Thomas Chatterton Williams On Debate, Criticism And The Letter In 'Harper's Magazine'

Jul 11, 2020
Originally published on July 12, 2020 8:06 am

Thomas Chatterton Williams, along with more than 150 prominent journalists, authors and writers, published a letter in Harper's Magazine on Tuesday, decrying what it called the "intolerant climate that has set in on all sides" of debate. The letter set off a heated controversy over free speech, privilege and the role of social media in public discourse.

"The free exchange of information and ideas,the lifeblood of a liberal society is daily becoming more constricted," the letter states. "While we have come to expect this on the radical right, 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."

The letter cites various harms it says have been caused by this state of affairs and concludes that "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."

Williams, an author and columnist for Harper's Magazine and a contributor to The New York Times Magazine, told NPR the letter was meant to defend everyone's "right to argue back and to take ideas, if they're faulty, expose them to the light of day and counter them effectively."

The letter immediately faced backlash. At least two signers distanced themselves from it. Some critics argued that including signatures from certain writers, including J.K. Rowling — who has made comments seen as transphobic on Twitter — took away from the sentiment of the letter altogether. A group of more than 160 writers, journalists, academics and others responded with a letter of their own in The Objective, which argued that the very problems the Harper's Magazine letter lays out are not trends at all.

"In reality, their argument alludes to but does not clearly lay out specific examples, and undermines the very cause they have appointed themselves to uphold," the counter-letter read. "In truth, Black, brown, and LGBTQ+ people — particularly Black and trans people — can now critique elites publicly and hold them accountable socially; this seems to be the letter's greatest concern. What's perhaps even more grating to many of the signatories is that a critique of their long held views is persuasive."

Some people signed the counter-letter anonymously but included professional affiliations. (At least three anonymous signers of the counter-letter listed NPR as their affiliation. One additional NPR staffer signed the counter-letter with his name. No current NPR News employees signed the Harper's letter.)

Williams talked with NPR's Michel Martin on All Things Considered about why he helped spearhead the crafting of the letter, what it was meant to accomplish and how it was received by the public.


Interview Highlights

On what motivated him to write the letter

It was not one event in particular, it was a kind of mood or a climate that myself and several of the other drafters have been discussing for some time now and it was in late May, early June that we began thinking that maybe we would get together and write something and see if anybody would sign it.

On the criticism that some of the signers have been accused of transphobia and that their presence on the letter is seen as excusing their bigotry

These are principles that anyone could sign and that everybody should actually be able to uphold. And I think that part of what the letter is trying to do is trying to argue against the idea that you have to look around and Google every statement that anybody on the list has ever said to know if you feel comfortable signing it. The point is that that's irrelevant.

On if he accomplished what he hoped to

What I think we did is we moved the needle a little bit in some of these spaces. Someone has to look around and say, "Well actually, a lot of these people on the list I do still want to work with. I do still want to make Netflix adaptations of some of their work. I do still want them to make podcasts or report at The New York Times or The New Yorker." And so I have to take into consideration their point of view too, not just these kind of whipped up mobs online that are faceless and that kind of I'll never interact with but somehow are now penetrating the inner sanctums of the HR department.

I think we've moved the needle a little bit in making people understand that there's not actually nearly as much consensus on some of these impulses as it may sometimes seem if you spend too much time on Twitter.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to go to another debate that's gotten remarkably heated over the past few days, but this one isn't happening in the aisles of the big-box stores. No, this is taking place online. This week, the literary magazine Harper's posted what it titled "A Letter On Justice And Open Debate." It was signed by more than 150 writers, artists, scholars, journalists and others, decrying what it called the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.

"The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted," the letter states. "While we have come to expect this on the radical right, 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," unquote. The letter cites various harms it says have been caused by the state of affairs and concludes that, quote, "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," unquote.

Well, argument has certainly ensued. Lengthy Twitter threads have been fired off, accusing the letter or its signers of everything from elitism to transphobia. Critical opposing letters with long lists of signatories have also been posted, and at least two of the original signers have demanded to remove their names. So we called one of the drafters of the letter to hear more about it. Thomas Chatterton Williams is an author and columnist for Harper's Magazine. He's also a contributor to The New York Times. And he's with us now.

Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

THOMAS CHATTERTON WILLIAMS: Thanks so much for having me.

MARTIN: So what motivated the letter to begin with? I read elsewhere that about 20 people contributed thoughts, which is - you know, it's a pretty brief statement. It's only about sort of three paragraphs long. And others, including the former President Barack Obama, have expressed similar thoughts in recent months. But what motivated you? What got you thinking that you had to say something?

WILLIAMS: It was not one event in particular. It was a kind of mood or climate that myself and several of the other drafters have been discussing for some time now. And it was in May - late May, early June that we began thinking that maybe we would get together and write something and see if anybody would sign it.

MARTIN: As I said, there have been these lengthy responses posted, and people can easily find them if they want to read them in their entirety. But I'm just going to summarize and say I think the criticism falls into three buckets. You know, some people are saying, well, you're equating repressive government with a repressive culture, but there's a difference between people being horrible on Twitter and being hauled into jail or tortured for what they write. And what would you say to that?

WILLIAMS: Sure. Well, you know, we have signatories that have been hauled into jail and tortured in other countries, in Iran for one. We have refugees on the list. We have at least two signatories who have lived for extended periods of time with fatwas on their head. So you can say there's a distinction between kind of outrage mobs and that kind of state oppression. But these are people that signed that believe that the line is quite fine and the boundary is porous and that we should be always in defense of liberal principles so that we don't fall down that slippery slope.

MARTIN: I would say the second sort of bucket of criticism is that this is really about the loss of cultural authority, that a number of these signatories are mad because they don't get to set the terms of the debate. And some people have said, oh, it's mostly wealthy white people signing a letter, which is not true. As you've pointed out, there a number of people of color, including yourself. You're a man of color.

WILLIAMS: That's right.

MARTIN: And scholars like Nell Irvin Painter and Gerald Early and Orlando Patterson and commentators like Fareed Zakaria - but what about that argument?

WILLIAMS: I have an inbox this week that has filled with hundreds of responses from people who are not famous. And they have said thank you for saying this and thank you for getting people that are a lot more well-known than I am and have platforms that I could never have access to to say this because it makes it that much more possible for me to be able to speak my mind, too.

MARTIN: Well, and the third criticism is that some of the signers have been accused of being transphobic, and their presence on the letter is seen as excusing their bigotry. I mean, this is the way someone whom I respect who takes exception to the letter explained it to me. She said it would be like if somebody circulated a letter right now saying how important it is to care about history and heritage, for instance, and it was signed by a bunch of smart historians and writers plus three people who were particularly famous for wanting everybody to fly the Confederate flag. And this person says that would affect what the letter would seem to stand for. It would raise questions about who sought to have those signatures added. So what is your response to that?

WILLIAMS: I understand that critique. But I would also say that even if that analogy could hold, I grew up raised by a black man who was born well before civil rights, who would echo Bayard Rustin's point that if the sun is shining and a bigot says the sun is shining, I will also say the sun is shining because my loyalty is to the truth. That's how I see it. These are principles that everybody should actually be able to uphold, and I think that part of what the letter is trying to do is trying to argue against the idea that you have to look around and Google every statement that anybody on the list has ever said to know if you feel comfortable signing it. The point is that that's irrelevant.

MARTIN: Do you think that you accomplished what you hoped to?

WILLIAMS: What I think we did is we moved the needle a little bit in some of these spaces. Someone has to look around and say, well, a lot of these people on this list, I do still want to work with. I do still want them to make podcasts or report at The New York Times, at the New Yorker. And so I have to take into consideration their point of view, too, not just these kind of whipped-up mobs online that are faceless and kind of - I'll never interact with but somehow are now penetrating the inner sanctums of the HR department. I think we've moved the needle a little bit in making people understand that there's not actually nearly as much consensus on some of these impulses as may sometimes seem if you spend too much time on Twitter.

MARTIN: Thomas Chatterton Williams is a columnist with Harper's Magazine and a contributor to others. His latest book "Self-Portrait In Black And White" is out now. You can read the letter that he and 150 other people signed at harpers.org. And the many responses are easily found online, especially on Twitter.

Thomas Chatterton Williams, thank you so much for talking to us today.

WILLIAMS: Thank you so much. It's been a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.