Letterheads

Photo illustration by William Joel / The Verge

There used to be something called the public intellectual.

A class of thinkers — mostly writers with prestigious degrees and academics with a knack for writing — set the Discourse. They told other people what to think, or rather, they told the unwashed masses what was going through their own heads lately. These disclosures were taken with great seriousness, even if they tended toward rambling, incoherent, or obvious. From there, the educated and those who wanted to be seen as educated would pick and choose the opinions they wished to align themselves with. It is through this process that politics were created, refined, and rehashed. (Indeed, the phrase “Overton window” was popularized by them.) This was part of what it meant to participate in the public sphere.

I explain this, partly out of facetiousness, but partly because I belong to the last generation to remember the age of the opinionators. I used to be told, in all seriousness, to read the opinion sections of major newspapers as an edifying activity. But by the time I was in my mid-20s, words like “think piece” were already jokes at the expense of the opinionating class.

Part of this had to do with the rise of blogs. It was cheaper — and faster — to write opinion pieces than to do reporting, and anyone could create a blog. It became a broader trend in media, thanks to the economic pressures exerted first by Craigslist and later Google and Facebook, which ate up the market for advertisements. Writing up facts takes work, and work must be paid for. On the other hand, opinions are cheap. Everyone’s got one.

It was a tidy solution to generating content, especially as social media took off. Social media and opinion writing fed off each other. Editors sought out writers based on tweets they liked. (My own career began this way.) Opinions were written quickly about whatever the writer had seen on social media the other day. And social media descended en masse on whatever opinion writing caught its imagination. Occasionally, the reaction was laudatory, but the loudest reactions were that of outrage.

The size of the opinionating class was once constrained by the physical size of a newspaper page. Now, anyone with a cellphone and a nice turn of phrase can roast an anointed opinionator into a corncob.

In some ways, the fall of the opinion class mirrors the rise of the democratized, secular press at the expense of the church. After the Enlightenment, Western public life moved toward a set of secular institutions that included a class of public intellectuals — and away from the pulpit.

When societies remake themselves, it doesn’t happen because of a handful of pamphlets (or a hashtag or two). Just like the opinionating class first used social media for its own ends, Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press existed for centuries — printing religious pamphlets, sermons, and Bibles — before it began to undermine religion’s monopoly on public life. And the printing press is only one piece of a picture that includes a scientific revolution, religious strife, industrialization, and economic exploitation. Similarly, our current cultural moment is happening against a background that can be best described by that cartoon dog sipping coffee amid a house in flames.

Still, the production of the French libelles — vitriolic political pamphlets that frequently sought to cancel various public figures, especially royal family members — would not have been possible without movable type, and the libelles themselves played an undeniable role in the French Revolution. Likewise, the protests of 2020 and the sudden shift in public opinion around policing and race would not have happened without social media and the mass adoption of smartphones.

To be clear, the opinionators are not in danger of an actual guillotining — except maybe metaphorically, which is not at all the same. They will continue to publish. Some of them will continue to make very good money! But they’ll be less important — not least because they’ll no longer be setting the Overton window.

Indeed, there might not even be an Overton window. Engaging in political life may even become indistinguishable from being part of an internet fandom. I don’t mean to say facts or logic will disappear. But we will no longer pretend that they persuade others in a free marketplace of ideas. We have long conflated civic life with “engaging with ideas” or “participating in debate” or entertaining a “broad political spectrum.” But with the fall of the opinion class, the mask rips off, revealing politics as little but clashes between competing cults of information that primarily convey values in terms of emotionality, rather than rationality. No thin veneer of “fair and unbiased” will cover these bastions of information dissemination.

This is not as dire as it sounds; most internet fandoms behave more responsibly than at least one (or maybe even both) of America’s major political parties.


This week, Harper’s Magazine published an open missive that I have since taken to referring to as “The Letter.” Signed by a number of opinionators, and then also J.K. Rowling for some reason (just kidding, I know exactly why), The Letter decries the “censoriousness” that is taking over the culture, describing it as “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.”

This is not a particularly clear formulation of the cultural phenomenon they condemn, and so the meaning and intent behind The Letter are subject to multiple interpretations. This is evidenced by the near-instantaneous backpedaling on Twitter by a number of signatories who were unaware of the identities of all their fellow signatories. “Censoriousness” in the abstract is bad, and “free speech” in the abstract is good. But without further elaboration, it’s very easy to talk at cross-purposes about both.

To the extent that The Letter has a point at all, it appears to be about opposing “illiberalism.” Here, the “liberalism” referred to is the general philosophy that society ought to be based on free and equal discussion from a plurality of viewpoints. “Illiberalism,” therefore, is a fancy stand-in for what opinionators have alternately called “campus culture,” “cancel culture,” and “wokeness.”

