Alice Dreger Censored Again

BY HANK REICHMAN

Alice Dreger 2015 writing_0-250x299

Alice Dreger

Alice Dreger, the controversial author of Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and One Scholar’s Search for Justice, an exciting and important defense of academic freedom in the sciences, who last year resigned a position at Northwestern University to protest the university’s censorship of sexual content in a faculty-sponsored publication, is once again a target of the censors.  A few months ago, the blog site Everyday Feminism contacted Dreger because they wanted to reprint her popular essay, “What If We Admitted to Children that Sex is Primarily about Pleasure?” They negotiated some terms and the piece appeared a few days ago.  And then it suddenly disappeared.  [It remains available at Pacific Standard, the site that first published it and from which it went viral.]  Here’s how Josette Sousa, Everyday Feminism’s program coordinator, explained it in an email to Dreger:

What happened was that we decided to pull the article from circulation shortly after it went up. When we asked permission from it we weren’t aware of some of the articles you’ve published on trans issues and after a reader brought it to our attention and we looked into them. We then realized that while we very much valued the information in the article on teaching children that sex is about pleasure, the views expressed in several of your other articles directly conflicts with the work we’re trying to do in Everyday Feminism. For that reason, we decided to pull the article.

HUH?!  They actually pulled an article that they had agreed to publish on one topic, because somebody complained about other publications by the author that the site hadn’t published and that were on another topic entirely?  It strains credulity.  And let me quickly add that I’ve read the essay that was removed; it’s both delightful and sensible and, especially if you’re a parent worrying about how to break the “birds and the bees” to your children, a very helpful resource.

Here’s the background.  As readers of Galileo’s Middle Finger know, Dreger has been involved in debates over the nature of transsexualism and her views have offended a small group of highly vocal trans activists, who have relentlessly sought to discredit, harass and silence her.  They claim, of course, that she is “anti-trans” — in short, a simple bigot.  Now I’m no expert on trans issues, but I do know that by reading Dreger’s book I gained far greater understanding of and sympathy for trans and intersex individuals.  Indeed, the book helped move my own position from one of vague sympathy based almost entirely on my overall gut bias for tolerance to one based on a more informed and nuanced understanding of the transsexual and intersexual phenomena.  If that’s “anti-trans” what then might “pro-trans” be?  How can someone whose writing and work promotes deeper and more widespread understanding of the great variety of sexualities be labeled a sexual bigot?

As Dreger put it today on her blog,

A number of my fellow feminists have pointed out that today, women like me can be subject to silencing simply on the basis that they have supposedly said something that is anti-trans rights, even if they have not. Anyone so labeled also gets labeled a “TERF”: trans-exclusionary radical feminist.

I’ve pointed out repeatedly that I’m no such thing. Take this article, for example (from a decade ago!). Take this report I helped author. Take this book I co-edited.

But it does no good. Because as soon as you assert anything that someone with the trans identity card claims is anti-trans, you are stripped of your rights to be a sex-positive feminist talking about sex ed at a feminist website. At least in the case of “Everyday Feminism.”

This “zero tolerance” approach on the left is like some kind of Monty Python satire of activism. It would be funny if it did not lead to the right pointing out how the left isn’t actually thinking, it’s just playing a game of identity politics go fish. Who has the most oppression cards? They win!

In March something similar happened to Dreger.  The Lambda Literary Foundation nominated Galileo’s Middle Finger for a Lambda Literary Award in the LGBT Nonfiction category, but almost immediately withdrew the nomination after pressure from anti-Dreger activists.  As Dreger noted, in an open letter to the Foundation’s executive director, the whole affair was dripping with irony:

In my book—as in the earlier article that led to the misery that led to me to doing that book—I had traced out what happened in 2003 to J. Michael Bailey’s book, The Man Who Would Be Queen, when it had been named a finalist for a “Lammy”: A group of transgender activists upset with Bailey for writing about autogynephilia—a sexual orientation that reasonably motivates some natal-male’s transition to women—had launched a campaign against the Lambda Literary Foundation.

As you know if you’ve read my book, in 2006, I interviewed Jim Marks about the incident. Marks is a gay man who at the time of the Bailey book storm held the position you now hold at the Lambda Literary Foundation: Executive Director Marks told me about first hearing an objection to Bailey’s book from Professor Deirdre McCloskey, a prominent academic and transgender woman. McCloskey told Marks she thought Bailey’s book nomination for a Lammy was “like nominating Mein Kampf for a literary prize in Jewish studies.” She demanded it be withdrawn.

