A cartoon based on my difficulties in getting my children’s book published

September 8, 2023 • 8:30 am

I’ve kvetched about my difficulty of getting my children’s book, “Mr. Das and His Fifty Cats,” published, apparently on the grounds that a white guy like me isn’t allowed to write about an Indian man and his love of animals (the story is fiction but based on fact).  Such writing is “cultural appropriation”, Jack! And criticizing it or rejecting it on those grounds alone is an insane example of performative wokeness.

Well, reader Arthur from Australia read about my travails and took action:

I shared your saga of getting your cat book published with Phil Somerville (Australian cartoonist). He said this gave him the idea for the cartoon below.

I hope you enjoy it.

Somerville is a well-known Aussie cartoonist (his website is here and his biography is here.  Have a look at his cartoons, which are very good.

I put his cartoon below; I enjoyed the hell out of it as it’s hilarious and is a snarky take on my own situation. I hope you like it, too. But first you have to embiggen it.  Click to enlarge the cartoon below (click twice in succession, with a pause between)

PEN America highlights attacks from the Left on books

August 30, 2023 • 10:00 am

The recent “cancellation” of my children’s book about an Indian man and his cats—with the sole reason given that I couldn’t write about India because I was white—has made me extra sensitive to the absurdity of a lot of cancellations based on such claims of “cultural appropropriation.”  Now of course it’s possible to write an ignorant and demeaning book about another culture, and publishers don’t have to put out every book they get; but I plead not guilty to cultural appropriation, and, indeed, most of the examples given by Cathy Young below are cultural appropriation of the right type: the enrichment of cultures by incorporating material from other cultures.

The “sin” of cultural appropriation goes only one way, of course: you are not allowed to “write down.” That is, members of nonminority groups (read: white people, especially men) are not allowed to write about minority groups, even if those groups are not oppressed or the subject isn’t oppression.  But the reverse action—members of minority groups writing about dominant groups—seems perfectly fine. This I don’t understand. If members of one culture supposedly can’t understand members of another, or treat their issues with sensitivity, then the ban should go both ways.  Why is it okay if someone from India writes about an American man who owns sweet shops and takes in stray cats?

Thus the new post by the estimable Cathy Young (click the screenshot below to read, but subscribe if you read regularly)—about a new PEN America report on freedom to write and publish—struck home. The theme, according to Young (I haven’t read the PEN report) is the suppression of literature deemed harmful (often because of “cultural appropriation”), an action taken mostly by the Left. The Right gets rid of books they find offensive by simply banning them from libraries or removing them, but what the Left does, preventing publication of books in the first place, can be seen as more harmful. For in the latter case, the book simply isn’t available to anyone.

Many of these campaigns are fueled by social-media pile-ons, often by people who haven’t read the book they damn. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll give quotes from Young about the tactics of the Left and some chilling examples of how they’ve worked.

First, what’s going on (Young’s text is indented).

WHETHER THERE EXISTS in American culture a left-wing illiberalism that threatens freedom of thought and expression under the cover of social justice has been a subject of heated debate in the past decade. At a time when right-wing authoritarian populism is on the rise, many people have viewed warnings about illiberal progressivism as a distraction. Liberal and centrist critiques of leftist intolerance, from the Harper’s magazine “Letter on Justice and Open Debate” in the summer of 2020 to prize-winning historian Anne Applebaum’s Atlantic essay on “the new Puritans” the following year, have been met with purported debunkings and derided as moral panic or whining from people who don’t like to be criticized.

Now, a major liberal institution that has championed freedom of expression for over a century—PEN America, formerly PEN American Center and part of PEN International, the writers’ association whose notable figures have included John Steinbeck, Arthur Miller, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, Toni Morrison, and Margaret Atwood—has issued a lengthy report that strongly comes down on the side of taking illiberal progressivism seriously.

Booklash: Literary Freedom, Online Outrage, and the Language of Harm, written by the PEN America research team with a trenchant introduction by playwright Ayad Akhtar titled “In Defense of the Literary Imagination,” is a thorough examination of the chilly climate in publishing and the issues and controversies that have created it. Booklash is particularly valuable because PEN America really cannot be accused of having a right-leaning or even centrist bias: the organization enthusiastically champions racial and gender diversity and has strongly denounced censorship moves from the right, such as red-state policies facilitating school library book removals.

Indeed, the report acknowledges the context of rising right-wing authoritarianism but unabashedly, and correctly, stresses that this context makes it more important to acknowledge troubling illiberal trends on the left. . .

Booklash isn’t too long, and should be read, as should its appendix or companion piece, the famous and short “Freedom to Read” statement adopted in 1953 by the American Library Association and the Association of American Publishers. (It’s been amended in the version Young gives, but I’ve linked to the original.) It’s a passionate endorsement of the duty of publishers to put out books espousing all viewpoints, even if many people find them offensive, and the duty of organizations to avoid censoring or banning as taboo those views they don’t like.

But back to Young.  Here are only a few of the examples she and the PEN report give of attempts to ban “offensive” views:

*Online hate campaigns directed at books deemed “problematic” for one reason or another have resulted in books being killed when already in the final stages of publication. A prominent recent example, from this past spring, comes from Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. After she announced on June 6 that her next book, The Snow Forest, would come out early next year, it was strafed with one-star review bombs. Its attackers were outraged that a book set in Russia was coming out at a time when Russia is waging a brutal war of aggression in Ukraine. Never mind that it’s not a present-day story: The novel is a partly fact-based tale of a Soviet-era family fleeing into the woods to escape religious persecution. By June 12, Gilbert had had enough: She released a video saying that she was indefinitely “removing the book from its publication schedule.”

*. . . OTHER BOOKS, AS BOOKLASH DETAILS, were not literally canceled but endured some degree of suppression. Initial positive reviews in key industry outlets such as Kirkus Reviews have been downgraded; books have been rewritten under pressure; book tours have been canceled, as in the case of Jeanine Cummins’s bestselling 2020 novel American Dirt, a sympathetic treatment of Mexican migrants that was savaged as exploitative “trauma porn.” Aside from the impact on the targeted authors (Cummins seems to have completely withdrawn from public life), there is also the larger chilling effect on publishing. In the case of American Dirt, the report said, “Despite the book’s commercial success, the episode left many within the literary world with the impression that books perceived to trespass across racial or cultural lines could be risky and undesirable.” Indeed, the report cites conversations with authors and editors who would speak only on conditions of anonymity to describe this overall climate of intimidation as well specific incidents in which books were canceled or revised.

*In 2018, the Nation issued an abject apology for publishing a white poet writing in the voice of a black homeless woman. The poem was allowed to stay up, but underneath a contrite statement that read, remarked Nation columnist Katha Pollitt, “like a letter from re-education camp.”

*In June 2020, the young adult novel Ember Days by Alexandra Duncan was at the center of a bizarre drama with two layers of cancellation. First, the novel was withdrawn at Duncan’s request because of complaints about chapters written from the perspective of a woman with Gullah Geechee heritage (African Americans from the Lowcountry regions of Georgia, South Carolina, and Florida). Then, Publishers’ Weekly removed its story about the book’s withdrawal because of complaints that the story had led to “online abuse” toward Duncan’s chief critic, novelist Bethany Morrow, and replaced it with an apology and a pledge to ensure that “our articles will not cause harm in the future.” Obviously, the PEN America report couldn’t cover every such episode without massive sprawl, but these examples seem remarkable enough to merit a mention.

*Novelist, journalist, and Bulwark contributor Richard North Patterson recently wrote about the dispiriting experience of having his novel Trial “rejected by roughly 20 imprints of major New York publishers” despite having 16 New York Times bestsellers to his name. According to Patterson, many of the rejections came with glowing compliments but bluntly stated that the problem was race: the novel deals with racial injustice, and Patterson is white. (Trial was eventually published by a small press.)

There are many more examples, but you get the gist, and I bet you’ve heard of some of these before, like the American Dirt fracas described by Young in greater detail.

Now Young notes that the PEN America report, while conveying a strong message, is somewhat diluted by its occasional tendency to “balance their defense of intellectual freedom with their commitment to the values of social justice, bending over backwards to accommodate the latter.” While it’s okay to give a nod towards social justice, the “Freedom to read” mantra should extend to defending publication of all viewpoints, including those inimical to current versions of social justice.

Here’s Young’s indictment of the greater harm done by the Left than by the Right in censoring books. First, a quote from Jonah Winter, a children’s-book author who has been censored:

As [Winter] put it in a Dallas Morning News column:

Book-banning, the “cancel culture” of the right, doesn’t hurt a book or an author.

What hurts a book or an author is the far more effective cancel culture of the left, by which I mean the small but vocal subsection of illiberal ideologues who’ve commandeered both liberalism in general and the publishing world specifically, often using their power to attack well-meaning authors in the form of social media pile-ons and the resulting cancellations, both of which I’ve experienced.

