Even those who aren’t avid Twitter users have heard of cancel culture, often defined by those who decry it as the practice of retracting support for individuals who have said or done something deemed objectionable or offensive. In more mild cases, this sort of boycott ends up being no more than a slap on the wrist for whatever social mores were broken (like in the case of Jimmy Kimmel and Tina Fey whose histories with blackface were exposed last month). At its most extreme, however, cancel culture can end careers and ruin reputations (as we’ve seen recently with Harry Potter author JK Rowling).
Earlier this week, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter criticizing what it called the “forces of illiberalism” that are “gaining strength throughout the world.” Signed by over 150 prominent authors, journalists, academics and thinkers, this letter condemned President Donald Trump for his role in perpetuating the harmful state of affairs while also denouncing the “cancel culture” that has developed on the left.
The letter, titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” but colloquially referred to as the Harper’s Letter opened a pandora’s box of cancel culture conversation and controversy.
Many tweeters immediately criticized the letter as the complaints of white privileged individuals against the ever-increasing consequences of their unpopular Twitter opinions.
I don’t believe that all of the people who signed that Harper’s letter are the flavor of rich white person who is mad they’re getting dragged for bad Twitter opinions and calling that “cancel culture,” but enough of them were that that is the message that’s being elevated.
— Very Serious Author (@thelindsayellis) July 9, 2020
This rings especially true for JK Rowling, who has received almost relentless pushback against her comments about trans women.
Rowling’s signature, as well as her vocal support for the letter, could have been the impetus for claims that the Harper’s Letter promotes anti-trans opinions and rhetoric.
a lot of people are confused about the intent of the harper’s letter so i made some helpful edits to clarify many of the signee’s positions pic.twitter.com/AX8ctmrjpm
— Lauren L Walker (@LLW902) July 7, 2020
Just so we’re all on the same page: being transgender isn’t an opinion. But it does get us cancelled—from jobs, from our families, from life—every day.
So when are you esteemed authors going to sign on to supporting us like you did @jk_rowling as she actively works against us?
— ScottTurnerSchofield (@turnerschofield) July 8, 2020
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez indirectly criticized the signatories, saying that their notability protects them from the “cancel culture” they’re opposing in the letter.
People who are actually “cancelled” don’t get their thoughts published and amplified in major outlets.
This has been a public service announcement.
— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) July 10, 2020
Other critics pointed out the naïveness in expecting nuanced understanding in social media conversations. A thread by Slate writer Lili Loofbourow lamented the loss of “productive dissensus,” but also opined that the Harper’s Letter signatories’ expectations of intellectual conversation in our current “discourse environment” are “maladaptive.”
I get the longing–I even share it–but the naivete is annoying. Online pundits should know (and factor in) that social media as a “public square” where “good faith debate” happens is a thing of the past. Disagreement here happens through trolling, sea-lioning, ratios, dunks.
— Lili Loofbourow (@Millicentsomer) July 10, 2020
And some tweeters simply called out the letter for being tone-deaf to the current political moment.
Late to the party but the dumbest thing about that Harper’s Letter is framing online disagreement and academic squabbles as the quintessential free speech issue rn at a time when cops are beating and jailing protesters. Militarized police are a free speech issue.
— Kate Willett (@katewillett) July 8, 2020
But supporters of the letter quickly went on the defensive. Yascha Mounk, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, noted that a closer look at the signatory list disproves the claim that the letter merely amplifies the concerns of white privileged individuals.
Inevitably, people will try to caricature this list. “Oh, it’s all the same old, white, male malcontents.”
But if you actually bother to look at all the people who signed this list – from Chomsky to Rushdie, and from Atwood to Zakaria – that’s very hard to do in good faith. pic.twitter.com/9m2gs47Tje
— Yascha Mounk (@Yascha_Mounk) July 7, 2020
Other defenders explained that those who wrote and signed the letter weren’t trying to protect themselves as critics claimed, but standing up for victims of cancel culture who don’t have the same amplified platform.
Note that the signatories aren’t the ones worried about being “cancelled”. Most of us have reputations, platforms, security. We are worried about the stifling of other new ideas and new voices due to fear, groupthink, and discrimination.
— Garry Kasparov (@Kasparov63) July 7, 2020
And finally, some tweeters applauded the letter as what they saw as a much-needed call out of the radical left.
The Harper’s Letter on Cancel Culture has the far left panicked and on the offensive
People like AOC now deny the existence of Cancel Culture and falsely claim its just about accountability
Many people have been falsely accused or canceled for asking questions
— Tim Pool (@Timcast) July 10, 2020
The dizzying whirlwind of reactions left signatories scrambling.
Some of the prominent writers immediately rescinded their support for the letter, claiming that they did not fully understand its message or the diverse array of authors and thinkers whose names appeared in support.
I did not know who else had signed that letter. 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.
— Jennifer Finney Boylan 🐕 (@JennyBoylan) July 7, 2020
Others defended their decision to sign the letter, noting their pride in supporting a defense of free speech and acceptance of diverse opinions.
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. https://t.co/ozFsAmXq9R
— Malcolm Gladwell (@Gladwell) July 8, 2020
I was very proud to sign this letter in defence of a foundational principle of a liberal society: open debate and freedom of thought and speech.https://t.co/noh8VRHMyN
— J.K. Rowling (@jk_rowling) July 7, 2020
As the specifics of the letter and its signatories recede, what’s left is a boiled down conversation about cancel culture: Does it exist? If so, what is it? Who does it hurt? Who is to blame?
#CancelCulture doesn’t really exist. It’s a myth created by people who have been used to saying whatever they want without being challenged and are now surprised when there are consequences to their words. #Rowling is still a very rich bestselling author with a massive platform.
— Natasha Devon 🌈 (@_NatashaDevon) July 8, 2020
Cancel culture has always existed, it’s just that it’s historically punched down at women & people of color who dared rise above their station. It wasn’t until it started punching up at powerful white men (and some white women) that it suddenly became a problem. Weird, right? 🤷🏻♀️
— Alisha Grauso (@AlishaGrauso) July 7, 2020
NORMAL PERSON: “I disagree with what you said.”
CANCEL CULTURE: “Let’s see what your employer thinks about what you said.”
This isn’t complicated.
— Frank J. Fleming (@IMAO_) July 8, 2020
Cancel culture is the suspension of due process and presumption of innocence so that the mob can serve as judge, jury, and executioner based on accusation alone without any examination of the underlying evidence.
Trump does it.
The Media does it.
We do it.
But it has to stop.
— Eugene Gu, MD (@eugenegu) July 8, 2020