Cancel Culture

The Reaction to the Harper's Letter on Cancel Culture Proves Why It Was Necessary

I was one of the 153 signers and am a veteran of the Twitter wars. But even I was taken aback by the swift, virulent response.


I'm not usually a fan of the saying "a hit dog will holler," which basically boils down to "if someone responds angrily to an accusation, they are probably guilty." Sometimes, when someone is unfairly attacked or wrongly accused, they respond to it with vitriol or other intense emotion—it's only natural. 

That said, sometimes the expression is useful. If you accuse someone of having an anger-management problem and they fly into a terrifying rage, well: A hit dog will holler.

I kept thinking about this expression as I watched a sizable subset of the online progressive intelligentsia respond with intense fury, disbelief, and indignation to an open letter published online yesterday by Harper's magazine. The letter, which will also appear in the magazine's October issue, was simply a stout defense of liberal values from people primarily on the left at a time it feels like these values are under threat. It made no bones of the fact that President Donald Trump and right-wing authoritarianism in Europe are both major threats to liberal society. It simply said that in addition to these threats, it's probably time to get our own house in order. "The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted," the letter reads, in part. "While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: 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. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought."

The letter was crafted with sufficient care that it attracted a large number of signatories who one might not usually associate with concerns about "cancel culture" and the like—and it also bridged certain ideological lines. Both J.K. Rowling and New York Times writer and English professor Jennifer Boylan (who is transgender and recently wrote a column critical of Rowling's views on trans issues), for example, added their names to the list, as did famous figures like Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, Steven Pinker, Salman Rushdie, and Garry Kasparov, and some less famous ones—like me.

Because the American left is basically a war zone at the moment—or online it is, at least—what happened next shouldn't surprise anyone: A group of us posted the letter and celebrated it, while another much angrier group denounced it and held it up as proof of…well, whatever it is they hate about us and want to get us fired over (this crowd likes calling the manager). Now, it shouldn't have surprised me—I have been through multiple rounds of this stuff—but I have to admit it did.

One such reaction came from Parker Molloy, a staffer at the left-leaning Media Matters, who insisted, of a letter that includes Rushdie and Kasparov, "not a single one of them have been censored anytime in recent history." In the subsequent tweetstorm, she said of the signatories:

"They want you to sit down.
They want you to shut up.
They want you to do as you're told.
By them. Specifically."

"They are totalitarians in the waiting," she wrote. "They are bad people." (Disclosure: Molloy disagrees with some of my work on gender dysphoria, particularly these two stories, and publicly called for me to be fired from my then-job at New York magazine in 2017. After I asked her to take the tweet down, because losing one's job is serious business, she agreed.)

All this in response to a letter saying people shouldn't be punished too harshly over disagreement or missteps! There's just no sane connection between the text of the letter and such a reaction. The leftist writer Freddie de Boer's take nicely clarifies the obvious: The people furious at this letter largely have genuine ideological problems with liberal norms and laws regarding free speech. "Please, think for a minute and consider: what does it say when a completely generic endorsement of free speech and open debate is in and of itself immediately diagnosed as anti-progressive, as anti-left?" he wrote. (Emphasis his.) "There is literally no specific instance discussed in that open letter, no real-world incident about which there might be specific and tangible controversy." He goes on to explain, accurately: "Of course Yelling Woke Twitter hates free speech! Of course social justice liberals would prevent expression they disagree with if they could! How could any honest person observe our political discourse for any length of time and come to any other conclusion?"

Hit dogs holler, in other words. The reason people are so mad at the pro-free-speech letter is that they aren't really in favor of free speech. Not when it comes to anyone who isn't their ally, at least. They can make up other reasons to be mad, of course; they can complain that people they view as transphobic signed it (Rowling, to take the most obvious example, though a subset of people have also lobbed that accusation at both myself and my podcast co-host, Katie Herzog, who is also a signatory), or that it's unfair Harper's published a letter about free and open speech while not paying its interns (a separate issue)—but at root, their beef is ideological.

Another example of the hit-dog-hollering principle in action yesterday: "i really wonder if some of the people who signed this thought long and hard about whose names they'd appear next to," tweeted Matt Gabriele, who teaches medieval studies and chairs the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech.

Again, the amount of stuff being revealed, right in the open, if you only care to look, is surprising: Gabriele, who holds an important, gatekeeping position at a major American university, wants people to think "long and hard" before putting their names on an unobjectionable expression of liberal values, lest someone come along and wrongly judge through the lens of some ridiculous guilt-by-association standard. The writer Oliver Traldi calls this style of discourse "rhextortion": It would be a shame if someone unfairly judged you as a result of the names on this letter rather than the content of its text itself.

One of the points of the letter is to push back against the fire-anyone-for-anything trajectory of the present moment, especially when it comes to social media posts. Gabriele, who enjoys academic tenure, doesn't have to worry about this. He can call people on Twitter names like "piece-of-shit bigot" or "asshole" without having to realistically fear repercussions, unlike those stiffs out there who have to worry that if the wrong person takes some random Facebook post the wrong way, they'll be called into their boss's office and canned on the spot. So Gabriele and his pals get free rein, while anyone who points out that maybe it's not a good idea to promote the norm of firing people over social-media blowups gets yelled at for being part of the problem, or for being an evil, bigoted reactionary—because who else could possibly want a more forgiving, liberal approach? This combination of enjoying virtually unfettered online speech while angrily lashing out at those who want to extend this benefit to as many people as possible is a good system! If you're in the in-group, at least. 

Then, finally, there's Emily VanDerWerff, a critic at large for Vox who happens to be trans. One of her colleagues, Matt Yglesias, signed the letter, and VanDerWerff didn't like the letter, so she did the only reasonable, adult thing: She sent him a quick DM asking if they could talk the matter over.

Kidding! She publicly announced that she had reported Yglesias to his editors for signing the letter. She posted a version of the note on Twitter, and in it she claims the letter was "signed by prominent anti-trans voices" and contains "many dog whistles toward anti-trans positions." "Dog whistles" used to mean something like coded, racist appeals of the sort Richard Nixon employed but has more recently, on Twitter at least, taken a definition closer to referring to an accusation I don't want to provide evidence for. That Yglesias signed a document with such signatories and dog whistles "makes me feel less safe at Vox," she wrote.

The note contains some boilerplate closing language about not wanting to get Yglesias in trouble, suggesting an interesting strategy that makes perfect sense: After all, when I don't want to get a colleague in trouble, the first thing I do is send their bosses an email about how something they have done has made me feel less safe, and the second thing I do is post that note publicly to Twitter. It's just a classic example of not wanting to get a colleague in trouble, if I ever saw one.

And so on. It was an exhausting day on Twitter. Near the end of it, Boylan, one of the signatories whose name helped show how widely concerns over the climate of free speech span, publicly apologized for having signed a document that also has the names of people with which she disagrees. "I did not know who else had signed that letter," she tweeted. "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."

I am so sorry. That sums it up nicely. There's no real problem with any of this stuff in the left-of-center universe: It's just that if anyone expresses unvarnished pro-liberal sentiments, they will be cast as a bigot trying to shut up marginalized people, and if you sign such a letter, you may be hearing from HR because your colleagues are watching you. To quote a certain internet-famous dog: This is fine.