Why I signed the Harper’s cancel culture letter

The unhinged responses to it proved our point perfectly.

Wendy Kaminer
columnist

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‘I rest my case’, I’m tempted to say, reviewing the unhinged responses of cancel-culture fans intent on cancelling the judicious defence of free speech in our ‘Letter on Justice and Open Debate’, published by Harper’s this week. I signed emphatically, which makes me one of ‘the worst people in the world of public intellectualism’, according to In These Times. What’s so bad about defending ‘the free exchange of information and ideas’ and critiquing ‘intolerance for opposing views’ and ‘a vogue for public shaming and ostracism’? In doing so we were not really defending the right to debate and criticise, according to In These Times: we were trying to squelch debate and censor our own critics, exhibiting a ‘bizarre aversion to being argued against … [that] now borders on the pathological’.

This is what citizens of cancel culture have apparently learned from Donald Trump: confound your critics by accusing them of precisely the sins you’re busy committing. Social-justice warriors have long demanded protection from the ‘trauma’ of hearing speech they deem offensive, calling for suppression of the speech and shunning of the speaker. So, employing Trumpian tactics, they accuse free-speech advocates of the censoriousness and psychic fragility that’s the raison d’être of their movement.

I hesitate to condemn this as a bad-faith argument, however perverse, because I suspect that it’s often offered sincerely. For years now, progressive censors have characterised free speech as a zero-sum game, claiming that when presumptively privileged people speak, they silence the presumptively oppressed. Civil libertarians hold the contrary (historically vindicated) view that free speech is essential to social change. Or as our letter opined: ‘The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.’ This should be blindingly obvious in the wake of massive Black Lives Matter protests. Still, for some progressives, it is an article of faith that the defence of free speech is simply another form of censorship.

You can’t employ logic against faith, which is why censors are right about this: our battles over free speech, like our battles over abortion rights, are power struggles, not debates. They’re shaped by fundamentally conflicting values. ‘I support free speech, but…’ is no longer the mantra of people who aim to censor allegedly hateful speech. Now they openly deride free speech and its ‘privileged’ defenders, as attacks on the ‘Justice and Open Debate’ letter show. It’s ‘fatuous, self-important drivel’, one critic sneers.

Given the power of cancel culture, it’s not surprising that at least two signatories, historian Kerri K Greenidge and Jennifer Finney Boylan, have now disavowed the letter. There is apparently some dispute over whether Greenidge ever endorsed it, but Finney Boylan acknowledged doing so and apologised for her error, rather pathetically. She signed it partly in the belief that she’d be in the ‘good company’ of ‘Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood’. She took it back upon finding herself in what many consider bad company. (The much-maligned JK Rowling is a signatory.) In other words, after apparently seeking virtue by association, Finney Boylan found herself saddled with associational guilt.

I saw only a partial list of signatories when I agreed to sign and didn’t pay it much attention. I focused on the text, not the names endorsing it. I’m not responsible for their views (which I don’t always share), and they’re not responsible for mine. The refusal to endorse a statement you support and consider important because it will be endorsed by people with whom you sometimes differ reflects the intolerance for debate that the letter addresses.

I disagree with many of spiked’s writers, for example, and they, no doubt, disagree often with me, but in my view that’s what makes spiked interesting. I have no desire to speak only with or to people who applaud me.

Nor have I ever found disagreement or offensive speech traumatising. And I’ve been called worse than ‘one of the worst people in the world of public intellectualism’. A former colleague on the American Civil Liberties Union national board once called me a ‘fucked-out boozy bitch’, suggesting that I ‘fuck off and die’ for criticising the organisation’s leadership. He also championed a civility code for the board aimed at squelching dissent.

‘Free speech for me but not for thee’, he might have said, echoing the late, great Nat Hentoff’s sardonic characterisation of popular approaches to speech, left and right. Rest our case? An unflinching civil libertarian, Hentoff knew that the defence of free speech never rests.

Wendy Kaminer is an author, a lawyer and a former national board member of the American Civil Liberties Union.

Picture by: Getty.

