In Response to "A Letter on Justice and Open Debate"

File:Censored rubber stamp.svg - Wikimedia Commons

Edit: I was prompted to write this essay by a family conversation, and the focus of it reflects that discussion. However there are many, many problems with the Harper’s letter that I did not attempt to address. For a more complete view, please read this rebuttal published in The Atlantic, which goes much further into the real issues of censorship faced by marginalized groups, the role of privilege in freedom of expression, and related concerns.

https://www.theatlantic.com/culture/archive/2020/07/harpers-letter-free-speech/614080/


When I first read the now-infamous “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” published recently in Harper’s Magazine I viewed it with some cynicism and disappointment but then moved on to other things. However, prompted by a family debate on the topic, I have now re-read the letter with a more judicious eye, although also with, I have to admit, no less disdain than I held previously.

Taken altogether, the grievances contained within the three paragraphs present a dramatic alarm sounded by a daunting list of thinkers, artists and cultural commentators. Who am I to question the wisdom of Salman Rushdie, Noam Chomsky, Malcolm Gladwell, Wynton Marsalis, et al? (I think I’ll leave J. K. Rowling out of my adulation for reasons that have been noted elsewhere). And yet I do question that wisdom as coming from a place very far removed from reality.

In reading the letter one gets a strong whiff of privilege overlaid with the heavy scent of eau d’academia. It’s not exactly the clean breath of freedom we are smelling here. Stripping away the various justifications and equivocations that fill out the bulk of the three paragraphs, the main thrust of the letter come down to these two arguments:

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

and

“We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences.”

Taking the first point, I have to question its entire foundation. Is the free exchange of ideas really becoming more constricted? In what possible sense is this a true statement? I think we would all agree that there are more venues available today for the expression and dissemination of ideas from every possible point of view than have ever existed at any point in history. And those ideas range from the blandly mainstream (of which the open letter is a prime example) to extremes of sentiment that would have made Larry Flynt cringe. Today, as never before, anyone at all, with any idea at all, no matter how offensive or outré, can have their own soapbox with a willing audience.

Of course one might argue that some commercial channels of communication are starting to limit “free exchange” under pressure from consumers and advertisers. Facebook, Twitter, and even Reddit have recently implemented restrictions on the spread of certain ideas. But I have no fear that the bottom dwellers that inhabited the now-banned “r/The_Donald” Reddit thread will be unable to find a new home. Nor am I at all perturbed by the application of financial pressure to define the range of ideas which may be expressed on those platforms.

There has always been a relationship between commerce and speech in which the financial interests of commercial entities put constraints on acceptable expression. I do not love that the demands of commerce have any influence at all on freedom of expression but since it is the case, has always been the case and I expect will continue to be the case long after we are all gone, I’m entirely happy to see that influence used to promote justice rather than the reverse, as has been the inevitable rule for the past several hundred years. (See pretty much every intersection of commercial interest and disadvantaged populations since the invention of money.) But regardless of the nature of the ideas which now come under the influence of commerce it would be absurd to say that such influence represents a new constriction on the freedom of exchange.

However, despite the intellectual might wielded by the signatories, the open letter does not even attempt to make a reasonable case that “free exchange of information and ideas” is actually becoming more constrained. It merely assumes that we agree with that basic point (we do not agree) and then moves on to the bit about “dire professional consequences” for “good-faith disagreement”. This, one suspects, is the real concern. Not so much that ideas might be constrained, but that there could be professional consequences for championing the “wrong” ideas.

Here we may find more agreement on the surface. Much has been written over the past few years about the power of mindless, liberal Twitter mobs enforcing conformity to some narrow definition of acceptable thought, with catastrophic consequences for their victims. In this Orwellian view we are only one small step away from establishing reeducation camps for these perpetrators of thoughtcrime against the liberal orthodoxy. And even worse, the open letter links the supposed mob with a Trumpian disregard for truth and freedom, surely the most damning insult they could have come up with.

