Harper’s Magazine’s ‘Cancel Culture’ Letter Kicks Off Circular Firing Squad in Media
The magazine’s “free speech” open letter has ignited some very public intra-newsroom feuds and caused several of its signers to scramble to back away from it.
It was the letter that launched a thousand tweets. Maybe even ten thousand—many of them, as happens so often on social media, brimming with insults and recrimination.
And that doesn’t even account for several impassioned essays, some pro but mostly con, that the so-called “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” has provoked among the self-avowed intelligentsia—a tiny yet purportedly influential group of academics, artists, philosophers and journalists—since it was released on Tuesday by Harper’s magazine.
“The controversy surrounding the letter shows the venom that these anodyne statements produced—statements that wouldn’t have been inflammatory ten years ago,” Harper’s Vice President Giulia Melucci told The Daily Beast on Wednesday as the tweets and manifestoes continued to pile up. The critics were reacting to a 532-word document that celebrates untrammeled free expression above all and rebukes the so-called “cancel culture” that might take offense and try to muzzle it.
“It’s now considered incendiary, and people are running and hiding in fear,” Melucci added.
Indeed, over the past day the blowback in this rarefied bubble has apparently been so harsh in some cases that at least one of the open letter’s signatories—transgender author, activist, and Barnard College Professor Jennifer Finney Boylan—has abjectly apologized for adding her name to the document whose 150-odd endorsers included Harry Potter impresario J.K. Rowling, whose recent musings on gender have been widely decried as transphobic.
Boylan’s retroactive regret of her inclusion among the letter signers echoed the concerns of trans activists like ACLU staff lawyer Chase Strangio, who wrote that some of its signatories were a “who’s who of authors who wrote variations on the piece ‘but should trans people really exist’?”
“I did not know who else had signed that letter,” Boylan tweeted, after what must have been a very difficult day fielding criticism. “I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, 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.”
Which prompted Tipping Point and Blink author Malcolm Gladwell—who also signed the letter—to retort: “I signed the Harpers letter because there were lots of people who also signed the Harpers letter whose views I disagreed with. I thought that was the point of the Harpers letter.”
The letter—whose endorsers included everyone from Noam Chomsky to Gloria Steinem to Margaret Atwood to Salman Rushdie to Wynton Marsalis—applauded “powerful protests for racial and social justice [and] police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society.”
But it also decried “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.”
The letter continued: “The forces of illiberalism are gaining strength throughout the world and have a powerful ally in Donald Trump, who represents a real threat to democracy. But resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.”
The heat generated by such sentiments—positing a bizarre kind of equivalency between right-wing Trumpist demagogues and their ideological adversaries—was apparently too much for another signer, Tufts University history lecturer Kerri Greenidge.
She demanded late Tuesday to be removed from the signatories, while two of Greenidge’s sisters claimed—erroneously, the evidence strongly suggests—that her name was used without her knowledge or consent.
“I do not endorse this @ Harpers letter,” Prof. Greenidge tweeted late Tuesday. “I am in contact with Harper’s about a retraction.”
The magazine obliged Greenidge, who took her Twitter account private minutes after The Daily Beast emailed requesting comment on the flap, and removed her name—apparently the only signer to make such a demand. Greenidge didn’t respond to the email.
Meanwhile, the Tufts historian’s sisters—novelist and New York Times opinion writer Kaitlyn Greenidge and playwright Kirsten Greenidge—claimed that Kerri was blindsided by her inclusion among the bold-faced names at the bottom of the Harper’s letter.
“A colleague in a professional org my sis belongs to added my sister's name without her consent,” Kaitlyn tweeted. “So mad at this person rn.” She added: “That @ Harpers letter came to me last week and I was so mad about it when I read it have been angry about it for days. My sister does not condone it either and does not agree with its contents. This is a mess.”
