By Spencer Bokat-Lindell

Is the free exchange of ideas under threat?

Noam Chomsky, left, and J.K. Rowling
Noam Chomsky, left, and J.K. RowlingCredit…Illustration by The New York Times; Photographs by Jim Wilson/The New York Times, Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press, Heuler Andrey/Agence France-Presse—Getty Images and Getty Images

Last week, 153 writers, artists and academics — including J.K. Rowling, Noam Chomsky and Nell Irvin Painter — signed an open letter in Harper’s Magazine warning of a threat to intellectual life in the United States.

“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” the letter reads, condemning “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.”

The letter was spearheaded by the writer Thomas Chatterton Williams, who explained his motivations to The Times: “Donald Trump is the Canceler in Chief,” he said. “But the correction of Trump’s abuses cannot become an overcorrection that stifles the principles we believe in.”

Among the signatories were several contributors to The New York Times Opinion section, including Bari Weiss, a former writer and editor at the paper who resigned on Tuesday. In her own public resignation letter, Ms. Weiss argued that “intellectual curiosity — let alone risk-taking — is now a liability at The Times,” and claimed that she was bullied for her centrist views.

Both of these letters generated a great deal of both praise and criticism, including in the form of — yes — more open letters. Is it true that the ideal of open debate is under siege? Here is a rundown of, as it were, the debate.

If you are a sentient person with internet access in the year 2020 — and I regret to inform you that you are — you have almost certainly heard the phrase “cancel culture,” which depending on your point of view either doesn’t exist or heralds a new totalitarianism. But what does it actually mean, where did it come from and what does it have to do with free speech?

Tediously, it is actually useful here to refer to a dictionary. According to the etymologists at Merriam-Webster, the concept of canceling was popularized in recent years as a way of demanding greater accountability from public figures who have committed or are accused of having committed some disqualifying moral transgression. “It’s an agreement not to amplify, signal boost, give money to,” Lisa Nakamura, a professor of media studies at the University of Michigan, told The Times in 2018.

Credited to Black users of Twitter, cancellation has been said to share a lineage with midcentury civil rights boycotts, insofar as it enables those with little political power to litigate perceived injustices in the more accessible forum of popular culture (the cancellation court of public opinion, if you will). Increasingly, however, people across a broad range of personal backgrounds and political beliefs have criticized the practice as an imperious tactic of imposing on everyone, including those with relatively little power, a predetermined point of view by force of public shaming instead of persuasion. The culture of cancellation, they say, violates the spirit, if not the actual laws, of free expression.

As The Times columnist Ross Douthat argues,cancellation is typically expressed as a collective attack on someone’s reputation and employment, which may include calls to deny people opportunities to speak before an audience (in person or online), be fired or put out of business, especially when such calls come from within one’s own professional community. While the Harper’s letter did not expressly use the phrase cancel culture, its emphasis on the “need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences” accords neatly with Mr. Douthat’s definition.

As a form of social control, cancel culture is hardly new, he notes, but the internet has changed and extended its reach by creating permanent, detailed archives of people’s speech and behavior. Feeding the trend may be what the writer Jia Tolentino has described as the opposition principle of the internet, which incentivizes malice by making people “deeply dependent” — intellectually, but also financially — “on the people who hate them.”

If you have an hour and a half of free time (and some tolerance for profanity), you may be interested in this in-depth exploration of cancellation from the popular YouTuber Natalie Wynn:

The Harper’s letter alludes generally to instances of censoriousness within cultural institutions — e.g., “Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics” — but its concerns extend beyond the purely professional, concluding that “the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty” makes “everyone less capable of democratic participation.”

Where did this tendency originate? The journalist Matt Taibbi lays the blame on the left, which he says has become “a cowardly mob of upper-class social media addicts, Twitter Robespierres who move from discipline to discipline torching reputations and jobs with breathtaking casualness.” These revolutionaries, he argues, “are replacing traditional liberal beliefs about tolerance, free inquiry and even racial harmony with ideas so toxic and unattractive that they eschew debate, moving straight to shaming, threats and intimidation.” The cultural critic Wesley Yang has called the animating force of this illiberalism “successor ideology.”

If so-called successor ideology is the message, social media, and in particular Twitter, is the medium. As Josh Barro of New York magazine notes, recalling when old photos of the Democratic governor of Virginia in blackface surfaced online, Twitter exercises a disproportionate influence on the news industry, and its mores are not necessarily representative of the American body politic’s.

