It Depends And It’s Complicated

Every so often, intellectual luminaries initiate what the rest of us might call a “pissing match.”

One such match was triggered by a letter published in Harpers, warning that the spread of “censoriousness” is leading to “an intolerance of opposing views” and “a vogue for public shaming and ostracism”. Some of my favorite authors–and some not-so-favorite– are signatories (and no, I’m not identifying either category.)

The letter approves of the “powerful protests for racial and social justice” that it says are leading to “overdue demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society”, but it goes on to disapprove–strongly–of what it calls “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments” leading to the delivery of “hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms”, and it charges that this disproportionate response tends “to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity”.

As an aside, I’m not so certain those norms ever existed outside certain rarified circles. I sure haven’t seen much evidence of a genteel “toleration of differences”– and such courtesies certainly haven’t characterized social media.

I find myself agreeing with a remark attributed to US senator Brian Schatz (D. Hawaii), that “lots of brainpower and passion is being devoted to a problem that takes a really long time to describe, and is impossible to solve, and meanwhile we have mass preventable death”.

A Guardian article reported the reactions of some of that paper’s columnists, at least two of whom pointed out that the letter was a bit fuzzy in its definition of “cancel culture.” Zoe Williams, for example, wrote

This reminds me a lot of the arguments we used to have about religious tolerance in the 90s. Toleration was a good and necessary thing; but what if it meant you had to tolerate people who themselves wouldn’t tolerate you?

One of the Guardian commenters was Samuel Moyn, a professor of law and history at Yale, who had signed the original letter. He explained that he’d signed on, not because he is a free speech absolutist–a status he disclaims–but because he believes that,

If it is true that hierarchies are in part maintained – not just undone – by speech, and that speech can harm and not just help, it doesn’t follow that more free speech for more people isn’t generally a good cause. It is.

A few people sent me the original letter, and asked my opinion. With the caveat that I am no more equipped to weigh in than anyone else, here are my reactions:

Free speech has always been contested. It has also always been misunderstood: we have the right to “speak our piece” without interference by government. We have never had–and never will have–the right to speak our piece without repercussions, without hearing from people who disagree with what we have said.

Do extreme negative responses intimidate people, and deter others from speaking out–suppressing, rather than encouraging, productive debate? Yes. Isn’t that regrettable? Usually–although not always.

Is the extreme sort of blowback that the letter excoriates often unfair, and even unhelpful to the cause of those engaging in the disproportionate reaction? Yes–often.

Have the Internet and social media amplified both hateful speech and over-the-top censorious responses to it? Yes. Does that reality make civil, productive discussion and debate more difficult? You betcha.

None of this, however, qualifies as “breaking news.”

A number of people critical of the letter point to signatories who–they say–are guilty of the very behavior they criticize. That doesn’t make the criticism wrong, of course, but it does point to the fact that whether a reaction is proportionate to the offense is very much a subjective determination.

I tell my students at the beginning of each semester that my goal is for them to leave my class using two phrases far more frequently than they did previously: It depends and it’s more complicated than that.

Meanwhile, Senator Schatz has a point.


  1. On the one hand the so-called “intellectual luminaries” approve of the powerful protests that call for racial and social justice but then disapprove of what those protests are bringing about, a new set of moral attitudes and political commitment. What the blazes did they think those protests were intended to do? Just blow off steam?
    We are long past the time for the collective tolerance of racist ideas and views. Those racist ideas and views are the very ones that have allowed violent injustices, economic injustices, and social injustices to continue unchecked on a grand scale for centuries.
    Maybe those “intellectual luminaries” need to climb down from their ivory towers and actually learn something in the streets.

  2. What is going on with the Ghoul-in-Chief? Does he have stock in the funeral industry and mortuary real estate? or Both?
    Is this White House policy finally more deadly for children than separating them from families and putting them in detention cages?
    How many children will die and what does Betsy deVos think about OUR darling Fuhrer?

  3. Some recent rather minor examples of “censoriousness” are much more than censoring freedom of speech; they are cover ups and attempts to rewrite history in some of our classic novels which depicted “the way things were in those days”. Removing the books and the movies will not remove the truths from the memories of those who lived with it and those of us who watched it on the evening news. IMO the “censoriousness” of the apparently minor examples take away from and cover up why we are now living with the eruption of thousands rallying and marching in our cities and towns…at long last!

