An open letter from JK Rowling, Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky and other writers bemoaning and “intolerance of opposing views” has stirred controversy and a debate about “cancel culture”.
Harry Potter author Rowling, who had already been under fire for recent comments on transgender people, has been slammed by critics as out of touch after joining a list of 150 high-profile public figures also including author Gloria Steinem, and Salman Rushdie.
The letter, published in Harpers Magazine this week, applauded the recent “powerful protests for racial and social justice,” but warned that “resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion” and denounced the “restrictions of debate”.
“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” the letter reads.
“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 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.”
The letter has sparked heated debate over “cancel culture”, the trend for people – usually on social media – to publicly shame or boycott those with controversial or hurtful views.
American Surgeon and scientist David Gorski tweeted: “I read the letter. It’s the same old whiny BS about ‘cancel culture’ from privileged people with large audiences complaining about facing criticism and consequences for their speech. I am unimpressed.”
American author and transgender activist Jennifer Finney signed the letter but recanted her support when she saw the full list of signatures.
“I did not know who else had signed that letter,” Boylan tweeted. “I thought I was endorsing a well-meaning, if vague, a message against Internet shaming. I did know Chomsky, Steinem and Atwood were in, and I thought good company. The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.”
Historian Kerri Greenidge has also now backed away from the letter, telling her followers that she does “not endorse it” and has contacted Harpers about a retraction.
It comes after Rowling, best known for her Harry Potter series, was widely criticised for recent transphobic comments linking hormone replacement to gay conversion therapy.
In a 3600-word essay last month she defended her right to speak on trans issues, arguing that because she was in a violent marriage she has rights to speak about ‘single-sex spaces’.
Rowling railed against the harm she said was being done to society by activists from the ‘trans rights movement’.
“I was very proud to sign this letter in defence of a foundational principle of a liberal society: open debate and freedom of thought and speech,” Rowling wrote on Twitter.
Harry Potter film stars Emma Watson, Eddie Redmayne, and Daniel Radcliffe have all condemned the authors comments about transgender people, with the latter apologising to those who “feel their experience of the [Harry Potter] books has been tarnished” and said he was “deeply sorry for the pain”.