I want to talk about the Harper’s Letter in a different way. I ask you to keep two words in mind as you read:
Ease & effort.
I’ve scribbled my signature thousands of times in the past two years. It’s hard on the hands, but easy on the mind. It’s effortless. And yet a signed copy of my first novel is currently on sale for £200 in a London bookshop. All because I drew a few lines on a page. I question the value for money.
And so it is with the Harper’s Letter, John Hancock-ed by 150 of the brightest stars in our contemporary academic-journalistic-musical-literary universe. Margaret Atwood. Noam Chomsky. Deirdre McCloskey. John McWhorter. Steven Pinker. Salman Rushdie. They and others call for open debate, free exchange of ideas, the abandonment of public shaming. When I first read those words, I felt a wave of joy. If I’m honest, I also felt a bit irked that no one asked me to put my name on the list (or responded when I emailed Harper’s about it). But I’m a Little Person. I’ve sold books numbering in the hundreds of thousands, not in the millions.
The signatories of the Harper’s Letter are not Little People. Yet they seem concerned about our well-being. They write: “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.” Don’t think I take these words lightly. I don’t. But neither do I believe they offer any substantive help.
Shaun Cammack, a graduate student at the University of Chicago, published a thoughtful piece on the recent Steven-Pinker-Is-A-Racist hoo-hah over at Spiked yesterday. Don’t be put off reading it by the publication’s conservative reputation, because Mr. Cammack has a point. Pinker (and the other “Big People”) enjoy a kind of protection the rest of us do not. Cammack puts on paper the same worries that have been rattling around in my head since the Harper’s Letter was published:
“[…] you are not Steven Pinker, and Noam Chomksy and others probably aren’t going to come to your defence [sic] when you get sanctioned for expressing the wrong opinion. Not because they don’t believe in free speech, but because they won’t even be aware of your case. There will be no articles lambasting and criticizing [sic] the cancellers.”
I hope you read this with the same heavy sigh I did. Because it’s true. Margaret Atwood may be a lovely person, but her signature on a letter that speaks in rather vague terms is not going to save you from sacking if the mob decides you need to be sacked. It’s not going to change your publisher’s or employer’s mind if a petition to drop you for the tritest of offenses (and the list of offenses is not only ever-expanding, but hilariously subjective) gathers a thousand supporters who jump on the public shaming bandwagon. J.K. Rowling may wish you well in theory, but I question whether she has the time to notice every one of her supporters and take a personal stand on their behalf. And I really don’t think Mr. Rushdie will give a proper (and well-deserved) tongue-lashing to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in defense of a curator who was charged with racism for the most ludicrous of reasons.
For us Little People, the Harper’s Letter is as devoid of value as my inscription on the title page of a book, where I with the reader “all my best” or declare “my profound gratitude.” It is a token, a kind of talisman we put in our pockets that makes us believe we’re protected. Like a rabbit’s foot, we can stroke it and be aware of its presence, all the while knowing its worthlessness. As much as I want to love it, the Harper’s Letter is not a sincere effort because it required so little effort to endorse.
If the influential folks who cry out for justice and free speech want to be taken seriously, they need to do more. They need to broaden their awareness of the victims they so loudly defend. The letters they write should be specific and purposefully-targeted. These letters must name names—of both the cancelees and their cancelers—particularly in cases where harm has come to a Little Person as a direct result of his/her support for a Big Person. Maybe some have already gone to such trouble, and if so, I commend and thank them. If not, there’s still time.
Don’t misinterpret my plea—it is unrealistic to expect a busy author or academic to come to the rescue of every one of us as we run screaming from the mob. But once in a while, a personal gesture just might be possible. The Harper’s Letter saves exactly zero livelihoods. Anything greater than zero is, in my mind, a victory.