I Would Like To Thank Not Only The David Roberts, But All The David Robertses Out There
It takes a lot of courage to find the right answer before you've even asked any questions
I gotta apologize.
Last week, The New York Times Magazine published a long, in-depth article by staff writer Emily Bazelon about youth gender medicine. Bazelon’s piece focused largely on the controversy, among clinicians and researchers themselves, over what the protocols should be before kids go on puberty blockers and/or hormones. This controversy has led to heated debate within the World Professional Association for Transgender Health, or WPATH, as it has worked to complete the eighth edition of its Standards of Care, which will be out soon. There’s also all sorts of intense backchannel stuff going on as accusations fly about allegedly too-conservative clinicians being bigoted, allegedly too-liberal clinicians being reckless, and so on. If you read this newsletter you are likely familiar with the basics.
Initially, I tweeted my praise of the article. I thought — it’s embarrassing to even admit this in retrospect — that Bazelon did a good job threading a very difficult needle. While reporting accurately on the controversy itself, she also discussed the exacerbating factors of the numerous ill-conceived Republican attempts to ban these treatments altogether. This sort of legislation only makes it harder to have a thoughtful, evidence-based conversation about this area of medicine.
Overall, I believed Bazelon’s piece to be a highly competent, well-executed treatment of an impossibly fraught subject.
Then I came across David Roberts’ tweets. Roberts is a journalist who usually focuses on energy and the environment — he’s worked for The Grist and Vox, and like apparently everyone else, he now has a newsletter. Forever ago I interviewed him about his decision to take a yearlong break from social media because he didn’t like what all that time online was doing to him (a subject that’s definitely not relevant to this piece, nope, not at all).
I don’t believe Roberts has ever written anything about youth gender dysphoria, if Google is any indication — this doesn’t appear to be an area of particular interest for him. And yet he issued a searing public condemnation of Bazelon. “The wild thing about this is that @emilybazelon is a great journalist on other topics,” he tweeted in response to Michael Hobbes (who we shan’t be discussing today), making sure to tag her. “Something about this just absolutely breaks people’s brains.” (Note that right around when I was finishing up this piece, a bunch of the tweets I’m going to be referencing disappeared, apparently deleted by Roberts. They were all live earlier today. I tried to archive them beforehand using archiv.ph but ran into some technical difficulties. Either way, I have screenshots of them — apologies if the archived links don’t work. It doesn’t look like Roberts offered any explanation for why he deleted the tweets, which had been up for almost a week, but if he does say anything I’ll update the piece here.)
“One thing I’ve always found fascinating is when a pundit who is incredibly sharp/skeptical/insightful on most topics turns to a particular subject & then just completely abandons all those virtues, apparently without realizing it,” he continued. “I used to notice it more often around the subject of Israel, but lately the cancel culture/transphobia thing has provided more examples that make me think, ‘jesus, you would *never* accept evidence or reasoning this flimsy in your main subject area! Can’t you see that?’”
Roberts was making a series of big public claims about a very well-regarded journalist: That she was suffering from a broken brain, that she had abandoned all of her journalistic virtues, and that she had accepted extremely flimsy evidence and reasoning. And it was frustrating, to Roberts, that Bazelon couldn’t see the errors of her ways, especially given how obvious it was to him.
Initially — initially — I was confused about this tirade. I’d read the same piece as Roberts but just didn’t think his claims matched the text. So I asked him what specific problem he had with Bazelon’s article. He replied: “She does what you do, a bunch of ‘raising questions’ that already have answers, talking to ideologues as though they’re just people off the street, exclusively centering parents hostile to transition, & citing not one single solitary case of a transition being ‘too fast.’”
Again, and setting aside the knock on my own work, I was confused — initially. It seemed just plainly false to say that Bazelon hadn’t cited “one single solitary case of a transition being ‘too fast,’” because she’d indeed mentioned a detransitioner, Grace Lidinsky-Smith, with that exact complaint, that she’d been shuttled toward transition without sufficient assessment, and who subsequently came to regret her double mastectomy. Moreover, it just isn’t the case that Bazelon “exclusively center[ed] parents hostile to transition.” In fact, at one point Bazelon writes: “Several parents argued that though 18 is the legal age to vote, buy a gun and consent to medical treatment, in this single area of medicine — gender-related treatment — the age of consent should be 25, when brain development is largely complete.” It’s subtle but this certainly reads to me like she is criticizing this idea.
