Editor Who Led Harper’s Letter Says The Cancel Culture It Warns of Drove Backlash (Exclusive)

“The most eye-opening thing… has been seeing some of the very points of the letter play out in real-time,” Thomas Chatterton Williams says of signers backing away

Thomas Chatterton Williams
Editor Thomas Chatterton Williams (left) /Wikicommons/Harper's

The editor who led the Harper’s letter criticizing cancel culture this week told TheWrap that that very culture has driven some signers to distance themselves from the document.

“The most eye-opening thing about this all has been seeing some of the very points of the letter play out in real time,” contributing editor Thomas Chatterton Williams wrote to TheWrap by email.

“The very few people distancing themselves from the letter have been pressured and shamed to do so, not because of the arguments in the text, but because of the presence of certain other signatories, which I think is all the more reason the document is necessary,” he said.

Published in Harper’s on Tuesday, the letter signed by 150 public figures, journalists and academics including JK Rowling, Gloria Steinem, Fareed Zakaria, Noam Chomsky and many others decried the rising “intolerance of opposing views.” It noted that the “needed reckoning” regarding racial and social justice “has also intensified 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.”

After the letter was published some indicated they hadn’t been fully aware of who else was involved and expressed regret.

“I did not know who else had signed that letter. I thought I was endorsing a well meaning, if vague, message against internet shaming.  I did know Chomsky, Steinem, and Atwood were in, and I thought, good company,” tweeted author Jenny Boylan late Tuesday. “The consequences are mine to bear. I am so sorry.” (Boylan is trans and JK Rowling has expressed transphobic views.)

Williams, a contributing editor for Harper’s as well as a contributing writer for The New York Times Magazine, noted that the letter grew organically and was passed among circles of activists and writers.

“The letter grew organically from an informal conversation among George Packer, Mark Lilla, Robert Worth, David Greenberg and myself about the climate of censoriousness we were noticing in cultural and media institutions and beyond,”

He continued: “We began drafting a letter last month, and soliciting signatures soon after. Quickly these writers and academics began offering feedback, agreeing to sign or declining, and we incorporated the language, to varying degrees, of at least 20 different people by the end.”

Other public figures announced they’d been approached to sign, but had declined.

“Okay, I did not sign THE LETTER when I was asked 9 days ago because I could see in 90 seconds that it was fatuous, self-important drivel that would only troll the people it allegedly was trying to reach — and I said as much,” tweeted HuffPost enterprise director Richard Kim.

Williams addressed their reactions, telling TheWrap, “Our focus was always on attracting as wide and diverse a range of signatories as we could feasibly get. Once we began approaching people, many of them volunteered to reach out to others. In this way Richard Kim from the Huffington Post was contacted. None of us knew who he was and were surprised to read his criticism.”

“It is certainly true that I have never interacted with [Williams],” Kim confirmed to TheWrap. “But when he says ‘our’ and ‘none of us’ — who does he mean? Because I was certainly sent the letter with a plea to sign. And in my old job as executive editor of The Nation edited or employed or professionally engaged at least half a dozen of the signers.”

Williams also responded to the statement of now-removed signer Kerri Greenidge, who tweeted on Wednesday, “I do not endorse this @Harpers letter.” Her tweets are protected, so a further explanation of her objection was not publicly available.

“As for Kerri Greenidge, who publicly distanced herself from the letter: there are two emails in which she clearly shows she had read the letter and enthusiastically reaffirmed her commitment to sign it,” he asserted.

Greenidge did not immediately respond for TheWrap’s request for comment.

Lawrence Yee contributed to this report.