In July, Harper’s Magazine published “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate.” Signed by 153 leading artists and intellectuals—the vast majority of whom consider themselves politically left of center—the letter defended free speech and denounced what it called “illiberalism.”
“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” the authors declared. “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.”
During the past four years, criticizing illiberal tendencies on the left may have seemed like complaining about a paper cut when you are having a stroke. It’s clear that the left’s issues with free speech are, in many ways, less dangerous and less widespread than the right’s. But that doesn’t mean they don’t exist—including in our own community at GDS.
In anticipation of the swearing in of our president-elect, many of us are proud and excited to call ourselves Democrats. Now, if any, is a good time to ask ourselves what we stand for. We should welcome a reaffirmation of liberal values; if they are clearly defined, we will be able to fight with more force.
Among the 153 original signatories of the letter who are calling for such a reaffirmation are lions of the arts and politics: Margaret Atwood, Wynton Marsalis, Salman Rushdie, Gloria Steinem, Noam Chomsky, Bill T. Jones. Some are more obscure, despite remarkable stories and achievements. Reginald Dwayne Bettes, for example, is an American poet who spent eight years in prison after committing a carjacking crime at the age of 16 and has since won numerous awards for his writing and legal scholarship.
Despite the fact that almost all of the signatories lean left, many of them would likely disagree with each other on various issues. But disagreement—dealt with through discourse and debate—is exactly what the letter embraces.
“The way to defeat bad ideas,” according to the letter, “is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away.”
We are not defeating bad ideas if we never interface with them, if we deem them outside of the realm of acceptable discourse or if we walk out of the room in which we hear them. That is hiding from them.
The letter is not urging liberals to slow down, to be less radical, less vocal or less passionate. It’s not about policy. It is about how we make the changes we seek. Do we make them by being as judgmental as possible about people with whom we disagree or by hearing their concerns? By intimidation or persuasion?
The letter defines the illiberalism it denounces 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.”
Those are the tactics of our current president. Do we want them to be ours too?
At its best and simplest, liberalism propels democracy. It welcomes change and has the back of those who promote it. It amplifies new and different voices. It doesn’t stifle spaces for debate, but livens them.
Of course democracy will always require the butting of heads, but illiberalism short-circuits that competition between ideas. As Mahatma Gandhi said, “Intolerance, discourtesy and harshness are surely contrary to the spirit of democracy.”
Democracy is about fighting unrelentingly for what you believe in and then shaking hands with your opponent. As Barack Obama said in 2019, “The world is messy; there are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids and share certain things with you.”
John Lewis’ goal when faced with someone who remained uncertain about the values of the civil rights movement was to find common ground with them, to tell them why they belonged in his march, not why they were disqualified from marching. His inclination was to convert them, not shun them. It should be ours too.
For the next four years, we will have the opportunity to set the example. It’s up to us, at a school that gives us so many privileges and expects us to be leaders in the future: Would we rather make change the way our current president does or the way our greatest social and political leaders have? Would we rather approach problem solving with “blinding moral certainty” or open-minded moral clarity? Would we rather censor bad ideas or defeat them with better ones?
Nick Penniman ‘22