In my weakest, lowest moment, my head started to fill with uncharitable thoughts about David Roberts. To be clear, I definitely don’t endorse any of these thoughts now — we’ll get to my awakening — but at the time, they were thoughts like: I don’t think this guy has any fucking idea what he’s talking about, and as far as I can tell he hasn’t devoted one minute to doing actual reporting on this subject. Thoughts like: Who the fuck is this asshole to barge into an area where he’s done no reporting and talk shit about a journalist who clearly did a good job on a difficult assignment? I’m ashamed to report there were even worse, less charitable thoughts, like: If this guy is such a giant, sanctimonious, veiny prick on this subject, shouldn’t that mean I should stop trusting him on other subjects closer to his own purported areas of expertise?
Then, all at once, I got it.
I realized I’d been thinking about this all wrong. My attitude had basically been that it was profoundly obnoxious for Roberts to claim that the questions surrounding youth gender transition “already have answers,” given what appears to be a massive number of people and institutions on multiple continents who think this is actually pretty complicated. Restricting ourselves solely to on-the-record comments made to me, Bazelon, or other journalists, the clinicians Scott Leibowitz, Erica Anderson, Marci Bowers, Edwards-Leeper, Nate Sharon, and Ren Massey, among others, have all raised concerns of one stripe or another. (Anderson, Bowers, Sharon, and Massey happen to be trans themselves, for what it’s worth, and I should note that Bowers walked back her claims a bit after enduring some harsh censure within her communities for being quoted in this piece.) These are mostly big names who were, at least until they publicly raised concerns about their fields, almost universally regarded with admiration by their peers. There are many other clinicians who have concerns but who won’t go on the record about them — no idea why that might be.
But those are just concerned individual practitioners — maybe they’re outliers? Secret deep-down bigots? If they are, their affliction has spread, because many big organizations and independent reviews and even entire national healthcare systems have also come out to say there’s a serious dearth of evidence here, and therefore urgent reason for caution. As Bazelon notes, the interim version of England’s so-called Cass Review found — this is the report’s own language — a “lack of available high-level evidence” for these treatments, meaning the literature is “too inconclusive to form the basis of a policy position.” That review drew upon the work of the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence, England’s main body for “provid[ing] national guidance and advice to improve health and social care,” which, in a pair of its own reports, found alarmingly little quality evidence for blockers or hormones in youth contexts.
In Sweden and Finland, I’ve noted repeatedly in this newsletter, the national healthcare systems independently came to the same determination and seriously scaled back access to puberty blockers and hormones for minors. France’s National Academy of Medicine has also publicly raised concerns about the present state of youth gender medicine, while The Royal Australian & New Zealand College of Psychiatrists has issued recent guidelines calling for caution and comprehensive assessments among young people who physically transition.
Anyway, all this would seem to call into question Roberts’ views on this issue, as well as his qualifications to chime in on it at all, let alone to so harshly attack a fellow journalist who appeared to have produced careful work that quoted just about everyone who should be quoted. That is, if he is so clueless as to think the questions have all been answered — an opinion that is impossible to hold if you have the remotest familiarity with this area or have ever read anything about it from a credible source — maybe he should just sit down and shut the hell up until he does a little homework?
…Is what I thought at first, I’m ashamed to report.
I won’t make you wait any longer. I want to explain how I snapped out of this incredibly unhealthy mindset.
What I’d failed to account for in my old path toward understanding this issue, which had involved antique methods like “talking to people” and “reading research” and “accepting that not every question is going to have a clear, easily summarized answer,” is that the world isn’t nearly so complicated. I’d been seduced by the siren call of Nuance, that incorrigible bitch, and she had led me down a slimy rabbit hole to a very bad place, fraught with bigotry. How the hell had I become the sort of journalist who raises questions? It’s disgraceful behavior.
I decided to lash myself to the mast of Twitter certitude — a much firmer option, in these troubled times, than “curiosity” or “critical thinking” (you know who else was curious and “just asked questions”?). Once I did, I realized that I was completely wrong; I had misjudged David Roberts.
When it comes down to it, there are Good People and Bad People. David Roberts is, unlike me, a Good Person. Being a Good Person, he not only possesses moral clarity (which I sorely lack), but a moral clarity so clear it’s practically invisible. And if you have a gift like this — an ability to see the truth without doing any of the legwork usually required to get to that point — why on God’s green earth would you withhold it from others? Wouldn’t it be unethical to do so? Like not administering penicillin to a patient dying from an infection? So whereas I initially criticized Roberts for his harsh treatment of Bazelon — whereas I previously, but definitely no longer, considered his behavior to be what would happen if a mad scientist conducted a freak genetics experiment mating a gadfly with an asshole — I now have to thank him.
I have to thank him for showing me how wrong I was to think that things can be complicated, and for teaching Emily Bazelon the same invaluable lesson.
