In an open letter 150 renowned public figures have raised their concerns over “illiberalism” and “restriction of debate” in an increasingly “intolerant society.” The signatories including writers JK Rowling, Margaret Atwood, Noam Chomsky and Salman Rushdie, feature a wide array of authors, academicians, and artists from across the world. The letter, published in Harper’s Magazine, also includes other Indian names like historian Meera Nanda and entrepreneur Parag Khanna.

Titled “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate”, and dated July 7, 2020, the short piece delivers its appeal in three concise paragraphs. It covers major bases of discourse, applauding the recent social movements against injustice, condemning right-wing extremism, while also highlighting that the public forum should be open to the “possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences” for them.

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What is the appeal of the open letter?

Simply put, the open letter calls for people, especially those on social media who have watertight ideologies, to be more accepting of these public figures’ opinions, and encourage constructive criticism, not cancel culture. It calls for a fostering of “democratic inclusion”, against the “intolerant climate that has set in on all sides.”

The letter makes a reference to the #BlackLivesMatter movement against racism and police brutality, but at the same time maintains that it has led to “a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments” that can weaken “norms of open debate” in “favour of ideological conformity.” The signatories maintain that the “free exchange of information and ideas” constitutes “the lifeblood of a liberal society,” and should be preserved.

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In the recent past, writers and journalists have come under fire from fans and followers for their divergent and, what appear to be, conservative opinions. JK Rowling, most notably, faced severe backlash on Twitter for espousing transphobic views, which insinuated that trans women did not entirely fit under the umbrella of the female gender.

The letter makes some pertinent points

The open letter collectively condemns the rising “vogue for public shaming and ostracism” that prevails 24/7, especially on social media platforms. Public figures are at the mercy of opinionated people from both sides of the spectrum, left and right. As the letter mentions, “it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought” by artists. It criticises the “censoriousness” of a “repressive government or an intolerant society”, as a result of which “journalists are barred from writing on certain topics” and “professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class.”

And when, as a consequence of this, they choose not to speak out on matters of importance, we condemn their silence. This happens frequently in India too. The caste-atrocities against Dalits, dowry killings, CAA-NRC student protests, the 2019 Kashmir clampdown, the 2020 Delhi Riots, the migrant crisis – we expect celebrities to comment on all these burning issues. But those who do – like Swara Bhaskar and Richa Chadha – or have done, like Aamir Khan, are bombarded with death threats from people who don’t agree with their views.

This open letter does not seek to absolve these public figures of responsibility. We can still hold them culpable for what they say publicly – their “experimentation, risk-taking, and even mistakes.” We should. But the very essence of the letter, subsumed within this sentence, is that “The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.

Also Read: Have Strong Opinions? What Are You Doing About Them Apart From Armchair Activism?

So should we not call celebs out for their problematic opinion?

If there’s anything we have learned in all our years of using social media, it should be that no one is without a voice here. These platforms lend us all a superpower- free speech, wide reach, and open space. It is, therefore, only justified for us to use this power to call out the wrongs that go unchecked in the world every single day. From racism to transphobia to sexism to patriarchy – there is so much that has been plaguing the modern world much prior to the coronavirus terror. Politicians, journalists, religious leaders spew radical, oppressive opinions day in, day out.

There is so much injustice to fight. So many people to call out. Shouldn’t we oppose injustice if we have the means to do so?

We absolutely must, every chance we get. But sharper the sword that cuts the neck, angrier the roar that it lets out. Trying to suppress someone’s voice altogether will only result in the person under attack grabbing on to their views with renewed belief and defensiveness. And do we want that – to argue just so we can have the higher moral ground? Or do we want them to see merit in our opinions, agree with us, and even discard their own, problematic views? Doesn’t asking someone to shut up make us as conservative as we deem them to be?

Reasoning and discussion is a facility unique to humankind. So why cry ourselves hoarse with abuses and “illiberalism” on the internet? Let’s dismantle injustice with real-time action, with mature logic, with reason.

Tanvi Akhauri is an intern with SheThePeople.TV. Views expressed are the author’s own. 

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