I generally try to stay out of Twitter drama, which leaves me feeling like high school didn’t end, it just moved online, but yesterday I made an exception. It started early in the morning, after the Atlantic published its July/August cover story on trans kids, detransition, and the conflict some parents have when their kids come out to them as trans. The piece, which was written by science reporter Jesse Singal, was thorough, nuanced, impeccably researched and fact-checked, and it caused an immediate firestorm. On Twitter, Roxane Gay said it was a travesty. Lena Dunham called it dangerous. Nicole Cliffe, a woman who has literally never spoken to the author in her life, said that Singal is “obsessed” with trans women. She also called him creepy.
“Mad” doesn’t quite capture my response to these tweets. I was enraged, particularly at Cliffe, a writer who should know better than to smear someone she’d never met to her 81,000 followers. Unlike Cliffe, I’ve actually met Singal, and he is not “obsessed” with trans women. He reports on social science, including the science (or lack thereof) of gender. He was, quite literally, doing his job, and, if you follow Singal on Twitter, you’ll quickly find that if he’s obsessed about anything, it’s basketball, not trans women. The irresponsibility of Cliffe’s tweet, which has more than 4,000 likes and 1,000 retweets, was astounding—but it shouldn’t have been. This is how Twitter works: You repeat something, no one bothers to fact check, and all of a sudden, it’s treated as fact. Jesse Singal is obsessed with trans women. I read it on Twitter, therefore it’s true.
Of course, I wasn’t only enraged at the treatment of Singal because I like him and think he’s a good reporter. I was also enraged because the dog-piling of Jesse Singal echoed my own dog-piling, which happened almost exactly one year ago and for exactly the same reason: Like Singal, I also wrote an article about detransition. From the response to my piece, you would think that I’d written that trans people don’t exist or shouldn’t have access to medical care or deserve to be beaten in the streets. I wrote none of those things—and, in fact, went out of my way to include the voices of happy trans people and affirm trans identities and the need for trans health care—but it didn’t matter. I was quickly pegged as transphobic, not because of the content of my piece but because I, a cis woman, had the audacity to write it.
This, apparently, was many people’s problem with Singal, and they took to Twitter to argue that this article should have been written by a trans person instead. It’s the same argument that came up, over and over, when people were yelling at me and burning stacks of The Stranger last year, and it’s no less ludicrous now than it was then.
The idea that you must be a part of a demographic to write about it is contrary to the very nature of reporting: The job of the reporter is to listen to and relay other people’s stories, but it’s also to look for evidence, to dig into claims, to get at the truth. If you want all your stories to come directly from the source’s mouth, enjoy getting all of your news from social media. Besides, if people only wrote about populations they fit in, that would mean that I’m only allowed to write about 35-year-old lesbians from North Carolina and Jesse is only allowed to write about Boston Jews who love the Celtics and, sorry trans writers, but no more cis stories for you. Hope you don’t want to cover politics. According to this logic, the White House press corps would have to be made up of 70-year-old men with giant egos and tiny brains. Anyone writing about immigrant children separated from their families in Texas would have to be an immigrant child separated from their family in Texas. If that’s what people want, okay, but good luck effecting any sort of political change in a media ecosystem like that. You can’t argue for visibility and then claim that no one is allowed to write your stories but you.
This argument makes even less sense considering Singal’s piece wasn’t about trans people. It was about detrans people—detrans people who were willing to tell their stories to Singal, just as last year, they were willing to tell their stories to me. But for telling those stories, I was called, and I’m not kidding here, a “murderer.” And I still am today.
Singal knew this was coming. He’s written on trans issues for years, and the response is always the same. We talked about this last week at the Open Minds Conference in New York, which we both attended. The conference was the first of its kind sponsored by the Heterodox Academy, an organization for university faculty that advocates for ideological diversity. It’s not an innately controversial concept: Hearing other people’s views, whether on a college campus or on the news, is essential for both avoiding confirmation bias and for understanding critiques of one’s own views. But perhaps predictably, it was pegged by some people (who were not there) as some kind of white supremacist, alt-right meet-up. This was patently ridiculous. Honorees at the event included Cornel West and a number of other people of color, and I highly doubt there was a single Trump voter in attendance (which, for the sake of viewpoint diversity, is a problem). But that did not stop people from tweeting to my employer that I was at a secret KKK rally because they saw my name in the program.
Still, there were no protesters in attendance and the conference itself was interesting, with sessions about, among other things, the role of administrators and professors in creating an environment in which people are free to express their opinions. But, more than the sessions, what I really got out of it was talking to people about how they’d ended up there in the first place. Everyone had a story, from a (queer, Latina) professor in Oregon whose classes were boycotted, to a professor in Virginia who was nearly pushed out of his school for criticizing a black woman’s scholarly work, to writers like Emily Yoffe, Jon Ronson, Jesse Singal, and myself, all of whom have been targeted for writing about inconvenient truths… but truths, nonetheless.
Meeting these people, I was reminded that while becoming the target of an online mob can be painful, it’s also hugely enlightening. I’m a queer women whose politics align pretty closely with Leon Trotsky, but when the left came for me last year, I began to see how orthodoxy on my own side stifles not just speech and expression, but ideas. Before, I judged arguments based on who was making them. If a conservative said something, I automatically dismissed it. Now I engage with the ideas themselves. I’ve left my echo chamber, which has given me a fundamental understanding of the world that I didn’t have before. In fact, I’m glad I found myself at the bottom of a dog-pile, and I think the best thing for society would be for everyone to go through the same. Luckily, the bar to end up trending on Twitter is so low these days that with one mis-tweet or culturally appropriated prom dress, you’ll end up there eventually, too.
QotD: “The piece, which was written by science reporter Jesse Singal, was thorough, nuanced, impeccably researched and fact-checked, and it caused an immediate firestorm”