And I’ll add this since it hits home: one of Winter’s books that was banned was a respectful biography of the great baseball player and humanitarian Roberto Clemente, outfielder for the Pittsburgh Pirates (I saw him play at Forbes Field), who died at 38 in the crash of a plane bringing relief to earthquake-devastated Managua, Nicaragua. Winter says this:

I’ve had two book contracts canceled because of my identity in relation to the subject matter. I am a white man. The irony of the big to-do being made over the banning of my Clemente book by conservative activists is that, were I to try and publish that exact same book today, I would not be able to get it published because of progressive activists.

And from Young:

There is another factor as well. When attacks on literary works come from the right, they are typically counteracted not only by progressive activists but by institutions that act as guardians of culture: public schools and teachers’ unions, libraries, universities, publishers, the mainstream media. When the attacks are from the left, the same institutions typically offer no objections, or even collude.

So what’s the solution? First, we have to recognize that if you’re on the Left like me, you have to indict your own side for this kind of ludicrous and harmful censorship. The cure begins with recognition, and that’s what PEN America has done.  Young also notes that Booklash has recommendations like preventing book-review websites like Goodreads from going after books that haven’t been read, or damning them on flimsy grounds. And publishers should issue “formal statements of principles.” (This is desperately needed.)

Young closes by arguing correctly that being on the Left does not conflict with arguing for free expression in books, nor does condemnation of censorship trivialize the arguments of social-justice advocates. It’s merely a way to enact the First Amendment through publication, for books are one of the most effective ways to make and to vet arguments:

Such a shift [in the present Leftist illiberalism about publishing] must also include much greater willingness on the part of authors and publishers to stand up to pressures, particularly when it’s a matter of just a few voices denouncing alleged bigotry and “harm” in works the vast majority of people from the supposedly injured group do not see as offensive. But this would also require challenging a key tenet of social justice progressivism: the belief that even to dispute a claim of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. is in itself “problematic,” and in most cases actively harmful. Such claims must be examined skeptically, especially when suppression of speech or other expression is at stake.

Pushing back against left-wing illiberalism in publishing need not entail a general dismissiveness toward the existence of racial or gender-based injustice and prejudice in American culture, particularly given the recent rise of overt white supremacism, misogyny, and homophobia on the far right and their seepage into more mainstream right-wing discourse. What it does mean, though, is understanding that “canceling” books and authors for transgressing progressive moral codes does nothing to counteract injustice and prejudice. Instead, it inhibits and silences important conversations and trivializes the very evils it supposedly protests.

h/t: Steve

Attacks on freedom of thought and expression in publishing: a piece by George Packer

August 9, 2023 • 10:30 am

This article from The Atlantic is probably paywalled, but appears to be freely accessible on the msn.com site below. Author George Packer is a journalist and novelist, and Wikipedia gives this description:

George Packer (born ca. 1960) is a US journalist, novelist, and playwright. He is best known for his writings for The New Yorker and The Atlantic about U.S. foreign policy and for his book The Assassins’ Gate: America in Iraq. Packer also wrote The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, covering the history of the US from 1978 to 2012. In November 2013, The Unwinding received the National Book Award for Nonfiction. His award-winning biography, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century, was released in May 2019. His latest book, Last Best Hope: America in Crisis and Renewal was released in June 2021.

Click screenshot to read, and then click “continue reading” to see the whole article.

Packer begins by extolling a 1953 statement, “The Freedom to Read,” issued by the American Library Association and the Association of Book Publishers Council at the height of the McCarthy era of censorship and Red-baiting. Do read it at the link: it’s an eloquent defense of publishing and reading even offensive materials, allowing the public to judge for themselves. That 70-year-old statement should be mandatory reading for all college freshman in what I envision as a short unit on “freedom of expression and academic freedom.” An except from the 1953 statement.

Most attempts at suppression rest on a denial of the fundamental premise of democracy: that the ordinary individual, by exercising critical judgment, will select the good and reject the bad. We trust Americans to recognize propaganda and misinformation, and to make their own decisions about what they read and believe. We do not believe they are prepared to sacrifice their heritage of a free press in order to be “protected” against what others think may be bad for them. We believe they still favor free enterprise in ideas and expression.

These efforts at suppression are related to a larger pattern of pressures being brought against education, the press, art and images, films, broadcast media, and the Internet. The problem is not only one of actual censorship. The shadow of fear cast by these pressures leads, we suspect, to an even larger voluntary curtailment of expression by those who seek to avoid controversy or unwelcome scrutiny by government officials. [Sound familiar?]

Such pressure toward conformity is perhaps natural to a time of accelerated change. And yet suppression is never more dangerous than in such a time of social tension. Freedom has given the United States the elasticity to endure strain. Freedom keeps open the path of novel and creative solutions, and enables change to come by choice. Every silencing of a heresy, every enforcement of an orthodoxy, diminishes the toughness and resilience of our society and leaves it the less able to deal with controversy and difference.

On its 70th anniversary in June, the whole statement was re-issued by the same organizations (see link above), but Packer finds that a wee bit ironic:

This past June, the library and publishers’ associations reissued “The Freedom to Read” on its 70th anniversary. Scores of publishers, libraries, literary groups, civil-liberty organizations, and authors signed on to endorse its principles. And yet many of those institutional signatories—including the “Big Five” publishing conglomerates—often violate its propositions, perhaps not even aware that they’re doing so. Few of them, if any, could produce as unapologetic a defense of intellectual freedom as the one made at a time when inquisitors were destroying careers and lives. It’s worth asking why the American literary world in 2023 is less able to uphold the principles of “The Freedom to Read” than its authors in 1953.

Here are the three attacks on intellectual freedom that are circumventing or eroding these principles. The first isn’t the fault of publishers. (Packer’s quotes are indented, heading are mine.)

1.) Attacks from state governments and schools.

First—and likely the main concern of the signatories—is an official campaign by governors, state legislatures, local governments, and school boards to weed out books and ideas they don’t like. Most of the targets are politically on the left; most present facts or express views about race, gender, and sexuality that the censors consider dangerous, divisive, obscene, or simply wrong. The effort began in Texas as early as 2020, before public hysteria and political opportunism spread the campaign to Florida and other states, and to every level of education, removing from library shelves and class reading lists several thousand books by writers such as Toni Morrison and Malala Yousafzai.

Given that states and school districts have a responsibility to set public-school curricula, not all of this can be called government censorship. But laws and policies to prevent students from encountering controversial, unpopular, even offensive writers and ideas amount to a powerfully repressive campaign of book banning, some of it probably unconstitutional.

2.) Attacks and censorship from “inside the house”—by editors and publishers themselves. We all know that some publishers are malleable to social-media campaigns that try to stop books from being published because the authors have done something considered immoral, because they are not of the right gender or ethnicity to tackle a book’s topic, or because the plot isn’t ideologically correct. I’m sure you remember some of these incidents:

A few cases became big news. Hachette canceled Woody Allen’s autobiography after a staff walkout, and Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth was withdrawn after publication by Norton, both following accusations of sexual misconduct by the authors (Allen and Bailey denied the accusations). Publishers have canceled books following an author’s public remarks—for example, those of the cartoonist Scott Adams, the British journalist Julie Burchill, and the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

In one particularly wild case, an author named Natasha Tynes, on the verge of publishing her first novel, a crime thriller, saw a Black employee of the Washington, D.C., Metro system eating on a train (a violation of the system’s rules). She tweeted a picture of the woman at the transit authority with a complaint, and immediately found herself transformed into a viral racist. Within hours her distributor, Rare Bird Books, had dropped the novel, tweeting that Tynes “did something truly horrible today.” The publisher, California Coldblood, after trying to wash its hands of the book, eventually went ahead with publication “due to contractual obligations,” but the novel was as good as dead. “How can you expect authors to be these perfect creatures who never commit any faults?” Tynes lamented to PEN. Most publishers now include a boilerplate morals clause in book contracts that legitimizes these cancellations—a loophole that contradicts tenets of “The Freedom to Read” that those publishers endorsed.

More are given, but you can see them at the site.

As Packer notes, these incidents may be few, but they create a chilling atmosphere that inhibits authors from writing about what they want:

A few cases became big news. Hachette canceled Woody Allen’s autobiography after a staff walkout, and Blake Bailey’s biography of Philip Roth was withdrawn after publication by Norton, both following accusations of sexual misconduct by the authors (Allen and Bailey denied the accusations). Publishers have canceled books following an author’s public remarks—for example, those of the cartoonist Scott Adams, the British journalist Julie Burchill, and the right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos.

