The Harper’s Letter

Why We Let the Other Side Speak
Reporters raise their hands during a news conference at the Vatican Oct. 22, 2019. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Robert Hoyt, the founding editor of the National Catholic Reporter, liked to tell the story of naming the groundbreaking independent weekly newspaper in 1964 in Kansas City, Missouri. As a courtesy, he met with the local bishop hoping for his blessing if not his support. If I recall the story correctly, the bishop encouraged the project and suggested Hoyt call the newspaper The Truth. Hoyt, who was determined that NCR would be open to a diversity of views, was momentarily caught off guard. That would probably not be ideal, he told the prelate. Hoyt pointed out that Pravda, the name of the Soviet Union’s Communist Party newspaper, means “truth” in Russian. A bit chagrined, the bishop agreed that The Truth might not be the best name for a newspaper that boasted of its independence. Observant Catholics understand that certain unequivocal claims about “the truth” have a way of stifling dissent and covering up wrongdoing.

In the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd and the mass protests that followed, the turmoil in journalism and among journalists has itself become a source of protest. How and who should be reporting and opinionating on racism, police brutality, and other forms of discrimination and political conflict? Perhaps the most startling consequence of this turmoil was the resignation of James Bennet, the New York Times’s editorial page editor. Bennet had to step down after the online publication of an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton calling for the use of active-duty military troops in response to rioting. Outraged by Cotton’s piece, the Times newsroom erupted in protest. The paper’s publisher, A. G. Sulzberger, agreed with the protesters, apologized for the op-ed, and said the paper would re-evaluate its criteria for what is published with regard to race and other human-rights issues.

Along with similar resignations or dismissals at other media outlets, the Bennet “resignation” raised serious questions about what kind of viewpoints are now permissible in mainstream media. Conservatives have long condemned the chilling effect of “political correctness” and what is now called “cancel culture” on public debate, and there was much giddy schadenfreude over the “uprising” at the Times: now it was liberals getting canceled by progressives.

Lazy accusations of bigotry or false consciousness close minds. When we reason together the truth and the way forward can be clarified.

Given the excesses of the Trump administration and the nation’s history of racial injustice, liberals have been markedly circumspect in their criticism of the harsh rhetoric coming from some on the left. What appeared to be the suppression of robust debate at the Times galvanized a long-festering sense of alarm about the quality of public discourse in our social-media age among many intellectuals, writers, and readers. On July 7, Harper’s magazine published “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” signed by 153 writers and academics, including Salman Rushdie, J. K. Rowling, Noam Chomsky, Anne Applebaum, Garry Wills, and Margaret Atwood. The letter welcomes calls for “racial and social justice,” but raises doubts about “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.” Organized by the black writer Thomas Chatterton Williams and written by several hands, the open letter warns of an “intolerant climate that has set in on all sides,” and worries that “resistance must not be allowed to harden into its own brand of dogma or coercion.” Perhaps most galling to its mostly left-wing critics, the statement denounces “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.” In traditional liberal fashion, the letter is a reminder that neither the left nor the right is in sole possession of, well, pravda. Open debate has been a hard-won achievement, and always needs defending. As a newspaper reporter and editorial writer, and later as editor of Commonweal, those were the principles I tried to follow.

The critics of the Harper’s letter argue that the principle of engaging with people we disagree with is an exercise in power that often excludes marginalized groups. They argue that systemic racism and the oppression of the LGBTQ+ community demand a new kind of journalism, one less fastidiously evenhanded. It is time, they say, to openly take sides by calling out rich and powerful white cisgendered male journalists and editors whose privilege has long repressed black, brown, and trans people. In their view, disagreement over issues such as Black Lives Matter, affirmative action, political correctness, or sexual morality is simple bigotry and ultimately a form of “violence.” But aren’t these essentially ad hominem attacks the very definition of intellectual intolerance? Whoever disagrees with us about anything of importance is a bigot, and bigots should be shamed and silenced.

Of course, it is inevitable that journalists and editors will make value judgments about contested issues and what viewpoints should be heard. But at its best, the search for objectivity and fairness can still change minds. Lazy accusations of bigotry or false consciousness close minds. When we reason together the truth and the way forward can be clarified. When only the like-minded are allowed to participate in our conversations, we are less likely to notice our own blindspots. That understanding is being challenged by many younger journalists and writers who think the media’s quest for “objectivity” simply preserves the forces of oppression. Better, they say, to insist on moral clarity than to pretend to a false neutrality.

But moral clarity turns out to be far less obvious than such journalists assume it is. What seemed like moral clarity just a short time ago on such issues as homosexuality or gender identity, for example, has shifted dramatically for many people. So too, today’s moral clarities may look morally obtuse tomorrow. No generation can lay claim to the full and final moral truth.

In his pursuit of truth and vigorous journalistic exchange, Robert Hoyt hired John Leo and Garry Wills as NCR columnists. (Later on, I worked with Bob for many years at Commonweal.) At the time Hoyt hired them, Wills was on the staff of William F. Buckley Jr.’s National Review. Leo was an editor at Commonweal. As debates over civil rights, Vietnam, and feminism intensified in the 1960s, Wills moved to the opposite camp, becoming one of the nation’s most respected liberal intellectuals. Leo, for his part, ended up a conservative columnist for U.S. News & World Report and on the staff of the Manhattan Institute, the free-market think tank. Both, I believe, thought moral clarity was a work in progress, not a done deal.

Paul Baumann is Commonweal’s senior writer.

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