The Chicago Sun Times retracted a column in 2014 by conservative writer Kevin Williamson, in which he argued that transgender actor Laverne Cox is not a woman. At the time the newspaper said it erred in running the opinion article, because it failed to mention that some medical professionals believe transitioning is a necessary procedure, and because the paper’s editors did not wish to cause pain to transgender people. The message sent was that the belief that changing one’s gender is impossible, which millions of people hold, is too offensive to put in print.
Fast-forward to this week. Business Insider ran an opinion article Friday in which conservative columnist Daniella Greenbaum argued that the backlash faced by actor Scarlett Johansson over her role as a transgender man in an upcoming movie is unwarranted. Critics were unhappy the director didn’t cast a transgender person for the role.
Greenbaum argued it’s unfair to criticize Johansson, an actress, for acting a part. She in no way suggested that it is not possible to change genders. In fact, her short piece had essentially nothing to say about the broader issues regarding transgender ideology; she was instead rejecting the notion that Johansson was guilty of some kind of transgender appropriation. Nevertheless, some people, including some in her own newsroom, were offended, and Business Insider removed the column — just as happened to Williamson.
This trajectory over a mere four years, from banning articles that question the reality of changing genders to banning articles that offend people who believe its possible to change genders, is shocking and should serve as a wake up call. The question of whether characters representing marginalized groups should be played by actors who are not a member of that group is not some kind of settled artistic science; in fact it is a lively debate in the arts. It’s apparently a debate too controversial for Business Inside, which bowed to the wishes of the offended.
Business Insider’s Justification
Reports indicate that some of the complaints regarding the column came from other journalists at Business Insider. As a result, the article was taken down and an awkward response given assuring everyone that “this does not mean our argument writers should not take big swings, or that they must have opinions shared by everyone in our newsroom.” The closest thing to a specific reason for removing the piece was its use of the term “social justice warrior,” which editor in chief Nich Carlson is apparently banning from the publication.
Whatever one thinks of the term “social justice warrior,” it is a common phrase in journalism that evokes an over-eagerness to be politically correct. It is not a slur in any traditional meaning of the term. And it strains credulity to believe that this one phrase was why this piece came down. Rather, although Business Insider refuses to say it publicly, it seems clear that what was objected to was indeed the content of the argument, which was basically, “Actors should be able to play whoever they want to.”
To understand why this very basic and reasonable argument would be viewed as offensive, we must understand the mindset of the social justice warriors who objected to Johansson’s casting as a transgender man. In their view, so few roles represent transgender people that only transgender people should be able to play those roles. This does not, of course, mean that transgender actors should be forbidden from playing non-transgender roles. In this progressive way of thinking, Johansson was erasing the existence of transgender people, even while using her celebrity and significant box office draw to bring attention to the story of a transgender man.
The New Rules
Business Insider folded like a T-shirt back from the laundry because its cowardly editors have bought into a progressive hierarchy of oppression in which the supposedly most oppressed, by virtue of their suffering, may impose rules on those who are less oppressed. In essence, if a marginalized person objects to or is offended by something said by a less marginalized person, that speech should be censored.
In the 2014 Williamson affair, we learned that questioning the scientific reality of changing genders — something that is nowhere near settled in the scientific community — will not be tolerated. Now we learn that basically any statement that transgender people or their allies find offensive will not be tolerated. We aren’t on a slippery slope; we are at the bottom of the hill sipping cocoa in the lodge.
Perhaps the worst part of this new set of shifting editorial guidelines is that nobody can have any idea whether he has crossed a line until after an article is run and is attacked. Aside from the excuse of “social justice warrior” being an unacceptable phrase, Business Insider is offering no concrete, objective standard regarding how transgender people, or presumably any marginalized people, can be written about. Instead they are seeking volunteers inside the company to help writers working on socially controversial pieces to be less offensive, which one can only assume means more progressive.
All of this comes amidst a growing trend of progressive journalists objecting to conservatives in their newsrooms. At The New York Times and The Atlantic this year, we have seen that many left-wing writers and editors scoff at the notion of ideological diversity and would prefer their outlets simply refuse to run views they find offensive.
The good news for conservative writers is that there are still plenty of publications willing to run their supposedly dangerous ideas. The bad news for everyone is that our “mainstream” outlets are increasingly being bullied into silencing these voices on their pages. This matters because it deprives us of a journalism in which differing viewpoints can be explored and discussed. It further encourages readers to disengage with anything that might challenge their already held beliefs.
How are we supposed to have a conversation about transgenderism — a topic that includes giving young children hormone blockers to stop puberty — if the most ardent and radical transgender advocates are making the rules of that conversation? The simple answer is that we aren’t supposed to. We are supposed to accept whatever they say, not because they can prove it, or even because they make a good argument for it, but because their transgender identity privileges them to be the only arbiters of what is acceptable.
No editor in the world should accept this absurd standard, and the fact that Business Insider did should send chills down the arm of any writer. Thankfully Greenbaum is not backing down or being cowed, as her editors were. Good for her. All of us who support the honest and open exchange of ideas must be squarely in her corner.