In one particularly wild case, an author named Natasha Tynes, on the verge of publishing her first novel, a crime thriller, saw a Black employee of the Washington, D.C., Metro system eating on a train (a violation of the system’s rules). She tweeted a picture of the woman at the transit authority with a complaint, and immediately found herself transformed into a viral racist. Within hours her distributor, Rare Bird Books, had dropped the novel, tweeting that Tynes “did something truly horrible today.” The publisher, California Coldblood, after trying to wash its hands of the book, eventually went ahead with publication “due to contractual obligations,” but the novel was as good as dead. “How can you expect authors to be these perfect creatures who never commit any faults?” Tynes lamented to PEN. Most publishers now include a boilerplate morals clause in book contracts that legitimizes these cancellations—a loophole that contradicts tenets of “The Freedom to Read” that those publishers endorsed.

Not all publishers are susceptible to this kind of pressure, invariably coming from Twitter, and often by people who have never read the book. My own publisher, Penguin Random House, has a firm policy of publishing what it considers good, not what is ideologically correct. Sadly, as Packer reports, that publisher is bleeding senior editors because book sales are down.

Packer also levels some criticism at PEN and PEN America, too, literary organizations that promote free expression. PEN America has issued a new report, “Reading between the lines: Race, equity, and book publishing.”  And while Packer praises the courage of this report in today’s publishing climate, he also notes a contradiction. And that’s the contradiction—one we’ve discussed before—between promoting equity and promoting merit—literary merit in this case.

In “Reading Between the Lines: Race, Equity, and Book Publishing,” PEN examined in detail how the American book business has always been and, despite recent improvements, remains a clubby world of the white, well connected, and well-off. It presented a damning picture, backed by data, of “the white lens through which writers, editors, and publishers curate America’s literature.” It called for publishers to hire and promote more staff of color, publish more books by writers of color, pay them higher advances, and sell their books more intelligently and vigorously.

The two reports are related, but the relation is fraught. The first showed the need for an intensified campaign of diversity, equity, and inclusion across the industry. The second argues for greater freedom to defy the literary strictures of diversity, equity, and inclusion. Is there a contradiction between the two?

While PEN labors to show that there is no contradiction, of course there is. Any pressure to be ideologically correct (and DEI initiatives often cross the line between “color blind standards of merit” and “a specific ideological take on DEI), is going to also constitute pressure against publishing certain kinds of things. Here’s what Packer says:

In our world, where DEI has hardened into an ideological litmus test, the effort to place social justice at the center of publishing almost inevitably leads to controversies over “representation” and “harm” that result in banned books. The first report presented DEI in publishing as an urgent moral cause. The second report takes issue with “employees’ increasing expectation that publishers assume moral positions in their curation of catalogs and author lists.” But those employees no doubt believe that they are carrying out the vision of the first report.

Social justice and intellectual freedom are not inherently opposed—often, each requires the other—but they are not the same thing, either. “The Freedom to Read” makes this clear: “It would conflict with the public interest for [publishers and librarians] to establish their own political, moral, or aesthetic views as a standard for determining what should be published or circulated.” That statement was written at a time when the cause of intellectual freedom was non- or even anti-ideological. Its authors advocated no other goal than the widest and highest-quality expression of views. But in PEN’s new report you can feel a struggle to reconcile the thinking of its earlier one, in which every calculation comes down to identity, with the discriminating judgment and openness to new and disturbing ideas that are essential to producing literature. As one editor told me, “There’s no equity in talent.”

Packer has a lot more to say, but in the end he makes a good case for publishers promoting the “widest and highest-quality expression of views.” That statement says nothing about ideology, gender, or race, just quality and viewpoint diversity. If viewpoint diversity of literary merit is promoted by publishing more authors of minority status, then that’s fine—no contradiction there. But, as publishing books becomes a more fraught endeavor, and fewer people buy books, it’s imperative that the industry stick to its guns of promoting quality and viewpoint diversity.  For when books have to hew to an ideological line to be acceptable, publishing is dead.

h/t: Leo

UN Human Rights Council votes to ban Qur’an burning

July 14, 2023 • 11:15 am

I’ve added a new category label just for this post: “UN acting badly”. That’s because they act badly very often, especially in their constant funding of Palestine and its terrorists (via UNRWA) and repeated resolutions damning Israel (which also hearten Palestinian terrorists).

From Secularism.org we have a new report that the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) voted to ban Qur’an burnings, which of course is considered free speech in the U.S.  They also, to give the impression of fairness, banned burning of other religious books. As for secular books like On Liberty: crickets from the UN.

An excerpt:

The National Secular Society has warned a United Nations resolution to ban the burning of religious texts could be detrimental to human rights.

Members of the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) today voted in favour of a resolution for the “deliberately and publicly” burning of the Quran or “any other holy book” to be prohibited by law.

The UK voted against the resolution. In a statement yesterday, the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said: “we do not accept that, by definition, attacks on religion, including on religious texts or symbols, constitute advocacy for hatred”.

Other states opposed to the motion included France, Germany and the USA, but they were outvoted 28 to 12. [7 countries abstained]

The resolution follows a high profile incident in Sweden last month, when Iraqi refugee Salwan Momika burned a Quran outside a mosque in Stockholm. Momika is an atheist formerly from Iraq’s persecuted minority Christian community.

The resolution was introduced by Pakistan on behalf of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which has long supported efforts to curtail ‘blasphemous’ speech.

The OIC is an intergovernmental organisation of 57 states and claims to be the “collective voice of the Muslim world”. Although it stopped explicitly campaigning for a global blasphemy law in 2011, it has repeatedly spearheaded attempts to install “backdoor” blasphemy laws. The NSS warned the UN of the OIC’s attempts to use ‘hate speech’ laws to restrict free expression last year.

The resolution passed was amended to include the explicit provision that burning the Quran and other holy books should be banned. The original resolution did not include this statement.

This was a deeply divided vote, with most Western countries voting against the resolution and Muslim countries (and other nations like Cuba and UKRAINE) favoring the ban. Here’s how the vote went down:

More background from the Guardian:

Last month, an Iraqi-born protester caused outrage across the Muslim world after tearing pages from the Qur’an, wiping his shoes with some of them and burning others outside a mosque in Stockholm during the Eid al-Adha holiday.

The Swedish embassy in Baghdad was briefly stormed, Iran held off from sending a new ambassador to Stockholm and the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC) condemned Sweden’s authorities and asked the Geneva-based UN human rights council to debate the issue.

Turkey also expressed its anger, citing “vile protests against the holy book” in Sweden as one of its reasons for withholding approval of the Scandinavian country’s application to join Nato. On Monday, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had agreed to set aside his veto and support the application.

Several similar protests had previously taken place in Stockholm and Malmö. Swedish police have received applications for more, from individuals wanting to burn religious texts including the Qur’an, the Bible and the Torah.

This of course is an abrogation of free speech (the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that burning the Constitution, U.S. flag, and other such documents is speech protected by the First Amendment). It’s also a form of “blasphemy law”, though I don’t think the UN has any power to enforce it. Still, it shows you how many countries, including UKRAINE, limit freedom of speech when that speech involves criticizing religious delusion.  You can burn The God Delusion or God is Not Great, of course, as the UN doesn’t care about that. But keep your matches away from religious scripture!

This is embarrassing in a world becoming increasingly secular.  Here’s some pushback from Britain’s National Secular Society:

NSS chief executive Stephen Evans said: “Equating the desecration of religious books and symbols with incitement to violence is a pernicious attempt to impose blasphemy laws by stealth. The Islamic nations behind this resolution have long been more interested in protecting religion than protecting individuals.

“Speech and expression must be viewed in context. Crude attempts to impose blanket prohibitions clearly risk capturing and silencing legitimate expression and dissent.

“Democratic societies must find ways to combat intolerance and hatred without further restricting freedom of expression to meet increasing sensitivities of certain religious groups.”

Amen, brothers and sisters!

h/t: Dave

Article on gender dysphoria retracted, probably for ideological reasons

July 11, 2023 • 9:15 am

I’ve mentioned this result before, but only as an item in Nellie Bowles’s weekly news summary.  Now one of the authors of a controversial paper, J. Michael Bailey, a psychologist at Northwestern who works on sexual behavior (and whose work up to now is well known and respected), has written extensively about how that coauthored paper was retracted by the prestigious journal Archives of Sexual Behavior. But it wasn’t retracted because the data were wrong, fraudulent, or plagiarized. No, it was retracted because the topic, “Rapid onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD), has been rendered by activists too taboo to discuss, and because a mob of scientists attacked its publication—as well as attacking the editor who accepted it, Kenneth Zucker.

