Discussion Thread #22: Week of 12 March 2021

Explainer: The tempest in a teapot around Jesse Singal, Substack advances, and Trans Twitter - Everything you never wanted to know

If you've made the life mistake of following culture war issues on Twitter, you may have caught a glimpse of some Discourse swirling around Substack advances. Since I follow several of the adjacent figures and am intensely curious to see the direction Substack evolves as a platform, I've spent a few perhaps ill-advised hours diving into the various rabbit holes around the whole thing. As such, it's now my solemn responsibility to inflict the same on you in condensed form. While I have Opinions here, they aren't terribly novel and others have expressed them more passionately and vocally, so I'll keep the editorializing to a minimum except for a brief section at the end.

Over the past few days, people have started poking around and speculating on the deals Substack has given various writers. See this thread for an example, along with one that blew up from Ryan Broderick, a former Buzzfeed writer fired for plagiarism.

This particular moment of the saga started when writer Jude Doyle penned a Twitter thread lamenting that Substack had started paying large advances to some of her political opponents. In his words:

A company that built itself on trans people & feminists is now using their money to write six-figure advances to De Boer, Greenwald, maybe Singal -- men pushing transphobic, trans-eliminationist, profoundly misogynist agendas. I don't know what to say except that it's not OK

He followed this tweet-storm up with a longer Substack piece arguing the same point. In particular, he spent another moment lambasting Jesse Singal in particular:

Increasingly, Substack is tolerating and funding extreme trans-eliminationist rhetoric: They host Jesse Singal, a high-profile supporter of anti-trans conversion therapy who is also widely known to fixate on and stalk trans women in and around the media industry. I would list Jesse’s targets, but at this point, I don’t know a trans woman in media who doesn’t have a story.

Singal, surprisingly, was less than thrilled with this characterization. He sent a request for correction on the claims of conversion therapy and stalking, asserting his stance on both (anti-, as it happens). He followed up with a tweet storm of his own, pointing out a repeated pattern where a particular clique of journalists would make inflammatory and aggressive claims about him without evidence, then claiming harrassment when he responded to those claims and never providing evidence beyond "a lot of people keep saying it".

This went predictably well. From there, enough people have weighed in with reactions, reacitons reactions to reactions, and more, such that if you know of anyone in the sphere (and since you're here, let's be honest, you probably do) your opinion comes prefabbed. Jeffrey Sachs, Conor Friedersdorf, Katie Herzog, Glenn Greenwald, Andrew Sullivan, and Cathy Young provide a good representation of those weighing in with one degree or another of support for Singal. Matt Yglesias chimed in with a few questions and tentative support. Meanwhile, Noah Berlatsky, Julia Serano, Arthur Chu, Singaporean writer Kirsten Han, and a Dianna Anderson, stand out as some of the more prominent voices opposing him. Both Singal and Doyle have grown increasingly heated in their responses to the whole situation.

Substack has so far responded in two visible ways. First, with a blog post outlining why and when they give advances to writers. The gist is unsurprising: they're a business. They want to make money. They give advances when they expect writers will make them more money than they pay, and in high-profile cases so far (eg. Matt Yglesias, Matt Taibbi, Scott Alexander, though they don't name names) their bet has been paying off in spades. Second, they reached out to Doyle in specific to see if he would be interested in potential participation in the Substack Pro program, to which Doyle replied that he would not take the deal unless Singal and others were deplatformed. It's unclear to me exactly how many people plan to leave Substack because of the whole thing, but it looks to be an active topic of discussion among a section of the trans community on Twitter.

The situation is all a bit of a mess and is still unfolding. As I wrote this, Singal released a response to Anderson's thread above.

At the time I started writing this, I planned to dive more into the specific topics in dispute. On the object level, the claim of what exactly is and isn't "anti-trans conversion therapy" is worth exploring further, as is the question of how best to respond when misrepresented or harrassed online—and what constitutes either of those. On the meta level, I feel like the question of whether it's appropriate to call for a platform you participate on to shut down the participation of those you oppose has been played out and this doesn't offer much new there, but given Substack's increasing profile it will inevitably be a lightning rod for the topic.

That's the situation as it stands. For those who care, I stand with Jesse Singal here, though if I'm being excessively pedantic I'd characterize parts of his opposition as arguably not strictly lying so much as weaponizing nonstandard definitions with intent to destroy his reputation (in particular the accusation of supporting conversion therapy). On the meta level, I sympathize with writers who find themselves on a platform that's found much of its success and support coming via writers whose ideas they oppose, but that sympathy dries up when they wield their influence with the aim to shut those writers out of the platform rather than either ignoring them, arguing against them, or simply leaving. This is largely because Substack is not aiming to be a community—each writer controls their own space fully, and the only way to get to an author's work is to seek it out directly. I think there are some complexities to the question in any given space, and if Substack had started with a different philosophy it would be another matter, but it strikes me as poor form to seek to wrench every sphere you are present in towards your own preferred norms.

More instrumentally, and perhaps more convincing to those who sympathize more with Doyle in this matter: As a direct result of the conflict, Singal's reach is only growing. Doyle's is too, of course, but if the goal is to protect people from ideas you perceive as dangerous, starting a fight that raises your profile and theirs alike strikes me as a poor way to accomplish that, particularly when they rely less on any given institution, more on the support of the specific audience they've built. In every apparent two-sided subculture conflict, there's an inevitable third side of casual onlookers which, if you're loud enough, will shrink as more and more decide they ought to take a side. From a self-interested standpoint, it's a figh that makes sense for Doyle to pick, as I imagine her own platform will grow at least as much as Singal's following this, but I don't know that it supports her stated goal so much as galvanizing her opposition.

/r/theschism Thread