This Is How Badly the Free Speech Absolutists Fucked Up the Graham Linehan Case Back in April
pretty badly. pretty badly!
By the time you have read this, you should be able to tell the difference between:
✅ a libel!
✅ an opinion!
✅ a fact!
✅ an error of fact that is neither defamatory nor opinion!
And, knowing these things as you will, I heartily encourage you to start a podcast explaining our current crisis of free speech, “cancel culture,” something something “woke”. Not just because it’s a good grift and several people have become extremely rich from it, but because you will know more on the topic than the two most popular grifters currently working that particular beat, Jesse Singal and Katie Herzog. These two bozos have somehow extracted a living from a whole lot of people concerned that you can’t say anything these days and perhaps even that it is turning into nineteen eighty four, without doing even the most rudimentary reading on the topic. Hats off!
On March 28th, Singal and Herzog dedicated a podcast to Graham Linehan, an anti-transgender campaigner and oddball former comedy writer, exploring Linehan’s history of transphobic remarks, and his gradual transformation into the shambling bigot we’ve all come to know and hate. I got the thing transcribed––and yes, please do rest assured that I didn’t have to give either of them a cent of my hard-hustled money in order to do so.
(By the way, I hope you’re keeping track of all these insults! They’re part of the point: Singal and Herzog are “grifters” and “bozos”; Linehan is “an anti-transgender campaigner,” an “oddball,” and a “shambling bigot.” Libel? Defamation? Opinion? Fact? Find out soon!)
Singal and Herzog’s report gives Linehan a supervillain origin story (“Graham was viciously bullied as a child”) and, drawing on a story in The Telegraph in which he is rather fawningly named as “the most hated person on the internet” (such a badass), to suggest that Linehan became radicalized after being “dog-piled” for the mere crime of having written an episode of The IT Crowd in which our heroes tranny-bash a trans woman named April once she reveals her true, dastardly nature.
That episode, “The Speech,” might in fact constitute evidence of prior radicalization––since, as far as I know, no other middling-but-popular Channel Four sitcoms were celebrating the violent assault of queer people back in 2008. But it’s no great matter: the only real downside was that the episode rather spoils one’s enjoyment of the otherwise-excellent stealth trans actor Matt Berry, who plays the poor sap dating the arm-wrestling brick.
(Wait, is Matt Berry really a stealth trans man? Isn’t that a libel? What was that fifth category again?)
Singal and Herzog also talk about my beef with Linehan, which I detail here. Here they are:
We have two theories of the case here: Herzog thinks Linehan’s claim was libelous because it improperly accused me of child molestation; Singal thinks it was libelous because it improperly accused me of misconduct towards adults. But notwithstanding those differences, they both correctly identify the two components that are necessary for a claim of libel to land.
LIBEL ELEMENT ONE: a libelous claim is false.
LIBEL ELEMENT TWO: a libelous claim is defamatory, that is, likely to prove injurious to the reputation of the claimant.
Linehan’s claim was definitely false, and definitely defamatory. Libel!
Let’s go back to our pals:Grace is totally fine with libeling other people? Say it ain’t so!
I wracked my brain trying to figure out what they were talking about. I have lost more friends than I care to note by my attempts to bend over backwards to defend people I disagree with, including saying in the piece about Linehan linked above that I haven’t seen evidence that Singal sexually harasses trans women, and I think that claim circulates thoughtlessly. But I haven’t, and I think it’s important to say.
So what did they mean?
I thought it was possible that Herzog had meant something like “Grace doesn’t mind if third parties are libeled by other people”––that it wasn’t a direct accusation of being a libeler like Linehan. So I took a leaf from Singal’s own book, and I sent him a wee message to ask for details:
Singal came back with a genuinely stunning response [which for some reason didn’t upload when I first posted this––update 3.50pm]:Singal names two occasions on which I have referred to him in unflattering terms as “straightforwardly libel.”The first is that I claimed that Singal argued that my Foreign Policy essay (that he has tried to maul to death by a thousand paper cuts but has not, to my knowledge, actually engaged with substantially) should be taken down. I did indeed claim that, on the strength of a tweet in which Singal said that it should never have been published. Rather embarrassingly, I can’t find that tweet now, but Singal doesn’t deny having written it:Is saying that something should be taken down the same as saying it should not have been published? Tricky. They are both expressions of a wish for the piece’s non-existence, so to that extent they are interchangeable. But Jesse also has a point suggesting that they’re not exactly the same, and I could have been more careful there. Here’s the rub, though. My claim wasn’t defamatory. Being thought of as having claimed of an argument “this should be taken down” wouldn’t noticeably harm Singal’s reputation any more than being thought of as having claimed “this should never have been published.” They both show him as a pompous, bloviating ditto, whose aversive responses to being described in terms he doesn’t like is simply to fantasize a world in which everyone agrees with him. So: maybe false (though I maintain it isn’t), but definitely not defamatory. Not libel!