This very vague illiberal force is called “a successor ideology” by Wesley Yang, with his coinage being immediately taken up by a number of conservative commentators like Ross Douthat (whose name does not appear on The Letter) and Andrew Sullivan (whose name does). But this term seems to only muddy the waters since the thing that they are concerned about isn’t actually a concrete ideology but an inchoate social force with the hallmarks of religious revival.

It is perhaps no surprise that Douthat, a devout Catholic, is able to put his finger on the aspect of “spiritual renewal” sought by Americans in this moment, though he seems to be unable to go further with that observation. But I suspect he also senses what I sense, as someone raised in an evangelical Christian family: the feeling of charismatic spirituality that pervades the marches and rallies of 2020, the fervor of the newly converted, the unsettling hunger for moral righteousness.

Matthew Yglesias (a signatory of The Letter) has referred to this cultural moment as “The Great Awokening,” comparing it somewhat cursorily to the 19th century religious revival that fed into the fire of the movement to abolish slavery. He does not mention the other Awakenings of American history, like the 18th century precursor to the American Revolution or the more recent 20th century big tent revivals that paved the way for the evangelical Christian politics that marked the Bush era. Our current era has been mostly defined by the pretense that religious fervor and emotional sentiment are incidental to politics, and that all can and should be grappled with through rational discourse. This was never true, but we at least pretended.

This Fifth Great Awakening is what Thomas Kuhn called a “paradigm-shift” and what Martin Heidegger called “world-collapse.” In the words of St. Paul, “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed — in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet.” What is happening right now cannot be adequately described in the language of the old paradigm — and for that reason, we all sound like absolute morons trying to talk about it.

Part of this has to do with the various fallacies deployed by people who decry “cancel culture.”

First, there is the ongoing conflation of “wokeness” — roughly defined as the idea that white supremacy and patriarchy permeate our society — with illiberalism. As my friend Ezekiel Kweku, an editor at New York Magazine, has observed, neither springs from nor necessitates the other. There are plenty of public intellectuals who champion “wokeness” while using the language of so-called civil debate, with all the rigmarole of “I concur,” “with all due respect,” and “to play devil’s advocate for a moment.”

Then there’s the motte-and-bailey fallacy around what “canceling” even means. Is someone canceled because they have been vigorously criticized? Or is someone canceled because they received death threats? Or is someone only canceled because they lost their job? Presumably, politicians should lose their jobs if they stoke sufficient outrage. Does this rule also apply to prominent figures who have been either formally or informally designated as representatives of public opinion? Where should one draw the line between the truly outrage-inducing and the undeserving victims of an internet mob?

But this general incoherence about the problem of “cancel culture” isn’t entirely the fault of the anti-woke commentariat. They are working with old tools that are crumbling in their hands and in an old workspace that is disappearing into thin air.


Despite the talk about illiberalism and the threat to free speech, the real fear that motivates The Letter becomes obvious in the text itself, right around where its writers are spinning in circles about the obvious contradiction that a pro-speech coalition has come together to ask its critics to shut the fuck up: “It is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.” The opinionators are not actually afraid of being silenced. They wish to take up column inches without a pack of nobodies telling them how wrong they are.

For all its pretense to logic and debate above all else, the old paradigm bred an irrational and incomprehensibly unjust society. The opinionators frequently circulated debunked or faulty science, and they kept alive a “debate” around climate change that has not existed among scientists for decades. They tolerated the intolerant and treated dehumanization as a difference of opinion. They were — despite being held as the paragons of rational discourse — never particularly rational. One only needs to point to the war in Iraq as proof of that.

I am nonetheless uneasy about the days to come. I admit this is partly because I am a professional opinion writer who has been aggressively canceled online, but really, mostly because I am past the age of 30 while staring down the barrel of mass societal change. But chaos is not the same thing as evil. And although the Reign of Terror may have followed the French Revolution, the terrors wrought by the system that preceded it were far greater. In Mark Twain’s words:

There were two ‘Reigns of Terror,’ if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions.

To my fellow uneasy olds, I ask you to remember that chaos is not evil, change is not wrong, conflict is not violence, and relevance is not a human right. All things change. And while you have a right to have hurt feelings about it, don’t be surprised when your feelings lose out in the new marketplace of emotion.

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Comments

Great piece! I disagree with the general tone of lumping all signees into having the same conclusions as to why they signed, but you make some excellent points about making sure people accept the natural chaos and change of human society, and to be okay with disagreements.