    Removing “To Kill A Mockingbird”, “Tom Sawyer” and “Gone With The Wind” from our libraries and bleeping the “N” word from movies and TV programming prevents younger generations, black, brown, yellow and white, from seeing and hearing the ugliness which was the way of life. Margaret Mitchell researched southern history for 10 years before writing “Gone With The Wind” and the book and movie “12 Years A Slave” (a biography, not a novel) proved there were slave owners who provided for their “property” but for all the wrong reasons. If you read “Go Set A Watchman” by Harper Lee; the sequel to “To Kill A Mockingbird”, you will find that Atticus Finch was not the hero portrayed in “Mockingbird”; he was a strong segregationist who worked with the KKK and defended Tom because it was the law that he have a defense in court.

    Spouting the fairy tales from the Bible should be censored from our governmental body of law makers who are infusing their personal religion into all of our lives, persecuting the rest of us by controlling medical care and the economy by allowing businesses to refuse service to entire groups of people based on their religious views. Censoring does have a positive side; it is just overruled by those currently in power. And who among the millions of thinking Americans would not like to have Trump censored off of our airways!

  4. In today’s executive overreach, freedom of speech seems to have a “convenience” factor. This administration sues and suppresses every bit of “free” speech that calls out the daily dose of high crimes and misdemeanors by the President and the Republican Senate. But anyone supporting the criminal enterprise or fudging the facts to obscure those crimes is making good use of free speech.

    Criminals and thugs do this. I don’t care what anybody says about the DNC being just as culpable as the RNC, and certainly the zombies in the Senate. The fact is that abuse of power, never mind just the First Amendment, is destroying democracy, the rule of law and the Constitution. That abuse is being ram-rodded by AG Barr at a stunning pace.

    Rick Stengel said yesterday that we can only imagine the horrors that the Trump administration will heap on the world between 4 November and 20 January 2021. Trump is GOING to lose the election. According to Mary Trump’s analysis of her deranged uncle, that will be the most dangerous time.

    This author, like my stuff or not, predicts that he will unlock the jail cells of his fellow criminals and dump all the information Putin wants onto his desk. That is, if the orange hairball doesn’t start another war just for spite.

    So, Todd, you can carp all day about the culpability of the DNC, but the fact is the lunatic lacks the mental wiring to do anything BUT destroy what he touches. He owns that alone. The Senate Zombies own their gutlessness alone for not convicting Donald Trump of his obvious crimes.

  5. This will be interesting to read the posts as the day progresses. I went through to the actual article, and it seems very vague. I read it twice and not sure what their point is…this quote, “We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists, and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.”

    Again, vague.

    Are racists or racist language being censored here? As with Trump, I say, let them speak their minds. If social media gives them a platform, let them speak their minds.

    Is it offensive to me? I dislike hate speech but let them speak their minds.

    These folks used to wear hoods and meet in barns at night. Now, they wear suits (always did) and are called representatives. Trump has been an actual gift to free speech. He tweets all day — especially when his ego is bruised.

    In social meetings, I’ve heard several people make commentary, which caused my eyes to roll. One guy wanted people to know how many “blacks owned slaves.” I guess he was justifying slavery with this tidbit he got from Fox or Rush.

    Let em speak!

    Let em wave their flags!

    I don’t want them hiding in barns speaking in codes — I want them speaking in public without their hoods. I want them to gather at the city hall in their plain clothes and openly to express their views.

    I think most will catch my drift…

  6. It’s difficult to tolerate intolerance. As you’ve noted, it’s even more difficult for a person to maintain civility when others attack and besmirch him/her. The temptation is to respond in kind, but as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. noted, an eye-for-an-eye just leaves us all blind. He was right of course, but that’s more difficult to see when intolerance becomes blindingly hot.

    We value police ability to de-escalate fiery situations. That’s a valuable skill for each of us personally and all of us collectively since we now have to use it daily.

  7. Is our society overreacting to nearly everything? Absolutely! Is it really necessary? Probably not! Like the professor said, “It’s complicated.” I frequently call for greater discernment from all of us and I will continue to do so.

