Cyber Trolls and the Ineluctability of Online Abuse

[published in Medium, 24 March, 2016]

On 7 February, 2016 NYMag.com published Jesse Singal’s phenomenally researched and written piece, “How the Fight Over Transgender Kids Got a Leading Sex Researcher Fired,” which details the mishandling of an investigation and the defamation of the target of this investigation, Dr. Kenneth Zucker, resulting in Zucker’s being sacked.  But don’t stop at the comments below the article!  They are tame compared to the Twitter abuse Singal faced in the days following the article’s publication.  And no matter where you stand on the subject of transgenderism and children—a very controversial subject to be certain—the conscious misrepresentations of Singal’s meticulously researched 11,000 word article are as denigrative as they are exploitative of a social media that allows for critique to pass through 140 characters.

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After several years of watching a series of attacks on people who write coherent and considerate pieces on gender, I have grown accustomed to the almost textbook responses to attentive criticism and water-tight journalism:  from the fabrication of outright slander, claiming ideas that are in complete contradistinction to what the author has written, insinuating that the reader’s PTSD has been triggered, accusing one’s interlocutor of being wealthy and white (even when this is not the case), to charging those who do not follow a specific belief system are complicit with the murder—even genocide—of transgender persons.  Aside from the increase in exterminationist rhetoric, I have also noted that the increased use of  if statements that are merely clumsily written straw man arguments: “If this writer had written this in 1933 then death, end of the world, burning, hell-fire, this is a bad person who has the cooties…” even though the writer is stating a fact.   Indeed, in 2016 it seems that our ability to carefully read through a thoughtfully written article in its entirety is challenged by the temptation of cheap one-offs that Twitter and other social media offer the disappointed subject.  Why read when you can emote and then Twitter storm the journalist who spent what appears to be months researching a subject and presenting a fairly water-tight case against Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH)?  Singal’s article is lengthy because he took care to carefully document everything in his piece which demonstrates the orchestrated disparagement of Dr. Kenneth Zucker and his subsequent firing from the Child Youth and Family Gender Identity Clinic (GIC) in Toronto, while also revealing a rather shoddy investigation of the charges against Dr. Zucker.

It is clear to me that reading in the Internet age has become an act of reacting to, rather than thinking through the text presented.  It is as if the reader only engages in the act of reading to confirm that what he has already predetermined is mirrored in the text, or not.   And should a writer reveal other truths, then vitriol, public shaming, Twitter trolling, and character assassination will almost certainly ensue.   I have noticed that it is increasingly common that people will react to a title posted on Facebook without reading the article (or without reading an article in its entirely) in order to vituperatively decry the author on their timeline with careless representations and hyperbole (ie. that this author is a Fascist, a murderer, and/or responsible for the genocide of x).  In short, we are losing our ability to read because we have already lost much of our ability to understand nuance.

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And such is the case with Jesse Singal’s article.  Chronicling a series of systemic abuses that transpired due to transgender activists and a flimsy external investigation gone awry, Singal carefully follows the details that led to the disparagement of Dr. Zucker, not to mention the loss of his career and somewhat public humiliation in the process.  Instead of accepting that a wrong has been committed against Dr. Zucker, many Twitter trolls attacked Singal for his investigation not returning other results because they view Zucker’s cautious position on the transgendering of children and his attempts to help these patients feel at home in their bodies as a rejection of transgender identity.  This reading presents no nuance;  there is no acceptance of the facts that Singal carefully unearthed.  As a result of complaints from activists regarding Zucker and what these activists deemed to be “conversion” or “reparative therapy,” a clumsy external review of the GIC and a carefully fashioned politicisation of Zucker through weak, anonymous allegations, several grave wrongs have been committed. And all that the many in the pro-trans camp could read from Singal’s investigation, bizarrely, is that Singal must be transphobic and wants to rid the planet of transgender persons.

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But this fact of being trolled online for speaking of facts, of history, of biology is not new to feminists who have faced death and rape threats for writing articles which debate the issues surrounding gender as identity rather than as social construct.  Jane Clare Jones’ brilliant essay, “‘You are Killing Me’: On Hate Speech and Feminist Silencing,” addresses the very Twitterised form of debate which relegates anyone who questions gender identity theories:  “Maintaining that anyone who questions the theory of gender identity must be transphobic is equivalent to arguing that anyone who disputes ‘born-that-way’ narratives of homosexuality must be a homophobe.”  But critiquing theory is not the only object of silencing around transgender politics, for it would see that anyone who is not on board with Caitlyn Jenner’s courage and beauty must automatically be a transphobe.  It becomes painfully clear that a vast majority of Singal’s detractors had not even read his article and instead moved to troll the Twitter sphere often writing .@jessesingal with the full stop which guarantees that the harassing tweets will be seen by all of Singal’s followers on Twitter thus bringing the discussion from the bilateral to the polylateral, or rather a massive pile-on par excellence.

