Belatedly, I’m Leaving Substack

A little less than a year ago, I accepted a Substack Pro deal for a significant amount of money to publish on this platform for a year. Today, I’m walking away from that contract and shutting down my account. I’ve exported the email addresses of everyone who has subscribed and will add everyone, for free, to whatever platform I decide to publish with next. I might also take a break from the newsletter hustle. I’m not sure, I’ll see how a couple of other things shake out. I’m proud of a lot of the writing I’ve put on this site, though, so while I’m going to be deleting everything from Substack, I’ve already uploaded everything from the last year to my own website.

I’ve never been under any illusions about why a literary scholar specializing in Victorian literature and psychoanalysis was offered a lot of money by a tech start-up. (A lot for me; obviously, pennies for them.) It’s because I’m a trans woman, and about a year ago, Substack was facing public criticism for its publication of a number of authors critical of the movement for trans civil rights. As it happened, I thought that the criticism often blurred an important difference: between libelous and hateful attacks on individuals on the one hand, and criticism of trans civil rights claims as a matter of public policy on the other. I thought, in other words, that it was important to acknowledge that, while I disagree with Jesse Singal’s work very profoundly, I don’t think it is strictly hateful; Graham Linehan’s activism, on the other hand, is very clearly motivated primarily and consistently by a lurid hatred of trans women, particularly those who love and have sex with other women.

still think this distinction matters, and that it is captured fairly well by the Terms of Use that Substack publishes.

Substack Terms of Use regarding Linehan's hatred of trans women

But I no longer have any faith that the executive team at Substack will enforce these Terms of Use, or the Content Guidelines.

Substack's Content Guidelines regarding hate and violence against protected classes

So because I do not trust that the platform will enforce its own rules, I’m leaving.

However the term has been degraded by present use, I’m a passionate believer in free speech. In my view, trans people have a particularly intimate need for language as a vehicle for freedom: we, perhaps more than anyone else, are people whose fundamental sense of ourselves has depended on our ability to describe ourselves freely, even at profound personal cost. As a scholar and editor of scholars, I recognize the necessity of disagreement, plurality of opinion, and dissent. And someone who has been wrong many times, about many things, I’m particularly grateful to colleagues and interlocutors who have corrected me, sharpened my thinking, and jostled me closer to the truth, even when those jostles have also felt painful. I’ve taught classes at UC Berkeley defending free speech, worked closely with students whose political commitments profoundly contradicted my own, published essays on this subject many times, including on this newsletter. I have defended free speech in conversation with my own comrades, and I have helped to found an organization committed to Academic Freedom for All, a position I am planning to defend in a live debate with anti-trans campaigners in the UK. I care about freedom, and language, and the relationship between the two, more than anything else.

So it makes me worse than miserable—it makes me feel positively nauseated—to read shady corporate garbage like this pouring forth from those who’ve helped to pay my bills:

[A]s we face growing pressure to censor content published on Substack that to some seems dubious or objectionable, our answer remains the same: we make decisions based on principles not PR, we will defend free expression, and we will stick to our hands-off approach to content moderation. While we have content guidelines that allow us to protect the platform at the extremes, we will always view censorship as a last resort, because we believe open discourse is better for writers and better for society. 

Either deliberately or otherwise, this last sentence conspicuously equates the enforcement of “content guidelines” with censorship. That is, Hamish Mackenzie, Chris Best, and Jairaj, who signed the letter, believe that their own injunctions against abuse and harassment would, if enforced, amount to censorship. I can’t continue to work with people who think that’s true—especially when I’ve personally explained to them, more than once, what’s wrong with it.

It’s important to understand why this isn’t true. People often think about this kind of online “abuse” only from the perspective of the abuser—someone who says cruel things, but who should be allowed to run his mouth off anyway because of his right to free speech. That’s fair enough at the scale of the individual. But it doesn’t work at the scale of the system. If abuse of a minority is allowed to continue unchecked, members of that minority will be excluded the system. Historically, this is why jurisdictions place controls on defamation and libel: to ensure equitable access to the public sphere.

But national jurisdictions are clearly incapable of performing that role in this case. For example, I’ve been advised by a number of lawyers that Linehan has libeled me, and that any court in the UK or the US would evaluate our dispute in my favor. The problem is that he lives in the UK, and I live in the US, so neither jurisdiction would hear the case. Our contention, such as it is, exists online, rather than in a national space—and so it is important that online regulators decide how they will ensure the same equity of access to the public sphere that the liberal rights-based framework of “free speech” had attempted, often very unsuccessfully, to supply.

