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Great Job Deplatforming Andy Ngo And Abigail Shrier, You Guys (Unlocked)
On the perpetually irresistible folly of trying to ban ideas you don't like
My subscribers voted, overwhelmingly, that they are okay with me sometimes unlocking previously paywalled posts that are at least three months old. That’s what I’m doing here — I unlocked this post on 10/24/2021. The original version lives here.
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I didn’t send it out as an email because I felt self-conscious about drowning you guys in thousands more words on a fairly niche subject, but yesterday I posted another long critique of Science-Based Medicine’s remarkably shoddy coverage of the youth gender medicine debate. I think there are something like 19 errors in the middle two articles from SBM’s four-part series.
That controversy centers on Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, a book that some activists, including employees within Amazon, have been trying to get the book juggernaut to stop carrying entirely. Two employees out of more than 1.3 million have quit over this issue, so of course that’s a news story. There was also a campaign to get Target to stop carrying the title, and online, at least, if you search for “Irreversible Damage” on Target.com, all you’ll get for relevant matches is Irreversible Damage: The Katie Suarez Social Justice Series, a book which I am going to guess doesn’t contain a huge amount about alleged social contagion among teenage girls. (Someone did tweet at me the other day saying they saw a physical copy in a Target, so who knows.)
Another book unpopular among progressives is Andy Ngo’s “Unmasked: Inside Antifa's Radical Plan to Destroy Democracy.” I haven’t read that one, but you can probably garner from the title why they’re mad. In that case, the protests centered around a branch of Powell’s, the legendary bookstore in Portland, the city where Ngo and much of his reporting have traditionally been based. Back when the book came out, “an angry crowd assembled outside the store’s Burnside location in Portland’s Pearl District, attaching signs denouncing Ngo to the windows. The store closed early citing safety concerns. Demonstrators returned to the store again Tuesday, and a spokesperson confirmed to KOIN 6 News that they again closed early.”
We all know what happened in both cases: The impact of being delisted from Target.com, combined with the taint of the employee uprising, dropped Irreversible Damage to the bottom of the charts, where it has languished ever since. Similar deal with Unmasked: A bunch of theretofore neutral middle-American onlookers said “Whoa — if people are this mad about the book, I probably don’t want something like that in my household.” Ngo’s career, too, is now on life support.
I’m kidding, of course: Both Shrier and Ngo have sold a zillion copies of their books. Ngo’s hit the New York Times bestseller list and was #1 on all of Amazon at one point during the most feverish early days of the controversy, and when I recently checked Shrier’s on Amazon, it was in the top 100, which, for a book that came out more than a year ago, suggests eye-popping sales. This virtually guarantees both authors highly remunerative futures in book publishing, enhancing their ability to disseminate their ideas further.
Now, I do think both of these books were likely to sell well no matter what. Antifa and youth transition are both very hot, contentious topics, and books that take assertive stances on such topics tend to have a pretty good shot at selling well (to the extent anyone can predict book sales). And of course we don’t have access to a parallel universe in which progressives’ critiques of these books were measured and didn’t involve attempts at deplatforming.
That said, does any sane person anywhere believe that the deplatforming attempts didn’t help Ngo and Shrier sell truckloads of books? When you try to get a bookseller, whether a small or a big one, to stop carrying a book, it brings a lot of attention to that title! And naturally, even many otherwise disinterested onlookers are going to arch their eyebrows skeptically when they find out that someone is trying to pull a book off the (virtual or real) shelves of some seller. Plus, all this stuff is basically a wet dream for conservative media, or even for non-conservative media that is skeptical of social-justice overreach. When these outlets can (pretty accurately!) talk about the books these social justice warriors don’t want you to read, it guarantees them a lot of attention and eyeballs. So Ngo and Shrier both got extra interviews and coverage as a result of the deplatforming attempts. In addition, many mainstream outlets are clearly and increasingly biased in how they report on these issues, including in their news coverage. That offers further outrage-content opportunities, such as Fox News pointing out how silly it was for NBC to treat those two resignations as news (that article describes Shrier’s book as “paint[ing] transgenderism as a mental illness,” which isn’t really accurate). Which brings yet more free publicity to the book.
One of the reasons I’m a bit fixated on this issue is it gets at one of my biggest frustrations with the general trajectory of the left: In a pluralistic society, you need tools to at least attempt to persuade people. On the left, it feels like those tools are rusting in some forgotten shed somewhere, replaced by a very tired, limited set of alternatives: You either shriek that a given book or article or whatever is ‘harmful’ or ‘violent,’ often obviously distorting its content in the process, or you attempt to make it much more difficult for the general public to access it.
If your goal is to reduce the influence of a book, these strategies are virtually guaranteed not only to fail, but to backfire. People have been declaring books so harmful they should not be disseminated forever. This tactic has a long, sad history, and that’s why we have things like Banned Books Week, and why many Americans are exposed, early on, to the general message that our default stance on attempts to yank books from the shelves should be skepticism. If you want to draw a huge amount of attention to a book from newcomers who are likely to give the book a long, fair look, try to get it banned somewhere, or describe it as ‘violent.’ (This is anecdotal, but a number of people have reached out to me to say things like, “I saw everyone piling on your Atlantic article, talking about how evil and harmful it was. That made me curious and I read it. I thought it was reasonable, so I checked out some of your other stuff, and now I’m a [subscriber/patron/regular listener/whatever].”)
