Has Censorship Become Our Baseline Expectation?
For America's Journalistic Inquisitors--it's free speech that's surprising
Want proof that our norms are shifting? Look no further than our headlines: “Amazon won’t stop selling book questioning transgender youth” noted a surprised New York Daily News on Tuesday. “Amazon overrules employees’ calls to stop selling book questioning mainstream treatment for transgender youth,” declared The Seattle Times. “Amazon Refuses to Stop Selling Anti-Trans Book,” reported an apparently disappointed Edge Media. And yesterday’s NBCNews.com: “Amazon will not remove book advocates say endangers transgender youth.”
For every one of these publications, the baseline assumption is censorship. It is Amazon that “won’t stop selling,” or “overrules employees” or “refuses to stop selling” or “will not remove”—Amazon whose actions strike today’s journalists as significant and surprising. Amazon the intransigent bookseller, stubbornly insisting on continuing to sell books. Standing up to the calls for censorship is now what surprises us. The numberless calls for book banning no longer do.
The book in question was mine—Irreversible Damage—a journalistic investigation into the sudden spike in transgender identification among teen girls. The book examines current medical protocols for trans-identified youth and urges caution, warning that there is too much self-congratulation by health care providers, too little application of adult judgment. Since the consequences of a teen girl having an unnecessary gender transition can be fairly devastating, I urge us to become more disciplined and careful in how we dole out hormones and surgeries. In a prior era, the book might be considered so obvious, it might not need to have been written at all. And in fact, the current puberty-blockers-to-cross-sex-hormones regimen has already been halted in the UK and, most recently, Sweden, in view of the serious risks and speculative benefits.
But today, in America and Canada, naming these risks is considered offensive—offensive, that is, to the doctors, therapists, surgeons, and gender clinics who are making careers fast-tracking youth to becoming the permanent patients of a regime of medical transition. Offensive to the parents who have already transitioned their children and can’t bear if a single book in the library highlights the risks of the treatments they have applied to their own children.
And it isn’t only the activists who are pushing for censorship—but journalists—journalists! Those whose life’s work depends on a culture of free expression.
Take the reporter who called me from the Seattle Times, Katherine Anne Long. She messaged me yesterday over Twitter, asking for comment. “I’m writing an article about Amazon’s refusal to remove your book from its digital shelves after employees, including leaders of Amazon’s LGBTQ+ affinity group, campaigned for the company to stop selling Irreversible Damage. One employee called the book ‘hate speech.’ I wanted to give you the opportunity to respond.”
After an apparently arduous investigation, which involved “examining the content of the book in detail and calibrating with senior leadership,” Amazon had determined that the book did not in fact violate its content policy. So there.
But notice who bears the burden of proof, in all this—not the employees braying like Veruca Salt, “I want it now!” They bear no burden—in today’s journalists’ minds—to prove that my book is hateful (it isn’t). Amazon, the bookseller, bears the burden of proving the book does not “frame LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness.” And I—the author—bear the burden of proving my innocence to America’s journalistic Torquemadas.
I told Ms. Long that the book contains not a word of hate—almost verbatim what the Economist wrote when it named mine a Best Book of 2020: “Predictably controversial—yet there is not a drop of animosity in the book.” Though the book discusses “gender dysphoria,” a diagnosis recognized in the DSM-5, it never equates transgender status with a mental illness because, put simply, I don’t believe that it is.
Well, she replied, I see ‘contagion,’ ‘epidemic,’ don’t you think that tends to diagnose?
“Are you seriously going to pull out random words from my book?” I asked her.
“They aren’t random,” she said. “They’re from chapter headings.”
I explained that the words “contagion” and “epidemic” often refer to social phenomena, like peer-to-peer fads or trends, as the dictionary bears out and is obviously the case in Irreversible Damage. But in all of this explaining, I was the witness in the hot seat, under cross-examination. I was the one who had to explain myself before this refrigerator-magnet-poetry word-jumble method of inquiry. I was the one who had penned a book that a solitary unnamed employee had declared “hate speech.”
To see just how far things have shifted in this regard, consider a book published in 2008, The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy, by John J. Mearsheimer and Stephen M. Walt, shameless conspiracy theorists who accused Jews of warping American foreign policy for selfish gain injurious to American interests. Unlike mine, this book actually did single out a minority—Jews—and accused them of dual loyalty by dint of their support for Israel. And the book arguably did real harm, casting a broad net of suspicion over all American Jews who dared support the world’s one Jewish country.
The panic that book set off in the American Jewish community was real and pitched. And yet, I cannot remember—nor could I now discover—a single call for it to be banned. No one in public life seems to have had the temerity to demand its removal—nor did a single journalist report on booksellers’ “refusal” to ban it. We all understood, then, that this was a book whose arguments we would need to examine and refute and even rail against—but live with them, we knew, we must.
What happened to us—as thinkers, journalists, Americans? Our commitment to free expression, codified in the U.S. Constitution’s very First Amendment, once webbed American culture like tree roots through the earth. Now it strikes us as so much useless netting.
The amazing thing about my conversation with the Seattle Times reporter was not only her ironclad assumption that the burden was on me to prove my book shouldn’t be banned, but that it never struck her that of all the ‘experts’ she had consulted about my book, every last one had a pecuniary interest in medically transitioning youth. (So much for a reporter’s gimlet eye for conflicts of interest.) My interest was, and is, the same as every half-decent journalist: in shedding light. I conducted hundreds of interviews. I highlighted risks and wrote about them. I developed a perspective and defended it.
Did I sell books? Yes, but, frankly, I would have sold far fewer if not for the endless efforts to ban it. My role in the story of today’s fast-tracking of transgender youth should be entirely uninteresting: not a single medicine is advertised on television without a droning recitation of so many risks.