Let’s cancel cancel culture

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Comments

dom torato

13th July 2020 at 7:27 am

I am pleased to see that this letter was signed by people from all sides of the political and philosophical spectrum HERE► Read More

dom torato

13th July 2020 at 7:19 am

Maybe this will be a public awakening to the Cancel-the-Cancel movement. HERE► Read More

Richard Steph

12th July 2020 at 5:01 pm

I am pleased to see that this letter was signed by people from all sides of the political and philosophical spectrum – I don’t care what the author thinks about Trump, or what she does in the course of her work – free speech should be fully supported by people from all sides and perspectives. The key problem with cancel culture is that free speech is NOT supported by an intolerant, arrogant group who are gaining political traction using suppression of speech as its prime tool.
I’m surprised only 154 people signed, and disappointed that there are not 10,000 or 1,000,000 signers.
Maybe this will be a public awakening to the Cancel-the-Cancel movement.

dom torato

12th July 2020 at 7:36 am

I think the salient paragraph in Wendy Kaminer’s article is the one beginning, HERE► Read More

Owen Morgan

11th July 2020 at 1:18 pm

Stop pretending you have any “moderators.” Your site is an absolute disaster.

Owen Morgan

11th July 2020 at 1:13 pm

I think the salient paragraph in Wendy Kaminer’s article is the one beginning,

“I saw only a partial list of signatories when I agreed to sign and didn’t pay it much attention. I focused on the text, not the names endorsing it.”

I have a subtle feeling that, beyond a shared defence of free speech, she and I wouldn’t agree on, well, anything much, really, but that’s her point. We have the right to agree on things and the right, if we choose, to disagree on everything, too.

David Starkey is in the process of being “cancelled,” for a comment he made recently, conspicuously disavowed by his invertebrate interviewer. People can whinge about Professor Starkey’s characteristically provocative vocabulary, but does anyone think that’s really what the argument is about? Like J K Rowling, he expressed an opinion which is not only widely held, but blindingly obvious (slavery is not genocide, any more than malaria is tuberculosis – pointing that out is not to endorse either slavery, or genocide). More to the point, he is a man of the Right and those of the Left scented blood. Now, not only has Cambridge University severed its associations with David Starkey, but his publisher has done so, too. Harper Collins has declared that it will publish nothing more by Starkey and has piously promised to comb through Starkey’s earlier publications, in the hopes of finding pretexts for pulping those, too.

So, a couple of words uttered in 2020 can invalidate a lifetime of writing. Why anyone with an original thought would approach Harper Collins for publication now defeats me.

Jack Sprat

11th July 2020 at 4:34 pm

Owen you have it wrong, some slavery events WERE genocide eg in E Africa devastated by the Tippu Tip/Arabian E going slave trade until Britain stopped it in the 1870s and the practice of slave gelding eg in China to keep. Hi a ethnic Chinese.

Dodgy Geezer

11th July 2020 at 12:07 pm

I notice considerable similarities with the rise of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party in the 1920s and 1930s. ‘Cancel Culture’ and street violence were common techniques then.

It would be instructive for any historian who is at the end of his career and in no danger of being sacked to examine the period for any examples of protests about the importance of free speech at that time. And what happened to those who called for it….

Jim Lawrie

11th July 2020 at 3:03 pm

Other similarities;
The decision of the German Authorities, immediately after WWI and The Spanish Flu, to allow in all comers for fear of a labour shortage in the “coming boom”.
The constant resort to the courts and the extension of their authority
The politicisation of The Police and their withdrawal from their role as guarantors of law and order.

Carlo Weeks

11th July 2020 at 9:26 am

Free speech has been on life support for decades and is now in the final stage of decay. With the UN/WHO and a small elite controlling the media it’s increasingly hard to have any reasonable debate, even when the facts are staring us in the face:
We are not able to challenge the overreaction to this “virus” despite Chris Whitty saying:
· Most of the people who get it won’t display symptoms.
· Most of the people who display symptoms will only be mildly sick.
· Most of the people with severe symptoms will never be critically ill.
· And most of the people who get critically ill will survive.
No mainstream media pick up on this point and ask for an explanation for the draconian measures being forced upon us. Challenging the “new normal” is not permitted.

Dodgy Geezer

11th July 2020 at 5:09 am

As the article points out, all this argument about free speech is completely pointless. The left won’t listen to logic – they just want power, and are trying this because they can’t get it through the ballot box.

Much like the Leader of Germany argued for ‘rectification of frontiers’ during the 1930s. He didn’t just want to correct historical anomalies – he wanted complete control…

Steele Rudd

11th July 2020 at 7:40 am

You may be too kind to the chatterati Left in saying they just want power.

While that’s undoubtedly true of many of the noisier ones, it seems the average spear-carrier Bolshie may often be seeking little more than another look-at-me, (anti)social network ego trip.

