Friday, August 8, 2014

Final thoughts on that Michelle Goldberg article, faux journalism, and recognizing bias

So last week I briefly responded to a Michelle Goldberg article that had just appeared in The New Yorker magazine called “What Is a Woman? The dispute between radical feminism and transgenderism.” It was a piece that I was interviewed for, and felt misrepresented by. It was also a piece that many people (including myself) felt had a strong anti-transgender bias (see critical reviews from Bitch MagazineAutostraddle, Bilerico, The Slantist, New Statesman, and Columbia Journalism Review).

Three days ago, my formal response to Goldberg’s article was published as an op-ed on The Advocate. It is entitled “An Open Letter to The New Yorker.” Rather than merely listing all my grievances with Goldberg’s piece (many of which have been addressed in the critical reviews listed above, and a few more will be described in this post), I talk more generally about what it was like for me (behind the scenes, if you will) to be a long-time activist within a marginalized community, and to have a mainstream journalist swoop in and cover really complicated issues, only to oversimplify and misrepresent them in a manner that mainstream audiences will find “titillating” and misperceive as “balanced.”

For the record, I have been interviewed by journalists countless times, often about the subject in question - i.e., disputes between trans activists and trans-exclusive radical feminists (TERFs). On numerous of these occasions, I have been disappointed by the questions that I was asked, which answers eventually got published, which of my answers were ignored, and/or the tone or presentation of the final piece. Despite my disappointment on these occasions, I have never before publicly complained about how things turned out. After all, I realize that it is the journalist’s piece and they are free to write what they want, and so long as I am not intentionally misrepresented in the process, I will generally let it go.

I spoke out against this particular article because I did feel misrepresented, for two reasons:

1) Goldberg slut-shamed and pathologized me using a disproven psychological theory. As I make clear in my Advocate op-ed, she knew better (as we discussed this at considerable length), but she did it anyway, on purpose, most likely because smearing me helped support her overall goal of maligning transgender activism.

2) It is clear that Goldberg merely used me as a prop in the piece. As I discuss in my Advocate op-ed, she was not at all interested in my views on the issues central to the article - she did not print any of the responses I shared with her in two long phone conversations and numerous emails, nor were these perspectives expressed by other trans activists in her article. I have one quote in the article dismissing the trope that trans women make women’s spaces unsafe, which Goldberg later undermines via a random anecdote from a TERF about vandalism at MichFest that she pins on trans women without any evidence (and honestly, I cannot imagine a trans woman ‘spray-painting a six-foot penis, and the words “Real Women Have Dicks,” ’ - that sounds way more like an over-the-top Brennan-esque sort of stunt to malign trans women than anything else). Oh, and then after my one line, I am misgendered, slut-shamed, and depicted as a sexual deviant via Jeffreys’s description of me (whereas my views on Jeffreys are not included in the article - once again, see my Advocate op-ed). Well-known universities I have given talks at are gratuitously mentioned, seemingly to contrast me with Jeffreys who is not able to speak at many college campuses because her views on trans people violate many antidiscrimination laws and policies.

As others have pointed out, only four trans women are quoted in the piece: two of these side with the TERFs (which is extraordinarily rare - I know countless trans people, and while a few of them identify as radical feminists, none of them are pro-TERF). The remaining two trans women are Sandy Stone and myself, who seem to represent the progress made by transgender activism, especially within academia - in other words, we are painted as beneficiaries of a movement that has (in Goldberg’s rendition of events) marginalized radical feminists. I don’t appear in the piece until about 4,000 words into a 4,500-ish word article, and Stone is introduced at the very end - in other words, we appear well after readers have likely come to the conclusion that trans activism is out of control and unfairly oppresses TERFs. We are merely window dressing. We serve no purpose other than to give the impression that the article is fair and balanced, covering “both sides” of the issue, when in reality it is not.

That, in a nutshell, is why I spoke out about it. If Goldberg had written an essay or an op-ed on behalf of the TERFs and against trans people, I wouldn’t have liked it, but I certainly would not have spent so much time countering it. I have done so in this case because the article misrepresented me and used me to create the false impression of being an impartial work of journalism, when in fact it failed to seriously consider one side of the debate (as detailed in my responses and the other critical reviews that I mentioned earlier).

