Who could have guessed that the free speech absolutists who signed the Harper’s letter decrying cancel culture would immediately turn around and start trying to cancel the people criticizing the letter and their participation in it? Except, that is, everyone?
Two days ago, critic Emily VanDerWerff sent a letter to her editors at Vox expressing dismay at her colleague Matt Yglesias signing the Harper’s letter. As you can see from the text of the letter that VanDerWerff tweeted, she explicitly writes that she isn’t calling for Yglesias to experience professional consequences, but to point out the fact that his signature reflects on Vox, and may make it difficult for the site’s writers to gain access to underprivileged communities and report on them. Fellow signatory Jesse Singal—whose presence in any group should be a sign to all decent members of said group that it’s time to leave—retweeted VanDerWerff, accusing her of trying to get Yglesias fired. This was picked up by right-wing blogs, and the result has been sadly predictable:
The following is the last thing I will say on this on Twitter: These two days have been hell. Death threats, rape threats, invitations to commit suicide, constant misgendering, etc. On every platform. The only way I can avoid it is to leave the internet entirely. I can’t sleep.— Emily VanDerWerff 😎 (@emilyvdw) July 9, 2020
As Julia Serano has been reporting on in her twitter feed, VanDerWerff is not the only recipient of Singal’s wrath and directed twiter mobs. Author Jennifer Finney Boylan, who signed the letter but apologized for her signature after being criticized for it, is also now receiving abuse.
in the meantime, the Jesse-Singal-provoked hate parade in @/jennyboylan’s mentions continues, here are some screen shots. it’s entirely filled with ppl berating & demeaning her for apologizing. it’s disgusting. is this what you meant by “open debate” @Harpers? #harpersletter pic.twitter.com/FXmEUGfdps— Julia Serano (@JuliaSerano) July 8, 2020
It’s obviously not a coincidence that VanDerWerff and Boylan are both trans women. Other critics of the letter have received outsized negative attention and been mobbed by violent and hateful speech, and the thing they seem to have in common is being trans or non-white or both. It’s a reminder that, as VanDerWerff writes further down the above-quoted thread, this is not about free speech, but about the desire of the powerful and privileged to escape even the slightest of criticisms, while viciously silencing, punishing, and trying to run off their platforms the authors of that criticism.
The hypocrisy of celebrating so-called vigorous debate, only to call out those who offer a counter opinion for offering such a counter opinion is obvious on its face, but I will point it out anyway.
They do not believe in free speech; they believe in free speech FOR THEM.— Emily VanDerWerff 😎 (@emilyvdw) July 9, 2020
Singal is, of course, known for targetting trans writers and for trying to get them fired (see, for example, this tweet from journalist Katelyn Burns), but as this thread by Steven t. Piantadosi helpfully collates, many of the signatories are far from free speech absolutists, targeting their own critics with harassment, appeals to their employers, and threats of lawsuits. The audacity of hiding behind cries for “reasonable” debate, and decrying the discourse culture as violent and prescriptive, while unleashing far worse violence on anyone who directs their free speech against you is astounding. The fact that a large chunk of the mainstream media will take these claims at face value, and pay little attention to their authors’ behavior, is infuriating.
UPDATE July 20th: I am in receipt of an email from Singal requesting corrections to this post, specifically of the claim that he “is known for targeting trans writers”. It’s true that I am relying solely on accusations made by people like Katelyn Burns, so I should probably have written “has been accused of targeting trans writers”. However, I will also add that I find these accusations entirely credible, especially in light of Singal’s well-documented history of complaining to or about his critics, of which I am but a recent and minor example.