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An Open Letter on Free Expression Draws a Counterblast

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Three days after an open letter signed by more than 150 cultural luminaires darkly warning of a growing “intolerant climate” stirred intense response on the internet, another group issued a counterblast on Friday accusing them of elitism, hypocrisy and complicity in the bullying they decry.

The first letter, titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” was posted online on Tuesday by Harper’s Magazine. Signed by prominent figures in the arts, media and academia, including Margaret Atwood, Wynton Marsalis and J.K. Rowling, it warned of a growing tide of illiberalism and a weakening of “our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”

The response letter, titled “A More Specific Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” chided the Harper’s statement for what it characterized as lofty generalities, as well as ignoring the realities of who actually gets to be heard. If its more than 150 signers were far less well-known, that was perhaps part of the point.

The Harper’s letter “does not deal with the problem of power: who has it and who does not,” according to the response, published at The Objective, a news and commentary site that explores “how journalism has interacted with historically ignored communities.”

“Harper’s has decided to bestow its platform not to marginalized people,” it said, “but to people who already have large followings and plenty of opportunities to make their views heard.”

It continued: “The letter reads as a caustic reaction to a diversifying industry — one that’s starting to challenge diversifying norms that have protected bigotry. The writers of the letter use seductive but nebulous concepts and coded language to obscure the actual meaning behind their words.”

Almost as soon as it appeared on Tuesday, “That Letter,” as Twitter quickly began calling the Harper’s statement, set off rounds of debate about free speech, privilege and the existence or nonexistence of so-called cancel culture.

Akela Lacy, a politics reporter at The Intercept who signed and helped edit the counter-letter, said it grew organically out of a conversation in a Slack channel called Journalists of Color. Initially, there was some wariness of feeding what she and others on Twitter wryly referred to as “letter discourse.”

“There are so many more important things going on in media right now,” Ms. Lacy said, citing in particular threats and harassment experienced by journalists from marginalized groups.

“But the fact is there are a lot of people, particularly Black and trans, expressing very valid concerns about the climate right now,” she said. “Letting this very lofty position go unanswered didn’t feel like it was benefiting anyone.”

The prominence of the Harper’s signers has been a flash point in the conversation, with some deriding that letter as the whining of “assorted rich fools,” as a writer for The Daily Beast put it. The response letter characterized it as a defense of “the intellectual freedom of cis white intellectuals,” which “has never been under threat en masse.”

On Friday, after the response letter was posted, the writer Thomas Chatterton Williams, who spearheaded the Harper’s letter, highlighted the more than two dozen Black and other nonwhite intellectuals who signed his letter.

“You know, just a bunch of privileged solipsistic elites worrying about problems that don’t exist,” Mr. Williams, who is Black, tweeted. “So far, haven’t seen any of the formerly imprisoned signatories or the ones who have experienced fatwas cave to the social media backlash, though,” he added.

His dig was a reference to the fact that criticism of the Harper’s letter centered as much on who signed it as its content. And within hours of its publication, some who had signed distanced themselves from it, saying they would not have joined if they had been aware of some of the other signers. The inclusion of J.K. Rowling, who has drawn condemnation for a series of recent comments widely seen as anti-transgender, drew particular ire.

The new letter included one person, the historian Kerri Greenidge, who had signed the Harper’s letter, according to emails reviewed by The New York Times, but then asked that her name be removed, saying on Twitter, “I do not endorse this @Harpers letter.”

It also included a number of people signing anonymously, including three listed as journalists at The New York Times. (The Harper’s letter was signed by four Opinion columnists at The Times, who used their names.)

Ms. Lacy said she was aware of the “irony” of an open letter that included redacted signatures, but said that some people who criticized the Harper’s letter had gotten threats or feared workplace retaliation.

“There’s a difference between being canceled in the way Harper’s letter is talking about and actually getting threats of violence,” she said.

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