My view of journalism (as a field) is somewhat similar to my view of science. As a scientist myself, I believe that the scientific method is an important tool for better understanding the world around us. However, because science strives for objectivity (and people know this), it opens the door for a lot of bad science to be passed off to, and taken seriously by, lay audiences - because, after all, if a scientist said it, it must be the objective truth! Similarly, journalism is an important tool for helping us understand what is going on in the world, especially events that are happening outside of our purview. But because readers expect journalists to be objective, they are often lulled into believing that a piece is “fair and balanced” when it is not. This is especially true for topics where readers have little to no previous knowledge, and therefore, remain blissfully unaware when certain perspectives are disproportionately represented or when important facts are entirely omitted.

I have heard a couple people who were previously unfamiliar with this particular topic say that they came away from the piece siding with transgender people (the implication being that it must not have been as slanted as I and others have argued). This is not all that surprising. After all, in order to present her article as a piece of journalism, Goldberg had to at least pay lip service to the transgender side of the story. She did this mostly by talking about all the progress trans people have made in society and academia (at the supposed expense of marginalizing TERFs), and occasionally mentioning trans people’s perspectives on matters (only to challenge them with the TERF counter-perspective, whereas many TERF perspectives and accusations go entirely unchallenged). Also, most people these days have at least some awareness and opinions about transgender people. So if you are inclined to accept or respect trans people, then the TERFs will probably come off as misguided or mean to you, even if their side of the argument was disproportionately advanced in the article.

Finally, some have told me that they have had problems convincing people they know about how slanted the article was, as such people simply cannot see through the piece’s journalistic-ish veneer. Here are three tips that I have offered elsewhere to help skeptical people see some of the problems with the piece:

1) The climate change example:
It is rather easy to write an article on climate change that seems balanced (in that both “sides” of the issue are presented), but that is not in any way an accurate representation of reality. Since most people are not familiar with climate science or scientists, they may be inclined to experience the article as “fair,” whereas an actual scientist who is familiar with the facts and understands the situation might be legitimately horrified by the way that material is being misrepresented (cue funny John Oliver climate change video). In other words, journalism isn’t about blithely showing “both sides” of an issue; it is about reporting them accurately and proportionately.

2) The substitute-transgender-with-gay test:
This is a handy tool to highlight discrepancies in cases where the skeptical person is gay/lesbian-positive but trans-unaware. For instance, ask them if they would feel differently about Goldberg’s article if the radical feminists in question wanted to create lesbian-free women’s spaces (because they feel that lesbians aren’t “real women” or that they constitute a threat)? Or what if the article trotted out a psychologist from NARTH to share his expert opinion that homosexuals are sick and deviant without any countering views from gay & lesbian activists or the overwhelming majority of psychologists who believe those views are both scientifically invalid and stigmatizing? This is basically what Goldberg did when she trotted out Blanchard in her article. Or what if it was an article involving gay & lesbian activists that almost exclusively featured quotes from social conservatives who feel oppressed by the homosexual agenda plus a few ex-gays who disavow the gay rights movement? This is basically what Goldberg did when she dedicated the bulk of the article to TERF perspectives, and gave more voice to detransitioners and trans people and who side with TERFs (who represent an extreme minority group within trans communities) than trans activists who are actually pro-trans.

3) The who-are-readers-meant-to-identify-with test
People tend to trust people they identify with and distrust people who they do not identify with. Given this, imagine writing a story about the rise in homelessness in fill-in-the-blank city. Now, there are a number of ways you could write such an article. You could dispassionately talk in generalities and mention a lot of statistics, but that probably wouldn’t emotionally influence readers so much. So you could always quote individuals who are affected by issue in order to humanize the story. But who gets quoted and who does not will strongly influence how readers react to the article. If most of the quotes come from people who have recently become homeless due to the Great Recession or the rising costs of housing, readers may become concerned with the plight of homelessness. If you quote a bunch of people who were once homeless but now are doing quite well, readers may unconsciously come to the conclusion that those who are currently homeless “just aren’t trying hard enough to pull their lives together.” And if you generically talk about homelessness (with hardly any quotes from homeless people), yet extensively quote neighborhood residents who feel unsafe walking the streets at night due to the presence of homeless people, or who have experienced acts of vandalism that they presume were caused by homeless people, well then readers will (unsurprisingly) be inclined to consider homeless people to be a nuisance or a potential threat.

