Harper’s Magazine Letter Cancels Cancel Culture

150 authors and academics, including J.K. Rowling, sign the open letter

It is a truth universally acknowledged that an open letter in a bougie, semi-irrelevant magazine that still exclusively offers unpaid internships must be a little tone-deaf. But the 150 writers and thinkers who signed today’s letter in Harper’s Magazine decrying cancel culture are further from the mark than most. Signers include author Margaret Atwood, linguist Noam Chomsky, journalist Malcolm Gladwell, and infamous New York Times opinions columnists David Brooks and Bari Weiss.


“Our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial,” the Harper’s letter begins. “Powerful protests for racial and social justice are leading to overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, not least in higher education, journalism, philanthropy, and the arts. But this needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second.”

The letter highlights recent leaders ousted amidst a crisis and editors fired after running controversial pieces as evidence of the nationwide “restriction of debate.” Instead of simply criticizing bad ideas, the signers argue, we must call for exposure, argument, and persuasion–but most readers on Twitter felt that the treatise is really a series of complaints from many wealthy, powerful and established voices who probably don’t really need to worry about getting cancelled.

“I, too, have written an open letter,” tweeted Desus and Mero writer Josh Gondelman, “Nobody is allowed to be mad at me for things I say.”

“Over 200 people, many of them writers, signed the Harper’s letter, yet no one seemed to call out excessive use of passive voice or lack of specific examples,” said the New York Times’ Jamal Jordan in a tweet.

“If you’re a big enough writer where you can have Harper’s ask you to sign the world’s dumbest letter, your free speech isn’t in danger of being stifled,” said another tweet from @Passionweiss.

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling signed, and given the last few weeks she’s had on social media, many critics of the letter can’t help but see it as a vehicle for defending her perceived transphobia.

Here’s the first tweet in a hilarious thread from The Midnight Society, which usually satirizes horror authors:

“[I] wonder if some of the academics who signed that weird [H]arper’s letter are embarrassed now that they know it was mainly a vehicle for a billionaire children’s book author to whine about being criticized for promoting transphobia on twitter,” said twitter user @kept_simple.

“[A] lot of people are confused about the intent of the hH]arper’s letter so [I] made some helpful edits to clarify many of the signee’s positions,” said another tweet, which added “about trans people” throughout the statement.

As of this writing, two signatories to the letter have already apologized on Twitter. Author Jennifer Finney Boylan wrote: “I did not know who else signed the letter.”

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Katie Smith

Katie Smith is a Philadelphia-based writer. Find her on Instagram @saddy_yankee for cat pics.

3 thoughts on “Harper’s Magazine Letter Cancels Cancel Culture

  • July 8, 2020 at 6:14 am

    Obviously the purveyors of the problem that is being labelled as “cancel culture” will be just as intolerant of this very reasoned, and correct, critique of their perceived entitlement to ad hominem at will as they are of every other example of people who simply don’t agree with them. I’m fine in the company of Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood, Steven Pinker, Katha Pollit, etc., you know, adults, scholars, some of the most accomplished people around (including JK Rowling), and therefore am not terribly concerned about the likes of the childlike opinion expressed here mandating adherence to the narcissistic notion that if you don’r like someone else’s opinion, it and they are bad. And then there is the experience of Matthew Yglesias, who was unfortunately more vulnerable to the ruthless ad hominem expressed by people like you than many of these legendary writers and thinkers; you can’t tolerate a legitimate and necessary debate about ideas, but you’re fine with destroying people. Please also familiarize yourself with the first amendment; it’s not just for people who agree with you. You should be half as accomplished as anyone who signed the letter, but you’re not on that road.

  • July 8, 2020 at 7:16 am

    Wow, my critique of this ridiculous attack on the very real and damaging (individually and culturally) phenomenon of ad hominem, now know as “cancel culture,” was immediately cancelled by the Boston Globe! So I’ll reconstruct and repost as necessary. Here is an example of a child, compared with the combined experience of all the scholars, writers, and activists that signed this well-reasoned and very important letter on First Amendment issues and their cultural implications, knowing better than their combined hundreds of years of experience these very accomplished individuals represent ! So appropriate to the subject. I’ll take the company of Chomsky, Steinem, Katha Pollit, JK Rowling, Steven Pinker, Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, etc., any day over the personal opinion of the child demonstrating the problem. Do familiarize yourself with the first amendment, dear; it wasn’t just written for you. This letter is an excellent example of the adults in the room very articulately and reasonably presenting the argument that not everyone has to agree with you – perhaps difficult for millenials to understand. Moreover, we all have the right to express our opinions; you are not the sole beneficiary of all of the work it took to create an open forum of ideas, which in fact, you now seek to destroy. If your ideas have merit, you shouldn’t fear data and resort to attacking the source; this is 101 in any debate. It is only people that lack a legitimate basis for their positions that have anything to be concerned about, and that you do.

  • July 8, 2020 at 8:03 pm

    I am not an academic, but I have read—and admire— several of the works by those who have signed the missive currently flying under the banner of : “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”. I’m an attorney and avid reader of American history, African American history, African American literature, and possessed with an auto-didactic interest in American literary criticism.
    In this current moment of justifiable protest against excessive police force; the belated recognition of the injurious systemic racism; and a president seemingly craving for a revival of the Confederacy , I find myself too often—and uncomfortably— frowning and shaking my head in disagreement with some of the steps taken and the Increasingly tinge of intolerance articulated by some in addressing these matters by those whose position I otherwise support, welcome and encourage; the instances and examples to which I refer are too numerous to recount in the space allowed here, but here’s a summary—which I acknowledge lacks a nuance analysis: (1) Labeling one a “racist” who disagrees with an argument or position taken by a Black; (2) Acts of vandalism in removing statutes and other public memorials; (3) categorically rejecting considerations of police reforms and practices , and instead calling for “Defunding the Police”—this listing could go on.
    Although the “Letter on Justice…” did not cite to any specific examples of the concerns with “censoriousness”, or “…a vogue for public shaming and ostracism…” any half-attentive observer of the contemporary public discourse in any of our cultural venues surely know of which they speak.
    The threads that bind our democracy are fragile , and what a pity that this delicate fabric risk rupture by those seeking—albeit in good faith—to remedy its imperfections. I salute the signatories to this letter; I regret that I lack the standing among the literati to have been contacted for my signature.
    Carl L. Williams
    A Harper’s Subscriber


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