  8. I think a number of the signatories are guilty of hypocrisy! Another case of don’t say what I say the way I say it, just do what I say. Everyone’s a genius I suppose when it comes to their own opinions, the trouble with opinions, everybody has one! And those opinions usually don’t agree with each other. Since everybody is diametrically opposed with their opinions, those opinions never ignite any sort of compassionate response to solve problems that require empathy and compassion.

    How long has society been talkin about equality in this country? let’s face it, there is no equality especially when it comes to speech. We seem to tolerate The Fringe, because everyone should have the right concerning speech. So we listen to incendiary diatribe and drivel, some so vile that it can actually insight murderous thought and even violent behavior.

    That in itself is not supposed to be allowed in freedom of speech! If speech is morally and ethically and compassionately abhorrent, then that speech need not be given a platform. There is absolutely no reason to allow purveyors of that sort of speech to be given a soapbox of degradation and incitement.

    You don’t have to be an intellectual to know what is appropriate or what you say is abhorrent. Scripture says that speech, especially ones tongue, can cut worse than a sword. the trouble is, there are a lot of thoughtless and hateful Sayers, but not very many, and in some cases any at all, thoughtful and compassionate hearers.

    So, when the Sayers get tired saying, saying concerning compassion, saying concerning ethics, saying concerning moral conduct, saying concerning empathy, saying concerning equitable treatment, there is a whipsaw effect and and overcorrection if you will, and the hearers that have kept in their ear plugs because a lack of willingness to listen, act shocked and indignant over “actionable” volume being turned way up. Hypocrisy at its finest!

    Sometimes doing the right thing is the hardest thing to do. It’s always been that way, and it always seems to cause the most amount of tumult.

  9. Todd; read it a third time, maybe you will find something straight forward in their words and the reason for their fears. You speak from the perspective of a small town which has a high crime rate, numerous slum areas and crumbling infrastructure whose anchor business is Ball State University. You yourself have stated BSU runs the school system which has not brought up the quality of education in Muncie.

    There is nothing vague about Trump’s life-long racism, his former dog whistle racist comments which are now out in the open and have drawn the racists out from under their rocks; you should do more than vaguely “roll your eyes” at such ugly and baseless comments. You should have asked where he got his information; you call yourself a journalist, obviously NOT of the investigative ilk, but I see you as the voice for small town, small minded thinking. Use your freedom of speech to seek clarification, speak your mind on this issue. You stop hiding in barns and speak out, you wear no hood but you have gagged yourself by remaining mute in those situations. You certainly do not hesitate speaking out against Democrats on this blog when you, as a self-proclaimed journalist, should be seeking to unite us, warts and all. Speak the country’s motto in plain English; “Out of many, one!”

  10. When a two hundred pound cop has you pinned to the ground with his knee on your neck it is long past the time for discernment! When your government has kidnapped children and put them into cages it is long past the time for discernment! When your representatives hide and evade from revelations of corruption in every institution including the presidency it is long past time for discernment!

  11. JoAnn, you should probably read the Harper’s article the first time. 😉

    Have you ever heard of “restraint of tongue and pen?”

    As I mentioned, I abhor racism and hate speech, but how can we address it if it remains hidden in barn speeches late at night. Let them rally around the police and give their racist hate-filled speeches. It’s their right to dig their holes. Let em keep digging. Let em air their hate in the public square. Let’s get it on video and let it be chronicled on social media.

    As for the community where I reside, it would be a fabulous study on racism and institutional racism. We even have a university filled with “definitive studies” on local racism, and they all conclude the same thing — the benevolent Ball family were gracious toward the migrating negroes.

    It’s a f’ing joke!

    My outspokenness and truth-seeking journalism have resulted in being scrubbed from any significant position in our community. I’ve done my job well — too well for the likes of the Oligarchs.

    Instead of owning our institutional racism and our stealing of land from Native Americans, it’s easier to whitewash our history. Before we can fix this problem/issue, we need to own it. Not you and me, but the Oligarchs who created and wrote institutional racism into society. In Muncie, we might want to include how we handled the American Indians first and then move on to our handling of “Negroes, Chinese, and Jews.”

