Harper’s open letter on justice is not just
The political positions of key signatories, and their unwillingness to share their own platforms for progressive causes, are deeply troublingUpdated: Jul 14, 2020 15:07 IST
Harper’s Magazine set out to do a noble thing last week. It wanted to steer change. In 532 words, it tried to right a centuries-old wrong.
An open letter, published on July 7, titled A letter on Justice and Open Debate was signed by stalwarts like authors Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Malcolm Gladwell, academic Noam Chomsky, psychologist Steven Pinker, and feminist Gloria Steinem among 150 others to fight for the cause of free speech, open debate and democratic values, specific but not limited to the United States (US).
Acknowledging overdue police reform in the US that is challenging racism and social injustice, the letter also casts a shadow over the alleged intolerance of protest movements.
The letter created varying degrees of resonance in the US and democracies across the world. It questioned the growing constriction of free ideas. While it said that Donald Trump represents “a real threat to democracy”, it also warned against hasty reactions to transgressions that leave no room for “considered reform” — a swipe at the toxicity of cancel culture (which I wrote about here). It expressed concern about an increasing intolerance in the spheres of literature and journalism, in which the boundaries of what can be said without reprisal are narrowing. It also condemned “a stifling atmosphere” that restricts debate and destroys democracy.
While rich in intent, something didn’t quite fit. This cohort of artists signed a letter with an assortment of good ideas, free thought, and sharp criticisms. But haven’t we heard all this before? Open letters of this kind have been around for a while. And the argument itself lacked novelty, making it seem inane rather than transformative.
What stood out, however, were the signatories without whom this letter would be lost in the mail. They are the crème de la crème of the arts. Diverse, yes. Acclaimed, yes. Controversial, also, yes. This begs the question: Why were (some of) these high-profile, arguably divisive, artists brought on to sign a letter on the urgent need to be, well, less divisive?
Let us first take a look at the political positions of some of these signatories.
In 2017, one of the signatories, Steven Pinker tweeted “Police kill too many people, black & white. Focus on race distracts from solving problem...” This view, it is widely recognised, is blind to structural inequality and discriminatory attitudes that are embedded in the way power operates.
Also in 2017, Bari Weiss, in The New York Times wrote, “When I will inevitably get called a racist for cheering cultural miscegenation, I might borrow a line from the director of Taylor Swift’s new video, who wrote: ‘I am down for cultural appropriation. That sounds hot. Appropriate me.’ Feel free to steal it as well.” — in an article titled Three Cheers for Cultural Appropriation. While the piece was meant to be a funny take on cultural appropriation as fashionable, cultures and traditions are the bedrock of communities, passed down from one generation to the next, and cannot be simply brought down to a good laugh for a newspaper’s audience.
JK Rowling, whose insensitive and derogatory comments about the transgender community are now increasingly casting a shadow on her literary accomplishments, recently found herself in another messy controversy when she called gender reassignment surgeries “a new kind of conversion therapy for young gay people”. On finding out that Rowling was one of the signatories, trans author Jennifer Finney Boylan tweeted “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.”
These are some of the big names in the list of 150-odd artists. Some of the views held by the signatories — on race, gender, sexuality, LGBTQ+ issues, cultural appropriation and more — are regressive, and are given a platform because of the weight of their words as powerful voices.
As members of various communities, and the all-encompassing Internet, their views outside of the letter are directly proportional to the letter’s success. And this was why the letter’s overall reception has been at best, lukewarm, and at worst, simply bad. Rather, it generated significant, even necessary, outrage all of last week.
The main criticism is that these artists, who claim that spaces are often not free or fair, have not been free or fair themselves. While some are champions of social justice movements, others have only inhibited the growth of movements through their regressive views. Placing the latter and the former together gives the readers a mixed bag of empty words with little substance to drive change.
Artists do not exist in a vacuum. Neither does the letter. Nor do the social justice movements they are talking about. They build from the ground up; intensifying in the roots of the system and ultimately, breaking oppressive structures from its very foundations.
The world as we see it today has never been more of a paradox. We’ve never been more connected, but divisions continue to intensify. The global economy has never been more integrated, and yet, economic disparities are stark. This is why protest movements are a key driver for change. It can take one movement to dismantle social hierarchies that have been around for centuries. This is why the signatories of the letter are as significant as the letter itself. And instead of simply claiming that the world is an unequal place, the authors must now take the time to introspect, and realise that their platforms are key spaces for these movements to unfold. Their positions of power give them the opportunity — and the Black Lives Matter movement also gives some of them the right moment — to pass the microphone. If this does not happen, the letter defeats its own purpose.
Harper’s Magazine did not do a noble thing last week. And inadvertently, the backlash that erupted from it was far nobler than the open letter itself.
The views expressed are personal