What Substack has done instead is to deny any responsibility of this kind. The first time I told them that something Linehan had published about me was libelous, they responded by telling me that, of course, if I could convince a court of that, they would follow the court’s lead. I found that pathetically evasive at the time, and said so. But after a full year of grotesque personal libels, each more flagrantly in breach of the Terms of Use than the last, I now think it’s something more sinister than that. Substack acts like a corporation—and so it should, it is a corporation, and very clearly the commercial interest is in monetizing the angry centrists like Singal, Glenn Greenwald, and Bari Weiss. But it has decided to talk like a state, and present itself as the guarantor of rights that its corporate conduct, in fact, is fast eroding.

That’s why my decision to leave the company was made halfway through my trawl through this truly repulsive trail of managerial slime:

It is, of course, massively important to the angry centrists that their egos are flattered, and so they must be told again and again that they are the underdogs. But there is absolutely no need for the platform itself to keep up this pretense—except that it has decided to adorn its shabby commercial interest with gaudy moral nostrums. If the company itself has swallowed the notion that controlling for abuse and harassment is a form of “censorship,” then public regulation of these platforms has become a logical necessity. There’s a case for public ownership, in fact—because Substack are publicly deferring to legal domains that, in fact, do not bind them.

The argument, however, is not persuasive. Yesterday, Greenwald published one of his usual link-thick clause-bombardments, this time directed against Neil Young on the one hand, and the critics of his own platform on the other.. His argument concerning the nature of censorship eventually led him into this peroration:

None of this is to suggest that American liberals are the only political faction that succumbs to the strong temptations of censorships. Liberals often point to the growing fights over public school curricula and particularly the conservative campaign to exclude so-called Critical Race Theory from the public schools as proof that the American Right is also a pro-censorship faction. That is a poor example. Censorship is about what adults can hear, not what children are taught in public schools. Liberals crusaded for decades to have creationism banned from the public schools and largely succeeded, yet few would suggest this was an act of censorship. For the reason I just gave, I certainly would define it that way. Fights over what children should and should not be taught can have a censorship dimension but usually do not, precisely because limits and prohibitions in school curricula are inevitable.

Only one link here, to an article declaring victory against creationism, albeit one published in 1987, before the issue has even become a flashpoint in the culture wars. But Greenwald’s sloppiness with sources isn’t the problem—and he isn’t usually that sloppy, either. The problem is that his argument is completely impossible to follow. It seems to be something like:

  1. Some would say that legislative efforts to ban critical race theory are censorious.
  2. “That is a poor example.”
  3. “Censorship is about what adults can hear, not what children are taught in public schools.” (One might have wished for a link to clarify that rather theatrical claim.)
  4. Liberals successfully suppressed creationism, “yet few would suggest that was an act of censorship.”
  5. But I, Glenn Greenwald, would define it that way.
  6. Debates about what children should be taught are kinda-censorious, kinda-not.

It is difficult to escape from this paragraph without the strong sense that Greenwald sees “censorship” merely as that which “liberals” advocate—whether that is critical race theory or evolutionary theory—and that whatever “liberals” don’t like, is actually “free speech.” But to deploy a somewhat Greenwaldian rhetorical construction, the incoherence of his word salad is useful, in so far as it is instructive. This man doesn’t know what “censorship” is, and has simply aligned his political interests completely with those of his corporate employer.

I don’t advocate anyone else leaving the platform—the point remains, make that bread if you can. I’ve discussed this briefly with Danny, but not in great detail, and I don’t expect him to make the same decision. I hope this situation improves. Hamish could improve it, at a stroke, by committing to transparency in respect of complaints. Or Hamish could confirm, as I suspect, that no Substack account has ever been censured on the basis of a violation of the terms of use or content guidelines. Hamish, of course, will do neither of these things, because his strong corporate interest is to act like a corporation (secretively and exploitatively) and talk like a state (grandiose declaration of liberal values). I think that’s sad, as well as objectionable.

But for me, free speech is too important to leave to this sleazy group of millionaires. The stench here got too strong, and I’m leaving. Thanks to everyone who has supported this work––I will see you all around and about. My Twitter handle is @graceelavery; my Instagram handle is @grace.lavery.pangolin. See you all around, friends.

My Words to Joanne Rowling Above the Towers of Hogwarts: Performing Transgender Civility

Dear Joanne,

I want to begin by sharing my disgust with those––starting with The Sun––who have escalated misogynistic attacks upon you in the wake of your recent disclosures of opposition to the movement for trans civil rights. While I disagree with your position emphatically and unapologetically, and it is the primary purpose of this letter to explain the substance of that disagreement, it is beyond doubt that many people who believe themselves to be supporting trans women have targeted you unfairly. I join, then, with Roz Kaveney, Andrea Lawlor, and the dozens of other trans people who signed a letter of support for you after The Sun had published a story under the headline “I slapped JK and I’m not sorry” earlier this year. Such an alarming display of misogynist power gives the lie, in my view, to the notion that “terf” is, intrinsically, a sexist slander: at least, it was not one that The Sun had any need for, when it decided to exercise that power against you. 

