Chilling marginalized speech: An open letter against Harper’s ‘open debate’
“To learn who rules over you,” a famous figure once said, “simply find out who you are not allowed to criticize.”
Impassioned “pro-free speech” conservatives claim the quote comes from François-Marie Voltaire. But they’re off by a little over 200 years. The phrase actually originates from a 1993 essay by white supremacist Kevin Alfred Strom, who proudly declared the Jewish people are those exempt from criticism. It’s a classic fascist sleight of hand: claim victimhood, project supremacy onto the marginalized, and fool liberals into thinking your voice is being silenced. And it works. Two decades later when Berkeley called off former alt-right darling Milo Yiannopoulos’ speaking gig after student protests, liberals bemoaned the backlash as sacrificing free speech.
Today, Harper’s Magazine published a letter declaring full-throated support for this “free speech” claim. The letter, titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” argues critics of institutional racism, transphobia, homophobia, xenophobia, whorephobia, and more operate under “moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.” The open letter and its signers imply left-wing activists are equally as bad as the far-right because we do not tolerate beliefs that enable and encourage violence against us. Our demands for basic respect are repackaged as “dogma” and “coercion.” In so many words, the letter suggests we are no better than the architects of the Holocaust.
“[T]he result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal,” the letter concludes. “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.”
During the height of the Civil Rights movement, Herbert Marcuse argued that “tolerance,” as a sociocultural political value, is used by the state to demand oppressed groups recognize and respect bigots’ bigotry. This is because those controlling institutional power ultimately decide which political viewpoints are tolerated and which are suppressed. They demand tolerance for the state’s beliefs, and when you cross the line and say something that challenges the state’s legitimacy, violence is used to silence you. Meanwhile, fascistic speech is tolerated when its values overlap with the state.
“[T]olerance is an end in itself only when it is truly universal, practiced by the rulers as well as by the ruled, by the lords as well as by the peasants, by the sheriffs as well as by their victims. And such universal tolerance is possible only when no real or alleged enemy requires in the national interest the education and training of people in military violence and destruction,” Marcuse writes in his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance.” “As long as these conditions do not prevail, the conditions of tolerance are ‘loaded’: they are determined and defined by the institutionalized inequality […] tolerance is de facto limited on the dual ground of legalized violence or suppression (police, armed forces, guards of all sorts) and of the privileged position held by the predominant interests and their ‘connections.’”
Harper’s letter argues that it’s the marginalized who run the institutions. We fire editors for “controversial pieces,” withdraw books for “alleged inauthenticity,” and bar journalists from “writing on certain topics.” But this is just another sleight of hand. There are no specific examples the letter points to, because if it did, we would see how the letter’s demands for tolerance are “loaded.” Letter signer Jesse Singal has faced repeated public backlash for his deeply transphobic reporting on gender dysphoria, which, as a cis man, he does not understand. Another supporter, Gloria Steinem, is notorious for her whorephobia: she calls full-service sex work “commercialized rape” and has repeatedly expressed support for the Nordic model over decriminalization, despite its tendency to increase violence toward sex workers. These two lovely writers are joined by none other than Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who was criticized just this week for her shockingly transmisogynistic Twitter presence.
These are not just a few bad apples. Rowling, Steinem, and Singal share signatures with The Stranger’s Katie Herzog, an equally transphobic writer notorious for peddling moral panic over “detransitioners.” New York Times’ polarizing Bari Weiss joins the list, somewhat unsurprisingly; in her book How to Fight Anti-Semitism, she claims the intersectional left has reversed American power dynamics so that the most marginalized have the most power. Alongside them are Bush speechwriter David Frum, who coined the phrase “axis of evil” to motivate popular support for America’s still-ongoing imperialist presence in the Middle East, and author Jeffrey Eugenides, whose Middlesex has since gained scorn from intersex critics for being “a very politically right-wing reactionary novel brilliantly disguised as a left-wing revolutionary one.”
If Marcuse was alive today, he would have a field day with Harper’s letter. Each of the writers who signed the open letter have a significant amount of power in the editorial, publishing, literary, or critical theory world, and to go up against them as a trans writer, a writer of color, and/or a sex working journalist is to put a target on your back that could cost you opportunities, connections, and even your career. You really can’t claim your point-of-view is oppressed if you score an open letter in fucking Harper’s Magazine. This one is on Medium, Noam Chomsky.
What these writers are doing isn’t broadening free speech, but narrowing it. In his book Antifa: The Anti-Fascist Handbook, Mark Bray demystifies militant anti-fascism’s history and reveals that antifa is one of the biggest advocates of free speech. Antifa members, many of which have anarchist or anti-state leanings, literally use their bodies to protect marginalized activists from fascist violence. Their physical resistance to the far-right assures migrants, sex workers, Black Lives Matter activists, queer folks, and others are given the chance to speak out against their oppressors. Meanwhile, antifa’s liberal critics are quick to stifle free speech for the most oppressed in society, who demand radical change (such as police abolition) through direct action that threatens the status quo.
It’s no coincidence that these liberals go to bat for tolerating white supremacists and fascists. Echoing Marcuse, Bray writes “liberal criteria for limiting speech are heavily steeped in the pervasive logic of capital, militarism, nationalism, colonialism, and the institutional racism of the criminal ‘justice’ system, as well as the immigration system.” Because the U.S. government does not feel threatened by fascists shouting “white power,” this trickles down to the liberal elite, who perceive fascism as merely an opinion that can be bested in a hearty round of debate. This is exactly what fascists want: fascists lie, change policies, and manipulate popular support to gain political power. Debating a fascist is essentially debating a charismatic con man. If you let him talk to you, he’ll always get what he wants out of you. The only solution is to shut him up and kick him out.
“Rather than buying into the liberal notion that all political ‘opinions’ are equal, anti-fascists unabashedly attack the legitimacy of fascism and institutions that support it,” Bray writes. “From an anti-fascist perspective, the question is not about establishing a neutral line beyond which right-wing politics cannot cross, but about entirely transforming society by tearing down oppression in all its forms.”
The open letter published in Harper’s does not respect the needs of marginalized readers. It does not respect the fraught careers of marginalized writers. It sides with “free speech” arguments made by the far-right. It is backed by a series of people best known for their whorephobia, racism, transphobia, and misogyny. And it is a scare tactic intended to silence trans women, sex workers, and readers of color who are merely asking for a modicum of respect, consideration, and sensitivity from the leaders in their fields.
I, and the undersigned, reject Harper’s letter and believe its free speech argument enables the far-right at marginalized voices’ expense. We demand its removal from the site and refuse to purchase or support those who have signed it.
To sign, click here. You can also navigate to “See responses” below.