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It’s About Ethics in Open Letters

Harper’s “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” has gotten a lot of attention and there are some fine responses out there already…
It’s About Ethics in Open Letters

How Did the Organizers of the Harper’s Letter Mislead Some of the Signers? (It’s About Ethics in Open Letters)

Harper’s “A Letter on Justice and Open Debate” has gotten a lot of attention and there are some fine responses out there already, including this very funny one.

But I wanted to dive into a few specific claims about the letter itself, who signed it and whatever (possibly odd!) process it followed to publication, including troubling claims by two initial signers, and inconsistent solicitations to sign onto the letter from people who took a pass.

[I also did a podcast on this episode, including a few additional updates.]

Debate so open I can see my own brain! And yes, the reference to “it’s about ethics in open letters” is me being glib.

This is a Weird Open Letter

I’ve helped with a lot of open letters over the years on topics like scientific integrity at federal agencies, the need for climate action, and coalition statements in response to specific policy developments.

These letters usually follow a basic process: Relatively high profile convening authors or organizations will craft language, finalize letter text, then solicit more signatories from their peer networks. This helps establish the credibility and relevance of the letter, reduces the impulse for signers to try to edit the text too much, and make it easier for organizers to vet and add on new signers.

Other letters lean into an odd bedfellows approach, e.g. former heads of agencies may band together to offer bipartisan support for a current policy and invite others to sign on. In this case, organizers may use a “Noah’s Ark” method of adding conservatives and liberals to a letter in pairs.

The Harper’s letter is odd because the organizers’ standards for who may or may not have been invited to sign on weren’t clear. In search of a very broad display of ideological and occupational diversity, the list includes authors, journalists, professors, pundits, a tech founder, a union head and legal scholars. It also included writers such as Bari Weiss, who decries attempts to fire people for speech even though she tried to get a professor fired for his speech. (Edit: I fell for this on Twitter because I saw credible people sharing it. My bad! This dude is real and I remember reading about him, but he wasn’t on the letter.)

The lack of a coherent theory of who was signing the letter ultimately had a big impact on how it was received. It may have also affected how the letter was represented inconsistently to different signers and appears to have put off at least one of the original signers for very understandable reasons.

Who signs onto letters obviously matters

It seems silly to have to establish this, but who signs onto a letter—especially on a policy or political topic—is quite important for interpreting that letter.

That’s because on contentious issues, words themselves are in contention and people use them differently. There are obvious examples of framing choices, such as liberals referring to inheritance taxes while conservatives call them death taxes. But individual terms can also be contested. (Linguists call these “floating signifiers.”)

For instance, the term “scientific integrity” is used by science advocates to describe anti-censorship policies at government agencies. Meanwhile, industry lobbyists use the same term to describe provisions that make it easier for polluters to challenge regulations in court. The use of this term is contested in the titles of Congressional hearings, in various think tank reports, and in speeches and testimony on these issues.

So if a group approached a scientist to sign a letter about “scientific integrity” who signs it would be of critical importance. Are they anti-censorship science advocates? Or do they work with lobbyists at major chemical companies? Who is their audience for the letter and what do they hope to achieve?

Similarly, scientists will contend that “academic freedom” means the ability to do research free from political interference. But science deniers will often use the same term to defend speech that is simply inaccurate. Rather than debating the point itself, they would rather debate their “academic freedom” to advance a wrong argument, a point which no one is actually contesting.

Similarly, climate contrarians will insist that they want an “open debate” about climate science but they have a curious habit of never actually responding directly to arguments from the scientists they pester with such demands, which one might consider a pre-requisite of a “debate.”

Broader concepts like “speech” float even higher in the political discourse and are constantly up for grabs. “Free” speech for instance can be defended on legal grounds as well as social grounds and many people like to wedge arguments about platforming, gatekeeping and potential chilling effects into what are traditionally narrower legal “free speech” debates. Others say that those issues are about access to audiences and the nature of at-will employment at media companies, not about a fundamental right to free speech.

In any case, whatever your thoughts about what these terms mean, it’s clear that WHO is using them and WHY are rather critical questions for understanding how they are being used in context. These aren’t arithmetic problems, after all, they’re arguments about words that have contested meanings for different audiences. But people who were invited to sign onto the letter seem to have been denied that context.

Transparency with signers is a great best practice with open letters (shocking, I know!)

In the wake of the letter’s publication, a few writers shared their experiences being pitched to sign on. The stated purposed of the letter—and which earlier signers were mentioned — seemed to vary quite a lot.

One academic was told the letter was asking for “more meaningful efforts at racial and gender inclusion…and also greater efforts to respect open debate and political differences.”

Tsao’s invitation to sign the letter.

Another writer shared this pitch they received with me, in which the letter was framed as being “prompted by the recent turmoil.” The writers, they said were “inspired by and vehemently supportive of the protests and some of the reforms we hope will follow, but we’re also very troubled by some of the purges and intolerance that have come alongside.”

The letter then goes on to list several signers then mentions “dozens more.”

Solicitation to sign on to the Harper’s letter.

Historian Kerri Greenidge, who appeared on the first version of the letter, said she actually didn’t endorse the letter.