    As the Harper article suggests, newspaper editors fear for their jobs in making the slightest mistakes. The first mistake is questioning the Oligarchs.

  12. JoAnne – many cheers.

    All – having spent 30 years working in the area of organizational change management in the business world where the issues were”simply” changing the way we do business -often taking years, often failing, I can assure you that changing mores or levels of power in society is geometrically more difficult, time consuming and absolutely critical to gain participation of nearly all of us.

    History also tells us this, for those who will listen (or may accidentally have studied) given today’s education.

  13. I think the letter authors would have more support if they did not use so many hotty-totty words.

  14. As a long time subscriber to Harper’s, I was not unduly disturbed by news of cancel culture. Every ruling class has a history subject to attack from those who were disfranchised in the process, but I don’t consider what is happening now to be an “attack on our culture and norms” or an “attempt to rewrite history” since, after all, who established the “norms” and “wrote the history?” I liken the situation to be one described by a law of physics: For every action there is an opposite and equal reaction, and if so then the only variable is time and we have lived through the “norms” of slavery, policing overraction, and perhaps even capitalism as currently practiced and are finally seeing a moral reaction to such norms in the streets by those who tell us that we have no First Amendment right to argue change.

    Personally, I distinguish between the content of speech and the freedom of speech. I agree with Todd. Let ’em talk. Let the norm makers talk. Let everyone have his/her say. We should not be shocked that change often if not always involves a moral dimension that both the status quo and the revolutionaries claim as theirs, though both may be at odds with democratic values. (See the First Amendment.) It’s just that we are in the middle of it and are fearful of what the new norms will look like and how the new status quo will affect us. I for one expect to relax and ponder on what yet another wave of change will resemble and how our current revolutionaries (the then status quo) will handle those in the streets who want to “attack our culture and norms and who want to rewrite history.”

    The certainty of change is a given though the nature of change is itself changing; only the characters (e.g., Marx, Dickens, Debs, and other revolutionaries versus Rockefellers, Kochs, Bezoes, Silicons and their spawn) change. Let’s ignore the claims of the actors in this drama and enjoy the play.

  15. An old analogy are the three blind men feeling an elephant and concluding what it must look like given the feel of their part.

    It seems that some of our blind citizens look at the back and brown communities and see only the street gangs of Chicago and LA. They conclude that’s what defines the whole community. Others of us look at the overwhelming grief of a mother whose son has been murdered by police for no discernible reason and conclude that defines the same community. One side sees a son being murdered and the other sees another criminal taken off of the street. Of course neither are right because both are. It would take a great deal of feeling around to take in the whole elephant and accurately describe it.

    Extremism, blindness, has taken over our political discourse because once it starts that where it goes as people react in kind. We have an extreme government at the moment which one group of extremists celebrates as a total victory and the other side is absolutely appalled by. That’s made worse by how this government came about which is stoking real fears that it was imposed on the country by our enemies not our voters. That follows eight years of the opposite situation. Guess what? November will not eliminate any of the extremism that’s now pandemic here.

    The only one’s benefiting from this situation are entertainment moguls and entertainment savvy politicians and oligarchs at the wealth trough.

    The question for democracy and freedom is will this ever end?

  16. Talk is talk. Mob attacks are unlawful. Hate crimes are unlawful. Money is not talk. Corporations/businesses, unions and religious organizations are not people.

  17. Theresa, you’re first to comment and first to hit the target.

    Toleration enables all sorts of evils to continue but also to propagate and grow in their effect into a perfect storm of permissiveness. Tolerant people should have to attend group therapy workshops and work out their psychotic fear of controversy.

    My first hand experience with the destruction caused by toleration is in doing my art. If my painting seems weak or out of sort in some way, if I am tolerant (often referred to as patient) with my failure, and if I declare the piece finished, “Isn’t it great?–then I become just another failed artist or become what I refer to as a “common, ordinary, everyday artist–light-years away from my aspirations.

    If I make excuses or quell my critics with statements to the effect, Well, that’s how I see it, or Who’s to say what Art is, such whining does nothing in regard to fixing my failure or strengthening my feeble art,

    Tolerance and patience are the ruination, the destroyers of talent and good intentions, individual or institutional, all the way up the chain to the Oval Office, and they and their ruin are pervasive in our culture. Not only do they ruin individual dreams, they ruin institutional aspirations of all kinds.