I want also to name another point of agreement between us: as you explain in your oddly-titled essay “J. K. Rowling Writes about Her Reasons for Speaking out on Sex and Gender Issues,” our experiences are not the same. It is difficult to find much that I have in common with you––although, like someone quite close to you, I was a child from a lower-middle-class family who, at the age of 11, moved into a magical world of selective education, and gained access to social circles and cultural capital that nobody had heard of in the house in which I’d grown up. Like The Chosen One, I found that my being an outsider emanated a certain ambivalence, in me and in those around me: I found  it easy to hold people’s attention, though perhaps not as easy as the hero of Hogwarts. Still, partly because of the psychic consequences of those experiences, and partly for their ramifications across an entire social domain, I cannot romanticize selective education, nor the Government Assisted Place scheme upon which the ward of Dursley would have depended had he been admitted to King Edward’s School, Birmingham. 

The remainder of this letter, which concerns civility––indeed, has been written in order to endorse and uphold the noble goal of discursive civility to which you have committed yourself––must, I am afraid, make clear what I take to be very serious errors of judgment in your handling of this matter. In some cases, those errors of judgment stem from errors of fact. You write early on, for example, that your absorption into your present circumstances was occasioned by tweeting your “support for Maya Forstater, a tax specialist who’d lost her job for what were deemed ‘transphobic’ tweets.” Although the single quotation marks around “transphobic” make clear that you are not quoting from anywhere, it isn’t clear to this reader, at least, whether you believe the tweets in question to deserve that description––my inference is that you do not. 

You go on to describe Forstater’s tweets as part of “a philosophical belief that sex is determined by biology.” In fact, the clause might indicate either of three things: either (1) a belief that sex as determined by biology is protected in law, (2) a belief that sex is determined by biology as protected in law, or (3) whether “a belief that sex is determined by biology” is protected in law (the question in the latter case being whether such a belief would be protected in law becauseit was right, or simply because it is a belief, and beliefs are protected in law). The question of whether law or biology comes first, a position on which is quite difficult to extract from your sentence as published, is of course the central question of the very debates in feminist philosophy (in the work of, for example, Catherine McKinnon and Judith Butler) that the current “gender critical feminists” either have not read, or act as though they have not read. 

Still, one thing is eminently clear: neither of these “beliefs,” whether or not they could be attributed to Maya Forstater, adequately describes either the letter or the spirit of the tweets for which her contract was not renewed, and which were primarily at issue in her claim against the Center for Global Development, decided against her in November 2019. The full decision, including the texts of the tweet, has been uploaded to Snopes, the website for debunking online misinformation, since Forstater herself (and now you) have been responsible for such grotesque distortions of it. In particular, I would call your attention to the tweet cited in the decision in §34.2, in which Forstater quote-tweeted, with approval, an article entitled “Pronouns Are Rohypnol”: 

We may save ourselves the usual fruitless debate over whether a retweet constitutes an endorsement, since in this case Forstater has made it clear what is her view of “Pronouns Are Rohypnol”: it is an “important article.” Now, you are perhaps free to think that this alarming analogy is not “transphobic,” but in that case I suspect you would find yourself in the minority. Perhaps you think that, despite being transphobic, it should not be grounds for contract non-renewal: on this point, you might find broader agreement. But you certainly cannot think, unless you happen not to have read the Forstater decision, that the tweets for which her contract was non-renewed were anything to do with “a philosophical belief.” They were abusive tweets, quite simply meant to shock, hurt, and frighten women. 

It will appear unseemly to dwell on the vicious online behavior of one troll––albeit a troll who seems to have had the dubious privilege of radicalizing the wealthiest writer in the world, possibly in history. But it is the central importance of “pronouns are rohypnol” to the ongoing “debate” (I do quote you: “the debate around the concept of gender identity”) can hardly be overstated. The apparent meaning of the phrase, which is indeed the one developed in the essay “Pronouns Are Rohypnol” by Barra Kerr, published on the Fair Play for Women website: basically, that when trans people ask others to refer to us by particular pronouns––and more specifically, when trans women do so––we are, in essence, disarming people of their power to fight us off. “Rohypnol,” then, because trans women are analogous to rapists: all we want is to gain sexual intimacy with women by force––this, the “gender critical” team has it, is the compulsive condition called “autogynephilia.” And pronouns are one among many techniques with which trans women may carry out our work of silencing dissent, the better to prey on unsuspecting women. 

