Diverse Distinguished Intellectuals Defend Free Speech

(p. A1) The killing of George Floyd has brought an intense moment of racial reckoning in the United States. As protests spread across the country, they have been accompanied by open letters calling for — and promising — change at white-dominated institutions across the arts and academia.

But on Tuesday, a different type of letter appeared online. Titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” and signed by 153 prominent artists and intellectuals, it began with an acknowledgment of “powerful protests for racial and social justice” before pivoting to a warning against an “intolerant climate” engulfing the culture.

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

“We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other,” it continues. “As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.”

The letter, . . . was published by Harper’s Magazine and will also appear in several leading international publications, . . .

. . .

(p. A19) The debate over diversity, free expression and the limits of acceptable opinion is a long-burning one. But the letter, which was spearheaded by the writer Thomas Chatterton Williams, began taking shape about a month ago, as part of a long-running conversation about these issues with a small group of writers including the historian David Greenberg, the writer Mark Lilla and the journalists Robert Worth and George Packer.

. . .

“We’re not just a bunch of old white guys sitting around writing this letter,” Mr. Williams, who is African-American, said. “It includes plenty of Black thinkers, Muslim thinkers, Jewish thinkers, people who are trans and gay, old and young, right wing and left wing.”

. . .

But Mr. Betts, the director of the Million Books Project, a new effort aimed at getting book collections to more than 1,000 prisons, was unfazed by the variety of signers.

“I’m rolling with people I wouldn’t normally be in a room with,” he said. “But you need to concede that what’s in the letter is worthy of some thought.”

. . .

“You can criticize what people say, you can argue about platforms,” Mr. Betts said. “But it seems like some of the excesses of the moment are leading people to be silenced in a new way.”

. . .

Mr. Williams said he was trying to think through how outrage over Mr. Floyd’s death had become so intertwined with calls for change “at organizations that don’t have much to do with the situation George Floyd found himself in.”

But to him, he said, the cause of the letter is clear: “It’s a defense of people being able to speak and think freely without fear of punishment or retribution, of the right to disagree and not fear for your employment.”

For the full story, see:

Jennifer Schuessler and Elizabeth A. Harris. “In a Letter, Artists and Scholars Warn of an ‘Intolerant Climate’.” The New York Times (Wednesday, July 8, 2020): A1 & A19.

(Note: ellipses added.)

(Note: the online version of the story has the date July 7, 2020, and has the title “Artists and Writers Warn of an ‘Intolerant Climate.’ Reaction Is Swift.”)

The open letter discussed above, is:

“A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” Harper’s Magazine (posted online on July 7, 2020; forthcoming in print in Oct. 2020).

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