High-profile writers have penned an open letter entitled A Letter on Justice and Open Debate, that calls for greater tolerance in open debate and an end to public shaming and ostracism. Published in Harper’s Magazine, the group of 150 signatories which includes Harry Potter author JK Rowling, Noam Chomsky, Margaret Atwood and conservative columnist David Brooks wrote:
“The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely 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.”
“We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences,” – A Letter on Justice and Open Debate
The letter is certain to strike a chord with readers of all political persuasions, given the recent rise of ‘cancel culture’ – where support for a public figures or company is withdrawn because they do something offensive.
“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,” the letter’s authors wrote.
Here at Eternity, we too are concerned about and do not endorse cancel culture. That’s why we allow a wide range of opinion in our social media comments. We don’t want to cancel the opinions of atheists, for example. We are a bit unusual with regard to this, as many Christian sites delete criticism. We’d rather see Christians interact with those who critique our faith.
That said, we don’t believe in total open slather discussions without moderation – and besides, they’re really not an option in this age of internet trolls. We’ve tried more and less moderation of our social media and have found that the more we moderate, the safer commenters feel, the more they engage and ultimately, the more people who read our stories.
We think it is wrong to vilify people – that is, to try and make other people hate them. We don’t want defamation to occur on our watch – and there’s a simple test for it: just don’t write anything that makes readers think less of someone unless you have proof to back it up that would hold up in court.
Our observation like that of writers who penned the Harpers letter: insults rarely convince anyone to change their mind. “Come let us reason together” is surely a better approach towards growing in understanding of one another.
People might feel like they are being “cancelled” when they are actually experiencing the discomfort of being questioned or critiqued.
Yet we also understand that the phenomenon of cancel culture has not developed in a bubble but in a specific context. Some might even say that cancel culture is the social media version of the “riot” that Martin Luther King Jr described as “the language of the unheard”.
Most people want to know that powerful people are held to account for their use of power. This includes things like how they treat others, where their allegiances lay, and whether they act in ways that line up with the values they profess. And, as traditional institutions have been proven incapable or unwilling to hold powerful people to account, some have decided to call them to account themselves.
As a result, people might feel like they are being “cancelled” when they are actually experiencing the discomfort of being questioned or critiqued.
This seems to be particularly true for people who are used to voicing their opinions in forums where little or no immediate dialogue follows. Perhaps they hold jobs where they give speeches standing on a physical platform, or perhaps their thoughts are generally communicated from a pulpit, or over the radio, or in newsprint.
Social media platforms are what their name implies – social.
In contrast to those types of forums, social media platforms are what their name implies – social. That means when someone expresses their opinion publicly on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram, anyone who wants to can respond by asking questions or giving their own opinion. Hence, dialogue is key, a humble tone is your best friend, and responses that amount to “because I said so” simply do not fly.
The responsibilities go both ways, though. Younger social media users need to keep in mind what a very blunt instrument cancel culture can be. They should take extra precautions to fact-check information that influences them so they are not manipulated by other users who have their own agendas.
On the one hand, social media interactions enable people who lack status, wealth and institutional power to advocate for their own justice, call their oppressor to account and gather others to their cause. On the other, when social media power is wielded unwisely, the justice it meters out can be disproportionately harsh and even completely unfair. The oppressed may become unwitting oppressors. Or they might galvanise groups in opposition and ultimately widen the divisions in society.
Putting power in the hands of everyday people has always been a dangerous means of addressing society’s inequalities. But leaving it in the hands of the powerful is equally so.
And so, at Eternity, we implore our readers to choose a third way. To listen others with empathy, question with sincerity, and engage with others with the respect befitting the image of God they are created in.
Surely if there’s any conversations where truly respectful disagreement is found, it should be in those between believers. After all, wasn’t it Jesus who said our distinctive should be love? “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13.35)