Pursuing Justice and Preserving Open Debate

In a pluralistic society with historically entrenched inequities, the struggle to address past wrongs and to create a more just society inevitably generates conflicts. However, when spirited disagreements become increasingly contentious and heated, they can lead to the suppression of discourse, not merely challenging ideas and objectionable terms, but limiting forms of expression and threatening the exchange of ideas. If we believe that healthy and respectful debate is essential to a functioning democracy and a robust education, the circumscription of such debate or the marginalization of its participants is especially worrying.1 This is of particular concern for academics, journalists, and artists who, each in their own fashion, are committed to uncovering and sharing insights about issues that are often messy, uncomfortable, and complex. But it is of concern to all who hold that justice is premised on equality and inclusion.

Recently, over 150 journalists, writers, and academics signed a “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in Harper’s Magazine wherein they expressed concern over what they perceived to be an increasingly intolerant environment on campuses, in newsrooms, and throughout our society, pointing particularly to what they believed were censorious actions by those who have become impassioned advocates for social justice. As they noted, “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.”

Numerous responses to this letter, offering both critique and affirmation, have raised important questions about the arguments put forth by the letter’s authors—about the character and circumstances surrounding recent examples of “censoriousness,” about potentially romanticized notions of open debate in universities and media organizations, and about why individuals from underrepresented and oppressed minorities have such strong reactions to calls for “civility” and “tolerance” from those in closer proximity to centers of power.

Debates over free expression and its limits have been a part of the democratic project for centuries as we attempt to secure “the blessings of liberty” for all members of our society. The current iteration of this discussion is a welcome moment of reflection in the midst of a particularly fractious juncture and we can only be well-served if our discussion remains grounded in our shared commitment to accuracy, respect, and a mutual appreciation of the values we share while we simultaneously interrogate those values so they might evolve.

  1. For example, this account of recent events involving the editor of the magazine Poetry (“Shock Tactic.” The Times Literary Supplement (July 10, 2020): 31.)

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