Atwood, Rushdie, Gladwell and Rowling sign letter protesting against 'ideological conformity'

Atwood, Rushdie, Gladwell and Rowling sign letter protesting against 'ideological conformity'

High-profile authors including Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Malcolm Gladwell and J K Rowling have signed an open letter protesting "ideological conformity" and the spread of "censoriousness", including "an intolerance of opposing views" and "vogue for public shaming and ostracism".

With other well-known writer signatories including Martin Amis, Jeffrey Eugenides, Daniel Kehlmann and Gloria Steinem, the letter was published online with the US-based Harper's Magazine on Tuesday (7th July) and has been signed by more than 100 people from the arts, media and academia.

Another signatory is Rowling's agent Neil Blair, whose agency recently lost four of its authors over the Harry Potter author's views on transgender law reform and tweets about the trans community.

Writing about a number of issues, including the withdrawal of books "for alleged inauthenticity", the letter takes particular issue with reprisals that include the removal of people with contentious views from their posts, saying this is leading to "greater risk aversion among writers, artists and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus".

The letter, whose signatories say they refuse to choose between justice and freedom, begins by acknowledging that the demands for police reform, along with wider calls for greater equality and inclusion across our society, are "overdue". However, it goes on to argue that this has "also intensified a new set of moral attitudes and political commitments that tend to weaken our norms of open debate and toleration of differences in favor of ideological conformity".

"As we applaud the first development, we also raise our voices against the second," the letter reads. "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—which right-wing demagogues are already exploiting. The democratic inclusion we want can be achieved only if we speak out against the intolerant climate that has set in on all sides."

The letter goes on to protest the spread of "censoriousness" in our culture– "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"– and rallies we must "uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters".

It warned the signatories found it "more troubling still" that institutional leaders are issuing "hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms" in "a spirit of panicked damage control" in response to "perceived transgressions of speech and thought".

"Editors are fired for running controversial pieces; books are withdrawn for alleged inauthenticity; journalists are barred from writing on certain topics; professors are investigated for quoting works of literature in class; a researcher is fired for circulating a peer-reviewed academic study; and the heads of organizations are ousted for what are sometimes just clumsy mistakes," the letter reads. "Whatever the arguments around each particular incident, the result has been to steadily narrow the boundaries of what can be said without the threat of reprisal. We are already paying the price in greater risk aversion among writers, artists and journalists who fear for their livelihoods if they depart from the consensus, or even lack sufficient zeal in agreement.

"This stifling atmosphere will ultimately harm the most vital causes of our time. 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. The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away. We refuse any false choice between justice and freedom, which cannot exist without each other. As writers we need a culture that leaves us room for experimentation, risk taking, and even mistakes. We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us."

English PEN has yet to comment and the Publishers Association declined to comment.