In early July, 150 high-profile authors, commentators and scholars signed an open letter in Harper’s Magazine claiming that “open debate and toleration of differences” are under attack. Signatories included JK Rowling, Margaret Atwood, Gloria Steinem and Noam Chomsky.
While prefacing their comments with support for current racial and social justice movements, the signatories argue there has been a weakening of the norms of open debate in favor of dogma, coercion and ideological conformity. They perceive “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.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Harper’s letter has received spirited critique. Some commentators noted past cases where the signatories had themselves been censorious. Others argued that any perceived threat was overblown.
Rather than objecting to outrage per se, the Harper’s letter asserts there is a broadening in the scope of views that attract punitive responses. This seems plausible. In recent scholarly work on the tensions between censorship and academic freedom on university campuses, both sides of the dispute acknowledge that in the current environment virtually all utterances offend someone.
But several concerns arise when we attach punitive consequences to people’s speech based on its perceived moral wrongfulness (as opposed to simply arguing it is mistaken or false). Claims of moral wrongfulness in a debate assume immediate urgency and distract from the debate itself. For example, let’s say in a debate about immigration, one person says something that offends another. Discussion of the original issue (immigration) will be bracketed until the issue of moral wrongdoing (the perceived slight or offence) is resolved. In a less politicized environment, a contentious claim might be treated as a contribution to a debate to be considered on its merits. But in our current climate, the same claim creates only angry allegations flying in both directions. As a result, the claim isn’t considered or debated. Hugh Breakey | The Conversation