But this quote, "They wish to take up column inches without a pack of nobodies telling them how wrong they are." and the general point against all those who signed I don’t think should be applied to everyone on the letter. You would need to have a discussion with each person to understand their own individual perspective and reasons for why they believe in this statement needing to be made in such a way.

That’s my only real criticism I had when reading. I am happy to see something like this being published on The Verge, though.

The line you quoted is at the heart of this article. She’s accusing the signers of having only selfish motives in an effort to avoid criticism. There’s also …

the obvious contradiction that a pro-speech coalition has come together to ask its critics to shut the fuck up

Any defense of cancel culture, which this article is, has to do better than suggesting that it’s critics are only worried about themselves. The letter says: "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". Could be they’re thinking of everyday people who get fired for saying, 33 years ago, that women shouldn’t be put in combat roles in the military. Or the Hispanic electric worker who was fired for giving the okay sign.

Should we also not have laws or a justice system, because of a couple of examples I can post of wrongful convictions or misuse of the powers of justice?

It’s clear that even having a jury, lawyers, and a judge doesn’t prevent people from unjustly accused and even jailed. So if having extreme examples invalidates the whole system, laws/legal proceedings are also worthless. Can’t have it both ways.

So what is "the whole system" that you’re defending?

So your point is that because there are some imperfections in the justice system, we should willfully propagate those same imperfections to discourse in general? At least the justice system, as imperfect as it is, has trials and evidence presented before a sentenced is meted out.

Why in the world a man living a secret identity as a controversial blogger who has claimed that his entire professional livelihood and possibly his life itself relied on keeping his identity a secret would ever talk to the fucking NYT for any reason whatsoever is beyond me.

"The average IQ is in the 130s,"

The NYT reporter said a conversation would be "off the record" god damn it Mr. Spock that is the oldest trick in the book.

Fantastic writing elucidating thoughts that lots of us olds, but not quite, feel. Dog drinking coffee while house burns is all of us right now.

The marketplace of emotions … I’ll have to have a think on that one.

The opinionators are not actually afraid of being silenced. They wish to take up column inches without a pack of nobodies telling them how wrong they are.

Wait, I know that song.

LOVED THIS PIECE! Smart intelligent thought provoking words. The Verge needs WAY more of this and far less YouTube drama "news".

I, for one, can’t find much cohesiveness in this article. Starts with a cynical yet reductive belittlement of academia —without citing problematic thinkers, it’s just a generalization, while uncritically celebrates the democratization of the opinion. It mentions how these shallow pieces of unfiltered talk can be and are commodified while contributing only noise to public discourse yet somehow they’re spared the contempt reserved for old and new academia. I mean, it’s by itself a think piece that somehow champions clever yet vacuous one liners as effective response to academia discourse because… memes?

Later it evolves into a snark piece directed at this Letter and it’s signatories because the author somehow preemptively guard from problematization the concepts these signatories suspect. I’ve not read such letter, but the summary here is full of generational platitudes that explain to me what should I think about it: oh, these BOOMERS are decrying wokeness and cancel culture. But the author never pauses to meditate if wokeness and cancel culture might have problematic facets themselves.

BTW, the name dropping of Heidegger and his writings make little sense here.

This is a great example of why I no longer feel a liberal: there’s a notorious lack of subtlety and fínese in their media. A blindness to a full spectrum of issues more complex than left or right, or according to this article strange logic: archaic opinionators vs the cool masses. The right is not any better, and their issues are well documented and agreed upon most rational people. But not all their observations are nefarious and certainly their failings do not e empt liberals of their own faults.

This is not really the ‘liberal media’ this is some 30 year old self-admitted professional opinion writer who thinks they’re ‘old’ at 30! I’m a much older liberal than that and this stuff is up-its-own-asshole drivel. Read e.g. Jeffrey St. Clair over at Counterpunch.org if you want to read left-wing opinion pieces worth reading.

archaic opinionators vs the cool masses.

These are opinion pieces written by Silicon Valley Ivy League tech-head bloviators whose whole lives are a Twitter account and being "cancelled" may be the biggest hardship they have ever experienced. They naturally have a very high opinion of their own thoughts about things. But make no mistake – these people were never "cool"

Liberalism still means something as a word, even if it has morphed into an identity over the last 50 years that no longer means what it says on the box. You may be lucky, because the purity police seem to be abandoning the term. As an idea, "liberal democracy" is a standard worth fighting for. It can be reclaimed.

