BLM protesters in London, UK. June, 2020. Photo: zjtmath /

The false victimhood of the Harper’s letter signatories

  • July 17, 2020

Race & Resistance

Those signatories who claim to be victims of censorship, are anything but — unless “free speech” includes the special right not to be challenged.

In the recent Harper’s open letter titled “On Justice and Open Debate,” a swathe of authors, academics and intellectuals use their perceived authority as voices of moderation and reason to condemn “forces of illiberalism” that have ostensibly contributed to “the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides” of societal debate (emphasis mine). Given the timing of the letter and the ongoing events since the murder of George Floyd, these “sides” necessarily include both the Black Lives Matter movement and far-right organizations like the Proud Boys or the Ku Klux Klan.

The writers of the letter complain about “blinding moral certainty” within the resistance, suggesting that the writers suffer from no small degree of uncertainty when it comes to issues such as those central to the BLM movement. Although the writers do not name the left or BLM in particular, this is typical of pragmatic anti-leftists, as it preserves space for them to deny their denialism.

In the second sentence, the letter acknowledges “powerful protests for racial and social justice” only to be followed by a sentence that begins with “But.” Thus, it becomes clear who the target of the attack is, and where the call for “open debate” is headed. The linguistic formula x, but z is a discursive device that is widely used to express opaque discriminatory ideologies such as racism and sexism in ways that are meant to protect the speaker from any possible criticism (as in “I am all for equality, but…”; “I support BLM, but…”; or “I support women’s rights, but…”).

These devices along with their insistence on having “room for experimentation” imply that they prefer not to take “sides” in what they see as a moral quagmire created by BLM and antifa activists on the one side and the alt-right and Trump’s America on the other. Still, the authors are careful to couch their complaint in vague and convoluted language in an apparent effort to obscure this inconvenient backdrop.

Basic logical fallacies

The Harper’s letter can best be described as a failed rhetorical maneuver that uses age-old tactics to portray the privileged as victims under threat and the real victims as a source of turbulence. The writers state that they “refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other.” However, it is clear that they, as well as many in the far right  who are much more outspoken are the ones who commit that fallacy, which is known as a “false dichotomy” or “either-or” argument.

With so many experienced scholars and journalists among the signatories, they certainly should have been capable of giving us an example of the “false choice” that is supposedly imposed on them by the left. The lack of actual cases makes it all too evident that in addition to creating a false dichotomy, the writers committed a straw man fallacy.

It is the privileged who never fail to portray every demand for justice by the marginalized as a threat to “freedom.” In a country where Black people continue to be lynched, anti-fascism is under threat of being banned, white-supremacists roam around with their machine guns, and the administration has politicized an unprecedented pandemic, this group of the intelligentsia are worried about “severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions” if they “depart from the consensus.”

What “consensus” do they mean? Could the consensus to which they allude be established laws against racist discrimination and sexual harassment, such as Title VII and Title IX? Or do the writers believe there is a consensus around respecting Black lives?

BLM is a protest movement precisely because in the eyes of the established order, Black lives still do not matter like white lives do. Clearly, the privileged are threatened by the possibility of the demands of BLM becoming the consensus. Laura Ingraham made a strikingly similar, albeit much more direct, case when she warned the privileged that “the radical left” will take away their “power and money,” and that BLM will be treated as heroes. The authors of the letter likewise complain that they “are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods.”

The moment the marginalized take some space in the public sphere, we hear the phobic warnings of dangerous threats to “our culture,” which the letter warns is suffering from the spread of “censoriousness.” As soon as the silenced cease to be silent, as soon as the underprivileged make their presence in the world known, the privileged elites are terrified. Of course, we are told that their concern stems from their desire to defend freedom of speech and thought, to defend what the writers of the letter call “our norms.”

The demonization of revolutionary movements as inherently uncivil and aggressive is something we are used to seeing from the far right. For example, on July 11, the American Free Press, which was founded by the white supremacist Willis Carto, posted a piece that bemoans the alleged rise of “cultural Bolshevism,” demonizing prominent critical theorists of the Frankfurt School, all of whom escaped the Nazi persecution of Jews to the US. The article closes by blaming “our national decline and the protesting and rioting you see in America now” on the ideas of the critical theorists. In another article posted with a typical antisemitic caricature of Trotsky, the same writer links the rise of “Bolshevism” and political correctness with “the fall of Western cultural norms.”

Of course, the latest protests led by the BLM movement are a main target of the right-wing fearmongering campaigns. On the front page of its latest issue, the American Free Press warns against a growing “movement to tear down or disassemble monuments to great American figures and events.” The writer complains that “the left has ‘won the debate,’” adding that “it’s difficult to have a real debate when one side of the argument is completely silenced.”

Notably, the newspaper also devoted two pages to what it calls “A DISTURBING RUNDOWN OF THE CRIMES OF BLACK LIVES MATTER.” Again, the Harper’s letter does not mention BLM or the left, but it is a call to defend what they call “our culture” and “our norms” against those who reject racism and sexism. The signatories of the letter are certainly not the ones operating the speeding train of fascism, but does such an attack on the anti-fascist resistance not amount to guarding that very train?

When there is pressure from those who are normally excluded from the public sphere, forms of bigotry that had been normalized start to be problematized and challenged. The gained strength of the marginalized creates various challenges to the boundless power of the privileged. Therefore, there may be times when some individuals among the elite might be held responsible for their racist or sexist behavior and lose some of their privileges as a result.