But it’s not only journalists who use Twitter, and what happens on that platform doesn’t always stay there. Yascha Mounk, another signatory of the Harper’s letter, points to the case of David Shor, a data analyst at a progressive consulting firm who was fired after receiving blowback on Twitter for posting an academic study arguing that nonviolent civil-rights protests in the 1960s were more politically effective than violent ones. The company denied the tweet was the reason for Mr. Shor’s firing, but the circumstances continue to remain unclear, as Mr. Shor is reportedly bound by a nondisclosure agreement.

Mr. Mounk writes that the primary threat to liberal democracy is posed by the populist right, but that it’s vulnerable in part because its values are being abandoned by the left: “One of the core tenets of liberal democracy is that people should not be punished for accusations against them that are unsubstantiated, for actions that are perfectly reasonable, or for offenses that were committed by others. No matter how worthy the cause they invoke, you should not trust anyone who seeks to abandon these fundamental principles.”

Many critics of the Harper’s letter have argued that its signatories are hypocritical elites jealously guarding their positions atop the national discourse under a pious guise of liberalism. As Nicholas Grossman writes in Arc Digital, most people, including classical liberals, believe some kinds of speech are beyond the pale of what can be said without deserving some kind of social penalty: “The hard part isn’t telling other people to be more open to ideas they don’t like. It’s drawing the lines of socially acceptable expression and determining appropriate responses to transgressing those norms.”

The tendency to compare cancel culture to episodes of physical violence like the French Revolution, then, can be understood as an expression of status anxiety from a cultural aristocracy panicking over the loss of its ability to dictate whose speech is deemed acceptable and, what’s more, worth hearing. Kendra Pierre-Louis, a former climate reporter for The Times, has talked about how journalism institutions in the United States have failed to grapple with how they have historically served those in power.

The author Pankaj Mishra, who is Indian, argues that American debate is actually far more vibrant and diverse than it was in the 1990s, when a small handful of writers in the West were tasked with speaking for entire continents. The truth, he says, is not that debate is now restricted, but that “A cacophony of new voices are just making it harder for famous and powerful people to blather on about all sorts of things without interruption.” Nikole Hannah-Jones, a domestic correspondent for The New York Times Magazine, has thought along similar lines.

The writer Osita Nwanevu has argued that ours is actually the greatest era for free expression in human history. “If we find ourselves moving dizzily from outrage to outrage from week to week, we should consider that being outrageous has never cost so little or earned professional contrarians and provocateurs so much,” he wrote last year. “When they’re not weeping into plates of hors d’oeuvres about Twitter, they may well be writing for The Times or The Atlantic, finishing up a forthcoming best seller, or taking up a standing invitation to join Bill Maher on national television. Such is life under cancel culture. It is mostly good.”

After signing the Harper’s letter, the writer Phoebe Maltz Bovy clarified her frustrations with cancel culture’s supporters as well as her fellow critics: “The paradox of cancel culture is that one only ever hears about it from those unlikely to be harmed by it. Indeed, the loudest voices on the topic are those with careers as contrarians — public figures whose fame and fortune increases with every attempt at cancellation.”

What gets lost, she argues, is that cancel culture is bound to do the most harm to people who have less power and money than the average op-ed columnist, tenured professor or well-paid magazine writer.

There are also many feminists and criminal justice advocates on the left who believe that the anger that feeds cancel culture is often justified, but should be redirected toward a politics of restoration rather than retribution. Changing culture meaningfully means approaching folks from the standpoint of ‘these harmful ideas you are perpetuating need to go,’” Kimberly Foster, the founder and editor in chief of For Harriet, told The Times. “But the people themselves can be recovered.”

Other people don’t dismiss the idea that cancel culture exhibits illiberal tendencies, but maintain that liberal critics betray their professed commitments when they fail to grapple with the relationship between freedom of expression and economic security. One response to the Harper’s letter organized by journalists of color, for example, began by noting that the call for a “free exchange of information and ideas” was published “in the pages of a prominent magazine that’s infamous for being anti-union, not paying its interns, and firing editors over editorial disagreements with the publisher.” (Here is where I mention that I worked at Harper’s as an unpaid intern in the summer of 2017.)

So if, as Eric Levitz writes in New York magazine, the liberalism that keeps getting mentioned is to be a universalist project, rather than a class one, “then it must ask what material conditions are necessary for empowering all people to fully and freely participate in the debates that shape their lives.”

Spencer Bokat-Lindell is a staff editor in the Opinion section, The New York Times.