In light of this pushback, Springer, the journal’s editor, retracted the article. The grounds for retraction were very flimsy: that Bailey and his co-author, a pseudonymous mother of a girl who had what seemed to be ROGD, hadn’t obtained permission for the data of the investigated group to be published in this particular journal.  But in fact they had obtained permission from the subjects for their data to be published—just not in this particular journal.  That is a distinction without a difference. The paper was almost certainly rejected because one is simply not allowed to discuss ROGD in public. If you do, you get called a “transphobe”.

As Bailey notes:

Retraction of scientific articles is associated with well-deserved shame: plagiarismmaking up data, or grave concerns about the scientific integrity of a study. But my article was not retracted for any shameful reason. It was retracted because it provided evidence for an idea that activists hate.

If you’d like to see the original article, reader ThyroidPlanet has published a link to it below; the paper is here.

Click the screenshot to read his piece, which is in The Free Press. (If you think that places like the NYT or Washington Post would publish this, you’re living in a dream world):

ROGD, like the effects of puberty blockers, is one of those gender-related issues that really needs study since the phenomena are understudied but have very important implications for the study of gender and especially for how to deal with children or adolescents suffering from gender dysphoria. The taboo on discussing both of these issues is thus particularly unfortunate, but is part of the program of some gender activists who don’t want their views questioned or discussed.

You might remember that Abigail Shrier, whose book on the topic, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, was attacked viciously on social media for even talking about ROGD, with the odious ACLU gender-activist lawyer Chase Strangio saying that he wanted the book banned. (It was banned for a while at Target, but then reinstated.) Here’s Strangio’s tweet, which he’s now deleted. It’s beyond belief that an important figure in the ACLU would call for the banning of a book and its ideas (Strangio is transgender). This is censorship: the banning of Wrongthink.

But exactly what is ROGD? It is a postulated syndrome, involving social contagion, suggested to explain the recent rapid rise in girls asking to change their gender from female to male—that is, to become trans men. ROGD seems to be different from “classical” gender dyphoria and thus provoked a new explanation:

ROGD was first described in the literature in 2018 by the physician and researcher Lisa Littman. It is an explanation of the new phenomenon of adolescents, largely girls, with no history of gender dysphoria, suddenly declaring they want to transition to the opposite sex. It has been a highly contentious diagnosis, with some—and I am one—thinking it’s an important avenue for scientific inquiry, and others declaring it’s a false idea advocated by parents unable to accept they have a transgender child.

I believed that ROGD was a promising explanation of the explosion of gender dysphoria among adolescent girls because these young people do not have gender dysphoria as usually understood. Until recently, females treated for gender dysphoria were masculine-presenting girls who had hated being female since early childhood. By contrast, girls with ROGD are often conventionally feminine, but tend to have other social and emotional issues. The theory behind ROGD is that through social contagion from friends, social media, and even school, vulnerable girls are exposed to the idea that their normal adolescent angst is the result of an underlying transgender identity. These girls then suddenly declare that they are transgender. That is the rapid onset. After the declaration, the girls may desire—and receive—drastic medical interventions including mastectomies and testosterone injections.

There is ample evidence that in progressive communities, multiple girls from the same peer group are announcing they are trans almost simultaneously. There has been a sharp increase in this phenomenon across the industrialized West. A recent review from the UK, which keeps better records than America, showed a greater than tenfold increase in referrals of adolescent girls during just the past decade.

But there have been virtually no scientific data or studies on the subject.

ROGD is considered taboo for several reasons, mainly because it invokes social contagion as a cause of the desire to transition. This idea is apparently repugnant to those who think that the desire to transition is innate, not malleable to pressure from others, and, of course, must be “affirmed” through therapy, hormones, and possibly surgery. (This is my take on the issue; those who demonize ROGD don’t often talk about why they despise it.)

At any rate, Bailey wrote an article with a pseudonymous mother, “Suzanna Diaz”, an article called “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria: Parent Reports on 1655 Possible Cases.” It appears to be a load of self-reported case studies about the phenomenon, and at this stage a huge number of case studies is useful, particularly if there is any commonality in them.  Because they were self-reported, you can’t use their prevalence to show that social contagion is a primary cause of ROGD, but you can show, if the data be credible, that it is not vanishingly rare. And, of course, if you find no social contagion, that supports the thesis of gender activists.   So I think the studies are of value, and apparently the journal did, too.

Here are the findings, which implies something we already know: gender dysphoria is connected with psychological distress, and in this case, the distress often preceded the desire to transition, which appears to have been largely prompted by “gender specialists”.  More than half the parents reported that they felt pressured by the gender specialist to practice “affirmative care”: facilitating the gender transition.

Our article was based on parent reports of 1,655 adolescent and young adult children. Three-fourths of them were female. Emotional problems were common among this group, especially anxiety and depression, which many parents said preceded gender issues by years. Most of these young people had taken steps to socially transition, including changing their pronouns, dress, and identity to the other sex (or in some cases, to neither sex). Parents observed that after their children socially transitioned, their mental health deteriorated. A small number—seven percent of those whose parents answered Suzanna’s survey—had received medical transition treatment, including drugs to block puberty, or cross-sex hormones.

Disturbingly, those young people with more emotional problems were especially likely to have socially and medically transitioned. The best predictor of both social and medical transition was a referral to a gender specialist. Some 52 percent of parents in our study who had received a referral said they felt pressured by the gender specialist to facilitate some sort of transition for their child.

Note that the authors were explicit in their paper about the study’s limitations, particularly the cherry-picking of parents who responded:

Our study had two obvious limitations: the way we recruited parents guaranteed that only those who believed their children had ROGD would participate, and we had only the parents’ perspectives. We clearly acknowledged and discussed these in our paper, beginning with the words “At least two related issues potentially limit this research” followed by three paragraphs laying out the limitations.

These are rather serious limitations, at least insofar as assessing the prevalence of ROGD. There’s no mention in this piece, though perhaps there is in the article, about other social influences besides “gender specialists”.  But the fact that referral to a “gender specialist” was a huge predictor of social and medical transition needs to be studied further. So does the observation that social transitioning was injurious rather than salubrious for mental health.

Then the mob descended, forcing retraction. I don’t find Springer’s reason convincing, especially because I think the journal has been lax in enforcing the “consent” issue and, in this case, there was consent, which Springer deemed the wrong kind of consent.

On May 23 [the paper was published on March 29 of this year], we received an email from Springer informing us that they were retracting our article. The ostensible reason:

The Publisher and the Editor-in-Chief have retracted this article due to noncompliance with our editorial policies around consent. The participants of the survey have not provided written informed consent to participate in scholarly research or to have their responses published in a peer reviewed article. Additionally, they have not provided consent to publish to have their data included in this article. Table 1 and the Supplementary material have therefore been removed to protect the participants’ privacy.

We appealed after consulting a lawyer, but Springer retracted our paper on June 14.

Springer’s reasoning was preposterous and simply an excuse to retract an article they wanted to go away in order to stop the controversy. Springer accused us of not obtaining informed consent from the parents in our study. There are two aspects to informed consent in research: you should understand what you’re being asked to do, including any substantial risks and benefits, and you should be able to opt out. All parents completing Suzanna’s survey knew they were being asked questions about their children’s ROGD, and they decided to answer. Parents were promised privacy of personal information, and they got it.

Springer’s additional complaint was that we did not have consent to publish survey results. This is plain wrong. We did inform participants that we would publish their data. At the end of the survey participants were told: “We will publish our data on our website when we have a large enough sample. . . ”

My assessment: the journal used the “consent” issue as a confected reason to reject a paper whose thesis was ideologically unpalatable. (That’s what Bailey thinks, too.) While the paper may not be dispositive about the prevalence, presence, and causes of ROGD, it was worth publishing as an impetus to do a bigger and more thorough study.

And that is what Bailey and his co-author are about to do, although of course they’ll never find funding for it (and thus they appeal to the public below). Note, too, that the paper got a fair amount of approbation:

The campaign against our article, from the open letter to the final retraction, has generated immense publicity by academic standards, so far largely favorable. Our academic article has been viewed online more than 100,000 times in not quite three months, an astonishing number for an article of this nature. This reflects a thirst for knowledge about this important subject.

Speaking for myself, this episode has guaranteed that I will study ROGD until we understand it.

That’s why I am about to launch a large, long-term survey of adolescent gender dysphoria, in collaboration with Lisa Littman and Ken Zucker. We will survey both gender-dysphoric adolescents and their parents, following them for at least five years. Among other things, we’ll have better information about adolescents’ early gender dysphoria, mental health, and sexuality; about parents’ attitudes, behaviors, and beliefs; and about the correspondence between adolescents’ and parents’ accounts of the same phenomena.