It should strike us as strange that people return to this tactic over and over again given how ineffectual it is likely to be. I can think of two reasons that might be the case. One is that there are outlying instances in which large-scale deplatformings do seem to seriously attenuate the influence of a given author or pundit. Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos, for example, enjoy much smaller audiences than they used to, seemingly because of the decisions major platforms made to delete their accounts. And activists have, here and there, successfully gotten books delisted from Amazon, such as When Harry Became Sally: Responding To The Transgender Moment by Ryan Anderson. (I hope it’s clear by now that I’m putting myself in the shoes of an ardent activist who wants to reduce these books’ influence and who does not care about free-speech concerns, granting so much power to tech giants, and so forth. My arguments here are purely about whether these efforts are likely to succeed or fail in their goal of attenuating various figures’ influences, not whether the efforts themselves are moral, pro-free-speech, tactically wise in the long run, etcetera.)
So some of the logic I am presenting here about the high likelihood these efforts will backfire by drawing more attention to ‘problematic’ content does depend on them ultimately failing: After all, if you make a big stink to Amazon about a book, and Fox News and the Wall Street Journal opinion page and other conservative outlets respond with outrage of their own at the attempted censorship, but then Amazon caves and delists the book at the end of the day, then you still might have ‘won,’ assuming the short-term surge in sales likely to result does not outweigh a subsequent eternity of not being on Amazon. (Because of how weird and competitive the book market is, there are actually numerous lower-profile authors for whom “You will sell 5,000 copies on Amazon today, but then the book will be pulled down forever” would be an undeniably wise deal to take.) Since it is important for everything to circle back to The Wire, it’s basically a “You come at the king, you best not miss” type of deal — that is, go ahead, try to kill Omar if you are up for it, but recognize that the downside of failing to do so isn’t just that Omar will still be alive, but also that he’s going to return the favor.
As for Alex Jones and Milo Yiannopoulos, Jones has said stuff that is so execrable — particularly his Sandy Hook garbage — that even I, pretty adamant when it comes to both free speech laws and norms and enraged by the chronic flippancy with which so many of my fellow progressives treat the prospect of giving for-profit tech giants tremendous power to dictate what information we can and can’t access, find myself more or less defending decisions to ban him from mainstream tech platforms. I think he’s simply a weird outlier and that one can’t necessarily extract all that much from his bannings. With Yiannopoulos, the full story is actually much more complicated than his deplatforming — if he hadn’t shot himself in the foot at every opportunity, his outrage-based business model, which relied in part on savvy decision-making like “Find a billionaire family that likes you and will give you money,” probably could have survived the deletion of his own social-media accounts.
What about Ryan Anderson? He is probably the biggest and most salient example of an author who was dinged badly by an Amazon delisting (though I have no inside info on his book’s sales). But Amazon is on very, very flimsy ground there — it defended its decision via a newly enacted policy in which it will not carry books that “frame LGBTQ+ identity as a mental illness.” This is not a sustainable, consistently enforceable standard. Gender dysphoria continues to be listed in the DSM as a mental disorder, and there’s a reasonable case that it should be, both for insurance-coverage purposes and because feeling so uncomfortable with your own body you need to surgically or hormonally alter it does seem like something we’d consider a mental disorder in any other context, and is a far cry from simply being (say) a male who wants to be called ‘she’ and wear a dress, but who isn’t suffering from such feelings.
“Having gender dysphoria” overlaps with, but is not identical with, “being trans” — in many cases, the presence of gender dysphoria causes people to adopt a trans identity. In other cases, people identify as trans but don’t have gender dysphoria, or they have gender dysphoria but choose not to adopt a trans identity. It’s complicated, in other words. Setting aside the question of whether Anderson ever describes “being trans,” as opposed to “having gender dysphoria,” as a mental illness — I haven’t read the book and don’t know — this is a fraught standard that, if consistently enforced, would likely force Amazon to ban a lot of books. It doesn’t surprise me that Amazon has chosen not to pull Irreversible Damage for violating this standard, even though, given the fuzzy ways people intentionally conflate “being trans” and “having gender dysphoria,” I’d imagine the case for doing so is similar to the case for banning When Harry Became Sally. (To be clear, in her book Shrier follows the DSM’s lead and treats GD as a mental disorder, but does not say that about “being trans.” She emphasizes that she has met trans people who are living healthy, fulfilling lives free of ongoing anguish.)
Or maybe I’m overthinking this whole Ryan Anderson thing. After all, what company puts “Let’s be very strict about enforcing our own standards consistently” at the top of its priorities? What it comes down to is Amazon is a for-profit company with a lot of conservative customers. As I write this, the first- and fifth-ranked books are by Mark Levin and Jesse Watters, respectively. And there the Irreversible Damage paperback is at 30. Whatever internal turmoil Amazon experiences for carrying certain books, and however shrill the tweets from the left get, the company undeniably places itself at the center of a deeply unpleasant shitstorm every time it chooses to deplatform a conservative book like When Harry Became Sally. From a pure business and self-preservation standpoint, that is not a decision it is going to make frequently or lightly. It stands to reason that the vast majority of efforts to get Amazon to delist books really are doomed to fail, even if successes aren’t entirely unprecedented.