But, really? On examining that idea under a bit more daylight it does not stand. The ability of social media to “afflict the comfortable” first reached prominence in 2017 with the #MeToo movement - that point in our progress as a society when women finally found a voice which had been denied to them for centuries. A voice with which they were finally able to call out the bad behavior of powerful men regardless of political views. And the consequences for those men were indeed “dire” - as they should have been.

We can debate whether the acts of Al Franken can be compared to those of Harvey Weinstein, or whether punishments were meted equitably in all cases, but there is no good faith argument to be made that somehow Twitter gave women too much power over these poor, defenseless men - that the mob came for them and delivered them to the guillotine unshriven. Of course conservative commentators tried to make that case, railing against “shrieking, hysterical, leftist Twitter harpies” and the like. Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson were incensed. (Why do these people always reach for the worst, most misogynistic, least defensible sexist tropes for their screeds? It’s always “shrews” and “harpies” and “hysteria” with them. Their mothers must be so proud).

But in truth all that had happened was that the balance of power was made a bit more level. And not entirely so by any possible stretch. Despite the imaginings of a few limp, conservative talking heads, no one really believes that men now cower in fear of reprisal from the #MeToo mob. A small number of prominent abusers were taken down but men as a group did not suddenly relinquish their droit du seigneur, their assumed right to treat women, and women’s bodies, as the just deserts of power. That is a battle still to be fought, and which will be fought for many years to come. However, the #MeToo movement did inaugurate the idea of the Twitter mob as an inescapable force for cultural orthodoxy - an idea which conservative commentators have since promoted for their own ends.

Which brings us to the concerns of the open letter, that the liberal social media mob has moved on from taking down sexual predators and is now policing wrongthink among the intelligentsia, with “dire professional consequences” for those who step outside the lines. And there have indeed been recent instances in which people have been fired or forced to resign simply for the ideas that they have made public. Which, in the modern academic concept of intellectual freedom, is “chilling” or “stifling” or “intolerant of” difference and debate.

But as with the rest of the open letter, that concept is presented as an assumed truth. People have been fired for expressing ideas, therefore censorship is happening. Censorship is inherently bad so we must speak out against it. That’s a chain of conclusions which is easy to agree with when looked at uncritically but let’s examine it a bit more closely. Under the lens of reason we find the truth is not that ideas are being censored more than they were in the past, or that the consequences of unorthodoxy are more dire than was once the case.

Here we have to ask; when in history has it ever been acceptable to express ideas that are a certain distance from the mean? Within my lifetime it would have been a firing offense (and possibly a criminal one) at any university, public office, or private enterprise to express support for homosexuality, same-sex marriage, transgender rights, or any of a long list of ideas which are now central to the liberal canon. The first women’s studies program in the United States was not created until 1970. I’ll let that date sink in a bit. We made it to the moon - “one giant leap for mankind” - before we took one tiny step towards creating a dedicated place within the halls of higher education for studying the experiences, voices, and ideas of women.

My point is not to say that censorship is good or acceptable, but that ideas and culture are not separable. It has always been the case that we examine ideas within the context of our cultural norms. It has always been the case that those norms will shift over time. And it has always been the case that certain ideas will fall outside the scope of what we deem to be acceptable debate and into the abyss of anathema - with accompanying consequences. Any concept of intellectual exchange which does not acknowledge these truths is at best naive (the signers of the open letter, disappointingly) if not actively disingenuous (the conservative rabble, predictably).

But what of the “good faith disagreement” provision of the open letter? Cannot the case be made that for the sake of intellectual freedom any argument, any idea, however far from acceptable norms, must be granted audience without consequence if it is presented “in good faith”? Jonathan Swift certainly used that concept to good effect in his “Modest Proposal”, although one suspects that he may have been taking the mick rather than attempting to widen the envelope of acceptable debate.

