The Books Are Already Burning
The question is only: How long will decent people stand by quietly and watch it happen?
Do you remember the names Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying? I wrote one of my earliest New York Times columns about the bravery they displayed as tenured professors — words that do not typically appear in the same sentence — at Evergreen State College.
It was 2017 and the professors, both evolutionary biologists, opposed the school’s “Day of Absence,” in which white students were asked to leave campus for the day. You can imagine what followed. For questioning a day of racial segregation wearing the garments of social justice, the pair was smeared as racist. Following serious threats, they left town for a time with their children, lost many of their friends, and, ultimately, resigned their jobs.
But they refused to shut up.
They started a podcast called DarkHorse, where they suggested in April 2020 that Covid-19 could have come from the lab in Wuhan — a position that made them a laughingstock among so-called experts more than a year before Jon Stewart talked about it on The Late Show.
Their willingness to challenge conventional wisdom and take on third-rail subjects has drawn them a large audience: Last month, DarkHorse had almost five million views on YouTube. But speaking freely has come with a price. The couple’s two YouTube channels have each received several warnings and one official strike, which the company says was because of their advocacy of the drug ivermectin as a treatment for Covid-19. Three strikes from YouTube and a channel can be deleted. According to Weinstein, that would mean the loss of “more than half of our income.”
How have we gotten here? How have we gotten to the point where having conversations about important scientific and medical subjects requires such a high level of personal risk? How have we accepted a reality in which Big Tech can carry out the digital equivalent of book burnings? And why is it that so few people are speaking up against the status quo?
I can’t think of a person better situated to answer these questions than Abigail Shrier, the author of today’s guest essay.
You may have heard of Shrier. She is the author of Irreversible Damage, which the Economist named one of the best books of last year, and a dogged journalist who has taken on the difficult and thankless subject of the enormous rise of gender dysphoria among teenage girls.
I say thankless because it’s hard to capture the decibel of the vitriol that has met her work. To give you a taste: one of the ACLU’s most prominent lawyers said that “stopping the circulation of this book and these ideas is 100% a hill I will die on.” (The subject of how the ACLU came to favor book banning is taken up brilliantly here.) And this is to say nothing of the personal defamation of Shrier’s character, smears that bear zero relationship to my courageous friend.
You do not need to agree with Shrier about whether or not children should be able to medically transition genders without their parents’ permission (she is opposed), or for that matter with Weinstein and Heying’s bullishness about ivermectin (I had never heard of of the drug before they put it on my radar). That’s not the point. The point is that the questions they ask are not just legitimate, they are of critical importance. Meantime, some of the most powerful forces in our culture are conspiring to silence them.
That is precisely the reason it is so important to stand up and say: no. To say: progress comes only when we have the freedom to disagree. To say: It is outrageous that tech platforms are censoring such debates and that some journalists are cheering them on. To say, in public: enough. In my case, that means making sure to publish those voices who have been shut out of so many other channels that ought to be open to them.
One hundred and forty-six people in Halifax, Nova Scotia wait on a list to borrow a library book. A question hangs over them: Will activists let them read it?
The book is mine — Irreversible Damage — and it is an investigation of a medical mystery: Why is the number of teenage girls requesting (and obtaining) gender reassignment skyrocketing in the United States, Canada, Scandinavia and Europe? In Great Britain, it’s up 4,400% over the last decade.
Though it shouldn’t be, this has become a highly controversial area of inquiry. The book is an exploration of why so many girls would, in such a short timeframe, decide they are transgender. And it raises questions about whether they’re getting appropriate medical treatment.
The book is not about whether trans people exist. They do. And it is not about adults who elect to medically transition genders. As I have stated endlessly in public interviews and in Senate testimony, I fully support medical transition for mature adults and believe that transgender individuals should live openly without fear or stigma.
Yet since publication, I have faced fierce opposition — not just to the ideas presented, challenged, or explored — but to the publication of the book itself. A top lawyer for the ACLU called for it to be banned. Powerful organizations like GLAAD have lobbied against it and pressured corporations — Target and Amazon among others — to remove Irreversible Damage from their virtual shelves.
There’s a pattern to such censorship campaigns. A fresh example presented itself this past week at Science-Based Medicine, which bills itself as “a group blog exploring issues and controversies in the relationship between science in medicine.”