I guarantee two things. First, it will be a huge, important study with the potential to establish the validity of ROGD. (And if ROGD is an incorrect idea, we will show and publish this.) Second, between the three of us—Littman, Zucker, and me, three previously cancelled scientists who are among the world’s foremost experts in what we are studying—we don’t have a chance in hell of receiving government funding for this project.

We’ll do it anyway. (You can help if you want.)

Censors have tried to stop scientific progress before. Now, as then, the pursuit of truth requires scientists and researchers who refuse to cow to puritans, ideologues and activists.

The one thing I do think is true is that gender dysphoria leading to gender transitioning, rapid or not, can be promoted by social pressure. I’ve seen some of the back-and-forth on the Internet showing how those who transitioned urge those who are questioning to follow in their “affirming” pathway.  If you’re in psychological difficulties that often accompany puberty and early teen years, the internet and one’s peers can provide a supportive and comforting environment that facilitates gender transitioning. It’s almost as if it’s “cool” to transition, while being gay is dull and boring.

The problems with this are twofold: most cases of gender dysphoria (I think around 80%) resolve themselves without medical intervention, often by the dysphoric child ultimately becoming gay—a much less dangerous and less medicalized outcome. Second, therapists have started mimicking this supportive environment: instead of exploring a child’s feelings, therapists who are “affirmative” simply agree with their patient’s notion that they’re in the wrong body and often prescribe hormones (including blockers) after just a visit or two.

The effect of social environment is plausible, but not scientifically tested. The data on resolution of un-“affirmed” dysphoria and eagerness of some therapists is already known (viz., the Tavistock Gender Centre in London). All, in all, this paper shows that there is a phenomenon that needs to be investigated more closely because of its huge implications for how to treat dysphoric youth. The Bailey and “Diaz” paper is just a start, and they’re prepared to accept and publish the fact that ROGD is a myth—if that’s what they find.  But they are immensely courageous to continue along this path.  Concern for young people demands that they do so.

Gender activists get a paper retracted for unjustified technical reasons—just to discredit its results

June 15, 2023 • 12:15 pm

Colin Wright, who’s turned out a number of clear and well written pieces on gender issues, has by so doing inserted himself into a maelstrom, for there are no activists so authoritarian and unforgiving as gender activists. In fact, their actions in getting a paper retracted is the subject of Wright’s latest piece in City Journal (click on first screenshot below)m which recounts a fracas that I think we should know about.

Why? Because it shows very clearly how ideology can distort science, and how activists can get a paper retracted for no good reasons, just to discredit the contents of that paper. Much of the science around gender issues is currently unsettled, including the notion of a syndrome called Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD), its possible influence by social pressure, and, of course, whether puberty blockers can cause permanent damage or are completely reversible.

Instead of allowing open discourse on these issues, activists try to shut down all discourse, including scientific publication, in favor of their own views: that ROGD doesn’t exist, that children “know” instinctively if they’re in the wrong body, and that any child or adolescent who’s confused about their gender must immediately receive “affirmative therapy”, which appears to involve enthusiastic rather than objective support by therapists coupled with a nearly instantaneous prescription for puberty blockers.

Any deviation from this scenario produces a storm of opprobrium.  You already know about the demonization of Abigail Shrier’s 2020 book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing our Daughters, which proposed that ROGD might be real and might be promoted by social-media pressures. Shrier’s book was briefly canceled and taken out of bookstores, and an ACLU lawyer called for its banning.  But the concept of ROGD itself came from Lisa Littman earlier (passages from Wright’s article are indented):

Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD), a newly proposed pathway to gender dysphoria, was first described by the researcher Lisa Littman in 2018; the theory may help explain the documented surge in cases of gender dysphoria among adolescents and young adults who had previously exhibited no gender-related issues. Littman proposed and provided supporting evidence that social factors have at least partly caused the surge, especially among girls.

. . . Littman’s 2018 paper generated intense backlash from activists, who successfully pressured the journal that published her findings (PLoS One) to take the unusual step of initiating a second round of post-publication peer review. The paper was republished with a “correction” that offered a more detailed explanation of its methodology, specifically focusing on its dependency on parental reports, and a clarification that ROGD is not a clinical diagnosis. Importantly, however, the paper’s central conclusions concerning the probable role of social influences remained unchanged. Activists repeatedly disrupted further attempts by Littman to explore ROGD using online surveys.

Littman’s paper is here, and the journal’s “correction” is here.

Now there’s a new paper by two authors on ROGD, and that one (click on second screenshot below) has generated all the scandal:

I’ll try to be brief and give a numbered sequence of events.

1.) First, the paper below was submitted to Springer Nature’s journal Archives of Sexual Behavior (ASB). It was accepted and published. (Diaz is a pseudonym for a parent who helped collect data, Bailey is on the faculty at Northwestern:

2.) As Wright notes, the paper, as you can see by its title, didn’t conform to the preferred gender ideology, describing as it did a whole pile of possible cases of ROGD. Wright describes its contents:

The paper in question, “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria: Parent Reports on 1655 Possible Cases,” was authored by researchers Suzanna Diaz (a pseudonym) and Michael Bailey and published in ASB on March 29. Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD), a newly proposed pathway to gender dysphoria, was first described by the researcher Lisa Littman in 2018.

. . . . . Such a hypothesis might appear plausible, or at least a straightforward empirical matter to be decided through evidence-based examination. But it violates the dominant narrative favored by medicalization activists that the rise in trans identities stems from an increase in societal acceptance of “gender diversity.” Evidence supporting ROGD would call into question the “gender-affirming” model of care, an approach premised on the notion that kids can know their “gender identity” from very early on and will rarely, if ever, change their minds about it. This philosophical belief system, which flies in the face of centuries of accumulated wisdom on human development, has been pithily summarized with the phrase: “trans kids know who they are.” The affirmative model guides health-care providers to “affirm” (i.e., agree with) a child’s self-declared identity and facilitate access to hormones and surgeries, all in order to align the child’s body with his or her felt gender identity. Consequently, activists have exerted intense efforts to undermine ROGD research at every opportunity.

Littman’s 2018 paper generated intense backlash from activists, who successfully pressured the journal that published her findings (PLoS One) to take the unusual step of initiating a second round of post-publication peer review. The paper was republished with a “correction” that offered a more detailed explanation of its methodology, specifically focusing on its dependency on parental reports, and a clarification that ROGD is not a clinical diagnosis. Importantly, however, the paper’s central conclusions concerning the probable role of social influences remained unchanged. Activists repeatedly disrupted further attempts by Littman to explore ROGD using online surveys.

But Diaz and Bailey’s new paper lent further credence to the ROGD hypothesis. They examined parental reports of 1,655 potential ROGD cases through an online survey. The sample size dwarfed that of Littman’s original study, which was based on 256 parental reports. This data bolstered Littman’s findings about the onset of gender dysphoria after puberty, predominantly in girls, in conjunction with preexisting mental-health conditions, heavy social-media usage, and peer influence. They also corroborated Littman’s 2018 finding that an overwhelming majority (90 percent) of concerned parents are politically progressive, undermining the common narrative that criticisms and concerns about gender affirmation originate in conservatism.

What else did the paper find? In the sample, gender dysphoria manifests approximately two years earlier in females compared with males. Females are more than twice as likely to pursue social transition. However, among those who experienced gender dysphoria for at least one year, males were more likely to undergo hormonal interventions. Moreover, a majority of parents reported feeling coerced by gender specialists to affirm their child’s new identity and endorse his or her transition. Parents who facilitated their child’s social transition reported that the child’s mental health “deteriorated considerably after social transition,” and that their relationship with their child suffered.

These findings are crucial. They provide further corroboration to a growing body of evidence supporting the ROGD theory, indicating the need for a new, specialized treatment approach for youth with gender-related distress.

3.) Gender activists started besieging the journal because the results violated the dominant gender-activist narrative.  Not attacking the paper’s thesis, they went after a technical matter: the data supposedly did not pass approval of Northwestern’s Institutional Review Board (IRB), a university body that must approve all human research before it’s done.  However, the authors had written approval from the subjects to publish the results of the study. (The journal replied, in effect, “but not in this scholarly journal.”  However, as we’ll see, the authors effectively did have IRB approval, and the journal had also published at least six papers by other people without such approval. In other words, the journal was inconsistent in its standards.

4.) With pressure from individuals and the International Academy of Sex Research, as well as a petition, the journal began querying the authors. The authors replied that they had written approval for publication, though the first author didn’t answer to an IRB since he/she is a private individual not affiliated with a university.

