The ongoing, despicable effort to cancel Jesse Singal

Over the years journalist Jesse Singal has written about a lot of topics that interest me but I’ve probably paid the most attention to his pieces on cancel culture. He’s written about cancel culture mobs within young adult publishing on more than one occasion. He’s also been the focus of an intense cancelation effort himself because of his writing about trans issues. Today Quillette published a kind of summary of that effort to date which is pretty revealing. Here’s a bit of background on Singal’s writing on this issue:

As early as 2016, well before the culture war over trans rights reached its crescendo, Singal authored a ground-breaking New York magazine exposé on the cynical takedown of eminent Toronto psychologist Dr. Kenneth Zucker (who was subsequently paid more than half a million dollars by his former employer, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, as part of a legal settlement relating to its part in that smear campaign). Two years later, Singal wrote an impeccably researched cover story for the Atlantic titled “When Children Say They’re Trans”—one of the most widely discussed features in the magazine’s recent history. In these articles, and on social media, Singal has dealt with the issue of gender dysphoria with care and sensitivity, documenting the challenges faced by those experiencing the condition. And while he is the furthest thing from an actual transphobe, he acknowledges the plain fact that some children who present as trans later “desist” to an identity that accords with their biological sex.

As anyone who follows this issue closely can guess, Singal’s measured approach doesn’t always sit well with progressive activist and journalistic subcultures, wherein the approved view is that any child’s expression of trans identity must summarily be “affirmed” by parents, educators, and therapists. Within these circles, Singal himself has written, “desistance isn’t viewed as a phenomenon we’ve yet to fully understand and quantify but rather as a myth to be dispelled. Those who raise the subject of desistance are often believed to have nefarious motives—the liberal outlet ThinkProgress, for example, referred to desistance research as ‘the pernicious junk science stalking trans kids’… But the evidence that desistance occurs is overwhelming.”

Predictably, this has led to a long term effort to punish or cancel Singal, an effort that has recently taken the form of claims that he has harassed or been inappropriate with trans people behind the scenes. Not coincidentally, these claims spiked around the time of his Atlantic piece:

A trans writer and activist named Julia Serano, for instance, accused Singal of “slut-shaming” on the basis that he once linked to Serano’s own Daily Beast article about a trans woman’s frustrations trying to date lesbians. Following the publication of Singal’s Atlantic piece, an enraged Serano expanded the attack, suggesting vaguely that “I know several other trans women who’ve had similarly bad experiences with him.” Samantha Riedel, another trans writer, situated Singal’s work within the machinations of a conspiratorial “closed Google listserv,” in which a “pernicious and concerted” cabal of “elite cisgender media figures” seek to prevent authentic trans narratives from emerging. On no real evidence except the aforementioned accusations from Serano, Riedel then went on to claim that “Singal has a bizarre history of antagonism with trans women who attempt to correct his inaccurate statements.”

In January 2018, a popular parenting columnist named Nicole Cliffe tweeted that Singal is “obsessed with trans women! It’s creepy”; that Singal is “weirdly fixated on trans women”; and that Cliffe “can smell the [trans-fixated] grossness coming off this guy.” When a commenter asked Cliffe for proof, she responded that “so many of the trans women I know from online have wound up w emails and DMs and invites to coffee/lunch to set the record straight and have wound up blocking him to get some space.” When other commenters asked for more information about this supposed legion of unnamed “trans women,” and pointed out that Cliffe’s claims sounded libelous, she deleted the entire thread, much like the purported anonymous source linked to by Riedel.

I don’t know if there’s a better name for this sort of campaign of vague allegations but I think of it like a snowball. The snowball starts small with some stray claim or other that can’t be pinned down and that gets the ball rolling. More and more people refer to the allegation over time and then people refer to people referring to it without ever really going back to see if it’s true. The snowball of allegations grows and eventually it’s just a given that ‘he did this bad thing’ and everyone knows about it. And pretty soon, every journalist motivated to take a shot at the author just points to the snowball as proof. But if you actually ask for the proof, it’s never offered. The evidence doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t mean the snowball can’t run you over. Here’s Singal himself in 2019 writing about the allegations made by Nicole Cliffe:

I had genuinely never seen a fellow journalist of Cliffe’s stature behave in this way on Twitter: It was completely inappropriate — like something even a particularly sociopathic middle-schooler would understand to be immoral — and almost certainly did long-term damage to my reputation and career. It’s now been almost a year and a half since Cliffe leveled these allegations against me and not a single shred of evidence has popped up to support them…

Cliffe’s actions also did a psychological number on me. I know that might sound overly dramatic, but take a moment and imagine someone in your own professional field who is much better-known and more successful than you are publicly announcing, to all your professional peers (and a huge audience of online rubberneckers as well), that you’ve committed an act that, if true, would mean you should be banished from your job and forever treated as a pariah. That’s what she did.

Again, those original, unsubstantiated tweets have been deleted but the snowball of allegations still get referred to frequently. Here’s the latest threat, sans evidence, to out him. As you can see, Singal is eager to see the evidence:

This sort of thing has become so common that Singal’s supporters are now offering a bounty for the long-promised evidence of his misdeeds:

Earlier this week Singal made a point of responding point-by-point to just one of several Twitter threads about his allegedly nefarious behavior. Please read the whole thing for his takedown but I’ll just excerpt his one paragraph rant about the people who keep recycling these lies for their own purposes:

Before I get to the main point of this post, I just need to vent for one paragraph: These people are evil liars. That is the only accurate way to describe what they are doing. They are terrible, immoral, awful people. There’s a reason thousands of years’ worth of human legal and moral codes warn against this type of behavior. What they are doing is so, so inexcusable, and it has robbed so many hours from me, between the anxiety and anger it has caused, the time I’ve spent responding to their bullshit, and my unfortunate (but I think human) tendency to get drawn into Twitter fights, sometimes years later, when their garbage claims are regurgitated for the 800th time. It gets exhausting. To be clear, they haven’t won — I’ve been really lucky to see my platform expand so much in the last few years, and even got a bit of a “Doyle bump,” if you could call it that (please let’s call it that), after his nonsense popped off, in the form of a surge of Substack and Patreon subscriptions. But this is still quite harmful: I don’t want to just do stuff for Substack and Patreon. I want to continue writing for mainstream outlets like I’ve been doing for almost a decade and a half. I want to write another book for a mainstream publisher, if I can come up with a worthy idea. How many editors out there now know — KNOW — that I am a terrible, creepy harasser because of these awful, shitty people endlessly repeating these lies and never providing anything like sufficient evidence to justify such claims? Once more: How is this acceptable?

I think the phrase “These people are evil liars” should be the bumper sticker response to most of cancel culture. Because it’s not just this handful of people attacking this one journalist. This is how many activists on the far left work as a matter of routine these days. The standards of evidence for judging someone worthy of one of these public crucifixions are, to put it mildly, rather loose. What matters is reaching the desired outcome which is to silence, deplatform and punish the evildoer. And if the excuse for canceling someone’s livelihood comes down to something akin to the old Monty Python line “She turned me into a newt!” well, that’s good enough for the mob.