There are two basic ways to explain why you did something after the fact. The first is to lie about it, favored by three-year-olds and the Trump administration. The second is to provide a rational explanation for your decision. The first relies on believing the lie. The second relies on the reasoning holding up to scrutiny. Sometimes there are bits of both in the explanation. That’s the case for the take-down of Daniella Greenbaum’s column in Business Insider.
The baseline is that Greenbaum was a columnist on staff at BI and wrote a column about how Scarlet Johansson was hounded out of a role.
Johansson is set to play a transgender man in an upcoming film, “Rub and Tug,” a film based on the true story of transgender massage parlor owner Dante “Tex” Gill. The announcement quickly garnered a reaction.
Trace Lysette, a transgender actress who plays Shea on “Transparent” took to Twitter: “And not only do you play us and steal our narrative and our opportunity but you pat yourselves on the back with trophies and accolades for mimicking what we have lived… so twisted. I’m so done.”
On the one hand, actors act. On the other, transgender people, like other identity groups who complain of being frozen out of roles, are hurt by someone they feel should be an ally taking a role that should otherwise go to them. It may be couched in social justice jargon like “stealing our narrative,” which seems to demonstrate a serious disconnect with the entire concept of acting, but it’s an easier sell than “bitch stole our role.”
So Greenbaum wrote about it, challenging the silliness of the social justice rationalization and concluding:
What they fail to acknowledge is that the job of an actor is to represent someone else. Johansson’s identity off the screen is irrelevant to the identities she plays on the screen. That’s what she’s paid for. And if she does her job, she’ll make everyone forget about the controversy in the first place.
Outrageous? Apparently so, as staff at BI complained that they were offended by Greenbaum’s column. and BI Editor in Chief Nich Carlson unceremoniously removed it. Greenbaum resigned from BI as a result, and Carlson defended his actions:
Editors should make sure we are not publishing shallow, ‘hot takes,’ but instead, fully thought-out arguments that reflect and respect the opposing view,” Carlson said. “There should be no partisan name-calling, e.g. ‘social justice warriors,’ ‘libtards,’ or ‘rednecks.’ Opinion and arguments should feel reported and researched, and not like quick reactions.
Seems reasonable, at first glance, although the comparison of “social justice warriors” to “libtards” and “rednecks” should give pause. It’s a disingenuous comparison which appears calculated to conflate a common descriptor of adherents of the radical social justice ideology to words created for the purpose of offending. If “social justice warrior” is a slur, then how to accurately characterize that cohort seeking any reason to be offended by a slight to a favored identity group? Lacking shorthand words to say it, there is no easy way to communicate it. Carlson probably read Orwell and knows this to be the case.
But was this a “hot take”? It’s yet another amorphous phrase that connotes a negative, even if the New York Times has a half dozen op-eds published within an hour of anything done by Darth Cheeto.* It’s used to refer to someone forming and expressing an opinion in advance of knowing the facts. What part of the facts of Johansson’s being hounded off the role was unknown?
Carlson’s attempted post-hoc rationalization fails to withstand scrutiny, and conceals the lie that his staff (and likely a certain group of readers) found it offensive, thus compelling him to remove it rather than suffer the outrage. And isn’t he, as Editor in Chief, allowed to pull the column?
In a post following her resignation, Greenbaum’s complaint wasn’t that BI didn’t have the “authority” to her column, but that it did so because of fear of the social justice mob.
As has been reported elsewhere, several people within the organization complained to the editor, who responded by scrubbing the ScarJo post from the site and instituting a new policy of requiring “culturally sensitive” work to be reviewed by an executive editor or an editor in chief before it can be published.
Given that in these thin-skinned days just about any subject can be called “culturally sensitive,” and given that a committee would basically ensure that my column became a safe space, I had no alternative but to resign.
Christine Emba came to Carlson’s defense.
Every week, it seems, some persecuted pundit publishes a new column complaining about censorship — usually to an audience of millions. It has become all too common to moan that free speech is under attack, free thinking is dead, and that an all-powerful cabal of college students and social media users is crushing common sense under their heels.
But here’s the thing: “Free speech” does not mean “the right to say whatever you want without criticism on social media,” or even “the right to run your columns without being subject to executive decision-making.” It means “freedom to speak.” Which Greenbaum clearly has, whether she’s published by Business Insider or not.
While hyperbolic, Emba isn’t wrong. But she’s moved the goal posts and addressed a different question, which is a cool trick to avoid the question for which there is no plausible argument. Greenbaum wasn’t some random person demanding access to Business Insider’s soapbox. Her column wasn’t rejected because it sucked, was poorly written or poorly conceived.
Greenbaum’s complaint was that her employer, Business Insider, which purports to be mainstream and not a crazed organ of social justice like ThinkProgress, tanked her column because of its capitulation to the social media mob.
We are slowly normalizing the policing of speech and opinion. Sometimes overtly, and sometimes through the intimidation that stops people from saying or writing or publishing what they believe because they know that the social media mob is lying in wait.
For Greenbaum, the question was whether her employer, her then-soapbox, would stand up to the mob even though her column was targeted as offensive. The answer was “no,” and BI is entitled to be as socially sensitive as it wants to be.
Some opinion is beyond that pale and deserves to be shunned (not obliterated), but allowing the lines to be redrawn at will by those who have no interest in free speech will ultimately be poisonous for democracy.
This is where Greenbaum’s effort at post-hoc rationalization falls short, like Carlson’s and Emba’s. We all have our own lines of propriety, morality, sensitivity, and believe them proper or we wouldn’t have them. Greenbaum’s view that her column was not “beyond the pale” seems quite reasonable, but Greenbaum’s view that she, like Carlson and Emba, and like every person with a Twitter account, gets to be the arbiter of fairness, even morality, for others is just more of the same, Greenbaum flavor.
That a putatively mainstream media outlet chooses to appeal to an SJW audience by removing offending content is entirely within its discretion. But to deny this is what is happening is a “pants on fire” lie. There is an actual reason for this: they’ve picked their side. So be it.
*Darth Cheeto, unlike social justice warriors, is name-calling. See the difference?