Letter, counter-letter, cancel culture and freedom of discourse

Philosophy as a Way of Life
14 min readJul 13, 2020

If you were to put a label on my political leanings (but why should you?), I would probably be characterized as a progressive-liberal type. I support universal healthcare, the green new deal (or something like it), curbing the power of multinational corporations, electoral reform, labor rights, women’s rights, and minorities’ rights (including black, brown, gay, trans, and so forth). Indeed, I often have a hard time understanding why anyone would not support the above causes (I’m sure it’s a failure of my imagination).

But I also value my independent critical thinking, biased as it may be (we all have biases anyway, the important thing is to recognize them and work on them). So when this letter was published recently in Harper’s Magazine, followed by this counter-letter, I decided to sit down and carefully read them to figure out what I think about the issue those letters address (though, in fact, they don’t even seem to agree on what that issue actually is!). I suggest you now pause, read the letters, and then come back here. I’ll wait.

Done? Good, let’s proceed.

What henceforth I will refer to as the original letter was spearheaded by Thomas Chatterton Williams, a Black writer who believes “that racism at once persists and is also capable of being transcended — especially at the interpersonal level.” Which sounds about right to me. The letter itself is short, but also — unfortunately — a bit vague. This will become relevant in a minute.

It opens by mentioning the recent protests about social and racial justice and supporting what the authors regard as “overdue demands for police reform.” Then it introduces the target topic: “This needed reckoning has also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”

It continues: “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. 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…

Philosophy as a Way of Life

by Massimo Pigliucci. Practical philosophy, science, pseudoscience & good reasoning. Complete index of articles at https://massimopigliucci.org/essays/