Kirsten Greenidge, in an email reviewed by The Daily Beast, wrote to the magazine: “I suggest your editorial staff check on the veracity of the signers of the letter. Kerri Greenidge did not sign the letter, and only became aware of its existence when it came to her attention on Twitter.”
Kerri Greenidge’s name appears as a copied recipient of her sister’s email, which carried the subject line “Cancel Culture Letter.”
However, Greenidge’s sisters’ claims are contradicted by apparent communications between the Tufts academic and Harper’s in late June and early July—a series of emails also reviewed by The Daily Beast.
In a June 29 email soliciting Greenidge’s participation, a letter organizer wrote: “Not every signatory is going to love every last phrase. But we hope you’ll feel comfortable enough with the language to sign on without tinkering…We would be enormously grateful for your endorsement here. Thanks for considering it.” (The sender’s name was redacted from the email reviewed by The Daily Beast.)
“Yes, I will add my signature. It reads well,” Greenidge replied the same day from her Tufts email address. “Let me know what more you need from me.”
“Thanks. We are giving people the option of using an institutional affiliation or just saying ‘author,’ ‘historian,’ ‘writer’ or something else. Your preference?” the organizer emailed.
“I will go by Historian,” Greenidge responded.
On July 1, the organizer emailed: “Dear Kerri, We now have over 125 signatories on our list, which is quite diverse. The final version of the letter is attached. Thank you for your support. Harper’s has agreed to publish it online. It should run next week…Again, thank you for your support.”
Reached by text, Kirsten Greenidge insisted that “my sister did not sign the letter and Harper’s did not contact her to verify her signature before publication.”
Asked about the discrepancies between the emails and her statement, Kirsten Greenidge replied: “You would need to discuss those with her,” meaning her sister.
While the letter has led to all sorts of intra-media squabbling since Tuesday, it also resulted in disputes aired in real-time among some of the signatories and their co-workers.
Vox culture critic-at-large Emily VanDerWerff, a trans woman, posted to Twitter an open letter she sent to her outlet’s bosses expressing frustration at the inclusion of her colleague, liberal political writer Matt Yglesias, among the Harper’s letter signees.
“I was deeply saddened” to see Yglesias among the names, she wrote. “He has never been anything but kind to me and has often supported my work publicly, all of which I am extremely grateful for. But the letter, signed as it is by several prominent anti-trans voices and containing as many dog whistles towards anti-trans positions as it does, ideally would not have been signed by anybody at Vox.”
While suggesting that Yglesias’ presence on the letter makes her feel “less safe” at Vox, VanDerWerff emphasized that “I don’t want Matt to be reprimanded or fired or even asked to submit an apology... But I do want to make clear that those beliefs cost him nothing.”
Their colleague, Vox’s Capitol Hill reporter Katelyn Burns, also a trans woman, echoed that sentiment, writing: “The sheer number of signatories who have waded into the transgender debate on the anti-trans side is astounding. I read many of the references to specific gripes in the letter’s text as specifically directed at trans critics.”
The turmoil within Vox reached its peak when the outlet’s co-founder Ezra Klein critically tweeted of the Harper’s letter, “A lot of debates that sell themselves as being about free speech are actually about power. And there’s *a lot* of power in being able to claim, and hold, the mantle of free speech defender,” to which Yglesias, a fellow co-founder, snarked back, implying he’d been muzzled from on high in the past: “Should I reply to this with a concrete example or stick to my commitments to you?”
Yglesias eventually backed off, writing: “I would like to de-escalate this. Nobody is losing their job and I think I’ve spoken my mind very clearly on this subject. I am just trying to move on to other things instead of endless rounds of twitter wrangling.”
And Vox’s editor-in-chief Lauren Williams eventually stepped in to clear the air amid a perceived airing of grievances among her site’s co-founders: “In real life, I’m the EIC of Vox and the fucking boss. I don't tweet, so folks who don’t know or work with me seem to think a variety of other people wield that power.”
This was, she wrote, “Proof that Twitter is not real life.”