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July 9, 2020

CAFE Insider Newsletter #79

There is no note from Preet this week. Preet was sidetracked by the two significant rulings by the Supreme Court on Donald Trump’s financial documents. Preet and Anne will discuss those cases, and more, on Tuesday’s Insider podcast.

The “Cancel Culture” Debate

By Sam Ozer-Staton

On Wednesday, Preet tweeted, “I have no comment on the Harper’s letter. Those of you who don’t know what the hell I’m talking about, I’m very envious.”

Yet some listeners were curious and wrote in asking what it was all about. So here goes:

On Tuesday, Harper’s Magazine published a letter warning about a “stifling atmosphere” in culture that threatens to “weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”

A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” was organized by the writer Thomas Chatterton Williams and signed by 153 prominent artists and public intellectuals, including Margaret Atwood, Wynton Marsalis, Malcolm Gladwell, Noam Chomsky, and Gloria Steinem.

In an interview with the New York Times, Chatterton Williams clarified that the letter was not a criticism of the recent groundswell of activism around issues of racial justice. “We didn’t want to be seen as reacting to the protests we believe are in response to egregious abuses by the police,” he said. “But for some time, there’s been a mood all of us have been quite concerned with.”

Yet the letter received swift pushback on social media. Critics of the letter accused the signatories of distracting from the struggle for racial and social justice, and for exhibiting a hyper-sensitivity to criticism or dissent — the very phenomenon they sought to decry.

The fervor over the letter is an extension of the long-simmering debate over free speech, diversity of opinion, and “cancel culture” — a term that broadly refers to the act of publicly shaming (usually on social media) individuals whose views or actions are deemed to be offensive, sometimes to the point of them losing their jobs or public platform.

The letter reads, in part:

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.

In response to the letter, the writer Roxane Gay tweeted, “I have work to do but I wish people would stop conflating criticism with cancellation, illiberalism, or censorship. When you write publicly people are going to have opinions! They are going to share those opinions. Sometimes they will be mean about it.”

Other critics called out the letter’s lack of specificity in attempting to diagnose a cultural problem that includes many distinct strands. The Guardian columnist Nesrine Malik wrote, “The idea of ‘cancel culture,’ the obvious, albeit unnamed, target of this letter, collapses several different phenomena under one pejorative label…The fact is that decisions made by corporate HR departments, failings in editing processes at media organisations such as the New York Times, and the demands of movements for social justice…do not constitute one clear trend.”

One particularly controversial signatory was Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who in recent weeks has come under intense criticism over a series of remarks that were widely seen as transphobic.

Emily VanDerWerff, a critic-at-large at Vox who is a transgender woman, sent an email to that publication’s editors expressing concern over the fact that Matt Yglesias, one of Vox’s most prominent writers, signed onto the letter. “His signature being on the letter makes me feel less safe at Vox and believe slightly less in its stated goals of building a more diverse and more welcoming workplace,” VanDerWerff wrote, adding that the letter had been signed by “several prominent anti-trans voices.”

For his part, Chatterton Williams — who helped draft the letter and recruited many of its signatories — emphasized the diversity of the voices who lent their names to the message. “We’re not just a bunch of old white guys sitting around writing this letter,” Chatterton Williams, who is Black, told the New York Times. “It includes plenty of Black thinkers, Muslim thinkers, Jewish thinkers, people who are trans and gay, old and young, right wing and left wing. We believe these are values that are widespread and shared, and we wanted the list to reflect that.”

What do you make of this latest debate over what constitutes the policing of speech? Does the criticism of the letter prove its necessity, did the letter fail to advance its goals of “justice” and “open debate”? Let us know your thoughts by writing to us at [email protected], or reply to this email.

FOLLOW

Astead Herndon is a national political reporter for the New York Times covering the 2020 presidential election. He provides incisive analysis of the latest political stories, as well as thoughtful — and often funny — cultural commentary. Follow him @AsteadWesley,

*To listen to Insider content on your favorite podcast app, follow these instructions*

— The team at CAFE is excited to introduce United Security, the newest podcast for members of CAFE Insider, hosted by former advisors to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism Lisa Monaco and Ken Wainstein. Be on the lookout for the first episode on Friday morning.

— This week’s episode of Stay Tuned, “Free and Fair Elections,” features Federal Election Commission Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, and Lisa and Ken join Preet to preview United Security.

— In this week’s episode of CAFE Insider, “Ghislaine, DOJ & ICE,” Preet and Anne discuss the recent ICE decision to force foreign students taking online-only college classes back to their home countries; the indictment in SDNY of Ghislaine Maxwell, Jeffrey Epstein’s longtime associate and enabler; and the news that Richard Donoghue, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of New York, is taking a new job as Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General (PADAG).

That’s it for this week. We hope you’re enjoying CAFE Insider. Reply to this email or write to us at [email protected] with your thoughts, suggestions, and questions.

— Edited by Tamara Sepper

The CAFE Team:

Tamara Sepper, Sam Ozer-Staton, David Kurlander, Noa Azulai, Calvin Lord, David Tatasciore, and Matthew Billy.

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