It has taken me some time to grind through the contents of “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” published by Harper’s Magazine last Tuesday, and signed by a handful of writers and academics.
Among the signatories stand out names like Margaret Atwood, Wynton Marsalis, Noam Chomsky, Taufiq Rahim and J.K. Rowling, characters as diverse as they are paradoxically similar, especially because of a silent privilege that can be breathed when scrolling down the list.
“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” reads the letter’s argument, in an attempt to warn of the risk of the phenomenon of cancel culture which, according to the signatories, “will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time.”
At first glance, the idea that there is a “restriction of debate” in today’s world seems logical and as worrying as the illustrious ones put it, but it is supported by pillars undermined by the individualistic fear of being victims of a society that, through social networks, now has the strength and will to shape the moral debate on a scale never seen before.
I remember when the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements began to take hold both in social media and in the streets, and the phenomenon of cancellation seemed not only a natural consequence, but a just and timely one, in an attempt to restore — in one way or another — the validity of moral justice.
The symbolic incarnation of everything that is wrong in society, and which is sustained in Donald Trump’s little shoes, has only fanned the organic need to feel that “justice is being served” — even if this means knocking down from the media Olympus those who express their opinions from the comfort of their privilege.
I’m talking about cases like J.K. Rowling’s claim that trans women are not women, the controversy surrounding the appropriation of Jeanine Cummins’ “American Dirt,” or even the accusations against Junot Diaz for sexual harassment.
And I only mention these cases because they are the ones that come to mind within the literary world right now. Clearly, there’s a huge stack of similar stories in that department.
The culture of cancellation — rather than the cancellation of culture — has as many edges and risks as human behavior in general, but to argue against it using “ideology” as a weapon is even disappointing coming from those who sign Harper’s letter.
The word is so prostituted in the language that few even understand that to speak of “ideology” is to assume that ideas precede facts or, as Hannah Arendt said, that the “ideological thinking proceeds with a consistency that exists nowhere in the realm of reality.”
Authors who fear being “cancelled” are anticipating their public derision based on the idea of possibility, on the fact that there is conduct that will always be reprimanded, and on the current reality that the artist is no longer separable from his work.
Worse still, they speak from the fear that their small or great privilege will be eroded by the claim of a majority tired of being overlooked.
Coincidentally, it is also laughable that they speak of “democratic inclusion” when, for there to be a true and fair debate, there must be a level playing field that remains out of reach for 99 percent of the world’s population.
It is very convenient to talk about “debate” imagining an agora of citizens perceived as equals, while contemporary literature continues to appropriate and plunder history, and while authors continue to believe that their sales numbers make them immune to accountability.
More than the search for a debate, I believe that we must restore an art lost in the democratized mediocrity of social networks: the rhetoric, the ars bene dicendi that does not fit in 140 characters, much less in a world where globalization has taught us to sell the worst ideas in the time it takes a elevator to reach the fourth floor.
But it is clear that structuring processes and resources into a coherent discourse is a skill reserved for those who know how to control impulses — from talking nonsense on Twitter to attacking women.
I think the world is not the same as when Woody Allen made “Manhattan,” Charles Bukowski wrote “Women,” or Roman Polanski revolutionized cinema with “Chinatown.” There are no longer any justifications for the perpetuation of misogyny, homophobia or racism, and to pretend that this implies an attack on freedom of speech is a pathetic way of trying to maintain a status quo that works for the white, cis, and all-too-often male 1 percent.
In short, it is time to step down from the throne, assume the consequences, and have the humility to admit one’s lack of education.
The debate begins by assuming one’s shortcomings before pointing fingers and then fleeing into victimhood.