Writer John Banville among signatories of letter criticising ‘cancel culture’

Open letter signed by 150 intellectuals denounces ‘restriction of debate’

John Banville: among those who signed the open letter. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

John Banville: among those who signed the open letter. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

Irish writer John Banville and author JK Rowling are among a number of literary and academic figures to pen an open letter stating that the free exchange of information and ideas is “daily becoming more constricted”.

The letter, which appears on Harper’s magazine’s website and is due to be published in the letters section of its October issue, says it is now “all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought”.

The letter has been signed by 150 authors, academics and journalists including Canadian poet and novelist Margaret Atwood, British novelist Salman Rushdie, British novelist and screenwriter Martin Amis and American linguist and philosopher Noam Chomsky.

The letter begins by stating that “our cultural institutions are facing a moment of trial”.

“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,” it says.

“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 favour of ideological conformity. As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second.”

The letter goes on to say that 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,” it adds.

‘Counter-speech’

“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.

“More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.

“Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organisations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes.”

The signatories say “this stifling atmosphere” will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time.

“The restriction of debate, whether by a repressive government or an intolerant society, invariably hurts those who lack power and makes everyone less capable of democratic participation.

“The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other.

“As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. 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.”

Rowling was recently criticised for her views on transgender issues. She has previously voiced her support for a researcher who was sacked after tweeting that people cannot change their biological sex.