Dodgy Geezer

11th July 2020 at 10:27 am

Indeed. There were an awful lot of blind followers in the NSDAP as well. They also thought that they were simply showing their patriotic credentials off. And they kept very quiet once the mass killing started…

Cathy Archer

11th July 2020 at 4:32 am

I’ve never heard of the lady who wrote this mediocre piece and I doubt I ever will again. Trump is a free-speech champion and the most misquoted man of the 21st century. The author doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

Ven Oods

11th July 2020 at 12:08 pm

The point being, I thought, that the author of the piece doesn’t mind you disagreeing with her and welcomes the debate, so I’m not sure (other than the Trump reference) why you’d be so upset.
If, indeed, Trump is the most misquoted person, it’s unlikely to harm him at the election, so why worry? He communicates in his own style, and it appears to work…

Jonathan Palmer

11th July 2020 at 12:14 am

I read the thing and agreed that I would gladly support JK Rowling, yours and the others signatories’ rights to free speech but felt it was apposite to point out that JK had never defended the rights to free speech of those “cancelled” as a consequence but with whom she disagreed.
If that and my objecting to criticising Trump on this issue when he appears to support free speech and hasn’t cancelled anyone makes me unhinged, so be it.

Owen Morgan

10th July 2020 at 8:58 pm

OK. You’ve had your chance. Financially supporting your site, for quite a few months, doesn’t earn my comments an automatic right to be displayed, but I think I’m entitled to know why they aren’t being displayed, beyond the fact that a semi-literate drop-out from South Watford Theatrical College is your moderator. I’ve supported Spiked for probably a few years, twenty quid a month, but that has just ended. You can’t pretend to be all about free speech and then keep perfectly valid comments off-air.

Morons. I still respect Brendan O’Neill. Stuff the rest of you.

RICK SANDOVAL

10th July 2020 at 8:58 pm

Other than saying, “Get ’em outta here,” at rallies, I’m not sure how Trump suppresses free speech. I know of no one fired from their job for donating or supporting Joe Biden. And I love my skull so I wouldn’t wear a MAGA hat but those who do risk their lives.
The First Amendment is unequivocal and so depriving those who write a letter or give a donation or make a point, perhaps about the Black unemployment rate under Trump of making a living is by dint of its results, real aggression. Those of us who perhaps don’t agree with smashing people in the head with a skateboard to make a point are using money to make our point. We have no choice. We donate because we don’t want to be killed, injured or fired, and the fact that so called progressives have allowed and promoted this atmosphere speaks for itself.

Owen Morgan

10th July 2020 at 8:02 pm

Call me cynical, but why is my comment still “awaiting moderation,” fifty minutes after I left it? Is there somebody at Spiked who missed that bit in school where they explained the concept of irony?

Tim Wheeler

10th July 2020 at 7:41 pm

I may be a complete nobody, but I’d sign a letter to defend free-speech and thought even if I was the ONLY person on it.

David Margison

11th July 2020 at 12:40 am

Your right, it’s up to us all as ondividuals to fight for and uphold these freedoms.

Dodgy Geezer

11th July 2020 at 10:29 am

Very shortly you may well be….

Owen Morgan

10th July 2020 at 7:08 pm

I think the salient paragraph in Wendy Kaminer’s article is the one beginning,

“I saw only a partial list of signatories when I agreed to sign and didn’t pay it much attention. I focused on the text, not the names endorsing it.”

I have a subtle feeling that, beyond a shared defence of free speech, she and I wouldn’t agree on, well, anything much, really, but that’s her point. We have the right to agree on things and the right, if we choose, to disagree on everything, too.

David Starkey is in the process of being “cancelled,” for a comment he made recently, conspicuously disavowed by his invertebrate interviewer. People can whinge about Professor Starkey’s characteristically provocative vocabulary, but does anyone think that’s really what the argument is about? Like J K Rowling, he expressed an opinion which is not only widely held, but blindingly obvious (slavery is not genocide, any more than malaria is tuberculosis – pointing that out is not to endorse either slavery, or genocide). More to the point, he is a man of the Right and those of the Left scented blood. Now, not only has Cambridge University severed its associations with David Starkey, but his publisher has done so, too. Harper Collins has declared that it will publish nothing more by Starkey and has piously promised to comb through Starkey’s earlier publications, in the hopes of finding pretexts for pulping those, too.