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Singal was on top of the situation in the first days following the publication of his piece, responding to individual tweets with reasonable responses, noting how many people had not bothered to read his piece. The typical actors came out in full form from one Twitter user who made up some pretty interesting fictions from accusing Singal of “calling on a hate group to harass a trans person”accusations of creating a “sock puppet”and the overused—if not completely inaccurate—critique of biological essentialism as this person goes on to make an entirely biological essentialist argument (ie. you cannot negate the discourse of biology only to defer to Daily Mail and Telegraph articles that are precisely about biology!). It was clear that most of Singal’s detractors had either not bothered to read his article or had superficially skimmed it without giving it the deserved attention to detail that 11,000 words demands.

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Other Twitterbators responded to Singal in what has become a familiar rhetorical style typically aimed at women and feminists who are gender critical, by completely misrepresenting Singal’s piece to the letter.  One Twitter user insinuated that Singal had provoked PTSD, another stated that he had “scapegoated [trans people] as an oppressor of” others, and and one writer falsely insinuated that Singal was transphobic, that he “appeared to offer his endorsement of some pretty blatantly transphobic articles” (ie. two New Yorker articles which both emphasise the difficulty transgender persons have in this world despite offering levelled analyses about their subjects).  Inevitably Singal came to realise that defending oneself on Twitter for ideas and words never expressed is fraught with a continuation of the pile-on of more sycophants who will continue forth with the blind insistence that because trans persons are oppressed, they are right and Singal wrong.

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This victim mentality which endorses a binarism of power—privileged/oppressed—is itself a logical fallacy for one can be both oppressed and wrong as Paolo Friere’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed demonstrates: one can be both oppressed and an oppressor.  Such nuances are lost in the Twitter sphere to most of its participants.  Thankfully @patdanbow sagely responded to the onslaught of claims of PTSD and the appeal to emotion: “Ppl use ‘legit trauma and anger’ to silence reason. One’s oppression doesn’t magically make one’s viewpoint correct.” But one Twitter user could not stop the free fall of  #firejessesingal hashtags which attempted to convert a nasty form of retaliation into a trending topic, the reprisal of a few figures from GamerGate who have an axe to grind with Singal, and of course the ad hominem attacks and innumerable misrepresentations of Singal’s essay with @ mentions to his employer at NYMag.  From gamers and nerds to those who have usernames that seem ripped out of a science fiction novel to the prevalence of anime heads as profile pics, Twitter discourse is as psychological as it is smoke and mirrors.

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The larger task for writers and journalists is their struggle to communicate ideas with which not all people will be in agreement while handling the onslaught of harassment for writing thoughtful commentary that does not tow the line of political correctness.  After all, why write at all when detractors would rather fart out their ire in 140 characters rather than spend their time carefully reading the results of well-executed research?

In 2005 Stephen Colbert coined the term “truthiness” as part of the segment “The Wørd,” pointing to the appeal to emotion as a “gut feeling” that supersedes reason. Despite this term’s initial use as satire, truthiness retains an artifice of truth for what is happening today in popular culture, especially in the problematic and slippery space of social media (which could often be termed as “antisocial media”), given the ire and explosive emotions that are unleashed should one’s interlocutor dare disagree. Journalists face a very complex relationship with their readership because today it is sadly not uncommon that people read articles to confirm what they want to hear or to reinforce their preconceived notions—not to learn from what careful investigation and writing has revealed.  Truthiness is a very useful term when it comes to approaching call-out culture which seeks not to right a wrong, but rather to wrong a right.  In a world where people do not wish to exert the necessary time and energy to read articles which are crafted to unite and empower us in knowledge, the exact inverse occurs where readers come together on social media, more often than not, to trash the messenger, calling into question his motives, calling up her employer to further harass this person all because she did her job.