On Tuesday, one of the blog’s long-time contributors, Dr. Harriet Hall — a family physician and flight surgeon in the Air Force with dozens of publications to her name — posted a favorable review of my book. She examined the scientific claims as well as the medical ones and wrote that the book “combines well-researched facts with horrifying stories about botched surgeries, people who later regret their choices and therapists who are not providing therapy but just validating their patient’s self-diagnosis.” Dr. Hall not only shared my criticisms of “affirmative care” — that is, immediately agreeing with a teen’s self-diagnosis of gender dysphoria and proceeding to hormones and surgeries — but also noted that many physicians and therapists feel the same way but are afraid to say so.
Within a day, Dr. Hall’s article was flooded with nearly 1,000 comments, mostly, she says, from activists demanding the article be stripped from the site, but also from some readers expressing their appreciation. Angry emails from activists swamped the blog’s editors. Within two days, those editors had given Dr. Hall an ultimatum: retract, rewrite, or allow them to add a disclaimer.
“What surprised me was that my fellow editors attacked me, too. Basically what they said was that my article was not up to my usual standards as far as medicine, science and critical thinking went. And I didn’t feel that I did anything but what I always do. That surprised me,” she told me. Considering the editors’ ultimatum, she elected to have the editors who disagreed add a disclaimer to the website. “I told them I did not want it retracted. And the next thing I knew, they had retracted it.”
Public figures who have watched the success of such campaigns — and they are now weekly if not daily — now know they risk their livelihoods by engaging heterodox views. Jordan Peterson, for example, chose to demonetize the interview we did on his YouTube channel to, in his words, “avoid attracting counterproductive attention by jackals who weaponize demonetization.”
It’s not only corporations facing this type of activist pressure. Public libraries now do, too.
Halifax Pride, the annual LGBTQ festival, announced late last month that it would cut ties with the city’s library system over its insistence on carrying Irreversible Damage, calling it “transphobic,” and claiming that it “jeopardizes the safety of trans youth” and “debates the existence of trans people.”
So far, the Halifax Public Libraries have resisted. Their position is straightforward and apolitical: libraries exist to expose the public to the widest array of views, “including those which may be regarded as unorthodox or unpopular with the majority.”
The Halifax Public Libraries tried to compromise with the activists by pasting a note inside the book’s cover, directing readers to a list of “trans-affirming” resources. But the activists were unappeased. No ties with the libraries were restored. They want the book gone from the library and scrubbed from existence. Two copies in a library of nearly 1.2 million volumes are two too many.
Not even the Nova Scotia Library Association or the Canadian Library Association has come to the library’s defense, though their standing orders explicitly require member libraries “to guarantee and facilitate access to all expressions of knowledge and intellectual activity, including those which some elements of society may consider to be unconventional, unpopular or unacceptable.”
Silent supporters stand alongside the Halifax Libraries. They sign up to borrow the book, now nearly 150 of them, and post supportive messages on Twitter usually under pseudonyms.They know that the activists waging this battle — over who gets to determine what we can read, what ideas adults are allowed to explore, will, at some point, come for ideas they favor, or causes they support.
But like too many individuals and institutions who try to hold fast to liberal values in the face of an intolerant and illiberal onslaught, the Halifax Libraries stand alone in the public square.
I know how they feel.
Half of Twitter seems to think I'm some sort of demon. But if you read my inbox, you’d think I was popular, awash as I am in secret fan mail and “silent supporter” notes.
Here is an entirely typical example — one of hundreds I’ve received over the last year:
Hi, Mrs. Shrier, I just wanted to drop you a quick note thanking you for your bravery. It might surprise you to know that I work for a prominent progressive politician (obviously I could never express my support for your work publicly). But it should be known that not everyone on the Left has totally lost their mind.
The author turned out to be a senior staffer for a popular 2020 Democratic presidential candidate. But the email itself was a version that I’ve come to expect: I agree with you, though I couldn’t possibly say so publicly. I have a job to think of, a reputation to uphold, children to put through college, a mortgage to pay, promotions to gun for, a spouse to please, friendships to maintain. All of the trappings of a comfortable life.
Child and adult psychologists and psychiatrists write to say they have witnessed a surge in transgender identification among teen girls who seem to be acting under peer and social media influence. Teachers write to say they believe that the phenomenon is plainly an example of social contagion within their classrooms. Surgeons and pediatricians and endocrinologists write to wonder aloud at what has happened to their profession.
There are lawyers who posit that lawsuits are on the way — brought by others, presumably. Professors who have come to hate their jobs — you can’t discuss your own research without trampling on a young generation’s vast neural network of sensitivities. Journalists at our most storied newspapers, TV networks, and literary magazines, even at NPR, write to tell me they liked my book, they agree with it, and to tut-tut the abuse directed at me. They assure me that the horrible accusations — from child predation to white supremacy and transphobia — accusations that will forever live on the internet, blackening my name, are things no one really believes. They wish — wish! — they could say so publicly. Each of these notes has touched or boosted me at times when I’ve needed it.