Her sister, the author Kaitlyn Greenidge, rejected a solicitation to sign onto the letter herself. She said that someone else signed off on Kerri Greenidge’s behalf and without her consent.

The New York Times reported that:

Giulia Melucci, a spokeswoman for Harper’s, said the magazine had fact-checked all signatures and that Dr. Greenidge had signed off. But she said the magazine is “respectfully removing her name.”)

It’s not clear exactly what happened here or what professional organization might have been involved, but it’s something the letter organizers could probably clear up. In any case, knowingly signing someone onto a letter without their permission would be unethical while doing so unwittingly would be very sloppy.

[7/9 update. Response from a letter organizer below. Harper’s also shared more with the Daily Beast, including what they said was a confirmation email to Greenidge that referred to 125 signers.]

The Times additionally reported:

Another person who signed, who spoke on the condition of anonymity in an effort to stay out of the growing storm, said she did not know who all the other signatories were when she agreed to participate, and if she had, she may not have signed. She also said that the letter, which was about internet shaming, among other things, was now being used to shame people on the internet.

[July 10 update: This hasn’t gotten much notice yet, but on July 8 original letter signer Lucía Martínez Valdivia, an English professor, also asked to withdraw her name. She writes: “It wasn’t until the publication of what is now being referred to as That Letter that I saw a full list of signatories.” She told the organizers: “I did not…expect to find bad-faith actors on that list” writing that their presence “turned it from a sincere presentation of a difficult but valuable ideal into an entirely different and hypocritical text.”]

Another letter-signer seemed to be surprised to learn who ultimately signed the letter:

Boylan on the letter she initially signed onto.

Boylan is an author and a transgender rights advocate who is a contributing opinion writer at the New York Times. She may have been surprised to learn that J.K. Rowling and Jesse Singal were on the letter. Both have received significant criticism for the accuracy of their writing on transgender issues. And importantly, they’re not necessarily well known for defending speech and “open debate” on other issues: this is their jam.

So it’s perfectly understandable that a writer who has spent a lot time on transgender advocacy would see their participation as muddling what versions of “speech” and “open debate“ are actually under discussion in the letter. For his part, Singal has a long track record of getting into rolling Twitter and email disputes with trans women writers and has built a following of online trolls who harass them when he gets into these arguments. And Rowling, of course, has made global headlines for sharing her mental brain thoughts about transgender issues, something that has perplexed and disappointed many of her fans.

[July 9 update: I followed up with Harper’s and a letter organizer to address the central claim of this essay: that organizers were not transparent with signers regarding who was signing on and that signers received inconsistent information about who was going to sign the letter.

Williams gave me an indirect answer, saying that if anyone *had asked* he would have shared.

I asked a follow-up question returning to an obvious problem with this process as well as the closely related point of how the letter was promoted to potential signers, not just the signers Williams himself brought on, perhaps. Haven’t received a response yet but happy to publish one!

That’s the update!]

[July 10 update. Williams did respond to ask how he could have possibly updated signers every time someone new hopped on, which of course I’m not asking. You can just email everyone before publication. He also acknowledged that Rowling “was one of the last people we added” which was almost certainly relevant to Boylan. He and Harper’s have not addressed how signers were inconsistently recruited to the letter and ultimately misled—intentionally or not—about who was signing.]

Dunks for thee and not for me

Instead of grappling with the claim that Boylan was denied this important context by whoever solicited her signature, other signers—who had just condemned “intolerance of opposing views” and “a vogue for public shaming”—started publicly shaming Boylan for her opposing view.

July 10 update: Replaced an embedded version of this apparently deleted tweet from Singal with a screencap. Via Julia Serano.
Thomas Chatteron Williams, who has written critically about so-called “identity politics” was one of the letter organizers, so included his RT of Gladwell here.

These are all rather uncharitable takes on Boylan’s message given the lack of context she was given for who signed the letter. They also underscore the degree to which the signers themselves—including Rowling and Gladwell, two globally renowned writers with huge audiences—choose to “debate” competing views. Instead of asking themselves why their letter was so easily misinterpreted—or how Boylan was misled—they’ve taken counter-speech about their letter as more evidence they were right.

Is there a lesson here?

I’ve written a lot of advice for academic and scientists over the years and this one is pretty simple: if you’re an academic or scientist who’s asked to sign onto a letter, be sure to ask about intent, audience and other signers. And make sure you have an opportunity to review a final copy before it goes live.

Incidents like this are rare. The organizers or people asking for signatures may have had deceptive intent with some signers or perhaps they all simply lost control of whatever solicitation, vetting and confirmation process they undertook. (Edit: removed reference to this.) Organizers should develop clear standards for who is asked to sign onto a letter and adopt clear vetting processes for adding people’s names.

Process for public statements like this is important. And some of the signers have spent a great deal of time interrogating other groups around their internal processes as they relate to speech, open debate and “cancel culture.” So given the obvious problems with the letter, I’d certainly appreciate a fuller accounting of how it came together. But for a lot of these writers accountability for advocacy, speech and errors tends to run in one direction: away from them.