    Do you tell an abused wife to be patient? “Maybe you need to work on your tolerance, lady?”

    Do you tell the abused Miss Liberty, “Just be a bit more tolerant; you’ll get used to it.”

    Do you tell the abused and invalidated Miss Justice, “Patience, girlie, all will work out in the end. Your first priority is to be nice. There are classes for nice behavior on the Internet; shall I send you a link?”

    Well, that’s how I see it, and Who’s to say different? lol

  18. Extremism begets extremism as its human nature to respond in kind. Today (Trump) is the expected result of the tea party.

    As clear as that all is what’s not is when/how/if it will end.

  19. A portion of our population – I suspect a huge one – believes that “it depends” and “it’s more complicated than that” are the lily-livered democrats’ way of expressing their inability to make up their minds and stand behind their views. These “don’t bother me with facts” people have no space in their brains or in their personal paradigms for subtlety or deep analysis. From an intellectual perspective, they are easy to dismiss. However, because they are readily recognizable and herded into an obedient electoral flock, they often end up with power that far exceeds their ability to deal with the challenges they are elected to take on. Meanwhile, off on the side, democrats and intellectuals are debating what it depends on and where the elements of complication lie.

    It goes without saying that a functioning democracy requires rigorous and critical thinking to cope with complexity and to resolve competing interests. Yet somehow those with brainpower need to remain aggressive in the struggle for political power and not cede governing to the black-and-white thinkers. For a long while America seemed to be in general agreement with the principle that, while not ceding their right to speak out loudly, the intellectually challenged would allow their brighter friends and neighbors to make the tough decisions. That has changed now to the point that many of the un-gifted believe that it is their God-given right to be in charge, and some of the more capable put up little opposition. For example, Chuck Shumer, who scored a perfect 1600 on his SAT test, often seems undone by intellectual pygmies like Mitch McConnell and his ilk in the Senate.

    While not surrendering their commitment to take on problems with honesty and intellectual rigor, democrats need to project their views in a more pro-active light and avoid seeming, often, like they are above the fray. The suicidal, self-destructive absurdity of where our political system stands today demands that those with clear minds position themselves not to let this populist Armageddon recur. If we’ve learned anything in the past four years, it’s that the most stupid and self-serving among us are not capable of confronting today’s tough challenges.

  20. The great virtue of tolerating others speaking their piece is that speaking one’s piece paints a real piece of what and who the speaker is. It reveals him/her, a thing that is necessary if any or all of us are to make sound decisions about associations. But when one uses lies to say one’s piece, the picture gets distorted, and that is a clear instance for which listeners should offer NO tolerance.

    When our offended sensibilities react by trying to stifle the offensive words others utter, we are saying, No, I don’t want to hear who you are and No, I don’t want the truth of who you are.

    And when we with polite niceties stifle our own righteous reactions to offensive statements, we are joining forces with the offender, supporting his/her sentiments, betraying our own moral code; we are as individuals replicating how the Republican Party patricians as an institution sought to avoid confrontation with Hitler and fearfully, cowardly, kept America from doing its honorable duty to the world for three long and bloody years, while Hitler destroyed Europe and most of Russia.

    My novel, “Joseph’s Easel, the Rise of an American Picasso” was set in an Indiana town east of Indy called Ak-wy-yeth. Many of you may not know it, but you have much in common with residents of that town. Spoken aloud, Ak-wy-yeth sounds much like acquiesce. That book and the sequel “Joseph’s Easel, Don’t Mess with Culture” were written as 1) a picture of what American courage had become and 2) a vision–an accurate prediction–of what the Awakening would be like.

  21. Terry, if you read Roger Stone’s book, “Stone’s Rules”, you can get a very clear picture of entitlement. Roger believes and has taught his clients, most notably Donald Trump, that power is there for the taking and goes to the most ruthless, independent of what they know, or how they behave, as long as their behavior displays ruthlessness.

    That’s the basis of the anti-expertise movement currently eating at the framework of the country.

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