The Dis-ingenuousness of the Harper’s Letter

Brynn Tannehill
10 min readJul 13, 2020


When Harper’s published a letter signed by over 100 writers and academics decrying attempts to stifle freedom of speech, I initially paid little attention. Usually, cries about censorship have come from the right wing, either attacking the American University system, or complaining that social media is somehow unfair to them, when it is in fact not. On the surface, it seemed like a pablum. When I looked at who signed, it became clear that it was anything but what it represented itself as because of the actions of some of those signatories.

Rather than being a call for intellectual freedom and tolerance, this letter is a disingenuous ploy to shield the powerful from criticism, maintain their positions of power as public voices, while espousing ideas that are fatal to human rights in an ostensibly democratic society. Several people on the list have either been key figures in promoting anti-transgender materials, or policies which have historical precedent only in their awfulness. Many of them have been doing this for years, and all of them still have bigger platforms than anyone in the communities they are targeting. Some of them have also been active in attempting to prevent transgender people from having voices in major media outlets at all.

The letter only means something if everyone who claimed to despise “cancel culture,” were dedicated to that proposition. This is not true for many of the anti-transgender signatories. Katha Pollitt has lobbied for the blanket exclusion of transgender journalists from professional networking tools. JK Rowling has threatened to sue a transgender person who Tweeted that she shouldn’t be trusted around children. Jesse Singal has long had a hostile relationship with transgender writers, allegedly working to get several of them fired by complaining to their employers, and worked to exclude transgender writers in general from major publications behind the scenes.

As a result, this is a cynical and disingenuous manipulation of the system by the powerful rather than a good faith effort to ensure discussion beneficial to society. They are defending the status quo to protect their own viewpoints and platforms, the same way billionaires expound upon the societal benefits of trickle-down economics. At the same time, this excludes the voices of those whom they are attacking. This creates an asymmetry of power in this so-called “debate.” One would be hard-pressed to find a major outlet in the UK that would refuse to run anything promoting their viewpoints.

What struck me is that these signatories, all of whom have more clout than any single transgender person with any real media presence at all, claim that the marketplace of ideas will inevitably result in the best idea emerging victorious. I cannot tell whether they believe this or not, but history tells us otherwise. Awful ideas pushed by awful people with money and power appealing to the lowest common denominator have frequently won. Whether it’s President Donald Trump, or the petroleum industry inducing enough climate change denialism to doom U.S. efforts to address it: Ideas that are absolutely wrong frequently win out, with devastating results.

Or, as one opinion writer noted, “Maybe democracy dies in broad daylight.”

This also describes the narratives about transgender people that isn’t backed up by the scientific and medical consensus being pushed by some of the signatories to the letter. Big names, with big platforms, are using “Won’t somebody please think of the children!” scare tactics little different than the anti-gay smears of previous efforts in the late part of the 20th century to convince people that being transgender is contagious, coupled with the efforts emphasizing that they will steal or convert your children.

Asymmetry of messaging

There’s an asymmetry in messaging as well. The “brand” of the only relatively well-known transgender person on the list, Jennifer Boylan, who did not know who most of the signatories were, preaches love, tolerance, and gaining acceptance through getting to know other people. The message of the anti-transgender signatories is one of creating fear and panic about the inclusion of transgender people in society, even if they use the “I’m just asking questions,” defense. As Chrissy Stroop noted in Religion Dispatches, “there’s absolutely no equivalence between criticizing people who hold (or enable) dehumanizing opinions — and even, perhaps, applying consequences for those opinions — and the suffering imposed on those who are dehumanized by those opinions (and whose rights may even be restricted by policies grounded in bigotry).”

Another fallacy the anti-transgender signatories are promoting is that no idea should be off-limits for debate. Again, this is nonsense. Some ideas have no place in civil society and should absolutely be rejected as a topic for discussion. If any of us were to state slavery was good for Black people, we would be rightfully obliterated, or “cancelled.” It’s even worse when these ideas prevail in the court of public opinion.

Similarly, the “I’m just asking the question” defense fails as well. There are some questions that should be dismissed out of hand for reasons that should be blindingly obvious. If anti-Semites ask, “Are Jews human?” we, as a society, are better off not giving such awful ideas any consideration or air time. Giving space to intellectual horrors legitimizes them by shifting the Overton Window (the range of discourse politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time.) This in turn invites more debate and wins more converts to ideas that should never have seen the light of day in the first place.

If you need evidence that the Overton Window has already shifted too far to the right already, consider that we have gotten used to the idea of separating toddlers from their mothers, putting them in camps, and forcing three year olds to represent themselves in immigration court. The dominant political party and news outlets support this. Five years ago, this would have been unthinkable. Now it is so normal as to be out of the news cycle.

Still, we (barely) recognize there are a few places we shouldn’t go in terms of discourse, and especially if we know there are people with influence who would happily spread them were they to be given the space. When anti-transgender signatories claim they bear no responsibility for how evil people use their writing, when they knew exactly who would use it and how, is the literary equivalent of stochastic terrorism. While it may be a legal defense, it is not a moral one.

Germany recognizes it and bans anti-Semitic speech of this sort. This has not made them weaker as a democracy: they rank higher than both the US and UK on the democracy index regardless of these limits on discourse. The Volksverhetzung bans speech which threatens “the human dignity of others by reviling, maliciously making contemptible or slandering parts of the populace.” Perhaps more than anyone else, Germany recognizes that the best ideas don’t always win out.

The media these signatories exist in however, is often inclined to “both-sideism.” Okrent’s Law states that “The pursuit of balance can create imbalance because sometimes something is true.” The media often provide legitimacy to unsupported fringe viewpoints in an effort to appear even-handed.