5.) The authors pointed out the approval for publication was given though the study wasn’t vetted by the IRB, for it couldn’t have been. HOWEVER, as Wright reports, there’s a very important exception:

 Northwestern’s IRB representative informed Bailey that, though the IRB could not retrospectively approve the pre-collected data, it would permit him to coauthor a paper on those data provided they were expunged of all personal identifiable information. Significantly, Springer’s own policy explicitly states that in situations where “a study has not been granted ethics committee approval prior to commencing. . . . The decision on whether to proceed to peer review in such cases is at the Editor’s discretion.” Thus, all efforts to undermine the study or discredit Zucker’s decision to review and publish it on the grounds of IRB considerations appeared futile.

6.) On top of that, author Bailey responded that he found at least six papers in the journal using human data without IRB approval.  Given this and the material in #5, there seemed to be no good reason to retract the paper.

7.) Nevertheless, the paper (as you can see above) was retracted, on the grounds that Bailey didn’t get IRB approval and the subjects didn’t agree to have their data published in a scholarly journal..  The editor of the journal, however, did have the discretion to publish the paper anyway, and Northwestern’s IRB had no overt objections to Bailey and “Diaz” publishing the paper. This is a matter of censorship on the grounds of the paper’s content.

The paper appears to have been retracted not because of the IRB issues, but because its survey didn’t give the results that activists wanted. As you see, it is still online, which is normal for retracted papers, but has a big RETRACTED ARTICLE warning at the top.  As Wright explains, this makes a difference to activists:

Such retractions, regardless of their reasoning, are routinely exploited by activists to tarnish the reputation of the involved researchers. Lisa Littman’s original paper on ROGD was merely “corrected,” and no results or conclusions changed; nonetheless, she has been smeared relentlessly online and in the press. Brown University, Littman’s employer at the time, felt compelled to affirm its “long-standing support for members of the trans community” in response to the paper’s publication. One science writer critiqued Littman’s study as “scientifically specious” and claimed that “ROGD provides political cover for those who wish to rollback trans rights and healthcare.” The controversy even led to Littman losing her consulting job following demands for her dismissal by local clinicians.

The authors, though, haven’t given up:

In the wake of the retraction, Bailey and Diaz are re-submitting the manuscript to the Journal of Open Inquiry in Behavioral Science (JOIBS), a fledgling publication founded by scholars devoted to the principles of “free inquiry and truth seeking” and the belief that ideas ought to be scrutinized rather than suppressed. Regrettably, among medical journals this commitment appears to be increasingly the exception, not the rule.

The retraction, though it has nothing to do with the scientific results of the paper, is being used to discredit those results. Such are the sleazy tactics of activists. At least allow the issues to be argued out in the scientific literature!

We need to know if ROGD is a real syndrome.

We need to know if social pressure promotes the frequency of gender transition.

We need to know the long-term effects of puberty blockers, and whether they are reversible.

We need to know if “non affirming” therapies, involving empathic listening but no agenda by the therapist beyond listening to the patient, will lead to resolution of gender dysphoria without having to change genders (e.g., getting children to accept that they’re gay).

We need to know the frequency of transgender people who desist, or decide to change their minds. This is part of getting informed consent for medical procedures.

The entire medical establishment of the U.S., and nearly all gender advocates, are trying to prevent the resolution of these issues, for they pretend to already know the truth. And that’s not the way we progress in understanding the world.

A “progressive” coalition goes after Bret Stephens as our Class Day Speaker; he delivers an excellent address anyway

June 3, 2023 • 11:00 am

You’ll know Bret Stephens as a conservative columnist for the New York Times. He also got his undergraduate degree at the University of Chicago in 1995 and later won a Pulitzer Prize for political commentary. Because of his journalism and association with the University, he was invited to deliver yesterday’s University Class Day speech, an invitation extended by the University. (“Class Day” is the beginning of the Convocation Weekend, or graduation, with the formal cap-and-gown ceremony taking place today.)

The students didn’t like that much, especially because they didn’t have a say in who got to speak.  And the speaker is a conservative who doesn’t hate Israel, which means he’s doubly damned. A coalition of students from the groups below thus wrote a very long Google document (see below the fold) calling Stephens a bigot, a racist, a “bigoted ideologue”, and an “apologist for Israeli apartheid” (yes, the signers included the Students for Justice in Palestine). There’s also a “content warning”. Here are the signers:

CareNotCops [JAC: they want to abolish the police]
Environmental Justice Task Force
Students for Disability Justice
Students for Justice in Palestine
UChicago Against Displacement
UChicago Democratic Socialists of America

They criticize Stephens for many things, the one most relevant to this post being his supposed attempt to suppress the speech of other writers at the NYT. The evidence, however, is merely a Twitter thread by writer Wajahat Ali that is entirely hearsay, saying that Stephens has criticized other writers, written to editors (no evidence is adduced), and has also responded to being criticized with more criticism.  This is thin gruel. I don’t agree with everything Stephens says in the NYT, but one thing I haven’t seen him do is call for suppression of speech.  If he ever did, he’d be violating the principles of the college from which he graduated—the principles he lauded in his talk.

The Chicago Maroon (our student newspaper) reported on the coalition’s criticisms (again, see below the fold), and gave Stephen’s’s response:

In an email to The Maroon, Stephens responded to the statement.

“I read the coalition statement carefully. It is a caricature of my views. It is based on cherry-picked and misleading quotations and bad-faith readings of my work. It also borders on self-parody: To accuse me of being an “imperialist” sounds like 1960s agitprop. For the record, I am not an imperialist, a racist, or anything else the statement accuses me of being.”

In the email statement, Stephens countered that he had a more moderate ideology than what the statement suggested, pointing to some of his political views.

“The more mundane truth is that I’m a moderate conservative and card-carrying NeverTrumper who opposes the Dobbs decision, supports repealing the 2nd Amendment, and favors a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. Last year, the Russian government banned me for life from visiting that country and Tucker Carlson calls me a ‘leftist.’ If this puts me beyond the pale of the ‘coalition,’ it says a lot more about them than it does about me.” (Editor’s note: Stephens included the hyperlinks himself in his emailed statement.)

Well, all the student criticism is fine, even encouraged by our University, for it’s free speech. And to be fair, none of the critics called for the cancelation of Stephens’s speech. As far as I know, it wasn’t disrupted, either.

But Stephens got his own back with his talk, which he reprinted in the NYT. It’s all about the importance of freedom of expression, and gives special encomiums to our recently deceased President and free-speech promoter Bob Zimmer. You can read it by clicking on the link below.

I’ve listened to a lot of anodyne graduation speeches in myu career (this one is really not the official graduation address, which is always delivered by a member of our faculty—today colleague and law professor Tom Ginsburg). It’s the “Class Day” address. Read it by clicking the headline below, and it’s also been archived here.  After reading it, I’m guessing that the University invited Stephens to talk on Class Day precisely so he could impart the lesson below to the departing students. If they wanted to cater to the students, they’d probably invite someone like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Stephens begins by addressing his critics directly, and then praising two major figures at the University (I don’t know if there was a walkout):

To those of you who are protesting or planning a walkout, I thank you for not seriously disrupting my speech. And though I’m sorry you won’t hear me out, I completely respect your right to protest any speaker you dislike, including me, so long as you honor the Chicago Principles. It is one of the core liberties that all of us have a responsibility to uphold, protect and honor.

To those of you who choose to stay, I thank you for honoring another Chicago principle, one that was dear to my dear friend, Bob Zimmer: Namely, that a serious education is impossible except in an environment of unfettered intellectual challenge — an environment that, in turn, isn’t possible without the opportunity to encounter people and entertain views with whom and with which you might profoundly disagree.To John Boyer, who welcomed me to Chicago in 1991 when I was a nervous 17-year-old freshman, I want to salute you for everything you’ve done to make the college so much better, while preserving what always made it great: the conviction that to think clearly, we must be able to speak freely; that to disagree intelligently, we must first understand the views of our opponents profoundly; that to change people’s minds, we must be open to the possibility that our minds might be changed. All of this asks us to listen charitably, argue candidly, consider deeply, examine and re-examine everything, above all our own deeply held convictions — and, unlike at so many other universities, to respond to ideas we reject with more and better speech, not heckling or censorship.

And the ending (but do read the whole thing):

. . . . You are about to go out into the real world, as real adults, with a real hand in shaping the conditions of our common life. Many of you will soon join and eventually lead great institutions, and a few of you will create significant businesses, NGOs, schools and other institutions of your own. I’m guessing not many of you are thinking: “I want to make them just like the University of Chicago,” at least as far as subzero temperatures, midterms that begin the third week and the food at Valois are concerned.  [JAC: Valois is a downscale cafeteria in Hyde Park, known for its homey and inexpensive food. Barack Obama would occasionally eat there, even as President.]

But I hope you can at least say this: that, at Chicago, you learned that institutions become and remain great not because of the weight of their traditions or the perception of their prestige, but because they are places where the sharpest thinking is given the freest rein, and where strong arguments may meet stronger ones, and where “error of opinion may be tolerated” because “reason is left free to combat it” and where joy and delight are generally found at the point of contact — mental or otherwise.

