Hafta letters: On safetyism and free speech

NL subscribers get back with bouquets and brickbats!

ByNL Team
Hafta letters: On safetyism and free speech
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Hello panel,

First of all, I feel proud that I'm supporting such a spirited, accurate, and nuanced platform of discussion as Hafta. After seeing many American outlets like Vox, CNN caving in, I was heartened that Abhinandan and co stood up for the classical liberal values and upheld the ethos of freedom of speech.

Since he often feels anxious on whether his views make him sound like an uncle, I'd like to reassure Abhinandan that he sounds like nothing but a reasonable person who favours a society supporting an open exchange of ideas without malice, and where mere thoughts don't count as egregious injustice or violence. As someone more than 20 years younger than him, I'd like to say that there are enough among my friends who disagree on many things but also hold the spirit of free discussion itself as a value that all of us should aspire to, and thus support Harper's letter, #NotAllMillennials. If believing in such rational and universal values makes one an uncle, then so fucking be it, because I'm tired of too much equivocation and "if-but"-ting/hush-hushing around this issue. A bouquet from my generation to his.

As a fellow fan of Rushdie, I was surprised Abhinandan didn't mention him as one of the signatories of the letter too. I wrote in to dispel three crucial things that critics of the letter allege, since I've got a bad feeling that someone else will write to you bringing about these very points against the letter:

1) It's not about whether free speech is absolute or not:

Nowhere does the letter mention that free speech means the right to use the n-word or casteist slurs. The letter was not debating if free speech is absolute or not, which would take a long time to settle, and nor did it say that the letter itself was above critique and those objecting to it oppose free speech. It was rather wary of a certain mood of taboo and silence setting in whenever things got morally complicated and, most importantly, that people were either losing their jobs or their positions were made suspect simply because they chose to espouse rather anodyne opinions.

2. The signatories are not all "elite white men":

They include Iranian women professors who escaped from the Iranian Khomeini revolution, black women, women like Anne Applebaum and Gloria Steinem, Asian journalist Lee Fang who was nearly fired for being "racist", and arguably the greatest novelist India has produced. The letter was in fact started by a black columnist named Thomas Chatterton Williams, who was also targeted on Twitter for "betrayal". I think the thing which really spooked the neoliberal woke police was the realisation that not all non-white people think alike, that they have individual agency to think for themselves, and they can't be constrained to their group identity like herds of sheep. The horror, the horror of individuality

3) Ideas are not violence, and there should be no ideological safe space:

In campuses of especially private universities, this dangerous concept of safetyism is spreading (I work in one, so I speak from experience). A trans Vox employee complained on Twitter that her colleague signing the letter made her feel unsafe, and some even had the chutzpah to say that no signatory had undergone anything like censorship/violence, forgetting Rushdie, Gary Kasparov, and many others who had not only been censored but exiled, jailed or threatened. Such warped ideas about what violence is amuses me. Even if Rowling's ideas are reprehensible, the best way to defang them is to show their ridiculousness out in the open. This issue would have long been over if someone were to just fact-check her writing and dismantle each of her arguments calmly.

I thought Manisha, Mehraj, and Raman sir navigated the issue very reasonably and responsibly. Since Mehraj and Manisha had recommended Matt Taibbi earlier, I'd also suggest his latest piece on this letter to you and all listeners. Also linking here an essential understanding of free speech by Noam Chomsky himself, which has been doing the rounds in context of this debate:

Thanks and keep up the legendary work.

Best,

Uday

***

Thanks for reading the email.

I guess your safetyism discussion with my email had me want to put one more point in.

Disclaimer: I am not a parent!

The point is: simply look at how kids are being parented now and before. As a kid, I did not have myself messaging my mom that I am safe every hour or so. (It’s not really just girls, even boys). The tech allows you to see where they are at almost every millisecond.

Point being, if kids are put into an incredibly safe space, don’t do this and that. It’s a no-brainer, they are going to live in a bubble where anything they deem unsafe is not worth hearing. To make an absolutely crude comment, the umbilical cords are never really cut. Metaphorically, the cord is the safety. It’s quite obvious where the safetyism culture comes from, don’t you think ? Gen X, Gen Y, millennial parenting.

Now I know if you end up reading this on Hafta, beware. You are going to get a lot of flak from parents for allowing this view from a NON-parent (What EXPERIENCE do I have ?)

Something like this Russell Peters' skit: somebody gonna get hurt real bad. (The footage is 15-20 years old.)

Anyway, ciao.

Dhiraj

***

Hello Newslaundry team,

I'm writing to commend you on your free speech discussion last Hafta. I felt that nuanced arguments were made and admire how Abhinandan has shown an open mind exploring ideas and changing his opinions in some instances.

I totally agree that a society needs to allow robust debate and multiple perspectives. But I'm wondering if snowflakes/safetyism/cancel culture "trends" actually exist. I define that these trends exist if they are being practised by a not-insignificant minority, and which are a bigger proportion of the population than previous generations.

I'm not convinced yet because:

1) India and the US/UK are very different cultures, at different stages in their cultural evolution, but linked by Twitter. I don't think both could be at the same point on "cancel culture", and I don't see any proof that millennials and Gen Z are specially "soft" (this sounds like a right-wing theory to complain when told not to be racist or sexist).

2) Merely replying (with energy) isn't cancel culture, neither is it cancel culture for Harry Potter fan sites to say they won't link to JKR's website (so they won't promote her personally, only her work). She IS saying what she wants, they are saying they don't agree. I think that qualifies as free speech.

3) People losing their jobs (say, for a tweet expressing) could qualify. How many such cases are there? Are they enough to form a culture?

4) Is it also cancel culture to advise people not to watch TV news? When people are ostracised by fellow villagers, like when an ancestor of mine was when he decided to educate his daughters?

If people refuse to discuss a reasonable subject without reason, I call it stupid culture. And that isn't new.

Also: I'm also reading Annihilation of Caste; I smell some parallels with how caste is ignored by upper castes and how white people don't want to discuss racism as discussed in the video "White Fragility". I'd recommend the video to Mehraj :)

Manjari

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