This crowd likes calling the manager

Jesse Singal on the reaction to that Harper’s letter:

I watched a sizable subset of the online progressive intelligentsia respond with intense fury, disbelief, and indignation to an open letter published online yesterday by Harper’s magazine. The letter, which will also appear in the magazine’s October issue, was simply a stout defense of liberal values from people primarily on the left at a time it feels like these values are under threat. It made no bones of the fact that President Donald Trump and right-wing authoritarianism in Europe are both major threats to liberal society. It simply said that in addition to these threats, it’s probably time to get our own house in order. “The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted,” the letter reads, in part. “While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.”

Emphasis mine. The letter is not wrong about that.

Because the American left is basically a war zone at the moment—or online it is, at least—what happened next shouldn’t surprise anyone: A group of us posted the letter and celebrated it, while another much angrier group denounced it and held it up as proof of…well, whatever it is they hate about us and want to get us fired over (this crowd likes calling the manager).


One such reaction came from Parker Molloy, a staffer at the left-leaning Media Matters, who insisted, of a letter that includes Rushdie and Kasparov, “not a single one of them have been censored anytime in recent history.” In the subsequent tweetstorm, she said of the signatories:

“They want you to sit down.

They want you to shut up.

They want you to do as you’re told.

By them. Specifically.”

“They are totalitarians in the waiting,” she wrote. “They are bad people.”

She seems not entirely honest or fair.

All this in response to a letter saying people shouldn’t be punished too harshly over disagreement or missteps!

Well of course, because the reality is no punishment is too harsh. TERFs get the wall etc etc.

Another example of the hit-dog-hollering principle in action yesterday: “i really wonder if some of the people who signed this thought long and hard about whose names they’d appear next to,” tweeted Matt Gabriele, who teaches medieval studies and chairs the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech.

Again, the amount of stuff being revealed, right in the open, if you only care to look, is surprising: Gabriele, who holds an important, gatekeeping position at a major American university, wants people to think “long and hard” before putting their names on an unobjectionable expression of liberal values, lest someone come along and wrongly judge through the lens of some ridiculous guilt-by-association standard. The writer Oliver Traldi calls this style of discourse “rhextortion“: It would be a shame if someone unfairly judged you as a result of the names on this letter rather than the content of its text itself.

Well, we live in a world where people feel justified in demanding why you follow persons X and Y on Twitter.

One of the points of the letter is to push back against the fire-anyone-for-anything trajectory of the present moment, especially when it comes to social media posts. Gabriele, who enjoys academic tenure, doesn’t have to worry about this. He can call people on Twitter names like “piece-of-shit bigot” or “asshole” without having to realistically fear repercussions, unlike those stiffs out there who have to worry that if the wrong person takes some random Facebook post the wrong way, they’ll be called into their boss’s office and canned on the spot. So Gabriele and his pals get free rein, while anyone who points out that maybe it’s not a good idea to promote the norm of firing people over social-media blowups gets yelled at for being part of the problem, or for being an evil, bigoted reactionary—because who else could possibly want a more forgiving, liberal approach? This combination of enjoying virtually unfettered online speech while angrily lashing out at those who want to extend this benefit to as many people as possible is a good system! If you’re in the in-group, at least. 

Then, finally, there’s Emily VanDerWerff, a critic at large for Vox who happens to be trans. One of her colleagues, Matt Yglesias, signed the letter, and VanDerWerff didn’t like the letter, so she did the only reasonable, adult thing: She sent him a quick DM asking if they could talk the matter over.

Kidding! She publicly announced that she had reported Yglesias to his editors for signing the letter. She posted a version of the note on Twitter, and in it she claims the letter was “signed by prominent anti-trans voices” and contains “many dog whistles toward anti-trans positions.” “Dog whistles” used to mean something like coded, racist appeals of the sort Richard Nixon employed but has more recently, on Twitter at least, taken a definition closer to referring to an accusation I don’t want to provide evidence for. That Yglesias signed a document with such signatories and dog whistles “makes me feel less safe at Vox,” she wrote.

Meaning what, Ygelisias was going to open fire at an editorial meeting some day? Come off it. Also let’s remember that VanDerWerff isn’t literally a “she” but a man. Men don’t usually say things like “my male colleague’s signing a document makes me feel less safe” because men are discouraged from being that kind of performatively fragile.

The note contains some boilerplate closing language about not wanting to get Yglesias in trouble, suggesting an interesting strategy that makes perfect sense: After all, when I don’t want to get a colleague in trouble, the first thing I do is send their bosses an email about how something they have done has made me feel less safe, and the second thing I do is post that note publicly to Twitter. It’s just a classic example of not wanting to get a colleague in trouble, if I ever saw one.

Trans women, being The Most Oppressed of All, are allowed to have things both ways. It’s only fair, right?

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