“Harry Potter” writer J.K Rowling, “Handmaid’s Tale” author Margaret Atwood and “Midnight’s Children” writer Salman Rushdie are amongst 150 public figures to have signed a letter condemning the practice of public shaming, or ‘cancel culture’ as it is known popularly.
‘Cancel culture’ is a term used to describe individuals who have shared an unpopular opinion or have past behavior that’s deemed offensive, who are ‘canceled’ on social media. Rowling is one such example, due to her views on the trans community.
Atwood received considerable backlash in late 2016 after supporting an open letter calling on Canada’s University of British Columbia to provide its reasons for suspending and firing novelist and instructor Steven Galloway after sexual assault allegations emerged. Meanwhile, Rushdie’s 1988 novel “The Satanic Verses” has also drawn criticism over the years for its depiction of Islamic beliefs.
Other signatories of the letter include authors Martin Amis and Jeffrey Eugenides, public intellectuals Malcolm Gladwell and Noam Chomsky, jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, psychologist Steven Pinker, feminist Gloria Steinem, chess grandmaster Gary Kasparov and CNN and Washington Post journalist Fareed Zakaria.
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The letter, published Tuesday in Harper’s Magazine, states: “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: 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 uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”
“Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal,” the letter argues. “We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.”
“We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us,” the letter concludes.
The letter has provoked a deluge of online responses. Author and transgender activist Jennifer Finney Boylan, who signed the letter, recanted her position within hours. “I did not know who else had signed that letter,” Boylan tweeted. “I thought I was endorsing a well-meaning, if vague, message against Internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, Steinem and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company. The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.”
Similarly, historian Kerri K. Greenidge, an original signatory, was removed from the list after she tweeted that she does “not endorse” the Harpers letter, and had contacted the publication about a retraction.
Surgeon and scientist David Gorski tweeted: “I read the letter. It’s the same old whiny BS about ‘cancel culture’ from privileged people with large audiences complaining about facing criticism and consequences for their speech. I am unimpressed.”
Meanwhile, John Boyne, author of “The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas,” tweeted: “I agree with this letter completely. Self-appointed witch-finders hounding people for perceived moral slip-ups while trashing reputations, destroying careers, shouting down women & pursuing cancel culture is the opposite of free speech & reasoned debate.”