In 2018, scores of women began to come forward with their stories of sexual assault and harassment, as part of a growing grassroots movement that came to be known as #MeToo. I was among them, disclosing publicly for the first time my experiences of harassment, and then the retaliation I faced for sharing those experiences. Subsequently, I was denied a long-promised promotion, and the leadership where I worked made clear that my career there had come to an end.
So I took a new job in a new city and began again.
I have been thinking about my decision to speak up, and its costs, in light of The Letter. You know the one: the open letter in Harper’s magazine that praises the “needed reckoning” of the past few months while decrying the way the protests have “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.”
It struck me as an argument very similar to ones made in the wake of the #MeToo movement (made, in fact, by some of the signatories of the letter): that it was great that women were speaking up, but maybe things had gone too far. That argument shifted focus to the consequences for the accused, rather than the accuser, erasing the serious costs that people who speak up about harassment face.
Speaking about harassment may not seem to be part of a debate about ideas, but it shares one characteristic. It is very much about the parameter of the public sphere: who holds positions, who feels safe enough to speak, what the consequences of speech are — and what the limits of speech are. In the case of harassment, a thicket of nondisclosure agreements, existing out of public view, keep some of the worst cases of harassment and retaliation from ever entering the public conversation. Thus institutions are able to assert powerful limits on speech and debate that are never visible to the public eye.
It seemed to me that the letter made a similar mistake, focusing too narrowly on the challenges faced by one small group of intellectuals, while losing sight of all the other battle-lines of the debate over who has access to the public sphere. It did not contextualize the thing it feared — ideological conformity from the left — in the broader landscape of constraints on speech and open debate.
As a result, it gave a distorted picture of what the major threats to open debate are.
Consider, for instance, the timing. The letter dropped just after weeks of police riots, in which law enforcement arrested, attacked, and injured thousands of peaceful protestors and reporters across the country. Those riots made clear that the most serious threats to protest and open debate come not from the left or the right but from the state and powerful political institutions. In fact, the left-right framework obscures more than it reveals, because it disguises the way institutions, even ostensibly liberal institutions like universities, regularly silence people because of their ideas. And often, it’s not because the ideas are dangerous or offensive, but because they present a financial or reputational threat to the institution. That is not a phenomenon of the last month, or the last few years. It’s a throughline for much of U.S. history.
If we think in terms of years instead of months, another context reveals itself. We are in a political moment when abstract appeals to free speech and open debate are part of a political strategy to mainstream not just disagreeable ideas but genuinely illiberal ones, like white-power, anti-Semitic, and anti-trans ideologies. These movements instrumentalize abstract claims of free speech to win allies and platforms, but they seldom actually agree with the principle of free speech itself, because in power, they would happily strip those rights from those they perceive as the enemy.
The pervasiveness of bad-faith free-speech claims explains why some people judged the letter, at least in part, by the signatories. Those who sensed that the call for “open debate” was a Trojan horse for people to, for instance, frame trans people as dangerous or mentally ill, as J. K. Rowling has done, understandably did not see the letter in as a good-faith call for free speech. Seeing the signatories, they had reason to be suspicious (or, as some signatories did, to feel duped).
The final context, perhaps the most important one, is power. Anxieties over “cancel culture” almost always center on “the mob” (language that, while not in the letter, has been invoked repeatedly in the broader debate). It is the mob that forces institutions and bosses into “panicked damage control” that then results in “hasty and disproportionate punishments.”
But what’s the difference between a mob and just a lot of people voicing their opinion? Or between a mob and collection action by those with less power? During the controversy over the New York Times’s decision to publish Senator Tom Cotton’s op-ed calling for military force against protestors, Black Times writers and their allies tweeted en masse, in a coordinated effort to voice their dissent. Why? Because they worried that in breaking company policy by criticizing the Cotton op-ed, they were putting their jobs at risk, and they found safety in collective action.
Such action is, in situations characterized by power imbalances, often the only way some people can get a hearing for their ideas. In debates about open debate, we don’t do enough to disaggregate those collective acts from things like troll storms or organized harassment campaigns.
And, in fact, looked at through the lens of those with less power, the letter’s worries about a shrinking sphere of public debate has it backwards. In many arenas, what we have seen in the past several years has been, on the whole, an explosive widening of the realm of speech, not a constriction. The harassed and abused have started sharing their stories (though still too often at a cost). Marginalized people have created space to talk about their identities in a far more public way, so that conversations about something like pronouns, which were not widely shared a decade ago, have become a matter of course. Academics and journalists have made headway in unionizing their institutions, not only to protect their labor but their intellectual freedoms. We are debating the ideas and actions of people embedded in our landscapes, rather than just accepting, unremarked, their presence there. That is all to the good.
Which is not to say people don’t sometimes feel constrained by changing norms, or that institutions don’t sometimes avoid controversial ideas, or that social media have not damaged the framework for open debate. These concerns, though, must be embedded in the much larger context of the often-hidden uses of institutional power, the messiness of changing norms and a widening public sphere, the challenges of an unmediated public sphere, and the manipulation of free-speech claims for not just dangerous but violent movements. Separated from that context, concerns about a censorious culture are too distorted, muddying the very debate they hope to clarify.
Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at the Obama Presidency Oral History project, Columbia University.