I missed this when it was published on Sunday but this opinion piece at the Washington Post is still worth dissecting. The piece itself is about the pulling of a column at Business Insider which I wrote about here. Very briefly, opinion columnist Daniella Greenbaum wrote a piece saying that actress Scarlett Johansson shouldn’t be shamed out of taking a role as a transgender man because she’s an actress who gets paid to become people she’s not in real life. Business Insider pulled the piece and then issued a set of new guidelines after a group of about a dozen employees complained that Greenbaum was not an expert on the topic. Greenbaum subsequently quit her job at BI and wrote a piece about her experience.
Right up front, the Washington Post opinion piece by Christine Emba begins moving the goalposts. Let’s start with the headline: “One deleted column does not a war on free speech make.” Well, that’s certainly true but of course, no one ever said one deleted column made a war on free speech. So we start with a strawman argument and then completely skip over what actually happened at BI:
Business Insider Editor in Chief Nich Carlson defended the decision, stating in one email that “Editors should make sure we are not publishing shallow, ‘hot takes,’ but instead, fully thought-out arguments that reflect and respect the opposing view.”
“There should be no partisan name-calling, e.g. ‘social justice warriors,’ ‘libtards,’ or ‘rednecks.’ ” Carlson advised. “Opinion and arguments should feel reported and researched, and not like quick reactions.”…
Perhaps Business Insider should have discussed the issues with Greenbaum’s piece before it was posted, or perhaps they only realized that there were problems after readers complained. Yes, in general, removing a piece post-publication is bad journalistic form. But the fact that it was removed does not mean that the “social media mob” has won. An attention to cultural sensitivity is not a vendetta against “controversial views,” it’s common courtesy — you might even call it “civility” — in a pluralistic public square…
That might mean, for instance, that Greenbaum could have asked her editor: “Why do you dislike the term ‘social-justice warriors’?” or asked her colleagues, “Why do you find it offensive that I invoke rapists in a piece on trans people?” (Note: The answer should be obvious). A helpful use of free speech might have been to suss out the real locus of disagreement with her piece — is there merit to the suggestion that more transgender actors should be given a chance to play transgender roles? — and then write another to refute it, rather than to noisily resign.
Emba writes as if the blowback to the column came from readers but according to one employee the blowback actually came from a group of a dozen employees inside the company who complained about the column and demanded it be taken down because Greenbaum wasn’t an “expert” on the topic. (No one has yet explained what topic she needed to be an expert in, possibly because the whole argument is nonsense.) The tweet in which a BI employee proudly admitted all of this was quickly deleted after people began asking questions about it.
Hi Leanna. What would expertise look like in this case? Would the writer need to be trans?
— Bari Weiss (@bariweiss) July 10, 2018
So, contrary to Emba, the mob did win, it just happened that in this case, the mob was inside the building. The editors’ subsequent injunction against using the phrase “social justice warriors” is especially ironic since that’s exactly what happened here.
The fact that the opposition came from inside the company also helps explain why Greenbaum felt inclined to “noisily resign.” If your own co-workers are working against you as a group, you may need to find a new place to work. I’m sure if a dozen of Emba’s co-workers had one of her opinion pieces pulled, she might think about resigning noisily too. By leaving out the story of what actually happened here, Emba makes it seem as if Greenbaum made an absurd, attention-seeking move with no other justification.
Finally, there’s a line in Emba’s piece about Greenbaum invoking “rapists in a piece on trans people” which is just a cheap shot. You get the impression from that line that Greenbaum made some kind of offensive comparison suggesting trans people are akin to rapists. But that’s not at all the case. Here’s the paragraph from Greenbaum’s piece:
It’s hard to imagine people having the same reaction in other scenarios — a rich actor being hired to play a poor person; an actor whose real-life parents were still living being hired to play an orphan; a perfectly nice, upstanding member of society being cast as a rapist; or an actor with no scientific experience being cast as a paleontologist.
Was Greenbaum also comparing transgender people to orphans and paleontologists? Obviously not. She was making a simple point about actors taking on roles that are different from who they are in real life. That could apply to trans actors as well, though in this case, she’s primarily talking about Scarlett Johansson. In any case, this is the kind of cheap shot that Greenbaum’s co-workers probably used to pressure BI to pull her piece. It makes me wonder if the Post has any editors who looked at this piece before it went up.
In any case, one pulled article doesn’t make a war on free speech, but the pattern of social justice warriors demanding speech in the public sphere meet their approval is a broader problem that won’t go away just because you choose to ignore another example of it happening.