Imagining a World Without the Harper’s Letter

A better approach to coordinated action

Musa al-Gharbi
Jul 23, 2020 · 7 min read
“Vengeance populaire après la prise de la Bastille” — Charles Paul Landon (c. 1793–1794)

On July 7th, Harper’s Magazine published “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” The collective statement was signed by more than 150 public luminaries, from prominent academics and journalists to bestselling authors.

The signatories denounced a culture of repression, fear, and reprisal which they claim has overtaken many institutions of cultural production — rendering the work of conveying important truths far more difficult and precarious than it needs to be. This, they argue, poses a grave threat to Western liberal democracy.

As a corrective, the signatories call for all citizens to rally around free expression, and to engage in good-faith debate with those they disagree with. Many friends of mine and close colleagues decided to sign this letter. Then, as now, I disagreed with them about the value of such a stunt.

I should start by saying, I’m hardly unsympathetic to what the signatories were trying to argue. While I tend to find “crisis” talk unhelpful, I do think there is a real problem, and I have been outspoken in pushing back against many of these excesses myself. Indeed, I’ve actually been canceled (i.e., let go from a position following an outrage mob) — albeit by the right.

I also get why open letters are a thing. People perceive there to be a big problem. They want to do something big in response — something larger and more impactful than anything they’re capable of individually. However, open letters are generally a terrible approach to coordinated action. Let me briefly explain why, and then sketch out a more effective alternative.

In order to avoid alienating any potential signatories, or having any particular voice dominate the statement, open letters usually end up being poorly written, sweeping, and vague.

Worse, because participation is so “cheap,” many signatories add their names without sufficiently scrutinizing the arguments or claims being made — allowing glaring problems and oversights to persist through publication. Indeed, each new respected signatory increases the sense of confidence people have in adding their own name without much thought: “if Noam Chomsky signed it…”

As a result of these tendencies, open letters rarely end up making an effective case for whatever they are championing. Consequently, they only end up resonating with people who already agree with what the letter is trying to argue — and they are easily picked apart by those who don’t.

Just as the Harper’s letter was. A lot.

This is counterproductive for convincing those who are ambivalent or skeptical-yet-persuadable — that is, those who should be the target of such a statement. A weak argument is often worse than no argument. An essay that others easily tear to shreds can make people more hostile to an idea than they were before, or cause them to take it even less seriously than they already did.

Philosopher Agnes Callard has also highlighted an ethical issue with these statements. All that the list of names at the end adds to the argument preceding it is power: Harvard professor Steven Pinker; bestselling author J. K. Rowling; 150+ signers in total. It is a brute force tactic, attempting to leverage the signatories’ institutional power, reputational clout, and sheer numbers. Of course, if one believes we should be moving away from a situation in which people are leveraging power and influence to push others towards particular judgments — instead, having arguments rise and fall on their merits — there seems to be a deep tension in trying to convince people of this via something like an open letter from a collection of high-powered people.

In fact, the careful curation of signatories provided one of the episodes most ironic revelations. Glenn Greenwald has been an early and consistent voice pushing back against many of the trends the letter warns against. As a gay leftist investigative journalist and lawyer with libertarian tendencies, Greenwald has been outspoken about the critical importance of free speech and freedom from the dictates of power. His signature could have helped bolster the credibility of the statement.

Yet he was never even asked to sign.

Not, mind you, because it didn’t occur to anyone to ask him. Instead, certain other signatories, with whom Greenwald has had longstanding disagreements, insisted that he not be invited. Invited to what? To join a document urging people to engage with those they disagree with.

Upon hearing the news, Greenwald took to social media to savage the letter as empty and hypocritical. This was a major self-own on the part of its organizers.

But more substantially, statements are meaningful when people have “skin in the game,” when they are staking their own name and reputation, speaking for and as themselves, standing behind their own words (or acknowledging error if they come to believe they have erred). In open letters, people instead make bold claims or demands while speaking as a collective. They often seem to believe this gives them protection. It does not.

In reality, many signers are attacked individually for their participation in collective statements — often on the basis of the other signers. Vox’s Matt Yglesais, for instance, was heavily criticized — including by his own colleagues — for associating himself with those deemed “problematic” and their purported “agendas” via the letter. Other signatories have not collectively rushed to his defense. Nor have those under attack attempted to neutralize the criticism by challenging the way their fellow signers were characterized.

Instead, virtually all parties defensively focused on justifying their own signature, irrespective of the other signers. Some, under attack, have called for their names to be withdrawn from the letter — explicitly appealing to the collective nature of the document to claim ignorance about what they were signing on to.

In many respects, then, collective statements represent the worst of all worlds: they are chicken-hawkish attempts at couching bold claims or gestures behind “safety in numbers,” yet they don’t actually provide meaningful protection for signatories.

Now, let’s imagine an alternate world. In this dimension, there was no Harper’s letter. Instead, the 150+ prominent voices each agreed to pen separate essays, placed in a range of outlets, all around the same time — each making the case in their own words, targeting their own audiences.

If a participant was having a hard time placing one of their essays, a colleague might give feedback or help connect them to a friendly editor. Once published, people would amplify not only their own essays, but also many from their peers — creating a steady buzz around this topic in the networks of each of the participants. Some of the essays would directly build on, or respond to, others’ works that have already gone live — contributing to the sense of forward momentum.

The likely impact of this kind of coordinated action would’ve been quite different. For one, it would’ve been a much more powerful way of signaling the importance and urgency of this particular issue. Rather than coming across as a singular gesture, it would register a wave of concern. It would also much more effectively suggest that there is energy around addressing the problem — a nascent movement cutting across the usual battle lines. This would’ve likely contributed to the same level of “earned media” coverage the Harper’s letter received, as other journalists note that suddenly everyone seems to be talking about this problem.

The message would’ve also reached a far larger number of people, and a much wider variety of audiences, than something placed in a single outlet (even one as lofty as Harper’s) could hope to reach. Seeing so many individuals stepping up and voicing concern would show others (who weren’t a part of the group organizing the initial coordinated action) that they are not alone, and would encourage them to speak out as well—likely creating a cascade out of the initial wave.

Meanwhile, each individual essay would’ve had much more personality, depth, nuance, complexity, and specificity than the banal collective statement people in our world received. As a result, each of the essays would likely be much more effective than the Harper’s letter at making the case for why people should care about this. These same features would have rendered the arguments much harder for critics to dismantle or dismiss.

It would’ve also been much harder for opponents to rely on “delegitimization by association” tactics (where critics use a “problematic” signatory to dismiss the entire argument and attack the other signers). Writers would not be put in a position where they are forced to defend a “problematic” person, or their apparent alignment with that person and their agendas. Instead, authors would only be accountable for their own reputation — and they’d be speaking in their own voice, making the case to their own audiences, with whom they have established credibility and trust. We know from empirical research that such relationships are of extraordinary value for motivating others to change their minds or take action.

Let us call the kind of campaign waged in this alternate world the “stochastic” approach: a network of coordinated and mutually-reinforcing, but largely independent, individual actions aimed at promoting a particular idea, or advancing a shared goal — and provoking others to take part in the campaign independently of any connection to the initial network.

This approach much more effectively capitalizes on research in the cognitive and behavioral sciences about how information and behaviors spread, while also sidestepping many of the pitfalls associated with collective statements.

If you want to “move the dial” on an issue, forget open letters. Go stochastic.

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