It’s a reasonable question though, and demands consideration. How do we determine whether an idea is expressed in good faith? And have innocent contributors to the intellectual conversation been unfairly punished? We could explore the idea intellectually, examining the nature of debate, the search for truth, whether there can be such a thing as truth, or whether, if it does exist, it can be expressed in language, and on into an endless exercise in navel-gazing. Or we can just look at some real examples, with the assumption that, as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously, and relevantly, asserted about pornography vis a vis art, we will “know it when we see it”.

First up, we will consider the case of Blake Neff. Poor Blake was recently forced to resign from his job as the head writer for Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News when his personal contributions to the cultural body of thought were exposed to the bloody fangs of the Twitter wolves. What, one wonders, could this man possibly have said that would be unacceptable to that particular employer, of all people? What would justify his loss of place and livelihood? I won’t repeat his arguments in full here. They are available via a simple Google search if one wants to read them in their original form but, fair warning, they are likely to offend even the most ardent defenders of intellectual freedom.

However, even without diving neck deep into Blake’s cesspool, I think we can all agree that contributions which use the word “congo” as a general adjective describing Black people (that’s a mild example - the full language is much worse) or which liken Native Americans to “university-'educated' pets” of “white libs” do not rise to the level of “good faith disagreement”. No, Blake is a worm and he got what he deserved. I would hope that he might be reduced to cleaning the latrines in a particularly foul public restroom for the next few years in consequence but I have no real expectations that he will suffer that, or any equivalent, fate. These creatures take care of their own and I have no doubt that he will find some place with a conservative media outlet, with just an admonishment to keep his head down next time. One America News Network is hiring.

Blake Neff’s downfall is an extreme example of the chickens coming home to roost but he is by no means an outlier in the conservative milieu. Until he was exposed he was the primary architect of the messaging coming from a man who is possibly the most prominent conservative voice today. Blake Neff is the mainstream of conservative thought. But anyone who has been paying attention for the past decade will not be surprised at this revelation. The conservative tent has long been the refuge of small and bitter people. May it wither and dry up, and take its twisted ideology to the grave along with its adherents. They have nothing at all to offer in good faith, and looking for such from them is a fool’s errand.

But let’s look at another example. One which may appear at first to be more difficult to justify than the case of Blakey-Blake, the spineless wonder. Let us instead consider our servant, Stephen Hsu, formerly a VP of Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University until he was forced to resign by a petition signed by several hundred students and faculty, both from MSU and from other institutions. What sins could this man have committed to justify such a Job-like fate? Why has he suffered the persecutions of Cancel Culture?

He would (and does) say that he merely promoted valid scientific research into the role of race in the genetic determination of intelligence, and defended a study which claimed to show that there is no racial bias in the police shooting statistics, among other offenses. As he puts it in the defense that he posted on his blog (https://infoproc.blogspot.com/) the ideas that he shared are not his research. He just gave them advocacy. He asserts that “racist inferences based on the results are the fault of the reader, not the authors of the papers or of this blog.”

However in looking at some of the ideas that he promotes one finds that the racist inferences are rather inescapable, wherever the fault for them may lie. For one example, from a paper on genetic selection that he quotes here (https://infoproc.blogspot.com/2018/10/the-truth-shall-make-you-free.html):

“We found evidence that directional selection, impacting many SNPs jointly, has shaped the evolution of >50 human traits over the past 1,000-50,000 years, sometimes in different directions among different groups. These include many blood-related traits including blood pressure, platelet volume, both red and white blood cell count and e.g. monocyte counts; educational attainment; age at menarche; and physical traits including skin colour, body mass index and (particularly in South Asian populations) height. Our approach enables simultaneous testing of recent selection, ancient natural selection, and changes in the strength of selection on a trait through time, and is applicable across a wide range of organisms.”

(Emphasis mine). One might be forgiven, seeing these historically racist tropes linking skin color with sexuality and intelligence, for thinking that this paper represents something other than a good faith effort at scientific research. And yet simply because some ideas have a deeply racist history they might not be automatically disqualified from future consideration. We do, indeed, need room to follow the research wherever it leads. However the nature of human bias being what it is, even (perhaps especially) in the field of scientific research, it is incumbent on any researcher to recognize such bias both historically and in their own efforts, to reflect it in any conclusions, and to be sensitive to the ways in which that research may be interpreted and misused. Hsu’s uncritical presentation of the research as merely the result of “important lines of investigation” betrays his own biases.

