Harper’s Letter on Cancel Culture Has Caused a Fierce Debate

Harper's Letter Signatories

Getty Clockwise, from top left: Margaret Atwood, Bill T. Jones, Noam Chomsky, J.K. Rowling, Salman Rushdie.

An open letter on cancel culture set to be published in Harper’s Magazine has divided celebrities and activists and sparked a debate on social media. The letter, which was posted online by the outlet on July 7 and is set to appear in the magazine’s October issue, is titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” The letter calls for an end to cancel culture and “expresses concern over the illiberal trend intensified by our national reckoning,” according to the magazine.

The statement has been signed by 150 people including activist Noam Chomsky and authors Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie and J.K. Rowling. However, some who have signed are now asking for their names to be removed.

The project was spearheaded by writer Thomas Chatterton Williams, who said the cause of the letter is 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.” He said the letter includes a broad group of diverse thinkers:

It includes plenty of Black thinkers, Muslim thinkers, Jewish thinkers, people who are trans and gay, old and young, right wing and left wing. We believe these are values that are widespread and shared, and we wanted the list to reflect that.


Some Have Said They Were Proud to Sign & Support the Message of the Dangers of Cancel Culture

Many of those who signed the letter took to Twitter to share the importance of the letter and its message. Political scientist Yascha Mounk wrote: “Proud to sign this important open letter.” Nicholas Lemann, a writer at The New Yorker and a former dean of Columbia Journalism School, told The New York Times why he believes the letter is so important: “What concerns me is a sense that a lot of people out there seem to think open argument over everything is an unhealthy thing. I’ve spent my whole life having vigorous arguments with people I disagree with, and don’t want to think we are moving out of this world.”

J.K. Rowling tweeted, “I was very proud to sign this letter in defence of a foundational principle of a liberal society: open debate and freedom of thought and speech.” Rowling’s inclusion on the list has generated a lot of criticism, as the Harry Potter writer has been under fire recently over her beliefs on transgender rights.


Some Have Spoken Out About Signatories of the Letter & Asked for Their Names to Be Removed

Others have said they do not support signing it or have asked for their names to be removed, not over the content of the letter but over some of the other signatories. Jennifer Finney Boylan said, “I did not know who else had signed that letter. 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.”

In response to the tweet, Malcolm Gladwell wrote: “I signed the Harpers letter because there were lots of people who also signed the Harpers letter whose views I disagreed with. I thought that was the point of the Harpers letter.”

According to the Guardian, one of the original signatories, historian and professor Kerri K. Greenidge, said she did not endorse the letter and didn’t actually sign it. Harper’s spokesperson Giulia Melucci told the outlet that Greenidge’s name was removed, but pointed out that the magazine had fact-checked all signatures and Greenidge had signed off on it.

Emily VanDerWerff, critic at Vox, shared a letter she sent to her editors protesting Vox writer Matthew Yglesias signing the letter. She said: “Matt’s opinions and experiences are his own, and he can do what he wants with his free time. But his signature being on the letter makes me feel less safe at Vox and believe slightly less in [its] stated goals of building a more diverse and more thoughtful workplace.”

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