Bari Weiss's resignation letter contains some truth, but it reads hollow.
Bari Weiss has unceremoniously left The New York Times after, she said in a letter to its publisher AG Sulzburger, the paper has been taken "under siege" by bullies who deemed much of her work "wrongthink."
In the letter, Weiss claimed that she represented a large swath of America that The Times failed to represent—"voices that would not otherwise appear in your pages," she wrote. "But the lessons that ought to have followed the election—lessons about the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society—have not been learned," she continued.
Bari WeissVanity Fair
Weiss's letter is well-written enough to be extremely convincing, which is unsurprising seeing that she's an opinion writer. On the surface, it reads like a clear-eyed defense of free speech and free press, and it's a called-for denunciation of the distracting annals of cancel culture.
In the context of her op-ed, Weiss's anger seems almost justified—reports of coworkers slandering her on Slack or criticizing her for "writing about the Jews again" seem like cause for a few HR meetings or even a resignation.
And, certainly, Twitter's cancel culture mob can step out of line, fixating on small injustices rather than facing larger problems, ganging up against relatively harmless people.
Then again, the same might be said of all people everywhere. Bari Weiss seems afraid for free speech, but perhaps she should be more afraid for human life.
Open Debate Through Non-Specificity: The Era of the Free Speech Manifesto
Weiss's letter comes on the heels of another open letter signed by 150 intellectuals, writers, and pundits, including Margaret Atwood, JK Rowling, and Weiss herself. This letter argues against cancel culture, stating, "The way to defeat bad ideas is by exposure, argument, and persuasion, not by trying to silence or wish them away."
Both letters do contain fragments of truth—their writers are too well-trained in the loopy evasiveness of professional rhetoric to fail on that end—but also flounder around in eloquent generalities, skirting around what they seem to be truly implying. Embedded with fear of the Internet's tendency to cancel people for racist, transphobic, non-leftist or otherwise not politically correct comments, these nice and harmless-seeming statements match up oddly well with defenses of hate speech.
That's not to say they are hate speech, though—just that they may be hate-adjacent, which says something in itself.
We really don't care, these letters almost seem to plead, about the fact that trans people are allowed to be legally discriminated against in medical contexts. We don't want to see significant change in any respect, unless you count Black people being quieter again. We don't want to see wealth redistributed, God forbid reparations; all of these ideas lurk behind the delicate facade of these letters, which arguably read like defenses of not of free speech, but specifically of racist speech.
Weiss is certainly no stranger to these kinds of accusations. Recently, the Times' opinion team faced criticism after they published a letter by Senator Tom Cotton calling for the military to be sent in on Black Lives Matter protestors, and Weiss's departure was preceded by the firing of the editor who green-lighted that op-ed. But the problem with the Cotton op-ed was that it had immediate, real-world implications. It may have been "free speech," but it also may have been a call to violence.
Is Twitter a Mob of Trolls or a (Finally) Equal Playing Field?
To be fair, there is definitely a problem with leftist Twitter's mob-like and often cruel willingness to cancel people, which tends to veer towards unproductive infighting anyway. But Weiss's letters beg the question: What world is she actually fighting for?
This country has long been riddled with power imbalances, hatred, and rage, much of which has simmered silently while The New York Times editors debated the intricacies of language. It is filled with sad, lonely, aching, confused, underemployed, and indebted people facing a climate crisis and watching inequality play out on their cell phone screens every day.
Regardless, The New York Times seems to be going through some growing pains as it tries to adjust to modernity; we all are. Perhaps The Times is realizing that the upper class in America has been detached from everyone else for a very long time, and perhaps it's scrambling and struggling to find its footing in this new paradigm. After all, The Times is a paper based in New York, which is just one city in a giant, divided country where a feeling of dead-ended stagnation has led people towards increasing radicalization and ultimately to the brink of revolution, perhaps because they feel we have no other choice.
People in America are living through joblessness and a pandemic and several thousand other interlacing crises, a world which is very difficult to escape; still, many of these free speech vigilante editors and pundits could potentially delete their Twitter accounts or quit their jobs with no truly significant ramifications.