Marks told me he was “a little taken aback by the campaign of a university professor to a kind of Orwellian non-history.” He also said that the Foundation “would clearly have [had] grounds for removing a book that was in fact hostile to the Foundation’s mission.” But Marks was hearing from transgender people “who supported the book and urged us to keep it on the list.”

Marks asked the committee to re-vote on the book and they voted to keep it on the finalist list. McCloksey and her two chief collaborators in the smear campaign on Bailey, Lynn Conway and Andrea James, upped their efforts. As I and Dr. Anne Lawrence (a transgender woman) have explained, the real “problem” was that Bailey’s book put forth ideas about women like McCloskey, Conway, and James that they didn’t want disseminated. They wanted to kill the book to stifle the ideas and stories in it, presumably also to stop others from talking about autogynephilia.

At the time of this mess, writer Victoria Brownworth, who was on the committee, said she saw the withdrawal as akin to censorship. But facing increasing harassment, the committee voted a third time, one vote flipped, and Bailey’s book had its finalist status withdrawn.

So, Dreger continued, when she learned that her own book had now been nominated for the very same award, she hopefully “figured the Foundation knew this would happen and was prepared to weather the storm.”

But no. You caved. And quickly—much more quickly than the Foundation did under Marks in 2003. In spite of all the LGBT people who have actively praised my book, who have thanked me for the work, you quickly caved to a small group of bullies who have proven time and time again that they will do anything they can to get attention and to force everyone to adhere to their singular account of transgenderism, even when it negates the reported childhoods of gay and lesbian people, even when it denies the reality of many transgender people and attempts to force them into closets because of their sexual orientations.

In that letter Dreger concluded that the Lambda Foundation’s behavior was “pathetic” and shameful.  The same now can be said about the so-called feminists at Everyday Feminism.  As Dreger notes,

Once upon a time, we were allowed to feel ambivalent about people. We were allowed to say, “I like what they did here, but that bit over there doesn’t thrill me so much.” Those days are gone. Today the rule is that if someone—a scientist, a writer, a broadcaster, a politician—does one thing we don’t like, they’re dead to us.

I hope she’s wrong about that, but given her experience, I’m sympathetic.  In any event, whether Dreger is right or wrong (or somewhere in between) about the nature of transsexualism is hardly for me to judge; but her views on the subject clearly deserve a hearing, as do her views on the entirely different subject of educating children about sex.  It’s a simple issue of censorship.

13 thoughts on “Alice Dreger Censored Again

  1. Before I give my two cents, Dreger technically wasn’t censored: all Everyday Feminism did was republish an essay that she had already published with a different outlet and pulled it when the admins felt previous comments made by Dreger (while not relevant to the topic at hand) made having her article seem as an endorsement of her views. That aside, I don’t really think that Everyday Feminism did the right thing here since I really don’t think that pulling the article was the “best” response. At the very least, they could have talked about Dreger’s comments and made it clear that they disagreed with them and tried to engage with her as to why she is wrong.

    • I don’t want to get into semantics, but the fact is that Dreger entered into a contractual arrangement with a publisher to publish (it’s irrelevant whether it’s for the first time or not) something she wrote. Indeed, she was paid for it, according to her blog. The publisher then yanked the publication after they heard criticism of its author’s views on another topic expressed elsewhere. In my mind that’s a form of censorship, a word that people tend to use and misuse in many ways, to be sure, but would certainly be applied here by large numbers of people. Moreover, had the site “responded” to the criticisms by doing what you suggest, it would have been just as awful. Imagine this: I write a book and sign a contract with a publisher. Afterward the publisher finds out that I have also said some things on a totally different subject that they don’t like. So then, in your approach, it would be somehow appropriate for the publisher to include in the paperback edition of my book a note on the front that the publisher does not agree with me on something not even discussed in the book, perhaps my political views or my sexual preferences or whatever. Would that somehow be acceptable? Or perhaps the publisher could give me a choice: either we break our contract and withdraw the book or we include the note? Is that a real choice? No, it’s censorship.

