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The Harper’s Letter: When the Boring Becomes Incendiary

“Since the response to the letter was far from boring, two things can be asserted. First, a growing minority no longer believes free speech to be valuable. Secondly, those who do believe in free speech no longer believe that it is fully operational.

Some things in life are simply improved by being boring. Washing laundry is most enjoyable when it is dull, and visiting the doctor for a check-up is only pleasant if nothing of interest happens. Likewise, when a major magazine publishes a letter affirming a belief in one of Western Civilization’s core principles, I sleep much easier when the response consists of glazed eyes and the nodding of heads in agreement.

Last week, Harper’s Magazine published a letter simply stating that no individual should be persecuted solely for his or her opinion. Stuffed with platitudes about free speech being “the lifeblood of a liberal society”—and the importance of “robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters”—the letter was so unremarkable that it should not have stirred even the most cantankerous pundit. Yet the response to the letter was anything but boring.

Immediately after being published on Harper’s website, pundits on both sides of the free speech debate felt obliged to offer an opinion. Those in favor of the letter said it was about time a major magazine took a stand for free speech and argued that cancel culture has created a toxic environment in many workplaces. Meanwhile, the opposing side claimed, variously, that cancel culture is not real; that it is real but does not matter; that all cultures are cancel cultures; and that cancel culture is a symptom of a broken political system.

The only universally agreed upon critique is that the letter itself is a bland regurgitation of common arguments for free speech. The letter does not offer any new insight or direct a devastating critique towards opponents of free speech; instead, it is just sort of boring. And this fact, in itself, poses a disquieting question: What does it mean when such a dull letter defending one of Western Civilization’s core values sparks a week’s worth of outrage?

Matters are boring, after all, when they take little thought to execute and produce predictable results. If a letter in defense of free speech were to be published without controversy, it would mean, first of all, that enough people believe in the value of free speech to see the statements as unremarkable and, secondly, that the mechanism of free speech is working correctly.

Since the response to the letter was far from boring, two things can be asserted. First, a growing minority no longer believes free speech to be valuable. Secondly, those who do believe in free speech no longer believe that it is fully operational.

The past few months provide ample proof that—for many people—free speech is not held in particularly high regard. James Bennett lost his job as an opinion editor at The New York Times over an op-ed; food writer Alison Roman left her position at the same paper because of comments she made about Chrissy Teigen and Marie Condo; writers at The Washington Post managed to get a private citizen fired from her job because of a Halloween costume she wore two years ago; and David Shor was fired for sharing a study on the political effects of violent protests.

Moreover, those are just the people who have been fired and harassed that we know about. In response to the charge that none of the signatories have been cancelled for their opinion in recent history, a few responded by posting screenshots of emails they have received from concerned citizens who want to speak their opinion but are scared of losing their job.

If people are losing their jobs over their speech—and many more find their only way of being heard is to write private letters to people who are in a position to speak without fear of losing their job—that is highly suggestive that free speech is, in fact, not working as intended.

There is some circumstantial evidence suggesting how opinions on free speech have shifted in recent years. A 2006 debate about whether freedom of speech includes the freedom to offend ended with the audience unanimously in favor of free speech. However, in 2018, a similar debate about political correctness ended with the free speech side having less than three-quarters of the audience’s support. Despite both debates covering almost identical ground—terrain that the Harper’s letter also trotted on—the audience was less convinced. On whether free speech is worth upholding, agreement appears to be waning.

If we become too anxious about the future and too depressed by our past, we will collectively discover what those of us high in neuroticism have long understood—that one can self-analyze to the point of paralysis.

So, if a letter in defense of free speech can no longer produce predictable results (read: be boring), it might indicate that a decently large section of society is unsure of whether such a value is worth keeping. If that is the case, the question becomes whether free speech is the only core value no longer boring to discuss—and what that means for our future.

The problem with being stuck in debates about core values is that such discussions can induce crises of confidence. In some ways, this is exactly what critics want. A lot of lives have been lost in the name of Western Civilization, and perhaps if we were more self-critical, we could have avoided such atrocities. And if we are to believe automatically in the values that caused such events, who is to say that we would not be complicit in similar savagery again? While this may be true, helpful self-criticism can quickly turn into neurotic introspection. If we become too anxious about the future and too depressed by our past, we will collectively discover what those of us high in neuroticism have long understood—that one can self-analyze to the point of paralysis.

One of the benefits of banality is that it allows us to be at ease, responding to situations almost automatically. Someone with social anxiety will not find anything boring about talking to his neighbors. This person’s heart will pound in his chest as he begins to sweat and twitch. His mind will be both blank and full at once. Any attempt to string words into a coherent sentence often fails. Indeed, this person will find that not only does his interactions with people produce oscillating waves of terror and relief but that the more he overthinks and analyzes the situation, the worse things become. Only when he is able to relax and calm his mind is he able to respond thoughtfully. It is for this reason that psychotherapists have their phobic clients repeatedly expose themselves to a fearful situation until they become bored.

On a societal level, we are at risk of entering into that thought-evaporating neuroticism. If every time someone is attacked for his opinions, a week must be spent re-evaluating from first principles why free speech is important to uphold, we will not be confident in our decisions and not produce good enough answers to our problems. If this spreads any further through our value structure, we may begin to slide backwards.

Right now, what used to be self-evident is now debated on a near daily basis. Instead of working together to solve the major problems threatening us, we are driven to neurotic introspection, which has a paralyzing effect on discourse, progress, and politics. Until letters like the one in Harper’s are deemed too obvious to be worth publishing, it will be difficult to make progress on any front. That such letters currently cause weeks of debate shows how far we are from boring.

Gabriel Scorgie is a freelance writer and editor.

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Richard Silliker
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Richard Silliker

Free speech is not a value. It’s has a lack of relativity. It’s a question of good and evil.