the Harper’s letter is fatally vague

This is the text of the letter that is working as a national Rorschach Test, appearing self-evident and overdue to some, offensive to others.

It is remarkably and intentionally vague. Trends are described, but without any data, timeframes, or evidence. For instance, “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments” is “weaken[ening] our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” Is that true? Which moral attitudes? Are they new (since when)? What is the degree to which disagreements are tolerated today? How does that vary by institution and community? How has it changed?

No proper names are used, but specific cases are surely being alluded to. For instance, “a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study.” That must be David Shor, fired from Civis Analytics for tweeting a summary of research by Omar Wasow. That sounded like an injustice to me and a way of blocking an important topic, but does it generalize? Why exactly did it happen? (I am guessing it was a business judgment, which doesn’t make it fair but does suggest that it wouldn’t happen in many other organizations.) Are there other cases like it?

“Journalists are barred from writing on certain topics.” That has happened since the dawn of journalism: reporters constantly negotiate their story ideas with editors. I presume the concern is about journalists who want to write on topics uncomfortable to the left, but that isn’t specified. How common are such cases? After all, a vast amount of journalism is uncomfortable–if not downright hostile–to the left.

The vagueness is fatal because the issues at stake are complex and subtle. I think all these points are valid but in tension:

  1. It pays to wrestle constantly with diverse and conflicting ideas. That keeps you sharp, tough-minded, and creative.
  2. Social movements are often essential to positive change. They work to create unity because it’s an asset for them (along with worthiness, numbers, and commitment–Charles Tilly’s WUNC acronym). They therefore tend to discourage internal disagreement.
  3. It is much harder to face an open discussion if you are the topic of it. If people are talking about why you are socially disadvantaged, that can be (at best) deeply uncomfortable. Oppressed people are usually familiar with a wide range of opinions, including ones that are explicitly hostile to them. They may need a break rather than more exposure to challenging opinions.
  4. Regardless of their social position, people tend to prefer ideas that confirm their own prior beliefs and avoid or minimize conflicting beliefs in ways that distort their thinking.
  5. Strongly criticizing people is an act of free speech. Preventing or decrying strong criticism is not a way of supporting free speech.
  6. Being criticized can have tangible costs, including losing your job.
  7. Marginalizing odious views can be an appropriate way for communities to uphold norms. All decent communities marginalize some opinions.
  8. We navigate a world of massively disaggregated media by making constant individual choices about what to read, watch, and share. Much more of our speech is now visible, searchable, and sharable compared to pre-Internet days. What is odious in one space is an assumed truth in another. Anyone can be perceived as an outlier and a threat somewhere.
  9. Impartiality is a worthy goal for some people, such as public school teachers and editorial-page editors. Impartiality is not an empty concept, as you can tell by actually trying to act impartially.
  10. No institution is a free-speech zone, because it must decide whom to admit, hire, promote, publish, reward, etc. These are inevitably value-judgments and they cannot and should not be content-neutral.

If we interpret the Harper’s letter charitably, it’s saying that people are forgetting #1 because they are only concerned about #2 and #3. I’m sure this is the case for some people, but how many? Is there any basis for thinking that “censoriousness is … spreading more widely in our culture”? In my experience, a lot of people actually see merit in many of the ten points listed above and struggle to find the right balance.

If the question is whether the government should censor speech, the answer should almost always be no. That case is worth defending and propagating. I would welcome a letter from diverse and distinguished thinkers that made the positive case for intellectual diversity and individual rights against the state.

If the question is whether you should join with other people on Twitter to criticize an individual in strong terms for saying something, that’s a much more complicated matter. It’s highly context-specific. It may depend how bad you think the targeted opinion was, how many other people have already piled on, and what consequences you expect to follow from the critique. If, for example, the target is the President of the United States, go for it. If it’s an untenured professor whose claim was subtly problematic, maybe you should back off. Your criticism is itself protected by the First Amendment, but that doesn’t mean it is justified or helpful–or effective.

I have no more right to generalize than the authors of the Harper’s letter, but if I dared to describe the American left in broad strokes, I would begin by observing that a lot of people are wrestling with versions of the ten points above and trying to land in the right place. Any given controversy provokes diverse and often conflicted reactions.

People are more aware of #3 (the negative impact of a diverse debate on the people being discussed) than they were in the ’60s or the ’80s, presumably because of the growing diversity of our population and leaders. We should be concerned about #3, but it doesn’t erase the importance of robust debate or the need to counter confirmation bias. A balance is required.

All of this is playing out in a very problematic institutional context. Twitter allows just a few words and makes it easy to amplify an attack without even reading the original text. Most professors hold precarious (non-tenured) jobs that can vanish if they become targets of controversy. More than half of reporters have been laid off, creating a massive shortage of paid positions for journalists and an unprecedented concentration of those jobs in a few newsrooms. Malicious actors love to stir the pot.

It would be hard to navigate this context even if we all radiated wisdom and beneficence. Considering that everyone is fallible and biased–and some of us are actually Russian bots–I would like to celebrate the many among us who are doing their best.

See also: marginalizing odious views: a strategy; marginalizing views in a time of polarization; trying to keep myself honest; we need SPUD (scale, pluralism, unity, depth); the value of diversity and discussion within social movements; diversity, humility, curiosity; and Francis Bacon on confirmation bias.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.