In the case of Goldberg’s article, Autostraddle and The Slantist both added up the number of people interviewed, stories told, and words allocated to articulating each side of the debate, and both found that the article overwhelmingly favored (and thereby humanized) TERFs. 

Anyway, that is my perspective on this particular article. I could say more, but frankly, I'd much rather get back to my life and other projects now...

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  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. This comment was deleted because it was a deliberately inflammatory and invalidating in numerous ways, and I don't accept those on my personal blog - feel free to post those elsewhere.

    btw, they were a TERF who claimed that TERF is a slur, which is completely ridiculous. As I say in my Advocate piece:

    'Some TERFs claim that “TERF” is a slur — Goldberg highlights this in her article but never explains the reasoning behind it. From their point of view (which they have shared with me via their unprovoked attacks on me on Twitter), they should be referred to as MERFs — i.e., Man-Exclusive Radical Feminists—because they reject trans women (who they see as “men”) but not trans men (who they view as misguided “women” who have been brainwashed by patriarchal and transgender agendas). Needless to say, an overwhelming majority of transgender people reject this framing of the issue. And there is nothing inherently demeaning about referring to people who exclude transgender people and issues from their movement as “trans-exclusive.” This is why I use the acronym “TERF” throughout this piece.'

    For a while, trans activists were simply complaining about "radfems," but then some radfems who are *actually* pro-trans (all trans people - trans women, trans men, and non-binary folks), some of who are trans women themselves, objected. Hence the name TERF.

    Two more things: you don't get to call yourself "pro-trans" if you invalidate trans women's lived experiences - PERIOD. Second, if you think people *use* TERF as a slur simply because they they sound "angry" when they use it, that's probably because they are simply pissed off that you are invalidating them and/or people they respect.

  3. I'm sorry this happened. You deserve better. Stay strong.

  4. You're correct as to this situation, but you've walked into quite an unpleasant trap by relying so much on majority opinions, and the presentation thereof, to bolster your arguments.

    For example, if "the majority" of "reformed transgender people" believe that their transitions were toxic to society at large, does that speak at all as to the deeper issues of morality and freedom of choice? Not at all--even if 99.9% of such a community self-identifies as having been toxic.

    Ergo majorities should not be used to make your case, even when they help your case. The majority of voters in, oh, 1820 felt that women and non-whites shouldn't vote. The majority of slaves, when questioned by a gentleman journalist their master brought to the plantation to interview them, would also agree (mindful of the purse and the whip) that non-whites shouldn't have the vote.

    A majority opinion, at whatever point in time and space, proves nothing other than that that's the way people answered a question or felt. Majority opinions are certainly not a good base point for transsexuals at many points during human history.

    It can be intimidating to argue against people who are always citing majorities, but you should still stick to principles of truth and justice. It will serve everyone better in the long run--and it will also stop lending tacit support to the idea that the larger bandwagon should triumph. It truly is irrelevant to issues of right and wrong. It only bolsters future prejudices to argue in terms of majorities, because you're supporting the idea of consensus-by-numbers, which is a sword that can easily stab a different group at a different time.

    1. I hear your general point - I've been doing trans activism since 2002, well before "transgender tipping points," back when the overwhelming majority of people were either completely uninformed or had hostile views of trans people. I believe that trans people exist and we should be treated with respect, regardless of whether that is a popular opinion then or now.

      What this particular piece is about journalism, where intentionally omitting certain facts or disproportionately reporting certain views can lead to a misrepresentation of reality - I believe this to be a bad thing. And while I believe what I believe regardless of public opinion, I think that persuading public opinion (e.g., getting more people to treat trans people with respect) is important - it is a big part of why we do activism.