WASHINGTON — A once obscure internet debate over the limits of free speech and the rise of what critics call “cancel culture” has, somewhat improbably, become a significant 2020 campaign issue.
President Trump tapped into conservative worries about cancel culture — the notion that everyone from intellectuals to everyday citizens can be “canceled” and see their lives upended if they become the target of an online “mob” — in a July 3 speech at Mount Rushmore. Cancel culture, the president insisted, is “the very definition of totalitarianism.”
Whether the president has hit on a winning issue is unclear. According to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll released Wednesday, 58 percent of Americans said they were unsure about what cancel culture refers to, and once it was explained to them, only 28 percent called it a “very big problem.” But beyond the 2020 campaign, a very real argument about whether such a cancel culture truly exists — and, more broadly, whether left-wing writers and activists have limited the number of opinions that can safely be voiced in public — has taken on new resonance in recent weeks.
At the heart of this debate is an open letter published in Harper’s Magazine earlier this month warning that free speech is under attack from the left.
The letter was signed and endorsed by dozens of academics, journalists and writers. Critics of the letter, meanwhile, have argued that the people who signed onto it are overwhelmingly white, well off, privileged and generally out of touch. In the days after the letter’s publication, several signatories announced they were withdrawing their support because they objected to some of the other people who had signed it.
But one of the signers is a pioneer activist for Black women and abortion rights who, while no fan of some of the other figures who signed the letter, said the ideas in it are more important than the names attached. And she says she signed it, in part, because of her deep and hard-earned belief in the power of restorative justice.
Loretta J. Ross, a visiting professor at Smith College, has a half century of groundbreaking social justice activism under her belt. She makes no apologies for signing the letter, although she did single out two well-known New York Times opinion writers who also signed as the kind of people she doesn’t agree with.
“Bari Weiss … I barely can read. Hell, I can barely read David Brooks and he’s much better than Bari. There’s a lot of people whose ideas come from a very predictable place,” Ross told Yahoo News in a wide-ranging interview last week.
“I think that some people signed the letter because they want consequence-free free speech. But I’m not one of those,” she said. At the same time, Ross rejected the idea that she might not have signed the letter if she knew who else was lending their names to it — signatories, in other words, like Weiss.
Weiss made headlines Tuesday when she announced she was leaving the paper, citing “constant bullying by colleagues” and arguing that elite conventional wisdom on Twitter is forcing the Times to appeal only to a far-left fringe.
Weiss, a self-described “centrist” who is a frequent target of criticism from left-wing writers, announced her resignation only weeks after Times opinion editor James Bennet was ousted following a staff revolt. The revolt was triggered by the Times’s decision to publish an opinion piece by Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., which argued that the military should be used to quell violent protests.
“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 Harper’s letter alleges.
The letter voiced support for “racial and social justice” but opposition to “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.” It was signed by writers from across much of the political spectrum, including former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, feminist icon Gloria Steinem and leading leftist intellectual Noam Chomsky.
“Different people signed the letter for different reasons, but it would take an adult view to recognize that rather than to lump us all together,” Ross said.
Backlash to the Harper’s letter on the left has been fierce, for a few reasons. Some have said the signees were complaining simply because they were being criticized. Others mocked the signees as clueless elites “who wax poetic about free speech from safely behind a MacBook Air somewhere on the Upper West Side.”
Some critics of the letter have likewise argued that even if some people have lost work and income for retweeting a study about nonviolent protests or have been reported to their bosses for signing the Harper’s letter, the fight for racial justice is far more pressing at this moment.
“It is not a coincidence that powerful white people are painting themselves as the victims at the same time Black Americans are on the streets demanding to be treated with some semblance of humanity. For the first time perhaps ever, the national conversation is solely focused on racism and anti-Black police violence. For those who are accustomed to holding all the power and attention, that shift in focus feels ‘oppressive,’” wrote Jessica Valenti, a feminist author.
Ross, however, has devoted her life to civil rights activism. And she rejected the notion that any issue is more important than the free exchange of ideas advocated by the Harper’s letter.
“I don’t know if there’s any bigger issue than the painful working together of how do you solve common problems,” Ross said. “I don’t know if I accept the premise that there are bigger issues of how humanity learns to talk to one another. I don’t think anything is solvable if we don’t learn to talk to each other.”
Ross said she “did sign the letter with reservation because I do believe in deplatforming, but a very narrow set of people … fascists, Holocaust deniers, people who say Black people are inferior.”
“But I’m not going to deplatform someone simply because I disagree with them,” she said. Deplatforming can mean depriving someone of a prominent position of influence, removing someone entirely from a social media network or simply preventing someone from giving a public lecture or speech.
