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.