Vox Populi

A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature

Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, Wynton Marsalis, et al: A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

July 7, 2020
The below letter will be appearing in the Letters section of Harper’s Magazine October issue. We welcome responses at letters@harpers.org.

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. 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 Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a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.

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.

Elliot Ackerman
Saladin Ambar, Rutgers University
Martin Amis
Anne Applebaum
Marie Arana, author
Margaret Atwood
John Banville
Mia Bay, historian
Louis Begley, writer
Roger Berkowitz, Bard College
Paul Berman, writer
Sheri Berman, Barnard College
Reginald Dwayne Betts, poet
Neil Blair, agent
David W. Blight, Yale University
Jennifer Finney Boylan, author
David Bromwich
David Brooks, columnist
Ian Buruma, Bard College
Lea Carpenter
Noam Chomsky, MIT (emeritus)
Nicholas A. Christakis, Yale University
Roger Cohen, writer
Ambassador Frances D. Cook, ret.
Drucilla Cornell, Founder, uBuntu Project
Kamel Daoud
Meghan Daum, writer
Gerald Early, Washington University-St. Louis
Jeffrey Eugenides, writer
Dexter Filkins
Federico Finchelstein, The New School
Caitlin Flanagan
Richard T. Ford, Stanford Law School
Kmele Foster
David Frum, journalist
Francis Fukuyama, Stanford University
Atul Gawande, Harvard University
Todd Gitlin, Columbia University
Kim Ghattas
Malcolm Gladwell
Michelle Goldberg, columnist
Rebecca Goldstein, writer
Anthony Grafton, Princeton University
David Greenberg, Rutgers University
Linda Greenhouse
Rinne B. Groff, playwright
Sarah Haider, activist
Jonathan Haidt, NYU-Stern
Roya Hakakian, writer
Shadi Hamid, Brookings Institution
Jeet Heer, The Nation
Katie Herzog, podcast host
Susannah Heschel, Dartmouth College
Adam Hochschild, author
Arlie Russell Hochschild, author
Eva Hoffman, writer
Coleman Hughes, writer/Manhattan Institute
Hussein Ibish, Arab Gulf States Institute
Michael Ignatieff
Zaid Jilani, journalist
Bill T. Jones, New York Live Arts
Wendy Kaminer, writer
Matthew Karp, Princeton University
Garry Kasparov, Renew Democracy Initiative
Daniel Kehlmann, writer
Randall Kennedy
Khaled Khalifa, writer
Parag Khanna, author
Laura Kipnis, Northwestern University
Frances Kissling, Center for Health, Ethics, Social Policy
Enrique Krauze, historian
Anthony Kronman, Yale University
Joy Ladin, Yeshiva University
Nicholas Lemann, Columbia University
Mark Lilla, Columbia University
Susie Linfield, New York University
Damon Linker, writer
Dahlia Lithwick, Slate
Steven Lukes, New York University
John R. MacArthur, publisher, writer
Susan Madrak, writer
Phoebe Maltz Bovy
, writer
Greil Marcus
Wynton Marsalis, Jazz at Lincoln Center
Kati Marton, author
Debra Mashek, scholar
Deirdre McCloskey, University of Illinois at Chicago
John McWhorter, Columbia University
Uday Mehta, City University of New York
Andrew Moravcsik, Princeton University
Yascha Mounk, Persuasion
Samuel Moyn, Yale University
Meera Nanda, writer and teacher
Cary Nelson, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Olivia Nuzzi, New York Magazine
Mark Oppenheimer, Yale University
Dael Orlandersmith, writer/performer
George Packer
Nell Irvin Painter, Princeton University (emerita)
Greg Pardlo, Rutgers University – Camden
Orlando Patterson, Harvard University
Steven Pinker, Harvard University
Letty Cottin Pogrebin
Katha Pollitt
, writer
Claire Bond Potter, The New School
Taufiq Rahim, New America Foundation
Zia Haider Rahman, writer
Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, University of Wisconsin
Jonathan Rauch, Brookings Institution/The Atlantic
Neil Roberts, political theorist
Melvin Rogers, Brown University
Kat Rosenfield, writer
Loretta J. Ross, Smith College
J.K. Rowling
Salman Rushdie, New York University
Karim Sadjadpour, Carnegie Endowment
Daryl Michael Scott, Howard University
Diana Senechal, teacher and writer
Jennifer Senior, columnist
Judith Shulevitz, writer
Jesse Singal, journalist
Anne-Marie Slaughter
Andrew Solomon, writer
Deborah Solomon, critic and biographer
Allison Stanger, Middlebury College
Paul Starr, American Prospect/Princeton University
Wendell Steavenson, writer
Gloria Steinem, writer and activist
Nadine Strossen, New York Law School
Ronald S. Sullivan Jr., Harvard Law School
Kian Tajbakhsh, Columbia University
Zephyr Teachout, Fordham University
Cynthia Tucker, University of South Alabama
Adaner Usmani, Harvard University
Chloe Valdary
Lucía Martínez Valdivia, Reed College
Helen Vendler, Harvard University
Judy B. Walzer
Michael Walzer
Eric K. Washington, historian
Caroline Weber, historian
Randi Weingarten, American Federation of Teachers
Bari Weiss
Sean Wilentz, Princeton University
Garry Wills
Thomas Chatterton Williams, writer
Robert F. Worth, journalist and author
Molly Worthen, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Matthew Yglesias
Emily Yoffe, journalist
Cathy Young, journalist
Fareed Zakaria

Institutions are listed for identification purposes only.

Included in Vox Populi for noncommercial educational purposes only.

J.K. Rowling, Margaret Atwood and Salman Rushdie are among the writers, artists and academics to argue against ideological conformity in an open letter in Harper’s Magazine. (Associated Press)

4 comments on “Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, Wynton Marsalis, et al: A Letter on Justice and Open Debate

  1. Rio
    July 12, 2020

    “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.”
    I think when you have a lot of authors who know they probably will be able to get published, sometimes only because their names guarantee enough sales, the idea that it is a sudden reality that writers might have to conform to some consensus to get published is ridiculous. If you are talking about writers who have to fear for “their livelihoods”, I ask, besides doing all the crappy jobs they have to do already, besides already having to fear even losing even those jobs? And lets not mention those who were excluded from EVERY consensus before they were even born, who when just by showing up become a challenge to the previous consensus?
    Yes, the people who grew their careers in soil that was fertile and green, now grown so lofty they can look back on their own success as a story they wrote themselves might tend to say “lets not correct the tilt too much in the direction that seems too different from what we knew…”
    Don’t fool yourselves.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Daniel Burston
    July 9, 2020

    AMEN!!!
    (And long overdue . . .)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. G. Paul Randall
    July 9, 2020

    There’s a thoughtful addendum to this piece, an op-ed in The Guardian, that offers some push-back to the thrust of this letter. On the whole, I think the massive peaceful protests we’ve seen is the best answer to this accusation of irrationality aimed at people who rightfully have had enough. The letter, none the less, should be read and pondered by everyone.

    Liked by 1 person

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