What’s more interesting is that so many of today’s gender doctors and therapists are eager to mute all discussion of risks or trade-offs. As gender-affirmative psychologist, Diane Ehrensaft told the Seattle Times, “I’m not into book banning. But I can say that if I were Amazon, I would not want to represent this book.”
Sounds pretty ‘into’ book banning to me.
Not to be outdone, the Seattle Times reporter was apparently so eager to see my book banned, she had sent queries to Amazon asking why it was still selling my book. “Looks like Amazon stopped selling the book after I asked the company for comment on the story,” she wrote to me, before correcting herself: “I may have spoken too soon; the book still comes up with a search in an incognito window, so it may just be an issue with my account.”
Oh, the disappointment of an unburned book. Better luck next time?
It strikes me many journalists now all write for advocacy rather than to share objective truths or to give a balanced account of an issue so a reader can make up their own mind based on the facts at hand. It's a sad development.
I'm a Seattle Times subscriber, and had been fuming about that piece since it was published. (Note that the newspaper did not open a comments section following the article. Funny, that...)
About five hours before your strong rebuttal to the Seattle Times article appeared, I wrote to Katherine Anne Long, author of that awful piece.
I, too, included a link to yesterday's SEGM post, which adds to the rapidly growing pile of evidence proving that what Katherine Anne Long considers the "mainstream" approach to pediatric gender care is anything but:
As you can imagine, I was cheering through the first several paragraphs of your justifiably heated response to Ms. Long's journalistic drive-by shooting.
But in my message to Ms. Long, I also said "Just a side note: while I agree with Abigail Shrier’s careful approach to this particular topic, we likely do not agree on much else in the political sphere." (I beg your indulgence for what follows.) Sure enough, midway through a wonderful denunciation of Ms. Long's hit piece, you veer off into making a comparison to the 2007 publication of "The Israel Lobby," the book by Professors Mearsheimer and Walt. You call them "shameless conspiracy theorists," and say they pinned blames on "Jews," and that "the Jewish community" pushed back (as if all Jews had the very same stance) - but didn't call for book banning and the like. I remember the period rather differently: a very vocal, very powerful lobby, went (technical term here) batshit crazy, because some people with stature in the US Foreign Policy "community" had dared to challenge a taboo. Former President Jimmy Carter had provoked similar ire the year before. Israeli newspaper Haaretz quoted him saying that in some ways, this was worse than South Africa.
"Carter said his new book, "Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid" was meant to spark U.S. discussion of Israeli policies. "The hope is that my book will at least stimulate a debate, which has not existed in this country. There's never been any debate on this issue, of any significance.""
Here's Paul Findlay, 22-year moderate Republican congressman from Illinois (co-author of the War Powers Act) reflecting on his experience, in an article from October 2007:
"The pro-Israel lobby is not one organization orchestrating U.S. Middle East policy from a backroom in Washington. Nor is it entirely Jewish. It consists of scores of groups — large and small — that work at various levels. The largest, most professional, and most effective is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Many pro-Israel lobby groups belong to the Christian Right.
"The recently released book, “The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy,” co-authored by distinguished professors John Mearsheimer of the University of Chicago and Stephen Walt of Harvard, offers hope for constructive change. It details the damage to U.S. national interests caused by the lobby for Israel. These brave professors render a great service to America, but their theme, expressed in a published study paper a year ago, is already under heavy, vitriolic attack.
"They are unjustly accused of anti-Semitism, the ultimate instrument of intimidation employed by the lobby. A common problem: Under pressure, the Chicago Council on Global Affairs withdrew an invitation for the authors to speak about their book. Council president Marshall Bouton explained ruefully that the invitation posed “a political problem” and a need “to protect the institution” from those who would be angry if the authors appeared."
This goes on today, in full force. Criticism of Israeli policy, even when coming from Jews, is conflated with antisemitism. Dozens of US State Legislatures are being pushed to pass bills criminalizing support for BDS, the Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement, a peaceful approach to ending what the Israeli human rights organization B'Tselem now forthrightly declares to be an apartheid system. https://www.btselem.org/topic/apartheid Facebook censors Palestinian voices; During the Covid-19 shutdown of campuses across the country, Zoom prevents university organizations from including certain Palestinian speakers invited by professors.
“There is no law requiring Zoom to block the event featuring Leila Khaled,” said Faiza Patel, co-director of the Brennan Center’s Liberty and National Security Program. “Zoom’s actions, along with its later decision to block events on censorship by Zoom, show us once again that private companies who are not bound by free speech rules often use their discretion to selectively block voices. Terms of service are then used to present one-off business decisions as nothing more than the application of their rules.”
“It’s very dangerous for a third-party private vendor to be in the position of deciding what is legitimate academic speech and what is not — it violates all of the customs and norms of the academic culture,” echoed Andrew Ross, a professor at NYU and member of the American Association of University Professors. “This should concern everyone in higher education right now.”
Do you not see the screaming parallels here? In your post today, you rightly push back at the attempt to render any real discussion of trans-related issues (it goes far beyond your book) as a "third rail" of political and social life, risking the metaphorical electrocution of anyone who dares touch it. Yet you do so by elevating the very same approach, used for decades, against anyone who takes a serious look at Israel/Palestine and US policy. This weakens the argument. Judaism is not synonymous with Zionism, let alone with the most reactionary political currents in Israel. Supporting the rights of girls and women, or speaking up for biological reality, is not transphobia.
We need the freedom to discuss all these things openly and honestly. Here's a terrific site I recommend to you for a wider view of the "lobby" matter:
Long tangent, I know, but denouncing a censorious movement, by praising another... We can push back against Seattle Times hit pieces without getting lost in yet another "third-rail" fight.