A battle of letters is under way on the broad and bitterly contested theme of “justice and open debate” and a truce seems unlikely anytime soon. We have been here before many times in previous years, with warriors for and against political correctness and wokeness facing off in prolonged bouts of written and oral sniping.
What makes this new battle slightly different is the moment in which it comes. Calls for racial and systemic justice are ricocheting around the world in the wake of the May 25 death of George Floyd.
The new battle is also significant for the calibre, strength and sheer firepower of the forces ranged against each other. On one side are 150 or so of the world's leading writers, thinkers, academics and activists. They include JK Rowling, Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky, Kamel Daoud and Fareed Zakaria. Most are on the left or centre-left of the political spectrum. They fired the opening shot and it took the form of a three-paragraph exhortation to anti-racism and social justice activists to eschew "censoriousness", "intolerance of opposing views" and "blinding moral certainty".
While calling out "illiberalism", US President Donald Trump and the radical right, the letter also criticised left-liberals' right to demand "ideological conformity". The letter went up on the site of one of America's oldest monthly magazines, Harper's Magazine.
Soon enough, platoons of fighters armed with hashtags and memes began to challenge the letter’s content and intentions. Within 72 hours, another letter was issued, this time by more than 150 other, slightly less well-known names in academia, the liberal arts, media and NGOs. That letter assailed the famous signatories, “many of them white, wealthy, and endowed with massive platforms”, and suggested “their words reflect a stubbornness to let go of the elitism that still pervades… an unwillingness to dismantle systems that keep people like them in and the rest of us out”.
The second letter said the first was “at best obtuse and inappropriate, and at worst actively racist” because it was issued at a time of massive protests for justice. The world’s most famous public intellectuals, it said, were trying “to detract from the public conversation about who gets to have a platform”. The second letter appeared on a volunteer-staffed site whose stated mission is “to confront inequities in coverage” and to report on “historically ignored communities”.
The letters war would be laughable if it were not so consequential. It illustrates three dismal realities of our time.
First, illiberal liberalism can be just as hateful as far-right exclusivism. Contemporary culture on both the far left and the far right seems to suffer from the flaw American critic Lionel Trilling once diagnosed only in conservatism: it does not really express itself in ideas, but in “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas”.
Where the far right uses racial slurs or justifies discrimination on the grounds of religion, the far left runs a different grading system. By means of a hyper-conscious regulation of semantics, it ceaselessly looks for evidence of racism, sexism and any other distressing “ism” in speech. Perceived infractions are dealt with quickly and often very publicly.
Examples abound. When the novelist Margaret Atwood wrote a thoughtful piece for a Canadian paper two years ago, titled Am I a Bad Feminist?, she was accused of being an apologist for rape as a result of her "white privilege". British university students tried to "no-platform" writer Germaine Greer for allegedly "transphobic" views. In the US, students at a west coast university staged a sit-in when a professor corrected a student's spelling of the word "indigenous". Replacing the upper-case "I" with lower-case was an act of "linguistic micro-aggression", they said.
Second, the liberal project for meaningful change comes into question every time its supporters make an illiberal attempt to choke off debate. In 2018, Angela Nagle, author of Kill All the Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-right, noted that "many people are attracted to progressive politics because they see that the world is unequal and unfair… But they quickly find out that this isn't enough". To avoid being "purged", she said, they "have to learn an ever more elaborate and bizarre set of correct positions" on a range of issues.
Indeed, it is deeply divisive to see the whole world only through the prism of power structures. Of course, there is inequality and injustice and, of course, more needs to be done to understand how these structures still stand and what can be done to bring about beneficial change. But a single-focus narrative often does little to build a coalition, or for that matter a fairer system. Instead, it divides and creates space for those who want to sow greater division, using racial and religious difference as tools.
Third, and most important, greater diversity of culture demands more diversity of expression, not less. Refusal to engage with alternative points of view – even if contentious – does not enable greater tolerance of opposing ideas; it merely makes everyone wary of discussing them. American civil rights activist Martin Luther King used relentless argument to push for equality of opportunity and equality before the law. Nearly a century ago, Mahatma Gandhi was writing about the need to convert an opponent by “opening his ears”, which was surely a reference to engaging with different points of view.
The best way to defeat iniquitous ideas is to allow them to be scrutinised. And then to be argued and refuted, point by point. It is interesting to note that a leading American site for professional development and training recently warned against “woke-washing” the workplace. It might create groupthink, it said.
The context of the warning is something that has been dubbed "woke capitalism". It takes a fairly predictable form. Companies try to associate themselves with liberal causes by making lofty claims of a social purpose, indulging in rhetorical repositioning and then using their new activist avatar as a marketing ploy. It could be a T-shirt company's change of its iconic animal logo for different endangered species, a razor firm taking a stand against "toxic masculinity", or a sportswear manufacturer picking a controversial black anti-racism footballer as the face of its marketing campaign.
Just days ago, it was the announcement by the Washington Redskins American football team that it was retiring its name, which has long been criticised as racist.
But the team’s decision is seen to be more about the power of money – with lead sponsors threatening to pull funding – than a sudden attack of conscience. The other examples are also seen to be mainly about the business of positioning brands to appeal to millennial consumers. That said, it is at least worth celebrating the fact that social consciousness is now considered a marketable quantity.
The culture wars have raged for years and the core question has always remained the same: who gets to tell the story of a country, a society, a people, an event? It is a grand and worthy struggle for a more egalitarian society. But if the objective of both sides becomes control of the debate, it doesn’t change the status quo; just who is up.