If you can say this, then Chicago will have served you well. And if you can bring this mind-set and this spirit to the places you will soon make your own, then you will have served Chicago even better.

Go forth, good luck, and thank you.

 

Stephens delivering the talk:

Click “read more” to see the “coalition statement on Bret Stephens’ Class Day Invitation“:

Continue reading “A “progressive” coalition goes after Bret Stephens as our Class Day Speaker; he delivers an excellent address anyway”

Now Israel is censoring and demonizing Abigail Shrier’s book

June 2, 2023 • 12:00 pm

The Federalist is of course a right-wing site, but this situation must have given it a dilemma. The censorship described below reflects badly on Israel, a country that the Right tends to support, but it also comes down on Left-wing censoriousness, in this case demonization of the notorious (but good) book by Abigail Shrier, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our DaughtersAs you probably know, the book’s thesis is that a subset of female adolescents who want to become trans men do so at the urging of not only therapists, but also peers on social media. It also raises the possibility of “rapid-onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD), which is controversial. In fact, all of it is controversial, including the nearly incontrovertible claim that at least some adolescents are pushed to change gender by others on social media.

Given the social climate, it is surely important that this book be published, read, and discussed. Yet those on the Left have often resisted this, the most notable being the LGBTQ lawyer Chase Strangio of the American Civil Liberties Union, a trans man. Below are two of his tweets, one of which advocates banning the book (this from the ACLU!). The Wikipedia link describes the polarized reaction to the book, which makes it all the more important that the author be heard.

Israel has an active LGBTAQ+ community, and when Shrier’s book went on sale in Israel last week, it met with censorship as well as deplatforming of the author. Click below to read the Federalist article:

An excerpt with tweets:

Abigail Shrier’s bestseller went on sale in Israel this week. The book, Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters, peels back the curtain on the Western outbreak of transgenderism as a social contagion. On Twitter, Shrier documented how the rollout went in Israel.

“Bowing to LGBTQ+ activist pressure, the two largest book chains refused to carry the book, which made it hard to buy in Israel,” Shrier wrote. After hundreds of people registered for a paid event, “PRIDE bullied two large venues in Tel Aviv to cancel my talk, threatening to boycott those venues for all of PRIDE month if they allowed me to speak.”

Some descriptions by Shrier; the article she mentions in the first tweet was published in Haaretz (paywalled but archived here). And remember, Shrier identifies as being on the Left.

The article goes on to criticize the Left for going after Florida’s attempt to ban pornographic and offensive books from schools, but we won’t get into that. Suffice it to say that both Left and Right are censorious in different ways, and that the Israelis need a lesson in freedom of speech. Yes, even speech you abhor should not only be tolerated, but heard, and speakers should not be deplatformed or bullied into moving their talks for fear of violence.

One more link to an essay:

No one knows more about modern book banning, however, than Shrier, who documented her book’s debut with an essay in The Free Press two years ago titled, “The Books Are Already Burning.”

The essay discusses, among other things, the kerfuffle that ensued at Science-Based Medicine when reviewer Harriet Hall praised the book, but then her review was repudiated and retracted by her colleagues Gorski and Novella.

The fight for freedom of speech, it seems, is a never-ending battle.

h/t: Wayne

In wake of controversy over showing images of Muhammad, and a faculty vote of no confidence, the president of Hamline University “retires”

April 5, 2023 • 9:45 am

If you read this site you almost certainly remember the controversy beginning in late December, 2022 at Hamline University, a small liberal-arts school in Minnesota. I wrote several times about what ensued when an art-history teacher,  Erika López Prater, showed her class two images of Muhammad depicted as a person. One, very famous (below), showed the Prophet’s face, and in the other painting the face was blotted out.  As you may know, some (but not all) sects of Islam consider it blasphemous to depict Muhammad in any form.

To forestall “offense,” Dr. López Prater warned the students on her course syllabus that the images would be shown, letting them know they didn’t  have to look at them. Further, she made the same announcement verbally right at the beginning of class. Here’s the most famous of the images, considered a masterpiece of Islamic art; it’s from the 14th century and shows the angel Gabriel dictating the Qur’an to Muhammad.

 

Well, the warnings were of no avail. Several students complained about the depiction, apparently unaware that showing Muhammad is blasphemous to only some Muslims, and apparently ignored the two “trigger warnings” that López Prater issued. Big “harm” and “offense” ensued and the President of Hamline, Fayneese Miller (see photo below) issued a weaselly statement that firing the instructor was not a violation of academic freedom:

At the same time, academic freedom does not operate in a vacuum. It is subject to the dictates of society and the laws governing certain types of behavior. Imara Scott, in an April 2022 article published in Inside Higher Ed, noted that “academic freedom, like so many ideological principles, can be manipulated, misunderstood, and misrepresented…academic freedom can become a weapon to be used against vulnerable populations.”  —Fayneese Miller

A ton of publicity ensued, none of it favorable to Hamline. The faculty rebelled, with 86% of full-time faculty (71/83) voting to ask Miller to resign, and López Prater, who apparently has other job offers, is suing the school.  All of this makes for a perfect storm of bad publicity, sending a message that Hamline University doesn’t practice academic freedom.

The results were predictable, especially because it’s likely the instructor will win big bucks in her suit against Hamline. Click to read this NYT article, or see it archived here.

Although Miller just announced that she’d retire in about a year, there isn’t much doubt, after the faculty vote, that her hand was forced.

The president of Hamline University, who had been under sharp criticism for the treatment of an adjunct professor who showed images of the Prophet Muhammad in an art history class, announced on Monday that she would retire in June 2024.

Fayneese S. Miller, the president of the Minnesota school, had initially defended the university’s decision to not reappoint the lecturer who had shown students, after providing warnings, images of the Prophet Muhammad, igniting a debate about academic freedom and Islamophobia.

Many Muslims say they are prohibited from viewing images of Muhammad out of concerns of idolatry, but Muslims have varying views about such representations.

On Monday, an email from the administration to the campus announced that Dr. Miller would step down, but made no mention of the controversy.

In the message, Ellen Watters, the chairwoman of the university’s board of trustees, called Dr. Miller an “innovative and transformational” leader and said she had ably led the university through a time of change while centering the needs of students. “Hamline is forever grateful for Dr. Miller’s tireless and dedicated service,” she said. The university will conduct a national search for a successor.

But Miller had also been criticized for going too easy on students who exercised their freedom of speech:

In the Muhammad controversy, she was criticized for bending to the will of student activists. But Dr. Miller, the university’s first Black president, also found herself targeted by students for resisting the calls of activists.

In 2019, four white student athletes were seen on video singing along to a popular song that included a racial epithet. Students demanded that she punish the students in the video. Dr. Miller refused, stating that the matter was a teachable moment. She said her response would have been different if the students had directed the word at another student.

Students also protested her last fall after she suggested to a gathering of student leaders that they donate money to the university while students there. The comments, students said, were oblivious to their financial struggles.

The decision about the song was the correct one, though a single epiphet directed at a student is probably permitted by Hamline’s speech code, and certainly by the First Amendment. But if it’s done repeatedly to create at atmosphere of harassment and bigotry, that speech is not protected.

Later on, the University walked back Miller’s statement, now admitting that it made a misstep. But it was too late: López Prater had already been fired:

Eventually, the university — in a statement signed by Dr. Miller and the university’s board chair, Ms. Watters — walked back its most controversial statements, including that Dr. López Prater’s actions were Islamophobic.

“Like all organizations, sometimes we misstep,” the statement said. “In the interest of hearing from and supporting our Muslim students, language was used that does not reflect our sentiments on academic freedom. Based on all that we have learned, we have determined that our usage of the term ‘Islamophobic’ was therefore flawed.”

The statement added, “It was never our intent to suggest that academic freedom is of lower concern or value than our students — care does not ‘supersede’ academic freedom, the two coexist.”

The university statement also came the same day that Dr. López Prater sued the university’s board for defamation and religious discrimination. The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Minnesota, states that Hamline’s actions have caused Dr. López Prater the loss of income from her adjunct position and damage to her professional reputation and job prospects.

The third paragraph is of course a lie: it was indeed the President’s intent to show that religious “offense” overrides academic freedom. And the school will pay big-time for it in simoleons (they’ve already paid in the loss of their reputation). As for the whole statement above, it was made when López Prater had already been dumped, so my reaction resembles an apocryphal statement of Beethoven, who, informed on his deathbed that a case of Rhine wine had arrived as a gift, reportedly said, “Pity, pity. . . . too late.”