Lewis Wallace, a transgender journalist, was fired for even discussing the concept of Okrent’s Law when writing professionally about racism and anti-transgender narratives. But, you don’t see the New York Times running pieces about how Wallace was “canceled.” That’s just for people with anti-transgender narratives. At the end of the day, the signatories complaining about being cancelled still have a platform, and Wallace does not.

The two sides in the media debate created by the anti-trans signatories in the letter are trans people and the people who actually study transgender health, and then there’s the people who wish society had as few trans people as possible.

While this seems to be a shocking claim, the two primary forces opposing inclusion of transgender people in society believe government should be used to minimize the number of trans people. Janice Raymond, the intellectual foremother of anti-trans feminism, wrote that the long term goal of her brand of feminism (and now JK Rowling’s) is “the problem of transsexualism would best be served by morally mandating it out of existence,” by removing all legal recognition of transgender people, and eliminating access to medical care. The religious right’s own legislative playbook asserts that “transgenderism” represents a public health threat, and that the government has a compelling interest in promoting public health, leaving the hanging conclusion that the goal of conservative Christian legislators should be to use the full powers of government to minimize the number of trans people in society.

In general, the methods proposed to legally target trans people by both ostensibly left-wing feminists like Rowling are indistinguishable from those proposed by the Christian right. This is not a coincidence. The religious right deliberately shifted to transgender issues after they lost the fight for marriage equality. They have deliberately tried to merge their own talking points with those of anti-trans feminists, with the intent of co-opting them. For example, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) provided $15,000 in seed money to one such anti-trans feminist group in 2016.

The religious right has gone to a great effort wooing these individuals with international junkets and favorable access to both centrist and conservative US media outlets. (The press in the UK already grants them nearly unlimited access, and even the best outlets blow through Okrent’s Law routinely).

Whenever governments propose excluding unpopular minorities from society it should serve as a warning flag. Historical examples of exclusion include:

o Banning them from the military

o Stripping them of existing legal protections

o Guaranteeing a right to discriminate against the disfavored minority

o Forcing them to carry government IDs that out them as members of the disfavored class

o Banning them from public spaces

o Banning them from receiving medical care

o Banning them from athletics

o Banning them from teaching youth

o Instituting a “separate but equal” policy of segregation

If these actions make your skin crawl, they should. They’re based on Germany in the 1930’s, Jim Crow segregation laws in the United States, and anti-gay edicts from the Lavender Scare of the 1950’s. (If it seems like there’s an overlap, it’s because German laws were inspired by Jim Crow laws in the US, which were written by the same white evangelicals who run the religious right today). At the same time, many of these proposals are being floated by the likes of JK Rowling and the American religious right on how to answer the “Transgender Question,” of what, if any, role transgender people should have in society.

Writers like Singal and Herzog provide the anecdotes masquerading as science that are used to justify these proposals, much the way Hans Günther’s pseudo-scientific writing on race provided the intellectual underpinnings of exclusionary laws in the 1930’s. Influencer’s like Rowling then promote them to incite a moral panic. Indeed, some of the prominent journalists supporting Rowling’s viewpoints on trans people show more empathy for actual Nazis than transgender people, and Rowling is more than happy to bathe in their adulation.

Thus, the Harper’s Letter is a defense of powerful people pushing dangerous conspiracies that target a vulnerable minority in ways that should give anyone pause based on the historical precedents. The anti-transgender signatories to this letter are exploiting the “intolerance paradox” described by philosopher Karl Popper in 1949, when he noted that any movement that preaches intolerance and persecution must be outside the law. “In order to maintain a tolerant society, the society must be intolerant of intolerance.”

Indeed, Singal has recognized that the discussion he leads on trans people would be unthinkable if almost any other historically marginalized group were the ones being so targeted. (And never mind his own contributions to anti-transgender animus).

The anti-trans signatories in the Harper’s letter were attempting to inoculate themselves from criticism, even though UK courts have found their beliefs about transgender people to be so harmful as to be, “not worthy of respect in democratic society.” Should anyone call them on their bias, or harm they cause, they can wave the letter about as proof that they are valiant lovers of free speech and obviously their critics aren’t, like a footballer writhing around in the grass looking for a red card.

When anti-trans individuals signed the letter, it was never really about free speech as a principal, it was about protecting their own speech, no matter how harmful it is, and no matter if it has no place in society.

Simultaneously, the letter was about taking a position to continue to suppress the voices of the people they are targeting, albeit not clearly spelled out, along with the actual experts who work with the transgender population. When Jennifer Boylan saw who else signed the letter, and how it was really being targeted, she expressed regret in signing it.

If it were really about dialogue, debate, and respectful exchange of ideas, her anti-trans co-signers would have wanted to engage in actual dialogue. Instead, Singal, and Rowling pounced on Boylan, and unleashed their followers on her. In the space of days, Boylan has received thousands of emails from their followers, and had to shut off comments on her Tweet.

For people like Singal, Rowling, Pollitt, and Herzog, this Harper’s Letter wasn’t about the principle of freedom of speech. This wasn’t just two wolves and a sheep voting on what’s for dinner. It was that, plus instituting a rule that the wolves will always have a voting majority while gagging the sheep for good measure. Life’s much easier for bullies and tyrants when they’re certain their targets can’t fight back.

Without consistent access to platforms to push back against dehumanizing and dangerous narratives, pressure via other means is all that’s left as a defense of a vulnerable community. Public shaming and ostracism are forms of counter-speech and open debate, and frequently the only one available to the people being targeted by far more powerful individuals.



Brynn Tannehill

Naval aviator, senior defense analyst, nerd, trans, parent, and author of two books that have nothing in common with each other besides the author