The Harper’s letter alludes to a few such cases in which elite individuals faced repercussions for racist and/or sexist conduct. In coming to the defense of those cases, the letter writers demonstrated their identification with the dominant culture and norms, which are threatened by the voices rising from below. In short, the signatories are intolerant of those who refuse to tolerate intolerance.

Taking risks without taking risks

The morally confused writers’ fear of actual “risk taking” raises the question of whether they would dare to criticize a police state, assuming that such a regime might fire them for doing so. What is certain is that the writers make explicit that they want all their privileges secured beyond any doubt to enable them to express their views freely. We are asked to take their words in “good faith,” and if they sound racist, we must remember it is just an innocent mistake. Those innocent mistakes, however, amount to repeated denials of systematic discrimination, the victims of which must demonstrate “good faith” by silently and idly accepting these denials as freedom of expression.

Ultimately, the concern about “public shaming and ostracism” and “dire professional consequences” for speaking out in “the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides” comes down to one simple issue. It is not that the denialists have been deprived of a platform to share their not-so-brilliant letter. On the contrary, the letter, despite its straw man argument and poor composition, was published by a mainstream magazine. This speaks to the fact that these signatories are anything but victims of censorship, unless “free speech” for them includes the special right not to be challenged.

For the privileged, the right to free speech means being able to air their opinions without repercussions, while the intellectual and moral perspectives of the marginalized are portrayed as inherently dangerous. Apparently, it is not enough to earn many times more than the average Black American; their social interests must be insured against potential damage.

It is not clear what specific guarantees the letter writers demand, but it seems their unlimited authority over the public sphere — including their power to silence — is their measurement for both freedom and justice.

The Harper’s letter is exemplary of bourgeois unfreedom, not only in terms of the writers’ failure to imagine the emancipation of the silenced Other, but also in the sense of their own incapacity to be free. Freedom is precisely the will to act regardless of potential consequences on one’s life. Exercising my freedom does not amount to obtaining the permission to do what I believe ought to be done, but rather simply doing it without regard for potential personal consequences. If I ask for permission or expect my speech-act to be insured like a piece of private property, then precisely because of that, the intended act embodies my unfreedom.

In this context, if I refrain from writing or saying what I believe to be true, merely because it would have negative consequences on my personal interests, then I am neither a just nor a free person. No cultural insurance in the world could give free will and a sense of justice to bourgeois elites who perpetuate the relations of domination from which they benefit every day.

Without a sense of irony, the writers declare, “we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes.” The requested cultural insurance is supposed to allow this elite to take risks without risking anything and make mistakes without being called out on those mistakes. After all, these sorts of social experimentations are needed to address what they call “complex policy issues.”

This “policy” language betrays the social engineering mentality that is at work here. They add that “the way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away,” which is exactly the claim various white supremacists hide behind. Denialists have habitually portrayed denialism as the ultimate voice of reason, and denialists as the victims for not having unlimited power to impose their myths and silence those whose very existence represents a threat to “our culture” and civilization.

The letter leaves one to wonder: what would the writers utter if they did not feel intimidated by the radical left? What is it exactly that they are holding back out of fear of being fired or shamed by the public? Do the writers of the letter practice their “open debate” on social media under pseudonyms, as Blake Neff, the top writer for Tucker Carlson’s show on Fox News, has been doing for years? Let us not forget that Carlson’s show regularly seeks to defend the right to “disagree,” and he often calls “to fight back against totalitarianism,” precisely to fight any chance of challenging the dominant norms of discrimination and exploitation.

Through references to the far right and Trump, the letter aims to secure a centrist position, but the very complaint and fear mongering to which it gives rise are what the far right and Trump regularly propagate. To give a recent example, on July 4, Trump warned that “angry mobs” are

driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees. This is the very definition of totalitarianism, and it is completely alien to our culture and our values (. . .) In our schools, our newsrooms, even our corporate boardrooms, there is a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance.  If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished.

Like Trump’s speeches, the Harper’s letter is intended to stir fear against the left, and it does not use sophisticated methods to do so.

Learning to unlearn

To put it bluntly: the letter is profoundly stupid. It is neither controversial by any intellectual standards nor puzzling on ethical grounds. Despite its intentional vagueness, no hermeneutical power on earth could disguise the fact that it is an embarrassingly stupid denialist text.

Denialists do not fight for seeking truth or the right to seek truth; rather, they fight to keep the victims deprived of every right, including the right to express their victimhood. Not being allowed to be recognized as a victim is part of victimhood. In fact, ideological domination prepares us to hate victims even before we know anything about their history or present reality.

What makes a person a supporter of freedom is not their use of the free speech argument but the content of their speech. The letter claims to “uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters” while criticizing “a vogue for public shaming.” To be clear, stupidity must be publicly shamed when it is purposely exhibited in public, especially with such an arrogant sense of authority and self-entitlement. The fact that some prominent thinkers and literary figures such as Chomsky and Rushdie signed the letter does not make it any less stupid.

Unfortunately, trained experts are capable of selling stupidity as reason more successfully than non-experts, and for that very reason, the most crucial education in patriarchal societies everywhere is to learn how to unlearn.

Saladdin Ahmed

Saladdin Ahmed is the author of Totalitarian Space and the Destruction of Aura, published by SUNY Press in March 2019. He is a visiting assistant professor at Union College in New York and specializes in critical theory and political philosophy.

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