In our increasingly intolerant society, it’s encouraging to see at least some writers, creative artists and educators take a stand against censorship and de-platforming in all its forms. An open letter signed by well over a hundred notable figures seeks to alert us to that danger. Here’s a lengthy excerpt.
The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted … 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. 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 Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a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 organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes. Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.
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.
There’s more at the link.
The list of signatories, from both the left and the right of the political aisle, is impressive, including Noam Chomsky, J. K. Rowling and Salman Rushdie. Amusingly (and tellingly), some of the signatories did not know that others would be appearing, and demanded that their own names be withdrawn after seeing them in company with those whose views they oppose. I daresay they’re afraid of being tarred with the same brush – or is that overly censorious of me? On the other hand, as Hot Air observes, “What may be most noteworthy about this letter is how few people signed it compared to the number of people who are currently embracing BLM and identity politics.”
It occurs to me that we’re seeing, on both extremes of the political aisle but particularly among the progressive Left, a return to primitive superstition: a belief that by saying and/or doing the right things, in the right sequence, and rejecting every alternative, things can be made to go the way they’re “supposed” to go. I can only compare it to the attitude of Xerxes, emperor of Persia, during his great invasion of Greece in 480-479 BC. As Herodotus describes events:
[7.33] Xerxes … made preparations to advance to Abydos, where the bridge across the Hellespont from Asia to Europe was lately finished. …
[7.34] … When, therefore, the channel had been bridged successfully, it happened that a great storm arising broke the whole work to pieces, and destroyed all that had been done.
[7.35] So when Xerxes heard of it he was full of wrath, and straightway gave orders that the Hellespont should receive three hundred lashes, and that a pair of fetters should be cast into it. Nay, I have even heard it said that he bade the branders take their irons and therewith brand the Hellespont. It is certain that he commanded those who scourged the waters to utter, as they lashed them, these barbarian and wicked words: “Thou bitter water, thy lord lays on thee this punishment because thou hast wronged him without a cause, having suffered no evil at his hands. Verily King Xerxes will cross thee, whether thou wilt or no. Well dost thou deserve that no man should honor thee with sacrifice; for thou art of a truth a treacherous and unsavory river.” While the sea was thus punished by his orders, he likewise commanded that the overseers of the work should lose their heads.
[7.36] Then they, whose business it was, executed the unpleasing task laid upon them; and other master-builders were set over the work …
Again, more at the link.
I imagine the fate of the bridge-builders’ predecessors must have concentrated wonderfully the minds of their successors! Isn’t that just like today’s “cancel culture”? “Look what happened to these others! If you don’t want to share their fate, do what you’re supposed to do – or else!”
I therefore propose that every time we come across censoriousness and “cancel culture” at work, we refer to them as “flogging the Hellespont”. They’ve got about as much chance of changing reality, after all! At the very least we can have a good laugh at their pompous fatuity; and who knows? Others may be puzzled enough at the reference to look it up for themselves, and learn something.
Xerxes as literary anti-model. Who’d have thunk it?
(“Grammar! Spelling! Vocabulary! SEETHE! Off with his keyboard!”)