Yet, they never do. In fact, cancel culture often seems to benefit these editors and pundits—many of whom, as Moira Donegan writes in The Guardian, "are not victims of this dynamic: they seem to be savvy manipulators of it. Signatories of the aforementioned open letter, including Weiss but also many others," she continues, "have built careers and their own notoriety by seeming to solicit and revel in online anger."
Strong indications that @bariweiss’s resignation was a PR stunt designed to generate attention ahead of a new gig,… https://t.co/SOzIOn184o— Max Blumenthal (@Max Blumenthal)1594836242.0
To be clear, no one is calling for an end to this dynamic, just as very few people (other than several thousand New Yorkers) have ever expected The New York Times' writers to adequately summarize their entire life experiences. (For the record, leftists tend to hate The New York Times as much, or more than, right-wingers).
As much as Bari Weiss would like to think so, she does not speak for the white working class. Neither does anyone except for the actual members of the white working class; the same goes for any subgroup.
At observer I wrote about how Bari Weiss wants free speech for the powerful, but not for workers. https://t.co/QPV2Wn9sh2— Noah Berlatsky (@Noah Berlatsky)1594823629.0
Different Times Call for Different Language
In our modern paradigm, Twitter and the Internet are often clunky, angry, and often inappropriate, but sometimes they do allow people who have not been traditionally allowed to write The New York Times opinion columns to express their rage in a more immediate and visible way than ever before. Before the Internet's forums filled screens across the nation, it wasn't so easy for many people to distill their rage into extraordinarily viral comments that could even have professional consequences for their subjects.
Similarly, before the Internet, it wasn't so easy for people hurt by racism to express themselves in hyper-visible ways that would actually be heard by the masses. Before Twitter's cancel culture, by some logic, perhaps there was less free speech.
This does not mean that tweets should have more weight than a college-educated, trained opinion writer, but it also doesn't mean nothing.
Bari Weiss has every right to speak her mind, but implicit in the pretty words of her letter is longing for a state that existed twenty or forty years ago, some alternate (more tolerant) version of the 1950s without the sexism or rampant untreated mental illness. But that world is not this world.
We are in an incredibly divided country inside a pandemic that we have utterly failed to address; we have the highest prison population in the world by a million miles; and we are in a time where more people are feeling empowered to speak out for their own rights. No wonder the very foundations of myriad systems are being threatened. None of this will be easy.
We need good writing and fearless speech to get us through; we also need fierce, uncompromising vigilantes to bring new worlds into being at the expense of some old worlds' hurt feelings.
As we maneuver through this time, the country will keep fracturing and dividing. The definitions of free speech will continue to shift and grow, and we'll have to grow with them. We need new paradigms for thinking and speaking, new ways of understanding allyship and growth and new concepts for what it means to be American–not regressive old ones.
Hate-Adjacent Versus Hateful Content: Not a Two-Way Street
Weiss's letter—for all its purported neutrality—was picked up and praised by none other than Donald Trump, who happily tweeted, "The @nytimes is under siege...The real reason is that it has become Fake News. They never covered me correctly — they blew it."
Perhaps this should indicate a problem. One could also feasibly take issue with the fact that Weiss's resignation letter and the 150-person-endorsed open letter she signed are coming during a civil rights movement, a moment of serious and thoughtful racial reckoning. Why were these letters not written prior to the revolts? Could anti-Black Lives Matter sentiments have something to do with many of these writers' desires for free speech?
Could it be that their definition of "free speech" really means the freedom to not confront their racism? Could it be that people's opinions are actually shifting in a more radical, equitable or direction—or at least that ire is turning towards the elites instead of infighting among the lower class?
No one is saying Weiss shouldn't have published her letter or that the The New York Times should be taking advice from Twitter or allowing bullying on its Slack. But if Bari Weiss was willing to acknowledge malignant forces at work in her own workplace, she should also acknowledge the ways that her own statements might be read as malicious or associated with malicious actions.
Everything is interconnected—one person's defense of free speech is another president's defense of his delusional racist reality, which is, tragically, now all of our actual realities. But hey, free speech warrior, feel free to disagree.