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  • NYS Writers Institute

An open letter to encourage open debate... stirs up a debate.

At this time of national crisis, major writers, journalists, academics, and intellectuals signed a letter published on July 7 in Harper's affirming urgent calls for racial and social justice.

Among the 150-plus signers are Malcolm Gladwell, Noam Chomsky, David Brooks, J.K. Rowling, Wynton Marsalis, along with several past visitors to the Writers Institute including Margaret Atwood, David W. Blight, Dexter Filkins, Rebecca Goldstein, Linda Greenhouse, Nicholas Lemann, Dael Orlandersmith, Greg Pardlo, Steven Pinker, Katha Pollitt, Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem, Helen Vendler and Garry Wills.

[See the letter on the Harper's website to For the complete list of signatories.]

Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial. Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts.

The letter also cautioned against an effort to silence free and open debate across the political spectrum.

But this needed reckoning has also intensified 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. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second. The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.
The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters.
But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms. Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.
Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

In conclusion, the letter serves a warning:

This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.

Following publication of an open letter advocating for more tolerance and less "panicked damage control," you can predict what happened next. Controversy. Search online for "harper's letter" and you'll find plenty of news coverage and opinions.

From the New York Times:

and for good measure, a follow-up from Jesse Singal one of the signers posted on

Writing in The Guardian, Jonathan Freedland observed, "It seems the Harper’s letter might be a rare example of the reaction to a text making the text’s case rather better than the text itself."

After one of the signers walked back from the letter, Malcolm Gladwell had this to say:

Freedom of speech. Cancel culture. Joint statements of concern. The culture of Twitter. There's a lot going on here. Got an opinion? Hope so. Read up on the letter and the coverage and join the conversation. Thanks!


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