Let’s look at the other claim. “You said I called trans people a ‘contagion.’ I never called trans people a ‘contagion.’”This one is potentially more damaging, since the rhetoric is, indeed, “Hitlerian,” as Singal rightly identifies. So to be thought of as someone who thinks of trans people as plague-carriers, passing on our unhealthy attachments to each other.Let’s look at the record, shall we?Singal first came to public attention as, preposterously, an authority on trans issues after the publication of his article When Children Say They’re Trans (queue up the sinister strings section) in The Atlantic in 2018. I’ve already dealt with the vicious and stupid rhetorical techniques that Singal began to craft in that essay––quickly: whatever happens, the lesson is always that trans people are unreasonable––so I won’t do so again here. But let’s go ahead and do that cmd+f for “contagion.” Lo and behold:
Couple of things to notice here. First, that this phrase appears in inverted commas, and therefore cannot be taken as Singal’s own. And second, that these words are spoken by “parents,” and not––this is important because of a dumb defense of Singal some people tried to mount on Twitter––by professional sociologists. The context in which this phrase is being spoken is parents who feel, at best, ambivalent about their kids’ professed transness, and, at worst, hostile. Singal’s word is “worried.” So we can assume that the term is supposed to carry a certain kind of shock value––and indeed, I’d guess that’s why Singal thought to put it in scare quotes in the first place.
Now, some of these dear little snowflakes are, for some reason, moved to find this rhetoric (which Singal has himself, remember, called “Hitlerian”) “offensive.” The poor dears. But we still don’t have Singal himself endorsing this position, do we?
Weird, the word “contagion” has been dropped. Why? Perhaps to spare the blushes of those dear old tr*nnies who find it “silly or even offensive.” But perhaps, rather, to substitute out a “Hitlerian” claim––that trans people are infecting children with their crazy ideas about gender––with a perfectly banal, indeed entirely uncontroversial one, that “social forces can play a role in a young person’s gender questioning.”
Find me a person who denies that sentence as written. I would be surprised if there were any. So why has begun the sentence with “But,” as though it were contradicting the paragraph about the antsy tr*nnies, and italicized that word “can” as though the argument were belabored? It’s a neat little trick, but very obvious once you’ve seen it: Singal has managed to endorse a “Hitlerian” idea without using the word itself, while making trans people look like they’re opposed to a self-evident truth. Crass, manipulative and, yes, transphobic.
So, definitely defamatory, and definitely not false. Not libel!
Now, let’s just have a quick word about “transphobic.” This is a word that Singal, Herzog, and their cohort of courageous woke-skeptics really don’t like having applied to them. We’re not afraid of you, we just don’t like you!, they cry, not unreasonably. So let’s acknowledge that it is possibly to be implacably opposed to every single major issue in which trans civil rights are entailed without being, in the strict sense, phobic: you can oppose trans people being allowed access to healthcare, social care, legal and bureaucratic gender confirmation, etc., not out of fear, but out of hate. I think transmisic would be a better formula for Singal and Herzog: they really aren’t afraid of us––they despise us. But I also think that’s what most people mean by “transphobic,” and I think that Herzog and Singal’s pettifogging campaign of confusion on this issue is designed to split hairs in order to prove their general case that trans people are oversensitive.
Which, you know, we’re actually not!
But, here’s something that’s very important. A general principle of libel is that there should be strong protections for expressing political opinions. An opinion can be a difficult thing to determine. Is it a claim of fact that Jesse Singal is transphobic, or transmisic? One could imagine a situation where it could be––if, for example, someone claimed that Jesse Singal acted towards trans people with hostility in his personal life. But to claim that his public conduct itself constitutes transphobia, or transmisia, is more a matter of opinion: in my view, a man who spends his life arguing against the civil rights of trans people is transphobic, however he conducts himself in his private life. In other words, I’m not interested in the character of Singal’s soul: I’m interested in the damage that he does every day he goes to work, prosecuting his campaign of misinformation and carefully-choreographed exasperation against trans people online.
Katie Herzog has claimed, publicly, that this view of mine––which I’ve argued in, for example, the Linehan essay linked above––constitutes a libel of Singal. It doesn’t, because there is no claim of fact entailed. It’s an opinion.
So, not false, and maybe a bit defamatory. Not libel!
But more damningly and bizarrely than that, Herzog seems to think that my calling Singal “transphobic” is a transgression on a par with calling someone a pedophile without any evidence. One would think that was a pretty high bar, especially since I’ve defended Singal against claims of sexual misconduct of far less seriousness!
But here we are [also didn’t upload at first, for whatever reason]:
To give you some sense of how flexible the “opinion” exemption is, I’ve been trying to express the above argument as a statement of fact so that, if it were false, it would be libel. My first attempt:
Katie Herzog and Jesse Singal do not understand the first principles of “free speech,” and are not qualified to write or broadcast on this topic.
But this doesn’t work, because “do not understand” and “are not qualified” are clearly judgments, which are a type of opinion. Oh I don’t know. I just think they’re stupid, belligerent, dishonest grifters, and I think it’s time their fifteen minutes was over.
Let’s see if we understand the differences!
anti-transgender campaigner: opinion
stealth trans man: non-defamatory error of fact