This plain sense of “Pronouns Are Rohypnol,” of course, rather gives the lie to the notion that trans people are uniquely rude or cruel in our participation in what you call the “debate” over our civil rights. Indeed, I think trans civil rights activists should not be discredited on the basis of occasionally sharp words, mostly from teenagers. Believe me, I have also been called cunt and bitch––and addition, I have also been called rapist, in that case by the person you have made it your vocation to defend. And explicitly pedophile, by Graham Linehan, one of the primary signatories of another recent letter in support of you, and by his many defenders, enablers, and excusers, including Jane Clare Jones––who still, I believe, does events with Linehan––and Kathleen Stock, who, after initially having the courage stand up to his ludicrous bullying, and call libel by its name, eventually said she regretted his having been expelled from Twitter for it because, after all, it was just a little rough-housing. Unlike you, Joanne, I have access to neither billions of pounds to comfort and protect me, nor the telephone numbers of the British Establishment from whom I might expect a letter of public support. When the creator of Father Ted publicly accuses me of “grooming” my own students at UC Berkeley, on the basis of my having expressed concern for LGBTQ students currently living at home in perhaps unsupportive families, I have no defense open to me––a beloved former mentor, who knows thankfully little about this whole mess, wrote to me to express concern about Linehan’s accusation, assuming that a person of his eminence would not identify smoke were there not also fire. So I sympathize––indeed, if you will forgive my use of the forbidden verb, I identify––with the “millions of women whose sole crime is wanting their concerns to be heard without receiving threats and abuse.”

You will notice, Joanne, that I have not yet addressed the apparent substance of your essay: the “philosophical belief” you impute to Maya Forstater that “sex is determined by biology.” You flesh out this argument a little later:

I’ve read all the arguments about femaleness not residing in the sexed body, and the assertions that biological women don’t have common experiences, and I find them, too, deeply misogynistic and regressive.

Since you don’t say which arguments you’ve read (all of them?) I can hardly respond in detail: indeed, a significant part of my point here is that the supposed philosophical debate that is being silenced (concerning the meanings of something called “biological sex”) is both less censored, and much less interesting, than advertised. It is difficult to know how best to respond to the above bluster––perhaps by attempting to distinguish, as Judith Butler has so conscientiously done, between the body as a material object; the body as it presents itself to consciousness; the body as it is “sexed,” to use your passive construction (which, I take it, indeed derives from Butler); the body as its biological features are assigned particular kinds of taxonomic significance and legibility; the unpredictable effects and distinctions of those meanings as they change over time. Discriminations of this kind are usually necessary to any philosophical analysis of sex (not gender) in both analytical and Continental philosophical traditions: one can hardly characterize a body of knowledge that stretches back over a century, and has shaped the thoughts of millions upon millions of women, as “misogynist,” without sounding a little like one of those politicians who confesses himself sick of “experts.” 

Less useful as scholarship than as ideology––as the mark of how a certain social class understands itself and represents itself at this moment in history––“J. K. Rowling Writes” is indispensable. It perfectly depicts a dishonest and insecure oligarchy, desperate to control access into its own terrains and repel invaders at the border. Though its author may have felt otherwise, “J. K. Rowling Writes” is the document of the Brexit era: a text that could rival the present Prime Minister for evasiveness, philosophically incoherence, and a liability to cover up felt intellectual inadequacy with bluff, unfunny jokes: “a lot of people in positions of power really need to grow a pair (which is doubtless literally possible, according to the kind of people who argue that clownfish prove humans aren’t a dimorphic species).”

I want to conclude with a contention of my own, for which I have no more evidence than a hunch and a few dozen conversations and anecdotes shared with my friends and allies in the LGBTQ community against whom, for whatever reason, you have declared war. We mostly don’t care whether “trans women are women,” and we have many positions on that. We mostly don’t care whether femaleness resides in the sexed body, or what “femaleness” is, or what “the sexed body” is, or what it means for a property to “reside” in a predicated object. We simply don’t believe you when you claim not to be transphobic, not because of these positions, but because of your failure to notice that your apparently blameless movement of frustrated common-sensers, has been infiltrated at every level by the kind of vicious, hostile bigots whose entire business is to defame and degrade the lives of trans women. From Maya Forstater to Graham Linehan, through the Heritage Foundation to WoLF, you have failed to address the hatred in your own ranks, and it is for that reason, and nothing to do with your banal opinions, that you must be called to account. 

         Best wishes,

         Grace Lavery