So, a couple of words uttered in 2020 can invalidate a lifetime of writing. Why anyone with an original thought would approach Harper Collins for publication now defeats me.

Jerry Owen

10th July 2020 at 7:02 pm

In what way does Trump try and interfere with free speech?
Kaminer needs help for her obsession with Trump.
Spiked could do better than this incredibly poor writer..the worst at Spiked.

John Lewis

10th July 2020 at 6:42 pm

As Homer Simpson says “it’s funny because it’s happening to someone else”.

The moment it might apply to Wendy and her like-thinkers REEEEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!’

(Oh and a couple of “Trumps” thrown in as usual).

Jerry Owen

10th July 2020 at 7:02 pm

God… She’s tedious isn’t she!

Geoff Cox

10th July 2020 at 6:36 pm

“This is what citizens of cancel culture have apparently learned from Donald Trump: confound your critics by accusing them of precisely the sins you’re busy committing.”

Well Wendy, if as you say Trump started this, then why are you and all your fellow leftie travellers still allowed to have a public platform where the likes of Stephan Molyneux, Katie Hopkins et al have all been cancelled? Also, Wendy, if Trump and his supporters are all for cancelling people why have they not been critical of the letter? Open your eyes – your precious left is not what you or Noam Chomsky think it is.

Jim Lawrie

10th July 2020 at 6:13 pm

You signed it because you are retired on a public sector pension and therefore economically insulated.

Andrew Levens

10th July 2020 at 5:23 pm

Good on the Harper letter signatories for speaking out anyway. Social media mob intimidation does serious harm. I read of a pub that was nearly put out of business because it served (i think it was) foie gras. I like foie gras. It’s not illegal. If people want to stop others eating it, they should campaign to make it illegal. the use of mob tactics to subvert our legal processes weakens the coherence of society. the more people see that the mob does in fact rule, the more people will turn to those tactics instead of the rule of law.

nick hunt

10th July 2020 at 4:21 pm

(Last try to beat the absurd moderator)
The ACLU stands accused of being one of the foremost promoters of the radical left agenda (see the Hill, “ACLU proves yet again its a guardian of left-wing movement”). It’s impossible to imagine this activist group ever defending the conservative or Trump-supporting victims of cancel culture, BLM and Anti-Fa violence, or big tech censorship. Wendy has loyally reflected this agenda here at Sp-ked; I’ve never seen her write a positive word about Trump or populism in her many articles. So I’m pleased to see she finally appears to be defending a more moderate, critical stance. Good luck with that!

Barry O’Barmy

10th July 2020 at 5:43 pm

Ironic, isn’t it? Censorship of comments on an article abut censorship!! Hard to make up…..Clearly, some words are the trigger for “moderation”.

nick hunt

10th July 2020 at 4:17 pm

The ACLU stands accused of being one of the foremost promoters of the extreme left agenda (see the HIll, “ACLU proves yet again its a guardian of left-wing movement”). It’s impossible to imagine this activist group ever defending the conservative or Trump-supporting victims of cancel culture, BLM and Anti-Fa violence, or big tech censorship. Wendy Kaminer has loyally reflected the ACLU’s agenda very well here at Spiked: I’ve never seen her write a positive word about Trump or populism in her many articles. So I’m pleased to see she’s no longer on the ACLU and finally appears to be defending a more moderate, critical stance. Good luck with that!

nick hunt

10th July 2020 at 4:15 pm

The ACLU stands accused of being one of the foremost promoters of the extreme left agenda (https://thehill.com/blogs/pundits-blog/civil-rights/347375-aclu-proves-yet-again-its-a-guardian-of-left-wing-movement). It’s impossible to imagine it ever defending the conservative or Trump-supporting victims of cancel culture, BLM and Anti-Fa violence, or big tech censorship. Wendy Kaminer has loyally reflected the ACLU’s agenda very well here at Spiked: I’ve never seen her write a positive word about Trump or populism in all her many articles. So I’m pleased to see she’s no longer on the ACLU and appears to be promoting a more moderate, critical stance. Good luck with that!

Puddy Cat

10th July 2020 at 3:54 pm

Defamation and slander are already in the eye of the courts and can be codified to the satisfaction the CPS. But the criminalising of hurting someone’s feelings or having what you announce as racist is, as the BBC is about to prove in the realms of using the wrong personal pronoun. Soon we would be in a situation where an address of any sort of prose would be like the Master (denoting superior or in control of rather than sex?)of Ceremonies declaring “My Lords, ladies and gentlemen” and adding all the exceptions that may or may not be before them.