      • But the problem is that piece didn’t originate on Everyday Feminism. All EF did was republish the piece on their website and removed it after significant scrutiny. Hence, it would be like having your book published with Publisher A and makes some headway. Publisher B is impressed by the success of your book and agrees with you to publish the book as well. However, Publisher B is informed that you have written some unrelated topics in the past that they deemed highly offensive and feel as a result that they don’t want to forward with the deal that was made. Is that censorship then for Publisher A to continue publishing your book but for Publisher B to get cold feet? Now if Publisher B was a major outlet and a key player, I can see why (and I’d probably agree) that that would be censorship (which I believe Noam Chomsky covered heavily in Manufacturing Consent), but if Publisher B wasn’t, then it would be hard to make that line of argument. I think we agree that Everyday Feminism did a poor job handling this mess but I think calling it censorship could be a bit of a reach.

      • Terry: How did the actions of EF differ from a local library that pulls a controversial book off its shelves after a few parents complain? We call that censorship, even though the book may be available widely. I’d prefer to think of censorship through an intentional theory of meaning: censorship is an act rooted in the intention to limit access to a work. As Hank notes, this is can be government-sponsored or private, large-scale or small. I think the best response in this case is to keep the Streisand Effect in mind: EF may have done Alice Dreger a favor!

      • Barbra: Before I dive in, that’s not really a good comparison. To compare the actions of EF like a local library that pulls a controversial book off its shelves because the book may be available widely is an apples to oranges comparison because in that scenario, you would have to buy the book or somehow get a restricted library to loan you the book (which won’t be easy to do). Since both websites allow you to read articles free of charge, it doesn’t really work here. That aside, I do understand what you mean by “restricting a work”. I’m not really sure as to how EF would have restricted her article since its still there on PS (and the Striesdad effect that you mentioned earlier) but I do agree that the way EF got rid of the story did make it frustrating for millenial feminists to access the story.

  2. I have commented on Alice Dreger’s work in “Politics in Scholarly Drag: Alice Dreger’s Assault on the Critics of Bailey’s The Man Who Would Be Queen,” Archives of Sexual Behavior 2008, June. I suggest that people who want to hear both sides of the story have a look. If you by chance do not subscribe to the Archives, it and other pieces are available at my website, deirdremccloskey.org. The passions aroused on both sides of the issue have led to departures from reason. Let us stop throwing dirt and listen, really listen. Lynn Conway and I did nothing but object to Bailey sleeping with his “research” subjects, and then objected to Alice Dreger’s self-dramatizing and tendentious writings in his defense. That’s not “censorship,” which requires the power of the state. It is “criticism.” Instead of attacking me for “censorship” perhaps it is time to look at the evidence for the underlying behavior of the principal (who was later, by the way, removed from teaching Northwestern’s sexology course for malfeasance there) and at the scholarly standards of Dr. Dreger.

    • For the record I am always in favor of people hearing all sides of any story. But also for the record I did not accuse Professor McCloskey of censorship. The accusation was that the Everyday Feminism site engaged in a form of censorship by removing Dreger’s post on an entirely different topic owing to accusations that her views on trans issues were objectionable in some manner. I haven’t the faintest idea nor do I care whether or not McCloskey or any other individual who has clashed with Dreger had anything to do with that. And for the record my understanding of censorship does not necessarily involve the power of the state. Private institutions and individuals can and often do act as de facto censors, which is what Everyday Feminism has essentially done in this instance.

      • Dear Mr. Reichman,

        “For the record” your piece was called “Censored Again,” and anyone reading it would suppose you intended this devious character “McCloskey” to be included as one of the censors of Dr. Dreger. And for the record, to extend the word “censorship” to disagreement about whether one should sleep with ones research subjects or nor, or whether one should tell fibs about ones research, is to make every ethical criticism into “censorship,” and to make free speech into a crime and scientific disagreement into a disgrace.

        As to your welcoming both sides of a scientific or ethical disagreement, I ask: have you actually read any of the contrary evidence, or do you take Dr. Dreger’s word on everything? The medieval motto was “listen even to the other side.” You will find it enlightening.

        Sincerely,

        Deirdre McCloskey

    • Prof. McCloskey:

      Just because you appear as one of the dramatis personae in a post entitled “Censored Again” does not mean a reasonable reader would conclude that you yourself were a censor. You are attempting to hold the author responsible for the potential opinions of idiots and ignoramuses, which is never a good place to start a discussion.

