Twitter Explained | The Harper’s Letter Tries to Cancel ‘Cancel Culture’

July, 10 2020

Even those who aren’t avid Twitter users have heard of cancel culture, often defined by those who decry it as the practice of retracting support for individuals who have said or done something deemed objectionable or offensive. In more mild cases, this sort of boycott ends up being no more than a slap on the wrist for whatever social mores were broken (like in the case of Jimmy Kimmel and Tina Fey whose histories with blackface were exposed last month). At its most extreme, however, cancel culture can end careers and ruin reputations (as we’ve seen recently with Harry Potter author JK Rowling). 

Earlier this week, Harper’s Magazine published an open letter criticizing what it called the “forces of illiberalism” that are “gaining strength throughout the world.” Signed by over 150 prominent authors, journalists, academics and thinkers, this letter condemned President Donald Trump for his role in perpetuating the harmful state of affairs while also denouncing the “cancel culture” that has developed on the left. 

The letter, titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” but colloquially referred to as the Harper’s Letter opened a pandora’s box of cancel culture conversation and controversy. 

Many tweeters immediately criticized the letter as the complaints of white privileged individuals against the ever-increasing consequences of their unpopular Twitter opinions.

This rings especially true for JK Rowling, who has received almost relentless pushback against her comments about trans women. 

Rowling’s signature, as well as her vocal support for the letter, could have been the impetus for claims that the Harper’s Letter promotes anti-trans opinions and rhetoric

Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez indirectly criticized the signatories, saying that their notability protects them from the “cancel culture” they’re opposing in the letter.

Other critics pointed out the naïveness in expecting nuanced understanding in social media conversations. A thread by Slate writer Lili Loofbourow lamented the loss of “productive dissensus,” but also opined that the Harper’s Letter signatories’ expectations of intellectual conversation in our current “discourse environment” are “maladaptive.”

And some tweeters simply called out the letter for being tone-deaf to the current political moment.

But supporters of the letter quickly went on the defensive. Yascha Mounk, a contributing editor at The Atlantic, noted that a closer look at the signatory list disproves the claim that the letter merely amplifies the concerns of white privileged individuals.

Other defenders explained that those who wrote and signed the letter weren’t trying to protect themselves as critics claimed, but standing up for victims of cancel culture who don’t have the same amplified platform. 

And finally, some tweeters applauded the letter as what they saw as a much-needed call out of the radical left.

The dizzying whirlwind of reactions left signatories scrambling. 

Some of the prominent writers immediately rescinded their support for the letter, claiming that they did not fully understand its message or the diverse array of authors and thinkers whose names appeared in support.

Others defended their decision to sign the letter, noting their pride in supporting a defense of free speech and acceptance of diverse opinions.

As the specifics of the letter and its signatories recede, what’s left is a boiled down conversation about cancel culture: Does it exist? If so, what is it? Who does it hurt? Who is to blame?

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