An open letter published by Harper’s magazine, and signed by dozens of prominent writers and public figures, has focused attention on the apparent dangers of what has been termed a new “cancel culture.”
The letter brings together an unlikely alliance of genuine leftists, such as Noam Chomsky and Matt Karp, centrists such as J. K. Rowling and Ian Buruma, and neoconservatives such as David Frum and Bari Weiss, all speaking out in defense of free speech.
Although the letter doesn’t explicitly use the term “cancel culture,” it is clearly what is meant in the complaint about a “stifling” cultural climate that is imposing “ideological conformity” and weakening “norms of open debate and toleration of differences.”
It is easy to agree with the letter’s generalized argument for tolerance and free and fair debate. But the reality is that many of those who signed are utter hypocrites, who have shown precisely zero commitment to free speech, either in their words or in their deeds.
Further, the intent of many them in signing the letter is the very reverse of their professed goal: they want to stifle free speech, not protect it.
To understand what is really going on with this letter, we first need to scrutinize the motives, rather than the substance, of the letter.