The fear these silent supporters express is rational. Even the most ordinary comments can get you branded as persona non grata, some flavor of ‘phobe’ or ‘ist.’ Hardly a week goes by without a story of some professor being reprimanded, a starlet losing a job, or a young reality TV figure abjectly apologizing for something he said that was completely obvious and true. Others have faced more profound threats — parents to the custody of their children, journalists and even editors of scientific journals to their physical safety. People I respect have lost livelihoods and marriages.
And so, for over a year, I responded to those silent supporters with thanks and reassurance. You don’t have to speak out, just send me your documents — I will expose it for you. No need to stand up for me publicly, just tell me what you know. For a while, this seemed a decent bargain.
But then, a few months ago, a pediatrician reached out to say that she also thought it was insane that minors were self-prescribing testosterone and that she agreed that her profession was negligent in unquestioningly “affirming” the sudden trans-identification of teenagers.
The standard response didn’t cut it this time. I wrote back as politely as I could: That’s just not good enough. You are a doctor. We aren’t the same with regard to medical scandals. I can continue to seek and publish the truth. I can interview experts and report what they’ve said. But you can appeal to your own authority. You took a Hippocratic oath. If you see young patients in harm’s way, you have an obligation to do something.
The same is true for other professions. If you are a teacher, you entered the profession in order to expand young minds. If you are watching them being warped, it’s your responsibility to fight that. If you are a journalist witnessing lies being spread by your colleagues, it’s your responsibility to stand up for truth. If you are a professor, watching your colleagues being bullied — a med school professor watching hokum being peddled as fact, a scientist watching the corruption of research — there’s no one else to speak up but you.
Each of us knows this in theory. But why do so few oppose the pressure, lies, and the corrupting force of these bullying campaigns?
The silent supporters have each performed the same risk-benefit calculation and arrived at the same conclusion: Speaking up isn’t worth it. It could cost a job, reputation, peace and friends — it requires the assumption of risk and a willingness to sacrifice.
And it is easy to justify our silence. We tell ourselves that we are protecting our families by remaining quiet and in the short-term, and we may be. But we are also handing our children over to a culture in which freedom of conscience and expression are drowned out. We are teaching our children that truth shouldn’t be our primary concern — or at least, that truth is negotiable or subordinate to being agreeable. They are learning that it is more important to remain acceptable to the powerful than to be truly free.
Whether or not most people admit it, what keeps them from speaking up in the face of what they know is wrong is fear. Fear not primarily of unemployment, though that is a pressing concern, but fear of ostracism. This deep and ancient fear is behind our desperate reach for innocence and safety when we virtue signal. By contrast, we stand exposed when we speak unpopular truth. Within your tribe, there will be people who pull away from you, and if you think well of them — and sadly, even if you don’t — this causes pain.
The pain is measurable and real, as Professor Kip Williams, an expert on ostracism, told me: “When people say their feelings are hurt, or they're feeling heartbroken, or they're feeling punched in the gut because of what their partner did, then you think its a metaphor. But in fact, it's the same feeling physiologically. You're having the same effects. And the brain detects it as pain.” We feel real physical pain at being cast out by a social group.
So terrible is this fear and this pain that in ancient Rome, a person sentenced to death could opt for exile instead. The Romans understood that ostracism was a punishment as bad as death.
What can make it bearable? According to Professor Williams, getting yourself accepted by another group. This is also the way to confront most of life’s heartaches — surrounded by those you love. And there is no better way to gain respect from those you don’t already know than by being identified with truthfulness.
Fear of ostracism is rational. But we are now living in a world in which evolutionary biologists are threatened with losing their platforms for engaging in debate about the source and treatment of a deadly virus; in which prize-winning composers have been professionally ruined for saying arson is bad; in which authors are editing already-published books to placate online mobs. That should scare us far more than losing friends or status.
So look to the Halifax Library. Summon what faith you can in those things you know to be right and true: a person is not defined by her race; biological sex is real; scientific research requires ideologically unencumbered investigation; activists shouldn’t bully libraries; and books should not be banned.
The first hundred or so silent supporter emails meant the most to me. They made me feel less crazy and less alone. But the inescapable reality is that defeating this ideology will take courage. And courage is not something that can happen in private. Courage requires each one of us to speak up, publicly, for what we believe in. Even when — especially when — it carries costs.
You can follow Abigail Shrier’s work here.
As of this weekend, Bret Weinstein and Heather Heying are streaming their show via Odysee, a blockchain alternative to YouTube. You can subscribe here.
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