In a phone call Tuesday, Ross said she “wouldn’t have called for [Bari] Weiss to be deplatformed” but predicted Weiss would land a new job easily at another publication. As for Weiss’s critique that the Times is becoming too ideologically narrow, Ross said she wished the newspaper was “more left-wing.”
Ross said she received the text of the Harper’s letter from Katha Pollitt, a feminist poet and critic, who is a friend. Pollitt also signed it.
During the course of two conversations with Ross, it became clear that she signed the letter less out of concern over events of the past several weeks — such as Bennet’s ouster at the Times — than because she has spent the past few years working on a book about the issue of free speech and social justice work.
“I wonder if contemporary social movements have absorbed the most useful lessons from the past about how to hold each other accountable while doing extremely difficult and risky social justice work,” she wrote in a New York Times op-ed last year.
Ross’s philosophy is summed up by the phrase “calling in the call-out culture.” She wrote in her op-ed last year: “Calling-in is simply a call-out done with love. Some corrections can be made privately. Others will necessarily be public, but done with respect. It is not tone policing, protecting white fragility or covering up abuse. It helps avoid the weaponization of suffering that prevents constructive healing.”
Ross knows suffering. Her own personal story of 66 years began with trauma and heartbreak. She was the victim of rape at age 11 and was raped again by a distant cousin at 15, she said, and then bore a child from that second rape. That suffering propelled her into advocacy for rape victims.
“That’s one reason that I make my story so public, because I want to model for other people how to attach words to those unbearable life experiences so you don’t lose your joy in living, so that you heal,” Ross told Yahoo News.
As a Howard University undergraduate, Ross became involved in Black nationalist and left-wing politics.
After becoming sterile from a defective IUD at age 23, Ross was one of the first Black women to sue the manufacturer, which led to a raft of class action cases. That experience led her to a career in working to expand access to abortion, but with an eye toward the disparities facing Black women in particular.
Ross, who held a senior position at the National Organization for Women, was one of the originators of the term “reproductive justice.”
During the 1990s, she worked for a group that raised awareness about white supremacist groups, the Center for Democratic Renewal.
She was writing long essays on combating white supremacy 25 years ago. But even then, Ross stressed the importance of maintaining unity inside broad and diverse coalitions.
“Coalition work is not easy or comfortable; it is hard to be confronted constantly with our own and each other’s bigotry, which forces us to reevaluate our cherished assumptions. Despite the difficulties, coalitions provide us with a much greater potential to bring about fundamental opposition to white supremacy and advancement of our movements for human rights,” she wrote in 1995.
In her work, Ross has conversed face-to-face with both convicted rapists and members of white racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and their family members.
“I used to deprogram Nazis and Klansmen. It didn’t kill me. It didn’t cause me irreparable harm. I knew what I stood for so I could entertain what they stood for as a part of their humanity, even though I totally disagree with it,” Ross said.
“A lot of people who think human rights work should be done a certain way are amateurs who have not thought about how to get power to change things in a nonviolent way,” she said.
Ross said she faced a turning point in her career as an activist in 1980 when a young woman named Yulanda Ward, who was working in anti-gentrification activism in Washington, D.C., was shot and killed. Police said it was a robbery. Ross and her fellow activists thought it was a “political assassination” by those who resented their work.
“I had to decide whether I was going to stay in activism. Most people melted back into their regular lives because we didn’t think that what we were doing was going to be that dangerous. We were writing letters to city hall and holding teach-ins,” Ross said. “I had to decide, ‘Am I going to do this or am I going to go back into a career in chemistry?’”
Ross said her devotion to restorative justice comes from being raised in a loving family and not from religious faith. But there is also a pragmatic element to her outreach: She’s seen this approach work over the decades she’s spent in the trenches.
“It’s not about not holding them accountable for saying something racist, sexist, homophobic or whatever. But it’s because you keep in the lens their humanity as well. The way I see it, offer criticism as if you’re holding their heart in your hands. And that may make you temper how you say it,” she said.
Ross, who talks often about how many social justice activists are motivated by their own trauma, as she has been, said this is part of the reason why a call-in culture is needed, because it demands self-examination as well.
“Before you make the decision to call somebody in or out you need to check your own emotional temperature and your own motivations for doing it. If you’re doing it because you want someone else to learn and grow, that’s one thing,” she said.
“If you’re doing it for punishment and revenge, then you need to figure out why you feel motivated to offer that to another human being. What unhealed trauma is going on inside of you?”
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