It Would Have Been Enough
We Jews have a saying: dayenu. It really comes up only during Passover, and it roughly translates to “it would have been enough.” In context, it means that we’re super thankful for all the help God granted us in escaping from Pharaoh’s land — way more than we could have reasonably asked for, including stuff like butchering the morally innocent firstborn children of the Egyptians as a means of collective punishment. (Thanks, God!)
As I wrap up, I want to say dayenu to David Roberts. It would have been enough for him to have snapped me out of my question-asking and nuance-mongering. But he went above and beyond. After correctly calling out Bazelon for her article — an article so terrible we don’t need specifics about why it’s terrible, because if it wasn’t terrible why would people on Twitter be saying it’s terrible? — he did something truly brave: He looked inward.
“I can’t imagine caring what gender other people decide they are,” he said. “Clearly tons & tons of people are bothered by this on a deep level & go out looking for justifications, but ... I just don’t understand being bothered in the first place. So many real things to be upset about.”
He continued: “It makes me wonder what kind of subject might affect me in that way, such that I find myself obsessed with backfilling reasons for some impulsive disgust. I can’t really think of anything. Maybe I’m just hard to disgust?”
Again, the bravery here is staggering. In full view of the entire internet, Roberts decided to publicly grapple with the possibility that he could write an article as harmful as Bazelon’s, that he could ever be driven — as he says she was — by mere base “impulsive disgust.” He did the work. He looked hard and determined… no, he couldn’t ever mess up as badly as she had. He’s a Good Person.
This is what moral courage looks like: Standing up, accepting the possibility that you might have the same flaws as others, and publicly concluding that no, it turns out you don’t.
There’s only one actual David Roberts, of course, which is unfortunate given how much more he has to teach us, especially about other areas where he doesn’t appear to have any knowledge or experise in the traditional sense, like the war in Ukraine or the NBA’s advanced analytics revolution. Luckily, Twitter is, in a very real sense, full of David Robertses, or Davids Roberts (my grammar, like my level of moral clarity, leaves much to be desired). Even more luckily, a larger and larger proportion of journalism now consists of these types. As “traditional” reporters — the sorts of folks who don’t see it as their job to express strong, unwavering opinions, and who constantly “raise questions” if they can squeeze it in between all their visits to Klan rallies — have been laid off, their ranks have been filled in by think piece auteurs who don’t need to engage in reporting or research since they already, being Good People, know all the right answers. It’s a much more efficient system, to be honest.
I’m so grateful to be alive right now. So grateful to be a journalist.
Questions? Comments? Other examples of paragons of moral clarity? I’m at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @jessesingal. The image of
David Roberts Jesus with a halo is from here.
People on Twitter got mad at me over the fact that Lidinsky-Smith was technically an adult when she transitioned. But Roberts didn’t say “not one single solitary youth case of a transition being ‘too fast’” — I was responding to his specific claim. Moreover, quibbling over the inclusion or exclusion of one example of one particular flavor of anecdote is extremely dumb, especially in the case of a big, complicated magazine article like this one. I don’t think any sane person is saying that no one is claiming to have been rushed through transition as a minor, and in fact, if you go to detransition communities you can find plenty of people making that exact claim. In my experience those who are skeptical that there’s anything worth worrying about here always find some way to disregard specific examples (“They published their detransition story on a problematic website!” and so on), anyway, so their demands for such examples is arguably disingenuous.
Are you and Freddie deBoer having some sort of "evil snark" competition? Fucking hilarious.
I fear that when I see these people immediately run to their battle stations and tweet authoritatively that there is nothing to see here and no reason to have any concern over a massive increase in the number of natal females seeking medical transition I sometimes am tempted by evil to wish that it happens in their family so they might feel a little less certain. It is easy to paint parents like me as bigoted or just clueless when you don't know us and haven't walked in our shoes, but when your depressed and anxious and eating disordered self-harming child bathes in Tumblr posts about being trans and then finds the answer to why they hate their body and you want to take it slow because there are a lot of variables at play and you are arrogant enough to think you know some things about your own child the skepticism comes a bit more naturally. And btw there is no disgust with regard to your own beloved child -- but there is sadness about a bunch of really heavy duty medical interventions (daily injections for life and a double mastectomy are not a walk in the park nor is reducing your life expectancy and losing fertility before you have even really matured enough to know why you have fertility) and that sadness comes because we love our children and we think they are worthy of more respect and investigation than just taking all of their claims at face value and then putting them under the knife in response. But I am not a hateful person and so in the end I retract my wish that David Roberts see his child in this situation because it makes life so much harder for these kids and we have no idea if it will benefit them in the long run or not. I am also really freaked out that no one on the left ever seems to question whether being trans means that you need medical intervention. If self-id is what matters why do we insist on trying to remake the body in seemingly all cases?