My, there certainly have been some people with things to say about holding a meaningful conversation. I’ve read the open letter to Harper’s, and I’ve read at least some of the criticism, most saliently the response posted to The Objective. Frankly, I see little to object to in the words of the Harper’s letter. The nut sentence for me:
The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.
I am not particularly persuaded by the The Objective‘s response. Much space is given to quibbles about some of the examples cited. The responders write,
Under the guise of free speech and free exchange of ideas, the letter appears to be asking for unrestricted freedom to espouse their points of view free from consequence or criticism.
I don’t read a request for “unrestricted freedom to espouse” at all.
However, context is crucial. The Harper’s signatories, at least the names that I recognize, do make up a list of prestigious and powerful (insofar as any intellectual can be called powerful, these days) persons. And there are some people on the list with whom I rarely agree, others whose writing is rather superficial, and still others who have uttered some awful things.
A more nuanced, persuasive response comes from Gabrielle Bellot in Literary Hub: “Freedom Means Can Rather Than Should: What the Harper’s Open Letter Gets Wrong.” She writes:
The problem, then, is that the letter… fails to consider the experiences of others, the experience of what it is like to see your very identity coldly dissected and suspected in the name of free speech.
* * *
I want to believe in a world where, if someone doesn’t understand what it means to be an identity different from their own, they can at least open up a conversation with someone who has this different identity, and, if that person feels inclined to share their experience, they can help show that uncertain person a bit of what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.
But it’s difficult to hold these dispassionate discussions in a world where I feel scared when I see a police officer, and, when I say why, I am asked to “prove” that systemic racism exists, or where I am asked to “prove” that I have a right to use the women’s restroom.
Her nut graf:
…I became accustomed to such thinkpieces, which never seemed to truly grapple with what it must feel like to be transgender—pieces that failed, like simplistic novels, to put oneself in the shoes of someone wholly different. Ironically, I loved debates, but calmly discussing my very right to exist felt icy and isolating. The philosopher Thomas Nagel famously asked in a 1974 essay entitled “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” that very question, trying to put himself into an ontological, experiential position deeply dissimilar to his own. I found myself wishing that some of these anti-trans screeds, which were often defended as simply people “asking questions,” would take the time to truly imagine what it might be like to be someone so different from themselves, rather than treating people like me as clinical subjects to be unempathetically, dehumanizingly dissected in the name of free speech.
When I first read the Harper’s letter, I had recently seen Conor Friedersdorf’s “The Perils of ‘With Us or Against Us’,” which has attracted relatively little attention even though it hits the mark more cleanly.
… in the stifling, anti-intellectual cultural climate of 2020, where solidarity is preferred to dissent, I hear echoes of a familiar Manichaean logic: Choose a side. You are either an anti-racist or an ally of white supremacy. Are you with us or against us? (emphasis in the original)
In my younger days, this idea was often expressed as some version of “if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.” And when I was young, I subscribed to that idea, but I’ve let my subscription lapse. There are just too many problems to go around: climate change looming like a melting iceberg, the crushing loss of habitat and species diversity, the nuclear doomsday clock (it’s at 23:58:20), shameful human rights violations by our allies and our rivals, excruciating tropical diseases—all of this on top of galloping economic inequality and the string of issues connected to it, not least among them the disenfranchisement of 700,000 Americans. It’s too much. I can’t expect you to drop everything to work on everything that I know is important; how can you expect me to do so for you?
You have to pick your battles. Today, I worked in the park: I rebuilt a protective cage around an oak sapling, and I sowed seeds. Tomorrow will be another project.
I’ll close with Friedersdorf’s closing:
Absolutely, Black lives matter, which is part of why everyone should encourage constructive dissent, even when it seems frustratingly out of touch with the trauma and emotion of the moment. Identifying changes that will achieve equality is hard. Avoiding unintended consequences is harder. Without a healthy deliberative process, avoidable catastrophes are more likely.