      More specifically, you are proceeding from the premise that government suppression of speech is the commonly accepted definition of “what censorship is”; using that definition, anyone who even contemplated taking this article’s accusations seriously would be very confused indeed. But this premise is completely false. Movie, television, and video game studios, book publishers, private schools, clubs, and so forth all have internal content reviewers that have long been commonly called “censors”–and by everyone in the community, not as a pejorative. The people using this terminology do not suppose that the censorship in question has been committing some sort of abomination against the First Amendment. Most understand that that prohibition concerns government censorship; and the more thoughtful of them understand the crux of liberalism more broadly: that its tenets restrict the terms of involuntary relationships, not those freely chosen. Censorship is just a subset of the broad range of “rulemaking” that is completely unacceptable from the police-power-wielding state but completely prima facie acceptable as terms for voluntary relationships. Once again, as commonly used “censorship” as commonly used simply distinguishes the subject matter of such a rule; it is a sideshow to the issue of liberal permissibility, which regardless of subject matter is determined entirely by the identity of the rulemaking entity–more properly, whether or not the rule is ultimately instituted at the point of a sword. You might as well say that a smoking ban on a private campus is not a “ban,” because the government is not doing it. Nobody talks that way. A private ban is still a ban; private censorship is still censorship. They just don’t imperil a free society.

      That said, a heart with a passion for liberty is in practice unlikely to confine its tastes to the realm of such strict questions of moral legitimacy. You probably generally want your homeowner association to butt out, just as you do your town council; you probably wanted more or less the same privileges of “academic freedom” from Chicago as you do from Iowa. You know full well that the former are not strictly speaking matters of political liberalism in the slightest, but your preference for “liberal” rules and your insistence on political liberalism quite probably proceed from a common “visceral source” within your psyche. In the specific case of academic freedom, that’s about the conjecture (older, in fact, than political freedom of speech, which was based on it: general society as debating salon, if you will) that the free exchange of ideas greatly benefits the pursuit of good ones. And, to the extent that you have any input on a private academic rulemaking process, you’ll put your two cents in against a practice that would seem to impede that exchange.

      If we consider Everyday Feminism to be a plausible candidate for such ideals, rather than (rather more reasonably, I’ll admit) a clickbait site comparable in dignity and profundity to Uproxx, it makes sense that their rejection of this essay would raise eyebrows. They had earlier thought it clearly unobjectionable and worthy of publication, but were now deciding that the author should be blacklisted across the board, and her ideas deprived of airing in that forum no matter what they happen to be. This does not seem to be the best practice, the post author is saying. He–and his audience–are certainly well aware that Everyday Feminism is not a government, and is entitled to publish what they wish. And it’s clearly to that decision that the post refers when it calls itself “Dreger Censored Again”; and all are perfectly aware that you, however you appear in this post, are not part of Everyday Feminism and thus not an agent of the censorship under discussion.

      If you read this far, I am incredibly honored by your patience. Your intro to micro book was what inspired me to enter economics, and you continue to be a favorite author and personal hero of mine.

    • Professor, while am sure your opposition to Professors Bailey and Dreger is sincere, it is surely disingenuous to claim you did “nothing but object to Bailey sleeping with his “research” subjects.” I have done some research of my own – it would appear that only one such “subject” made this claim, that she did so years after the supposed sexual encounter (and, did she not ultimately claim that no intercourse had occurred?), and that facts and logistics of Dr. Bailey’s calendar on the date claimed make it exceedingly unlikely that this occurred. Further, it would appear that Dr. Bailey’s research was of such a nature, and undertaken in such a manner, as to make proscription on sexual relations inapplicable.

      In addition, you apparently personally made an effort to have Professor Bailey charged with practicing medicine without a license – based upon his writing letters of support for those seeking sexual reassignment surgery. According to the law, this was not “practicing medicine,” and, in any event, you were, effectively, seeking to censure someone actively attempting to be of assistance to people who, I think you would agree, encounter far more obstacles than sympathetic aid in this world.

      Do you feel you can entirely dissociate yourself from Andrea James’ vicious attacks on Professor Bailey’s children? Surely these were beyond the pale of any legitimate response.

  3. Pingback: Sex researcher's article pulled from feminist website because it's not 'inclusive' - The College Fix

  4. Welcome to world of identity politics. You’re on the receiving end of political correctness. It matters not what you said, but how it made them feel (unsafe of course).

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