Free Speech Activists Are Trying to Get Me Fired Because They Didn’t Like a Joke I Made

So, this is written in a newspaperly style, because I was hoping to place it in a newspaper. I have not been able to. Despite this story having been reported in the Wall Street Journal, the Times of London, the Daily Caller, the Daily Wire, the Post Millennial, the RT, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the Federalist, and on the Ben Shapiro Show, I have been unable to offer any corrections to the misleading and in some cases defamatory claims about me, and so I’m posting it here on my own newsletter. This is all small potatoes, but it is a useful illustration of the paradoxical position that so-called “free speech” activists find themselves in: attempting to get one free-speaker fired, while claiming that another (who happens to be at the top of the Amazon charts, and clearly has a very competent PR team) is being silenced.

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So-called free speech activists have spent the last week trying to get me fired from UC Berkeley for a joke they didn’t like. The joke was a sort of B+ punchline to a solid A- set-up, but to give the punchline first, it was simply this: “I encourage my followers to steal copies of Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage and burn them on a pyre.”

It looks pretty bad—or at least, it looks pretty straightforward if you take it out of context. But the set-up changes things. Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage is a new book about young trans men, which argues that recent developments in transgender medicine have exposed young people to invasive surgeries with permanent effects, which a substantial number go on to regret. At least, I assume it does—I haven’t read it and I don’t intend to, because the argument is very well-rehearsed and debunked: it simply isn’t true that children are “routinely sterilized,” as one of my critics claimed on Twitter. Trans children are often treated with puberty blockers (which prevent, rather than cause, the “irreversible damage” of a potentially traumatizing puberty) and in neither the US nor the UK is there any significant movement for allowing trans kids access to surgeries. Plus, of course, such surgeries would be no less “irreversible” than any other—including tattoos, cosmetic enhancements, or indeed cosmetic surgeries. 

What I have read, closely and with amused horror, is the hilariously grim front cover that Shrier has chosen, presumably in consultation with her publishers at Regnery, which also publishes books of pro-Kavanaugh and anti-mask conspiracy theories alongside its trans panic books. The cover involves a young paper doll. the very picture of baroque childhood innocence, with a round hole popped out of her abdomen—her reproductive organs having been beveled out as if by an enormous phantom drill. Once one realizes what has happened to her guts, the look on the girl’s face seems to change from blissful innocence to mortified reproach. Oscar Wilde is (probably wrongly) credited that one requires a heart of stone to read the death of Little Nell and not to laugh; today, he would doubtless observe that one needs a brain of mush not to look at the front cover of Shrier’s book without conjuring grotesque fantasies of a melon baller and an ice cream scoop.

So, the initial joke was: “what we could do is find copies of Abigail Shrier’s book IRREVERSIBLE DAMAGE in our local libraries, rip out the interiors without consent, and install the texts of our own propaganda before sewing the jacket back up. stop this rubbish from reproducing itself.” Perhaps a bit grim, but I think it’s kind of funny: it’s no more lurid than Shrier’s own fantasy, and it makes an analogy between the body and the book that wouldn’t seem utterly out of place among the work of a lower tier Wilde imitator. But the anti-trans activists found it, and started making some dumb claims about a professor at UC Berkeley (“the home of the free speech movement!,” as though they have any idea what that means) was advocating defacing library books, and so, with probably rather too much of my usual contempt for idiocy and moral panic, I escalated: “no, I don’t encourage my followers to deface library books. I encourage my followers l to steal copies of Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage.”

What followed was a taste of the right-wing virality that has stretched over the last few days. Articles in The Daily Caller (who asked me for a comment) and The Daily Wire (who didn’t), the grifter Abigail Shrier herself used my name in an editorial in the Wall Street Journal––all these are linked above–-claiming that the academic establishment was trying to shut her down (neither more nor less true than that the “academic establishment,” which doesn’t exist, is trying to shut down The Price of Panic, an anti-social distancing book that Regnery put out this year). When I pointed out that Shrier’s book, despite being hostile to the basic methodological premises of transgender studies, is somehow the top of the Amazon chart in that field, I was met with triumphalism on the one hand, and a dark warning that censorship tends to be counter-productive on the other. “I suppose so,” I muttered.

And of course, dozens—I’m guessing, actually: maybe hundreds—of emails to my Chair and Dean, demanding that the professor with no respect for free speech be fired for speaking too freely. It didn’t concern me that this bizarre position might convince my bosses (who aren’t idiots) but I did worry that so many “free speechers” saw such a strong and compulsive need to shut down me down, but that the conspiracy theorist who had grifted her way to the top of the charts by connecting a totally fictitious moral panic, somehow required their staunch protection. Unless, of course, the so-called free speech activists aren’t interested in free speech at all, and are simply revanchist conspiracy nuts who, having lost an argument, demand a right to have their views prevail anyway. I have my suspicions.

Plus, of course, this kind of delightfully free speech from the heroes of the anti-censorship movement:

And hundreds, and hundreds, more. I don’t expect open letters to be signed on my behalf––god knows, I don’t want to turn into Joanne Rowling––but the asymmetry is interesting. For a fully exploration of these themes, please do see the thread I posted on the subject here.

The other lesson from this was that, despite the demands of British anti-trans feminists that they are, in some sense, “of the left,” none of them—not one—was remotely capable of defending the academic freedom of a public educator, and not one of them thought to criticize the framing of the issue in the far-right media as an out-of-control, censorship-mad academic. This erosion of academic freedom—or, more precisely, its reduction to mere “freedom of speech,” where expertise matters less than representing the views of conspiracy nuts—will hurt us all. It is true that the two constituencies—fascists and so-called “terfs”—like to abuse me in different ways: the first lot threatens to rape me, while the second lot calls me a rapist. But they are very happy to collaborate online to defend their bizarre theories and superstitions, and have no more qualms cheering on The Rush Limbaugh Show than does the Women’s Liberation Front when it takes money from the Heritage Foundation.

Shrier will have her moment in the sun, just as Milo Yiannopoulos did, and plenty of conspiracy theorists before him. The work to be done is for actual feminists to uproot this vicious and stupid bigotry from its midst once and for all.

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