In the same vein, the recent public trolling directed at Singal has evidenced various abuses that tend to go hand in hand with truthiness and the inner sense that research and science are meaningless.  What really matters to these trolls is individual emotion.  There is a precedent for such menacing actions which have taken aim at reason and careful research, two of which are meticulously researched and articulated by Alice Dreger:  the case of Napoleon Chagnon and J. Michael Bailey. So too have Chronic Fatigue Syndrome activists taken aim at doctors in the US and the UK.  And just last week Rick Allgeyer, Director of Research of the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, was forced from his position for having co-authored a study that demonstrated adverse consequences for contraceptive use after Planned Parenthood was excluded from a state-funded replacement program in Texas.  Like 30 Rock’s Dr. Spaceman, those who troll and abuse researchers and writers view science as “whatever we want it to be.  
In addition to the defamatory comments made against his person in social media, later the same week, publications such as Feministing took aim at Singal with much the same recklessness and illiteracy of Twitter.  And such articles often instigate the Twitter pile-ons which like the Feministing article elide the research and facts demonstrated and rely on emotionalised arguments which negate facts.  Intimidation tactics which insinuate slurs such as “transphobe,” “TERF” (trans-exclusionary radical feminist), and “bigot” are all familiar measures to shut down dialogue and to tarnish the public image of individuals through these and other trolling tactics. And Singal was no exception to these methods as one writer states that Singal “certainly seems to be somewhat uncomfortable with trans people existing at all.”  Any cursory reading of Singal’s article would simply not give this impression at all, no matter where you stand on the issue of transgenderism and children.

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The events surrounding Singal’s publication reminded me of Twitter attacks I faced in 2013 when I published an article chronicling the assault on gender critical feminists in CounterPunch. After the publication of this piece, I was Twitter trolled and threatened (as well as my editor and both our children). Thereafter came a libellous piece co-published by Jacobin and Salon which commits similar acts of wilful misinterpretation, hyperbole and outright lies (ie. that my article was “about whether a group of people should exist” and that both CounterPunch and I do not regard trans as “human beings”). My article made no such allusion either directly or circuitously. When I approached both Jacobin and Salon to correct the inaccuracies and to publish my riposte to the calumnious article, Salon was uninterested in correcting the factual errors and Jacobin’s editor, Bhaskar Sunkara, wrote me to say that he would normally publish my response but that on this occasion he could not because his publication was facing legal action by Cathy Brennan who was also mentioned in the Jacobin article. Not only was Sunkara’s claim that Brennan had told her lawyer “to prepare litigation against Jacobin” untrue, but Jacobin took the opportunity to fund raise based on this fabrication. Refusing to give a rebuttal to a person incorrectly characterised in an article using a fake lawsuit as a pretext would seem to be a new low for “leftist” publishing these days. But hey, why publish properly researched facts when you can invoke vitriol through offensive epithets (ie. TERF), thinly veiled threats, labelling a reputable leftist publication and myself as part of a “hate group,” while taking part in the ongoing “oppression Olympics” of truthiness that social media and mainstream publishing currently foment? It appears that allowing for the healthy discussion about gender — a topic that affects everyone in societies throughout the world — is considered anathema to the mandate of certain allegedly leftist publications.

So imagine the irony when one of Jacobin’s editors, Connor Kilpatrick, after linking to Singal’s article on Twitter, was called out through very similar language with which Jacobin had smeared CounterPunch and me three years ago. Watching Kilpatrick’s surprise regarding the caustic reaction to his tweet and The Week’s Ryan Cooper comparing such cyber trolling to a witch hunt made me wonder where some of these men had been over the last several years. Then it hit me: it took men being attacked for there to be any sizeable discussion about or backlash against what has been and continues today to be intellectual bullying, cyber trolling, and vast misrepresentations, to include calumny and generous doses of misogyny. To be fair, when I first read Singal’s article, I wrote him to ask if he was being harassed to which Singal astutely noted: “I’m a male so I only get a tiny fraction of the harassment women do.” For most, however, that women have been the usual victims of these tactics seemed to have had little to no effect on the public perception of slurs like “TERF,” “transphobe,” or the notion that by being gender critical one is somehow murdering people with words. Indeed, it is an unhappy coincidence that such exceptions only demonstrate how sexist the practices of publishing academic or scientific debate has been in recent years, as many of these male writers were at the very least spared rape threats.

While there is some perfunctory satisfaction in knowing that a publication which went out of its way to publish a hack piece about CounterPunch and me is now being categorised as “transphobic” and as forming part of a “transphobic circle-jerk,” I am nonetheless concerned that ostensibly leftist editors of publications such as Jacobin do not understand how this sort of linguistic blowback functions. And worse, that these publications by censoring content, unwittingly contribute to the anti-intellectualism at the heart of any movement whose ethos rides uniquely on epithets and acronyms. Aside from these publications behaving similarly to these Twitter trolls, it is as if they are seemingly unable to recognise the acute distinction between responsible academic exchange on the one hand, and human rights violations on the other. Obviously, writers are not asking seasoned editors to agree with every piece they publish. But writers do generally expect the fair and equal representation of ideas while not having their critiques collapsed with obliquely radical, if not very real and damaging, human rights abuses. Even getting articles that are gender critical published in leftist publications today is a miraculous feat as so many editors either kowtow to gender essentialist discourses of “bravery” or they are weary of the fallout that inevitably occurs after publishing any piece that does applaud transgenderism as the cause célèbre du jour.