When the prosecutor is everyone and the art of conniving, a fault out of innocence becomes a vogue, then we are done for. Unless in acts of extreme partisanship or ingratiation little or nothing much could be said. Novels would have to gender neutral and writers expected to write about a love and world view that they themselves have no knowledge of, again, a minefield with room for reaction.

The government has deferred to the streets and we know the streets are fickle and the mass manipulable. When William Pitt was Prime Minister and compelled to move among the mob, one moment he was due a lynching and the next smothered with affection. Wellington, one minute walking on water and the next on glass (as the mob bombarded his home in their dudgeon).

Cannot the world see the difference between practised and carefully cultivated abuse and the outfall of a chance remark? Are the vilified whites better off not moving in Black Society for the sake of chance of being mis-attributed? What would be the advantage to any minority diaspora if they suffered such isolation or natural caution made for mannered association, code words, legitimised references and the abandonment of any sort of history other than the parochial?

The situation is ages old and Erasmus stated, “Am I not a Turk and a brother”, later taken-up by Wedgwood and the Lunar Society of Birmingham. Erasmus also said, “It is the chiefest point of happiness that a man is willing to be what he is”, a thing that does not need the compliance of everyone around in this individual exposition. I don’t know if I like all those of all races. Some may be murderers, child exploiters and miserable shits. But there is no race or creed disfiguring those that you like and gravitate towards out of natural affection in shared conception and argument.

Gareth Roberts

10th July 2020 at 3:12 pm

“A former colleague on the American Civil Liberties Union national board once called me a ‘fucked-out boozy bitch’, suggesting that I ‘fuck off and die’ for criticising the organisation’s leadership. He also championed a civility code ….”
I am becoming more and more convinced that the Woke ideology was developed by Monty Python, not the Hard Left.

James Knight

10th July 2020 at 2:07 pm

I see one signatory has already been cancelled.

Gordon Te Gopher

10th July 2020 at 1:55 pm

Weirdly, while I also don’t like cancel culture, I don’t really care if Kerri K Greenidge or Jennifer Finney Boylan or JK Rowling get ‘cancelled’.

Who on earth are they anyway? I’ve never heard of the first two and the other one writes books for kids. Is it really such a great loss if we don’t hear their opinions about important issues? There’s 7 billion people in the world and in my lifetime I probably won’t hear the opinions of 99.99% of them. What makes JK Rowling’s opinions any more legitimate just because she’s sold a few kids books?

Maybe let’s stop worrying as much about cancel culture and find ways to turn up the volume for the 99.99% of opinions we’ll probably never hear.

nick hunt

10th July 2020 at 4:25 pm

‘Cancel culture’ is a new name for the decades-old phenomenon of silencing all voices critical of leftist dogma and policy, the voices you say you’d like to amplify

Gordon Te Gopher

10th July 2020 at 5:21 pm

We don’t know what the 99.99% think do we? In fact it’s more than likely they think across the whole spectrum and probably most of them broadly agree with each other somewhere in the middle.

But that’s too boring for media types and isn’t going to get clicks for advertisers.

So we end up with the polarised opinions of attention seeking nutters and celebrities.

Graham Southern

10th July 2020 at 1:43 pm

Little by little Wendy started to wake up and see the horrifying mess we’ve been slipping into for decades.
She still hates Donald Trump though… they couldn’t have lied about him – could they?

James Knight

10th July 2020 at 2:11 pm

Trump seems to think that Iraqi oil literally belongs to the US. There is no need to lie.

nick hunt

10th July 2020 at 4:31 pm

Did the hordes of Trump critics need to lie about him enjoying peeing prostitutes in Moscow, being Putin’s puppet, a warmonger, a racist who hates Mexicans, Hitler, and a white supremacist? Did you complain anbout them then, or now now? Do you need to lie about Trump too?

RICK SANDOVAL

10th July 2020 at 9:03 pm

James, as we say in court, “Objection. Calls for thought process.” His call for not letting terrorists get the oil and instead paying off the US war deficit with it were clearly rhetorical. But you’re correct, he did say that. What he thinks is only in his mind. I know, however, that the hatred of the orange man has so overwhelmed some people I know that they’ve pulled down their COVID masks to yell their opinions at me, which is really quite amusing.

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