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Harper’s debate on debate

Harper’s debate on debate

Harper’s debate on debate
July 25
11:00 2020

In our bizarro timeline that has been highlighted by a summer of a global societal shutdown, raging sickness, economic stagnation and social upheaval, keeping a sense of hopefulness seems to be as necessary as it is detrimental. Hopefulness can get you through a day of catastrophic news or the dread of finding a new job, but that comforting spirit can wane once we get what we want. Hope aspires to something, and once that something finally comes within reach, hope runs the risk of morphing into something uglier. And when hope snowballs into idealism in the face of undeniable strife, then it can become a selfish and even harmful refutation of reality.

With that in mind, hope of the highest caliber ran amok at Harper’s magazine this month, where “A Letter on Open Justice and Debate” was published and signed by 153 renowned creatives and academics. The succinct letter calls out “intolerance of opposing views [and] a vogue for public shaming and ostracism” among progressive thinkers, and ultimately suggests that in the wake of an invigorated wave of social activism that we must not let nuance go by the wayside. While its overarching goals may seem innocuous for the most part, the letter has largely drawn ire from people who see the assertion as downplaying the real-world severity of the issues underlying this global upheaval. The letter’s biggest critics might also point out that it is signed by some “canceled” powerhouses as well, such as novelists J.K. Rowling and Margaret Atwood.

To me, the biggest issue with this letter is that it is not all incorrect. This summer’s flashpoint of activism did not occur in a vacuum but rather was preceded by years of mounting tension in a culture struggling to reconcile its troubled past with its desired future. The letter rails against the “cancel culture” that permeates progressive activism, criticizing it as a system that admonishes social faux pas with little desire to actually change the people it punishes. And while I do think that being put into the humiliating digital pillory of cancellation can indeed scare people straight, it would be irresponsible to not recognize that this continuous channeling of outrage can sometimes devastate beyond its intended effect. Though cancel culture ultimately aims to argue against dangerous ideas, it often runs into the problem of essentializing nuanced phenomena, boiling down dense cultural conversations to morally unambiguous platitudes.

But despite cancel culture’s shortcomings, the fact of the matter is that its primary goal is to hold people accountable when they facilitate the spread of harmful ideas. When people focus on the unruly outcome of a cancellation, it is often with little regard to what harm a bad idea can do in practice. A keen example can be seen in the comedian Ricky Gervais (though he is not on the Harper’s list), a vocal critic of cancel culture who delights in offending the largest number of people possible, mostly for the simple reason of showing that he can. Notably, Gervais came under fire for making transphobic jokes, then doubling down in a subsequent comedy special where he mocked activists who criticized him. Despite the clearly strong message fiascos like this send about the value of unfettered free speech, they are still morally reprehensible because they actively punch down at the tragedy that informs them.

Though Harper’s letter certainly does not strike with the same boorish tone, it does talk down with idealism as painful as Gervais’ punches. Though the letter’s various signees do indeed represent a diverse set of creatives, it is important to remember that they are also existing in a space where they can afford the headspace for nuance. When people in the eyes and ears of the public make room for potentially harmful ideas in the name of “open debate,” they often forget that it is not only taken in by the likes of cultural critics. When we hold discussions of hate in perpetuity for the sake of having a debate at all, we in practice continue to legitimize it for those marginalized people who are most vulnerable. Though this idea of a colorblind arena of ideas does have an appealing cosmopolitan ring, it is really only appealing to those who have had little to lose from existing a certain way.

In considering this cosmopolitan ideal, I am always taken back to a highlight of the cultural luminary James Baldwin. In his famous 1968 interview with Dick Cavett, he sits across a white philosophy professor who lectures him on how a focus on racial differences is a barrier to deeper human connection, putting the onus of outward connection on Baldwin, a gay black man in the 60s. In his multifaceted retort, Baldwin made one point that resonates profoundly today:

“It is very hard to sit at a typewriter and concentrate on that if you are afraid of the world around you.”

I am certainly not James Baldwin, and neither are any of the multitudes of people who seek accountability as toxic ideology becomes all the more commonplace. But despite the detrimental outliers that cancel culture can produce, there is still a palpable fear that motivates many of its cases that cannot be ignored. There are conversations to be had, but if any progress is to be made, then they cannot be helmed by those who seem incapable of engaging with the dire circumstances of our age.

Featured Illustration: Miranda Thomas

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Vincenzo Favarato

Vincenzo Favarato

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