Harper’s magazine has published a letter July 7 in defense of free speech signed by more than 150 public intellectuals, which has already fallen victim to the kind of virtual mob-rule that it decries. Ironically, a number of signatories have asked that their names be removed after either being attacked for having signed or learning the names of other, presumably intolerable, signatories.
The letter itself is a statement of classical liberalism in its pure form: It holds that “free exchange of information and ideas” is “the lifeblood of liberal society,” and worries about a weakening of “norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity.”
Much of the reaction to the letter, like many of the threats that motivated its authors, has occurred on social media, especially Twitter. A “trans” contributor to the progressive website Vox feels “less safe” because a colleague there signed the letter, which was also signed by Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, who has — again, intolerably — defended the natural basis of sexual difference. Others, anxious to display their higher level of ideological consciousness, have dismissed the letter as an irrelevant gesture by resentful and privileged intellectuals.
Thus we have come full circle. The revolution of social media, intended to empower more people and democratize public discourse, increasingly resembles a schoolyard populated by gangs shaking down weaker students for their lunch money or cowing them into self-hatred. “Liberalism” looks a lot less liberal. Can it maintain itself under such circumstances?
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