In Social Justice Land, we recognize a truism: Everything is about power. This often helps us point out the systems and structures operating behind the scenes of otherwise everyday bad behavior. It can also lead us to miss the point, as is the case with “The Letter” and a lot of the discourse that followed.
I teased that I’d write about this letter in my intro to this blog. Today’s the day.
As a first test drive of this new blog, here’s what I’m going to try to do:
First, I’ll catch you up on all the hullabaloo. Then I’ll sum up the most popular take I’ve been seeing from social justice people (or shared in the name of social justice). I’ll explain why I think we’re missing the point. Then share what I think the point should be. This will, I suspect, be the go-to format for posts here.
If that’s the kind of ride you’re here for, buckle up. This is going to be bumpy.
What’s the TL;DR version of “The Letter” discourse?
A bunch of fancy people (from J.K. Rowling to Noam Chomsky to Garry Kasparov) signed an open letter in Harper’s. It was called “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” and has been widely discussed as being about Cancel Culture.
Though I’ll point out that the authors, led by Thomas Chatterton Williams, were careful not to actually use that phrase. Probably because they realized how empty it’s become of utility.
You’ll notice this if you read it yourself. And you probably should read it yourself if you want an informed perspective (it’s short!), because you’ll notice a lot of other things: for one, a lot of the criticisms of what the letter is about are criticizing passages that don’t exist.
Two camps quickly formed in response to the letter: people in favor of it, and social justice people.
Our Critiques Were About Who Wrote it, How Powerful They Are, and How Much They Haven’t Been Canceled
Most of the popular takes against the letter from the social justice community weren’t really about the letter itself, so much as they were about the names listed below it. All while arguing that Cancel Culture wasn’t really a thing.
“Fancy people” is my glib phrase to sum up the group of 150+ authors, academics, activists, and journalists who co-signed. Other people have used different shorthands.
For example, many denounced the letter by way of identifying the writers as privileged and white and men.
With Chatterton Williams (who is Black) spearheading the thing, and lots (most?) of signers who aren’t men and aren’t white, this take is basically White-Washing/erasure, but in the name of social justice. Not a good look. It’s moments like this that inspired my essay “Sockpuppets and the Vox Populi of Identity."
Thankfully, willfully ignoring all the minoritized voices supporting the letter to attack it’s whiteness and maleness it wasn’t the only response.
A lot of people attacked the signees not for who they are, but for what they’ve done, said, believed, or written about in the past.
A counter-letter was written and signed onto, where about 2/3 of the words were longer versions of that tweet. The other 1/3 questioned whether the examples of “canceled” people cited in the original letter were really canceled at all.
Then there was the platform argument, which is basically “these people all have massive platforms and they’re complaining about being canceled.” Jessica Valenti wrote a well-argued version of that take.
Here’s a quote from that piece that sums it up well:
“The only speech these powerful people seem to care about is their own: They want to be able to say whatever they want without consequence and to paint themselves as the victims even as they wield more institutional and systemic power than anyone criticizing them.”
That might be completely true, and it misses the point. All of this does.
“I feel like I’m walking on eggshells.”
Let me take a brief pause from The Letter and Cancel Culture and internet bullshit to share a story from the good ol’ days of facilitating in-person social justice workshops.
Ask any social justice educator you know who’s been doing the work for over five years and I’d bet a million dollars they have this same story. I’ve witnessed what I’m about to describe literally hundreds of times.
During a discussion about terminology or microaggressions or something similar, a participant would sheepishly raise their hand. “This is all so much, and I’m doing my best, but I have to be honest: I feel like I’m walking on eggshells with all this stuff, and I’m terrified I’ll say the wrong thing.”
This was in the years before people we were celebrating internet campaigns to get people fired (long before Justine Sacco, for example). Before smartphone videos and searchable social media histories gave mistakes immortality.
It was just a person – not a bigot, or a “devil’s-advocate-playing straight white cis male,” they were often an older person in a workplace of young people, or a person of color in a mostly progressive white space, or a woman – trying not to cause any harm to their coworkers, worried they would, nervous about the aftermath of such a blunder.
Nervous about their role in all this. Nervous about their job.
What We’re Uniting Against
Take a moment to put yourself in the shoes of a bystander watching this fiasco play out. Here’s what it looks like:
- A bunch of smart, accomplished, and/or famous people said, “Open debate is important. We shouldn’t be mobbing people because they hold opinions we don’t like or deem harmful.”
- In response, countless people, waving the banner of social justice, said, “That’s bullshit. Cancel Culture isn’t a thing.”
- Then we proceeded to spend a week recklessly attacking the people involved with the letter, anyone who praised it, and anyone who didn’t see the problem with it. (These attacks included, non-ironically, trying to get people fired.)
So, much like how the police couldn’t help but brutalize protestors of police brutality – making the protestor’s case for them in real time, on camera – the response to this letter, by itself, was enough to justify writing it.
And we’re doing this why?
Is it because we’re actually against open debate? Because we think people should be punished for having certain political viewpoints?
That’s how this lands.
Or are those not actually our goals?
Was it really just about the signers? Many of whom are hypocrites who have attempted to cancel or punish people for their viewpoints (a fair and true criticism). Many of whom have platformed bigotry and have problematic histories and harmful political views (another bullseye). Are we just pushing back because they said it, not because it’s untrue?
That is to say that if it had been written by someone else (an approved someone else), or the authors chose to highlight different examples/victims, we would be praising and sharing this widely in Social Justice Land, not denouncing it. Many of the tweets and essays I read said as much.
This is a problem by itself. It’s not great that we’re attacking something just because of who said it. But it’s a bigger problem when it leads us to arguing against things we probably don’t benefit from uniting against – and things that might shoot us in the foot in the long run.
The second problem harkens back to power. We’re okay with mobbing these people, or “holding them accountable” (not canceling them!), regardless of how messy and painful it gets for them, because they’re powerful. And we think it’s ridiculous that they’re complaining about it, because, again, they’re powerful.
“J.K. Rowling is a billionaire. It’s ridiculous that she feels threatened by this. She’ll be fine,” is the prevailing sentiment.
Over the years, I’ve seen this dismissal applied to so many “canceled” celebrities. A feminist friend argued to me one time, upon hearing that Matt Damon regretting weighing in on #MeToo, that it’s absurd that someone with so much power is afraid of people on the internet.
So, what’s the problem?
What we’re somehow entirely missing here is that J.K. (fucking) Rowling – with all the power and money in the world – feels threatened by Cancel Culture (or the Culture of Censorious Retribution, or whatever we want to call mobbing and trying to punish people who say things we take issue with).
She does. “It’s ridiculous that –” I know, right? I totally agree. AND YET SHE DOES. And so does this entire cadre of fancy people.
The fact that they’re clearly worried about this, and united to stand “up” to this issue (notice the directionality there), is being run through the power analysis in exactly the wrong direction.
Put yourself back in the shoes of someone watching this all play out. Someone who doesn’t have the power and money of J.K. Rowling. Someone who is vulnerable, marginalized, or disenfranchised in ways Rowling never will be. Someone who lives paycheck to paycheck, has a family to support, etc.
If J.K. is worried enough about the repercussions of holding the “wrong” views or saying the “wrong” thing, how do you think they feel?
Pretty goddamn terrified.