Does the US have censorship

Authors warn against censorship in the USA : The call for freedom of expression obscures the balance of power

The author Thomas Chatterton Williams vividly explained his initiative: “It is a defense of the fact that people can speak and think freely without fear of punishment or retaliation, a defense of the right to disagree without asking having to take care of his job. ”Williams is the initiator of an open letter signed by numerous writers, academics and activists.

The letter, entitled "A Letter on Justice and Open Debate," was published by Harper’s Magazine in the United States on Tuesday. Among the more than 150 signatories are celebrities like the "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling, the writer Margaret Atwood, the linguist and activist Noam Chomsky and the German author Daniel Kehlmann. They all speak out against a “cancel culture” in the USA.

On the one hand, you denounce the political development in the USA under President Donald Trump as a “real threat to democracy”. At the same time, however, they also warn against the fact that the resistance of protest movements, which is currently gaining strength, should not “harden into its own kind of dogma or coercion” and underline that an “intolerant climate” prevails on both sides.

The spread of “censorship” leads to “an intolerance of opposing views” and “a trend of public denunciation and exclusion”. There was a lot of applause for this move - but also massive criticism.

Expression of anger and heartache

For example, the director of the news portal "Huff Post", Richard Kim, was outraged that he did not sign when he was asked "because I could see in 90 seconds that it was silly, self-indulgent drivel". Historian Benjamin E. Park agrees: "My immediate reaction to Harper's letter was to recall all those studies of how privileged voices always overestimate the extent to which marginalized voices dominate a particular conversation."

And the lawyer and former US Secretary of Labor Robert Reich writes: “I refused to sign Harper's letter because Trumpism, racism, xenophobia and sexism have had such a free and vicious influence over the past few years that we have the expression of Anger and heartache that is finally heard, should honor and respect. "

Some of the signatories withdrew their support after publication, including historian Kerri K. Greenidge and author Jenny Boylan. “I didn't know who else had signed this letter. I thought I was advocating a well-meant, if vague, message against public denunciation on the internet. I knew Chomsky, Steinem and Atwood were there and I thought good company, ”Boylan tweeted late Tuesday. “I have to endure the consequences. I am so sorry."

Questioning the cultural hegemony

The clear distancing has a background: Boylan is a trans woman. And many commentators view the open letter as a response to massive criticism of J.K. Rowling, who most recently spoke out in a discriminatory way about trans women. As recently as this week, she compared hormone therapies and surgical interventions for transsexual adolescents with “a new type of conversion therapy”.

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But even beyond that, the open letter is interpreted in social networks as a reaction of a privileged elite to a questioning of their cultural hegemony. There is talk of angry wailing from an expert class who claim that the world has become illiberal because it finally has to respond to legitimate concerns that call into question its own privileges.

In fact, one aspect is deliberately ignored when it is claimed in the open letter that the way to "defeat bad ideas is through exposure, argument and conviction": social hegemony. As scientist Sara Ahmed puts it: “Whenever people are offered a platform so they can say they don't have a platform, or whenever people talk endlessly about being silenced, it's not just one performative contradiction; you will witness a mechanism of power. "

Basic conflict in liberal societies

Indeed, the debate points to a fundamental conflict in liberal societies. For those elites who today tout the civil achievement of freedom of expression have refused for centuries to give marginalized people a voice. Nevertheless, freedom of expression was considered the basis for the exchange between free and equal people - but only on paper. The securitized rights - and with them participation in shaping society - have always been restricted for women, people of color and homosexuals. “Cancel culture” has been a reality for them for centuries.

Removing the disguise of power relationships is the prerequisite for being able to speak to one another on an equal footing. The signatories of the letter, however, seem to assume that this has already been done. So that billionaire J.K. Rowling is in the same discursive position to posit her ideas of femininity as the people she judges. You, Chomsky and Co. are by no means suppressed.

The signatories fail to recognize that the boycotts and protest actions they criticize in their letter are not about “intolerant” shouting, but also about the long-awaited expression of a corrective that reveals established power differences between majority society and minorities. A shit storm may not be a pleasant form of discourse. But only through a critical mass in social media can previously marginalized people make themselves public. Also at the risk of those feeling threatened whose historically grown privileges were previously protected from public judgment and influence.

Basic condition of democratic societies

This is not intended to justify the fact that protests turn into violence against people. Freedom of expression remains a basic condition of democratic societies, ambivalences have to be endured. But as Herbert Marcuse noted in his 1965 essay “Repressive Tolerance”: “If tolerance primarily serves to protect and maintain a repressive society, if it serves to neutralize the opposition and make people immune to other and better ways of life do, then tolerance has been perverted. "

As a result, the desired pluralism within a democracy would be nothing but a collection of empty formulas. The end of the oppression of marginalized population groups is not only necessary to protect people from atrocities. Rather, it is the condition for that humane society that enables civil liberties to be realized.

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