More than 150 world renowned academics, writers and artists signed a letter published on Tuesday expressing support for global anti-racism protests while lamenting an “intolerant climate that has set in on all sides”.
American linguist and activist Noam Chomsky, veteran women’s rights campaigner Gloria Steinem, authors JK Rowling and Salman Rushdie, and journalist Fareed Zakaria were among the signatories.
The letter on “justice and open debate” was published by Harper’s Magazine and will appear in many leading global publications.
It supported ongoing demonstrations against police brutality and racial inequality that have spread from the United States across the world, following outrage over the death of an unarmed Black man, George Floyd, after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes while detaining him in Minneapolis on May 25.
However, the letter also said that the sentiments unleashed have hardened a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments to the detriment of open debate, and allowed ideological conformity to erode tolerance of differences.
“As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second”, the letter said, adding that resistance should not be allowed to “harden” into a brand of “dogma or coercion”.
It states: “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.
“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.”
Free exchange of information and ideas are becoming more constricted on a daily basis, the letter warned https://bit.ly/2O25f1J.
As well as Harry Potter creator Rowling and The Handmaid’s Tale author Atwood and intellectual Garry Kasparov put their name to the statement .
Rowling has attracted stern criticism recently for her comments on biological sex, though she strongly denies being transphobic.
And Atwood, a two-time winner of the Booker Prize, has placed herself on the opposite side of the debate, telling fans to “Rejoice in Nature’s infinite variety!”
The letter in Harper’s Magazine criticised the current state of public debate and the “swift and severe retribution” dealt out to any perceived wrongs.
It said: “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.
“More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.”
It adds: “Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal.
“We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.”
It said that censoriousness was spreading widely across the culture through public shaming, a tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a “blinding moral certainty” and an intolerance of opposing views.
“The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other”, the letter added.