who of authors who wrote variations on the piece ‘but should trans people really exist’?”

“I did not know who else had signed that letter,” Boylan tweeted, after what must have been a very difficult day fielding criticism. “I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company.  The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.”

Which prompted Tipping Point and Blink author Malcolm Gladwell—who also signed the letter—to retort: “I signed the Harpers letter because there were lots of people who also signed the Harpers letter whose views I disagreed with. I thought that was the point of the Harpers letter.”

The letter—whose endorsers included everyone from Noam Chomsky to Gloria Steinem to Margaret Atwood to Salman Rushdie to Wynton Marsalis—applauded “powerful protests for racial and social justice [and] police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society.”

But it also decried “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”

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