Creating a genuinely free intellectual environment | HT Editorial
An open letter offers a much-needed warning against intoleranceUpdated: Jul 09, 2020 19:37 IST
On July 7, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter titled A letter on Justice and Open Debate signed by renowned names in journalism, literature and academia, who are broadly progressive. The letter acknowledged the illiberalism of the radical right, the challenges to democracy and racism in the United States. But its real value was in the manner in which it cast an introspective glance at protest movements and the ideological resistance on the other side.
The letter, broadly addressing liberals, questioned the growing constriction of free ideas, and hasty reactions to transgressions that leave no room for “considered reform”. It expressed concern about intolerance, in which the boundaries of what can be said without reprisal are narrowing in the quest for “ideological conformity”. It underlined that resistance must not harden into its “own brand of dogma or coercion”. The letter pointed to the vogue for “public shaming and ostracism”. It critiqued the “hasty and disproportionate” publishments that institutions have come to give in a “spirit of panicked damage control”. All of this, the signatories said, will harm vital causes, hurt those who lack power, restrict democratic participation; instead, it emphasised the importance of preserving “good faith disagreement”.
The letter comes in the backdrop of growing political polarisation across the world, including India, and an increasing tendency to adopt a black-and-white prism of looking at the world. It has prompted criticism, by other prominent voices, that the fears expressed in the letter are unwarranted; that the bigger battle is with forces which refuse to even recognise the rights of the marginalised; and some of the signatories themselves have problematic political positions. This is a useful conversation, but the letter’s call for a genuinely free intellectual environment is much-needed in these times.