As I recently wrote, I have learned my lesson with open letters, and this guy lays out much of my thinking better than I could, and in the pages of the very magazine at the centre of the latest open-letter shitshow. A letter is never enough space to flesh out an idea to everyone’s satisfaction — or even space enough to get basic ideas down with leaving holes so big you could drive an entire semitruck full of writers through it. I tell you what, next time someone suggests you sign an open letter along with 152 other people, tell them you will but only if it’s collaboratively written and edited by everyone on the list. That way you will either end up with a book, or you’ll see that it’s unlikely that all 153 of you agree you’re saying the same thing.
Last month, I was asked to sign the “Letter on Justice and Open Debate,” now published in Harper’s with the signatures of 153 journalists and academics, including contributors to The Atlantic. The letter warned of “ideological conformity” and “illiberalism” in liberal institutions, and it noted a tendency to confront dissenting opinions not with debate but by going after the job of the dissident, or even by going after the job of those who merely note the existence of the dissent. We all have limits; some topics are beneath our dignity to debate. The signers argued that you should keep that category of the undebatable as small as possible, and not add to it whenever you form an opinion.
Perhaps because I spend a lot of time listening to people with crazy opinions, I am sympathetic to the view that the only way to live a healthy intellectual life is to expose oneself constantly to weird or detestable opinions. But I never sign petitions or open letters. I told the letter’s organizers that if I have something to say, I will write my own damn letter. Open letters are terrible, and you should never write one or sign one.