Even so, a few such instances might be accepted as mere human error. We are allowed to make mistakes. We are allowed to have biases. We are allowed to consider ideas which lie beyond the mainstream. And we should not suffer professional consequences for these human failings and explorations. So why did the mob come for Hsu? Was it, as he asserts and as the signers of the open letter might agree, a case of liberal “moral panic”? Well, no as it turns out. Hsu is not the innocent victim of the liberal thought police. Examining his blog in more detail one might be struck by the way in which it demonstrates his fascination with the idea of race as a genetically determining factor for achievement, and with the use of data and science to justify racial biases. One might even begin to think that, very far from being a pure exploration of science, his real goal is to promote a racist agenda, despite all of his protestations to the contrary.

But so what if Hsu is a closet racist who attempts to disguise his bigotry with science? That’s not exactly a rare circumstance in this country. And while such thinking may be offensive to liberals, mere offence is not justification for punishment. Here we need to look at his position as “VP of Research and Graduate Studies”. That’s an administrative role with a place in guiding the scientific and academic priorities of the institution. And thus we arrive at the nature of the complaint from the students and faculty of MSU.

Stephen Hsu is not merely a tenured professor spouting a few crackpot racist ideas. He was a man, as the petition states, “privileged with the power and responsibility of recruiting and funding scholars, overseeing ethical conduct, [and] coordinating graduate study.” In other words, he had the power to influence the nature of the research conducted at MSU, and by association the reputation of the institution as a whole. Given that position, one might better understand the concerns of David Lowry, Assistant Professor in the Department of Plant Biology or Jyotsna G. Singh, Professor of English, along with some several hundred of their peers and students. These are people whose reputations are inherently linked to the reputation of their university. They are not merely an unthinking mob.

So yes, we would like to ensure that a wide degree of academic freedom is allowed to persist in our institutions. And yes we would like to ensure that ideas are not banned or stifled simply because they do not hew to some narrow, liberal idea of social justice. But surely we can ask that the people responsible for guiding that process make a good faith effort to ensure that they are not actively promoting a racist agenda? I do not think that is an unreasonable requirement. That is all the petitioners for Stephen Hsu’s resignation demanded and it is all they were given.

Which brings me to the final point regarding Professor Hsu. In response to the petition he was merely forced to resign from his administrative role. He was not forced to give up tenure. He has not lost his livelihood or his place in the academic body. His blog still stands. He has not been silenced in any way. His ideas, as offensive as they may be, are still being freely exchanged. The mob came, the mob achieved its ends, but no censorship occured. And despite the imaginings of conservatives and supposed defenders of free thought, I do not see any evidence here that Hsu was forced to pass a liberal purity test as a requirement for tenure. Certainly he was able to achieve that place and he has not lost it.

In good faith I will acknowledge that these are but two examples among many, that there may be other cases in which innocent people actually have been harmed by the forces of illiberal censorship, and that social media has enabled a greater level of pressure from groups upon individuals than was possible before the invention of Twitter. But the open letter does not address any of these points. And in not doing so it falls very, very far short of the level of intellectual honesty and rigor that we should expect from the signatories. That, ultimately, is my complaint and my disappointment.

These are some of our best minds. Censorship, the free exchange of ideas, and the power of social media to influence our culture, our beliefs and our ideals, are critically important topics that demand real exploration and consideration. How did this group of people sign onto such a bland bowl of porridge as this letter? There is no real attempt at critical thought contained within those three paragraphs. It is barely one step better than a Facebook chain message. It might have well started with “how many of you will copy and paste this post”? And for Harper’s to give it place is beyond understanding. Together the authors, the signers and the magazine have turned themselves into shills for a conservative hobbyhorse. They should be ashamed at their failure to do better than this.