I am concerned that today the problem of reading reactively and not intellectually, with an eye to understanding, is a task that must be equally addressed by both the public and magazine editors. Given the growing political pressure to endorse certain viewpoints, I would expect that editors would take a hard line against such political pressure by pushing back in the form of publishing dissenting voices. Rather than champion the silencing of debate while yielding to defamatory practices about those who offer an informed critical discourse, editors should be stepping up to the challenge of bringing together divergent perspectives and of opening up polemic, rather than labelling critical difference as “hate speech.” Ensuring this is done seems to be paramount to our advancement as a society.

It is an inescapable fact that social media is making us lazy as both readers and as thinkers. Many have lost the capacity to read effectively and with refined cognitive skills that would allow the reader to understand that Jesse Singal can lend a critical eye to the politicisation of children and transgenderism as well as the dangers of political advocacy in medicine without concluding that Singal must necessarily be transphobic. Today it is more and more the case that writers feel pressured to genuflect to transgenderism in all its perceived “positive” forms despite the fact that at the heart of any given discussion might lie critiques which engage conflicting politics of gender, the politicisation of children and gender, or fraud committed by an individual who happens to be transgender.

But writers are not the only individuals feeling coercion on this matter. This past Tuesday the Lambda Literary Foundation announced that it rescinded its nomination for the 2016 Lambda Literary Award for the LGBTQ Nonfiction category, Alice Dreger’s Galileo’s Middle Finger (2015). Tony Valenzuela, Executive Director of Lambda Literary Foundation confirmed that his office received almost 100 letters of protest regarding Dreger’s nomination for the award, “including from major LGBT civil rights organizations.” Valenzuela stated, “Galileo’s Middle Finger, does not meet our organizational objective of promoting knowledge, understanding and acceptance of LGBTQ people,” adding that there were serious concerns about one of the chapters of the book “about which our transgender constituents strongly object and which, after careful and full consideration, we agree does not affirm LGBTQ lives.” Lambda Literary Foundation’s response, however, does not answer how a book which delves into the problems of scientific research when faced with political activism and aggression would actually be “in denial” of anyone’s life. Lambda Literary Foundation, in withdrawing Dreger’s text from consideration, is subtly suggesting that there is only one acceptable, monolithic reading of gender and that this reading is the only way to “affirm” lives. The skeptic in me questions why it is the public’s obligation to “affirm” anyone’s life, much less anyone’s gender. People can and do build respectful relationships with others of all sorts of identities which we would never be asked to affirm. I have colleagues who are religious, some friends who are politically conservative, and others who think they are the best cook on the planet (when they are not). In order for me to have a happy or even functioning relationship with these individuals, I am not given a litmus test that requires me to affirm their beliefs about their identities, to repeat after them that I affirm their belief in God. Affirmation is a personal construction and not a social pledge of allegiance in which we must collectively participate; yet today affirmation of the other’s feelings is troublingly making its way as part of a larger political doxa.

We are now witnessing the distressing domino effect of cultural illiteracy and Creationist-like views of gender being enforced throughout social and academic spaces which heretofore had been the harbingers of critical inquiry and democratic forms of expression. Given that the subject of Dreger’s book deals with the silencing of scientists, Lambda’s response to her critical study is nothing short of ironic as are the comments on Twitter regarding Dreger’s work. These tweets refer to Dreger as a “transphobe,” there are obtuse mentions to her sexuality and sex, and one tweet asserts that she should be “axed from @LambdaLiterary awards,” an unfortunate, if not entirely deliberate, choice of words. When women do publish on the subject of gender, it is increasingly common to witness the intentional denigration of females through the same old tropes of sexism and thinly veiled allusions to violence.

Twitterbating cries of transphobia in response to articulate and respectful publications constitute, like trigger warnings, a means to stifle discussion about an issue which actually affects us all — gender. Unless we intend to ask that journalists and scholars write endlessly boring articles about “courage” and red carpet moments, we must adopt thicker skin when it comes to accepting that on the subject of gender, everyone has a horse in this race. Agree or disagree, the starting point to understanding how we might stop the vicious attacks online must first begin by reading what the other has actually written while foregoing all desire to hyperbolise and misrepresent.