So I don’t think these outlying exceptions disprove my argument, which is that overall, if you have a platform and/or influence and attempt to get a book or a person deplatformed, you are vastly more likely to fuel the dissemination of the ideas in question than you are to attenuate their influence. In cases like the Powell’s protest, where the “best-case” outcome (from the point of view of the protesters) was that the 0.000000001% of Americans who rely on Powell’s to buy their books — and that might not be nearly enough zeros, to be honest — would be unable to obtain a copy of Irreversible Damage for a few minutes before shrugging and entering ‘Amazon.com’ into their web browser, it is undeniably the case that such protest does more harm than good from an activist perspective. Millions of people likely encountered coverage of activists so furious about a book that they boisterously protested outside a a famous bookstore, causing security concerns, and the small subset who said “Good job, protesters,” were never going to buy Irreversible Damage in the first place.
The second reason people keep doing this, over and over and over, despite how unlikely it is to work, comes down to status concerns. I’d point, as I often do, to The Iron Law Of Institutions, as applied to the left by Freddie deBoer. In short, people often act in a manner designed to maximize their standing within an institution rather than in a manner designed to maximize the probability of the organization accomplishing its goals.
In his post, which was from 2017, deBoer wrote:
Right now, the left is in the process of rejecting freedom of speech as a reactionary concept. Freedom of speech has been a cherished left-wing virtue for decades, advanced by people like Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Rosa Luxemburg, and many other radical luminaries. But lately the concept has come to be associated with the right, thanks to the vagaries of our political culture. If we were a smart, we would recognize not only that freedom of speech is consistent with left-wing principles, but also that appearing to be against freedom of speech is a sure-fire way to lose the support of potential adherents. But this kind of strategic thinking serves only to advance the movement itself; it does not advance the interests of the people within the movement. Indeed, the more that we drift into a “free speech is conservative” frame, the less people will be willing to defend the concept, even if doing so would be in our strategic political self-interest. This is the Iron Law at work.
Or take random outbursts of street violence against the right. This has been a matter of absolute obsession within the radical left for this entire year. The amount of attention spent on, say, the minor dust up at Berkeley would seem totally bizarre in comparison to the actual material impact on the world of such violence. As Marxists we are, of course, materialists, and thus are meant to privilege the objective facts about material conditions above emotional and cultural commitments. As an objective matter the salience of right-wing political street violence to our constituencies is very low. Compare the number of victims of neo-Nazis, in this country of 315 million, to the victims of poverty and homelessness. Our priorities should be obvious. Meanwhile, our ability to actually create positive change through violent force is incredibly limited even under the most optimistic reading of the facts.
Yet for months, we’ve fixated on the potential for left-wing victory through antifa tactics and street violence. Why? Because of the Iron Law. Loudly braying on social media about how we’re going to punch and kick our way to socialism has if anything net-negative effects on our movement. Indeed, dismissing the left as thugs who are unable to win through the actual process of democracy is a constant right-wing canard, one they have used to great effect for decades. But for people already within the left’s social spaces, arguing for political violence is associated with a kind of cool or cachet. It marks you as a radical, as someone who’s in favor of “really doing something.” It brings with it a sense of left-wing machismo. And so the incentives for the left are misaligned: to advance the movement, we should treat political violence as the distraction that it is, but to advance inside the movement, people have to showily associate themselves with the tough guys calling for armed revolution.
If I borrowed from Freddie and said, “Loudly braying on social media about how you’re going to deplatform your way to a juster world has if anything net-negative effects on those efforts,” I think that would be a pretty fair assessment of that situation. But you can definitely win a lot of clout, within your community, by trying to one-up your comrades in how loudly and colorfully you denounce Irreversible Damage, or in the vitriol you hurl at Powell’s during an in-person protest-cum-social-gathering.
It’s not out until September, but Will Storr’s The Status Game: On Social Position and How We Use It is really, really good, and does a wonderful job expanding on some of these principles. When you understand just how much of human social and political life is about status, and how much more important it is for us to gain status within our own communities than to care what our various perceived adversaries think of us (especially given that we can hold up the other side’s hatred of us to further bolster our own ingroup status), it clarifies a lot of stuff. Perhaps many people engaged in deplatforming efforts are, at root, just trying to cover themselves in glory and a sheen of perceived militancy within their own communities. Deep-down, it might not matter to them much that their efforts are almost inevitably destined to fail.
Questions? Comments? Campaigns to delist my own book from Amazon, which would help me a great deal? I’m at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jessesingal. The image of the STONKS meme — a crash-test-dummy-looking guy in a suit standing confidently with his arms crossed while a graph shows the ‘stonks’ going up, up, up behind him, is taken from the internet and feels relevant here, somewhow.