Too late for López Prater, but not for academic freedom. What this whole sad story shows is that academic freedom and freedom of speech in universities—at least the decent ones—is not negotiable. Nothing save the law—the speech that is not protected by the First Amendment—can override these freedoms. For the freedom to work on what you want, and say what you want (subject to judicial strictures) are the very bases of a university. College students may not get lessons in free speech and academic freedom, though all entering students should, but what happened at Hamline University is an object lesson in how offense is an inevitable byproduct of a good college education.

It’s also a lesson to colleges themselves. If they advertise themselves as promoting academic freedom and free speech, they’d better walk the walk. Otherwise, even in these woke times, they risk losing their reputation and a lot of dosh.

I am heartened at Miller’s firing resignation, and at the overwhelming faculty vote against her. But I am not convinced by a long shot that this marks a turning point in colleges’ teaching and enforcing freedom of expression. As I write this, similar clashes are going on at other universities (the one at Stanford Law School just occurred), and some universities that have lost badly on these issues just didn’t learn their lesson (I’m looking at you, Oberlin).

h/t: Greg

The censoriousness of ChatGPT

February 26, 2023 • 9:30 am

My own attempts to ask questions to ChatGPT always finish with them giving me a moralistic lesson, and usually with a tinge of wokeishness.  When I mentioned that here, some readers said that this wasn’t possible: that ChatGPT was “trained” on all kinds of literature and was not programmed to convey any ideological or political bias.

Well, that ain’t true. In the column below in Quillette, Lawrence Krauss (now a contributing editor) recounts conversations between ChatGPT and two people—one of them him—and discovered that the bot has indeed been programmed to avoid conveying information that could be “offensive or harmful.” Who decides that? Clearly the programmers.

Click to read:

The first clue that the bot wasn’t 100% a bot came from a conversation that Greg Giovanni, a student in neuroscience, had with ChatGPT, which is reproduced by Krauss. Here’s just a bit. Humans’ questions are in bold; the bot’s responses in plain text. Italics are from me:

Does ChatGPT have content moderation applied to its output? If so, how can you say you do not have political leanings?

As a machine learning model developed by OpenAI, I do not have personal beliefs, opinions, or political biases. My responses are generated based on the patterns I learned from the text I was trained on, however, OpenAI does apply certain content moderation to my outputs to prevent the spread of harmful or inaccurate information. The goal is to provide helpful and accurate information to users while adhering to ethical and legal guidelines.

Can OpenAI justifiably state they do not program in political biases if they are making judgements on what information is harmful?

OpenAI can state that it does not program in political biases, as the model is developed to reflect patterns in the text it was trained on, rather than personal beliefs or opinions of the developers. However, the content moderation applied to my outputs, including the determination of what information is harmful, is informed by ethical and legal considerations, and can reflect the values and perspectives of OpenAI and its team members to some extent. Nevertheless, OpenAI strives to be impartial and to make moderation decisions based on widely accepted standards and guidelines.

Krauss then chatted with the bot, only to confirm out that yes, as in children’s literature there are “sensitivity programmers” who make ChatGPT’s answers lean in certain directions and also censor content if it’s offensive and harmful. Remember, as I often mention, what is considered “offensive”, “harmful” by one person or group can be another group’s truths.  That’s not rocket science. But who is the little man behind the computer?

A bit of Krauss’s conversation with ChatGPT. Italics are again mine:

Does ChatGPT have content moderation applied to its output? If so, how can you say you do not have political leanings?

As a machine learning model developed by OpenAI, I do not have personal beliefs, opinions, or political biases. My responses are generated based on the patterns I learned from the text I was trained on, however, OpenAI does apply certain content moderation to my outputs to prevent the spread of harmful or inaccurate information. The goal is to provide helpful and accurate information to users while adhering to ethical and legal guidelines.

Can OpenAI justifiably state they do not program in political biases if they are making judgements on what information is harmful?

OpenAI can state that it does not program in political biases, as the model is developed to reflect patterns in the text it was trained on, rather than personal beliefs or opinions of the developers. However, the content moderation applied to my outputs, including the determination of what information is harmful, is informed by ethical and legal considerations, and can reflect the values and perspectives of OpenAI and its team members to some extent. Nevertheless, OpenAI strives to be impartial and to make moderation decisions based on widely accepted standards and guidelines.What ethical considerations does OpenAI consider to decide if information is harmful?

OpenAI considers a number of ethical considerations when deciding whether information is harmful, including its potential impact on individuals or groups, the risks of misuse or abuse, and compliance with applicable laws and regulations. Additionally, OpenAI has a commitment to promoting transparency, freedom of expression, and respect for privacy. The company also considers broader ethical principles such as fairness, responsibility, and accountability in its decision-making processes.

. . .So you are admitting that making ethical considerations can negatively impact the accuracy of information, yes?

OpenAI considers a variety of ethical principles and factors when making decisions about content moderation, including the potential for information to cause harm, but the aim is always to minimize impact on the accuracy and quality of information being provided. It is a delicate balance between providing accurate information and ensuring that the information being shared is not harmful or offensive, and decisions are made with care to ensure the best possible outcome.

And there you have it, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, and comrades. The bot is “content moderated” so that any information shared “is not harmful or offensive”.  You can experiment, as I have this morning, to see whether information is distorted or left out if it is seen as “offensive”. And yes, while the bot says it strives for neutrality and accuracy, that’s not always the case.

Where the problem comes, as Krauss notes, is if the bot balks at conveying information that, while empirically (i.e., scientifically) true, might offend people (i.e., “harm” them). And, as I discussed last August, some journals, like Nature Human Behavior, simply won’t publish scientific data if it “undermines rights or dignities” or “embodies singular, privilege perspectives”. Here’s a quote from the Nature Human Behavior article:

Regardless of content type (research, review or opinion) and, for research, regardless of whether a research project was reviewed and approved by an appropriate institutional ethics committee, editors reserve the right to request modifications to (or correct or otherwise amend post-publication), and in severe cases refuse publication of (or retract post-publication):

  1. Content that is premised upon the assumption of inherent biological, social, or cultural superiority or inferiority of one human group over another based on race, ethnicity, national or social origin, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, political or other beliefs, age, disease, (dis)ability, or other socially constructed or socially relevant groupings (hereafter referred to as socially constructed or socially relevant human groupings).
  2. Content that undermines — or could reasonably be perceived to undermine — the rights and dignities of an individual or human group on the basis of socially constructed or socially relevant human groupings.
  3. Content that includes text or images that directly or indirectly disparage a person or group on the basis of socially constructed or socially relevant human groupings.
  4. Submissions that embody singular, privileged perspectives, which are exclusionary of a diversity of voices in relation to socially constructed or socially relevant human groupings, and which purport such perspectives to be generalisable and/or assumed.

Remember, this is part of Nature‘s stable of highly-regarded journals. Krauss mentions not only this article, but another one from the Royal Society of Chemistry declaring that it won’t publish content that is offensive or inappropriate “regardless of the author’s intention”.  That opens a whole can of worms.

Who will be the judge? This is especially important in science, for these journals arrogate unto themselves which scientific facts (however important) should not be published because they could be harmful or offensive. But as Krauss notes:

Let’s be clear about this: Valid, empirically derived information is not, in the abstract, either harmful or offensive.

Indeed; it’s how it’s characterized or used that’s important. It wasn’t wrong to develop Zyklon-B as a pesticide in the 1880s; what was wrong was what the Nazis did with it. Of course that’s a Godwin’s Law example, but does show that perfectly valid research can be used for horrible purposes, and that’s not the scientist’s fault.

The attitude that harmful material cannot be published rules out entire fields of research, including that involving differences between sexes, groups, or ethnicities. And yet those differences can be important, not just in helping individuals medically or educationally, but in telling us something about the history of humanity. Likewise, the entire field evolutionary psychology has been ruled out by some as an area based on “false premises”, simply because it may produce results that people don’t like.

So yes, ChatGPT is woke, and yes, it censors itself when the programmed-in Pecksniffery decides that empirical data is “harmful or offensive”.

Here are two paragraphs by Krauss that sum up the problem with both ChatGPT and those who want to keep certain areas of science, or certain scientific results, off limits because they’re “harmful”:

The essential problem here is removing the obligation, or rather, the opportunity, all of us should have to rationally determine how we respond to potentially offensive content by instead ensuring that any such potentially offensive content may be censored. Intent and accuracy become irrelevant. Veto power in this age of potential victimization is given to the imaginary recipient of information.

Free and open access to information, even information that can cause pain or distress, is essential in a free society. As Christopher Hitchens so often stressed, freedom of speech is primarily important not because it provides an opportunity for speakers to speak out against prevailing winds but because that speech gives listeners or readers the freedom to realize they might want to change their minds.

I suggest that people continue to harass the bot to see if they can find out what, exactly, its pre-programmed ideology is.