I’ve been thinking about The Letter a lot over the past few days and it troubles me at how badly it is argued and written given the people who were willing to sign it. How can these people decry all censorship when they should know that some censoring is needed for civil discourse? Should they entertain racial epithets, Holocausts denials, or appeals towards eugenics? Where do they draw the line between "illiberalism" and holding people accountable for their actions? Have the bothered to reflect on how their idea of "liberal" discourse still tend to reinforce hegemonic politics? It was really disappointing to see some of these luminaries devalue themselves by lending their names to such half-baked and poorly articulated ideas.

>some censoring is needed for civil discourse

no.

censoring any opinion is an argument FOR said opinion, not against. Truth does not fear challenge nor investigation.

Free Speech is the Bedrock of democracy, and when you censor "distasteful" opinions what you are doing is tokenizing them so that the act of talking about them becomes a social signal that one agrees in Free Speech, which in turn muddies the well for Free Speech because these distasteful opinions essentially become the poster children for it, which in turn further discredits the importance off Free Speech, which leads to more liberal censorship of less and less distasteful ideas and the vicious circle continues.

Think of what happens when you censor a racial epithet? Aside from the fact that you have now turned that epithet into a social signal for the commendable ideal of Free Speech, all you have done is enflame this persons prejudice, and now given them an example of why certain people have more rights of social protection than others.

When you censor a person questioning the history of the holocaust, all you do is increase their belief that there is a vast conspiracy to keep the lie upheld, and giving them conversion material. I swear to god every time someone is arrested in germany for saying that the gas chambers in aushwitz were built after the war or whatever 1,000 new neo-nazis are born.

If you want to see the pure unadulterated power of Free Speech and mutual respect and communication as a way of converting even the most odious of opinions, look no further than Daryl Davis, the black musician who got over 200 Klansmen, including a National Leader, to quit the KKK by doing nothing that sitting with them, listening to them, talking to them, offering friendship to them. IMO the only reason why this magnificent bastard hasn’t won a Nobel Peace Price is because he is a living proof that so many supposedly "Liberal" people in power have been systematically encouraging all of these distasteful opinions by their relentless suppression censorship and refusal to even open an open debate on.

Think of what happens when you censor a racial epithet? Aside from the fact that you have now turned that epithet into a social signal for the commendable ideal of Free Speech, all you have done is enflame this persons prejudice, and now given them an example of why certain people have more rights of social protection than others.

You could say the same thing for what happens when you put a murderer behind bars.. Not only does this not make any sense at all, but it’s a highly dangerous argument that enables people like the fascist dictators we’ve seen in the past.

Nobody becomes a neo-nazi overnight or in response to a single event. The pathologies that lead a person to feeling in congruence with those ideas likely begin in early childhood. Some particular event or other may pull the trigger, but a long personal history has loaded the gun so to speak. Trying to organize a society for the benefit of people whose guns are loaded that way is silly, if it weren’t this thing it would be the other.

to quit the KKK by doing nothing that sitting with them, listening to them, talking to them, offering friendship to them.

People can be naive and overconfident in what abilities they actually have. It’s a form of pretty intense egomania for a liberal or anyone else for that matter to think that they can talk someone who’s invested the better part of a lifetime in some hateful philosophy, out of it with just the power of their presence, personal oratory and an offer of their friendship. I mean honestly. Who do you think you are, Moses parting the seas?

It’s worth being skeptical of such miraculous tales.

I don’t know what to tell you, watch his documentary he meets up with a lot of the guys he converted and they back it all up

If you want to see the pure unadulterated power of Free Speech and mutual respect and communication as a way of converting even the most odious of opinions, look no further than Daryl Davis, the black musician who got over 200 Klansmen, including a National Leader, to quit the KKK by doing nothing that sitting with them, listening to them, talking to them, offering friendship to them.

Daryl Davis could just have easily have been attacked and/or very seriously harmed in that hotel room… much like many other victims of the KKK. It’s a good story but you have to question why a black person has to resort to putting himself in danger just to get others to eventually see him as a human being.

Because unfiltered and direct dialog is what get results. Censorship not only not solved any thing, it gives a sense of martyr dimension to their point.

I don’t know – here in the UK we’ve allowed racists to have their own platforms on radio shows, television and it only helped legitimise the views and spread racism. Are you engaging with unfiltered and direct dialogue all the time? Has it worked? Because I cannot have a dialogue with someone who has a starting position that some lives are more important than others.

So you propose you silence them forever? How to do that? How do you expect they’ll react? When you censor you recognize the power in that you need to hide. And that legitimizes it.

It sometimes gets results, in specific cases. But the idea that there should be no critical look at ideas and a response to them is absurd. Censorship does solve things when done not by government. Is it panacea? No of course not. Can it be missed? Sure. But this idea is in the same vein as "since laws don’t stop murders let’s not have laws against murder."

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