Most people will justifiably not give a shit about the resignation of a New York Times opinion editor. Partly because most people are not American – and basically nobody is a New Yorker – but also because media on media commentary is by definition masturbatory.
The subtext for Bari Weiss’s resignation is nonetheless an essential one for any writer: what can you say? It’s a question that can be understood legally, socially, and morally, and teasing out distinctive answers is tricky.
Complicating matters, Weiss has put these questions in the midst of an HR complaint that alleges she was bullied at the New York Times for her political opinions and desire to broaden the Overton window of the paper’s opinion pages. I’m confident her sense of victimisation is genuine, although whether it is justified is a matter for an employment tribunal.
What an outsider like me can observe is that there is a power struggle going on within the organisation. Weiss termed it a “civil war” on Twitter not long before it claimed her colleague James Bennet, who resigned after publishing a piece from senator Tom Cotton calling for military action against rioters in American cities.
That piece, which has become a touchstone for the wider issue, strikes me as innocuous, whatever you make of the argument. Far more interesting is the disclaimer attached to the front that says the article “should have undergone the highest level of scrutiny”. But this is bollocks: the piece’s critics disliked what was being argued, not how.
As I wrote earlier, many battles over what can said are territorial in nature, and the campaign over the New York Times has proven a great example. Weiss was trying to maintain space for certain views to be aired in the paper’s opinion pages; her critics were trying to prevent this.
The censors’ argument is well put by Nicholas Grossman in Arc Digital, after he gets past the frivolous hypocrisy charges. (Being a hypocrite hurts you and maybe your cause, not your argument.) He thinks that the central disagreement about free speech in this case centres on the meaning of “some expressions” in the following premise:
Some expressions are beyond the pale, and private actors should use their power to reduce the space in which those expressions are socially acceptable.
Grossman cites the shifting of ‘nigger’ and ‘faggot’ from acceptable slurs to unacceptable ones in the United States as an example of such changes, which he believes derive from cumulative private actions. Today’s social justice activists are therefore just trying to make a few more things socially unacceptable, for example disputing the gender of a transperson or flying a Confederate battle flag (which remains, connotations aside, a handsome flag).
Grossman adds that free speech advocates have taken the easy option of defending free speech in general without responding to specific controversies. To return to our battle metaphor, the free speakers prefer staying on their hill and keeping the enemy pinned down with artillery to sending the infantry in to secure specific ground.
The broad picture seem accurate to me, but I disagree with his conclusions.
An anecdote at the start of Grossman’s piece helps explain my view. Before Weiss resigned, the writer Thomas Chatterton Williams near enough ejected a friend from his house for criticising her. As Williams had signed the infamous Harper’s letter deploring cancel culture, the contrast struck many as hypocritical.
Yet Williams’ house is not the New York Times opinion section. People can set narrower rules in their living rooms than the law mandates, just as they can discriminate when socialising and make controversial moral choices within the bounds of the law. There is nothing hypocritical in him arguing that criticism of Weiss be tolerated in the press while not wanting to hear it in his own house.
This seems to be the mistake that many wokesters have made: their personal morality is not widely shared, and yet they are forcing it on institutions they’ve only a partial claim to. That’s when the standard arguments that narrowing public debate makes us smaller and stupider start to apply.
Newspapers are usually inherently political vehicles and one can expect them to be biased. As the Anglo-American writer Andrew Sullivan wrote this week as he parted company with New York Magazine:
A critical mass of the staff and management at New York Magazine and Vox Media no longer want to associate with me, and, in a time of ever tightening budgets, I’m a luxury item they don’t want to afford. And that’s entirely their prerogative.
It is. But increasingly we see examples in the media of narrow groups trying to seize control of papers to campaign for causes that have dubious support among staff, to say nothing of readers. To do this they try to exclude dissenters.
Earlier this year some Guardian staff organised a letter criticising the paper’s discussion of trans issues, particularly targetting a piece from the columnist Suzanne Moore. The intention is to prevent one side of a debate speaking in the paper on an issue that divides progressives.
For context, in January 2004 the same newspaper published a comment piece under the byline of Osama bin Laden. 16 years ago it could tolerate a terrorist; now it can’t tolerate a gender critical feminist.
To explicitly respond to Grossman’s challenge: Yes, I want to hear from the gender critical writers (or trans-exclusionary radical feminists (terfs) if you prefer). And I want to hear from people who wave Confederate flags as a celebration of their identity. If a view is held by many people it deserves explaining.
And that’s the rub. The social justice crowd wasn’t trying to stifle gender critical writers like Moore because the trans debate is over, but because it is happening. The same is true for censors at the New York Times and in many other progressive publications. As with censors throughout history and place, they are worried their opponents will prove more persuasive than they are. Let both sides speak and we’ll find out.