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The phantom

On the Harper's letter and what happened to me in July


Emily VanDerWerff

Nov 16 2020

16 min read


On July 7, I posted the following to Twitter, expecting nothing more than measured praise and a modicum of criticism.

(The letter kicks off a thread that further outlines my thoughts on the matter and reiterates my appreciation for Matt’s work.)

I knew people in the media would be at least somewhat interested, but I really thought most people wouldn’t care. I was wrong. I made international news and was deadnamed in the National Review. The harassment and anger that followed was, genuinely, one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to endure, like suddenly finding myself in the aftermath of a hurricane and the hurricane all at once.

In the months since this incident, I have refrained from speaking about it publicly, though I have talked to the journalists who have contacted me (save for one, who used an old email address, so I didn’t see her request in time). But many, many other journalists have written about this and have contacted Matt to talk to him but have not contacted me to ask for my perspective. (The most recent of these journalists is Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic.) And look: I get it. I have screwed up in this exact way. I have written stories about people without contacting them for comment. No judgments here.

Yet it seems this is going to keep happening. So I figured I might as well explain what happened, from my point-of-view.

Earlier this year, newsrooms around the country were figuring out where our work should fit between a traditionalist view of journalism (the work of journalism should be to cover the events of the day, maintaining a healthy skepticism toward all parties) and a more activist view (the work of journalism should be to actively champion the dismantling of oppressive structures). This New York magazine report on the New York Times nicely captures this dynamic.

Both points of view have merit. There is tremendous value in journalism’s ability to remain objective about the situation on the ground; objectivity is too often a tool the most powerful use to convince us they are also the most righteous.

At its best, journalism embraces both of these seemingly contradictory viewpoints at once. At its worst, it eschews one or the other entirely. Yet of late, even though I am more of a traditionalist, my sympathies tend to lie with activist journalists. They are typically younger and from less privileged backgrounds. It is telling that the time when I was most convinced we needed to be “objective” and when I was most worried about so-called “cancel culture” was when I was still living as a straight white man. My sympathies for activist journalism have only increased in the wake of coming out as a trans woman.

Vox Media started a “letters to the editor” program in our newsrooms as a way to address these core arguments about journalism. Ideally, the program would allow for a direct line of communication with upper management at our various publications about ways in which the company could better cover the news of the day.

The morning of July 7, the Harper’s letter, which claimed to advocate for free speech, was published. (You can read it here.) Several of my coworkers were upset that various Vox Media employees had signed the letter without apparently knowing that it was going to be signed by several others who had become lightning rods for various “anti-woke” positions. (For instance, J.K. Rowling.) Because I work at Vox itself, by far the most concern in our newsroom was over Matt Yglesias’s signature.

Initially, I rolled my eyes. Matt himself would admit he enjoys holding unorthodox opinions or at least pushing back against supposed groupthink as a means of challenging conventional wisdom. I had always appreciated him as a colleague. I was disappointed, but I wasn’t sure it merited getting any more upset than that.

Several of my coworkers were less sanguine. It was not particularly hard to read the Harper’s letter and see that most of the controversies alluded to in it were largely hot air, and the core notion of the letter seemed to be “we, the undersigned, should be free from criticism,” an idea that seemed to many trans people and people of color to be aimed at us in particular. I do not think this was true for every single signatory, and I know it wasn’t true for Matt (who, again, enjoys being challenged on his viewpoints and who has been nothing but wonderful about my transition), but taken as a whole, it wasn’t particularly hard to grasp why so many people from less traditionally privileged groups felt the letter was aimed at them.

We were encouraged to write letters to the editor and submit them. I’m told several people did. I wrote one to express my disappointment and my solidarity with my colleagues who felt even more disappointed. I submitted it. Normally, this story would have ended there. But.

I have an unusual position within Vox and within American journalism more generally, which is that I’m a senior level writer who is well-known within my particular discipline. I also happen to be trans. I’m not the only trans culture writer in the country, but few other trans culture writers have the platform that I do. Unlike a lot of my more junior-level colleagues, I felt I was in a position where I could air my criticism publicly without particular fear of reprisal.

I decided to publish the letter publicly. Right before I did, I hovered over the words “less safe” and considered changing them to something like “unheard,” but I figured people would understand I was not saying Matt created my unease but the letter itself. I shouldn’t have been so naïve.

That’s my one regret; I wish I had made that change. I meant “less safe” in a very different context from the way the word was taken by a lot of people who read it. I meant it in a sense of “the culture of free speech absolutism makes the world and my profession less safe for trans people, and I’m disappointed my colleague signed on to such a notion.” Rereading my own words, I get why some people didn’t make that leap.

But even if you think my language should have been more clear (a fair criticism), did it really merit what followed?

Like a hurricane, the only way to be absolutely sure you will withstand online harassment is to flee in advance. Unlike a hurricane, you don’t have days of warning. The first few angry tweets will trickle in, and you’ll think, “Well, that’s kind of rude, but I can handle it,” and then there will be more and more, and before you know it, you’re being washed away, all the while thinking you have things under control.

For the first several hours after I posted the tweet, I mostly received respectful pushback. I found myself greatly irritated by the fact that nobody seemed to believe the part where I said I didn’t want Matt fired, but since beginning to live my life publicly as a woman, I have become accustomed to people deciding that my words contain a secret double agenda that they must discern to figure out what I “really” mean.

Then various self-styled “free thinkers” and right-wing publications of assorted levels of repute wrote articles about the controversy, and the level of flak I received skyrocketed. Most of the angry online people were just garden variety shitheads, but a few dropped threats of violence on me, and even more deadnamed and misgendered me repeatedly.

The worst was never in public. I have open Twitter DMs, and they were filled, for three full days, with people hissing some of the worst, most venomous stuff imaginable. At one point, I opened Instagram to focus on anything else and found vicious messages in my DMs there. (Did you know Instagram DMs default to being open? Did you know a lot of online harassers use this loophole? I sure didn’t!) I even got an angry message on LinkedIn, though at least the idea of getting harassed on LinkedIn was inherently funny.

In the midst of this, numerous publications wrote about the controversy. Most of them didn’t reach out to either Matt or myself, but of the stories that went to print, most talked only to Matt, including one in the New York Times. The framing of these articles never positioned the situation as a debate or argument where both sides had some points, which is the baseline, for better or worse, for a lot of establishment journalism. The framing too often positioned me as someone screaming great anger against the first amendment from the rooftops. Even now, stories about Matt continue to describe him as embattled or “mired in controversy.” So far as I know, not one of these articles mentions the harassment I faced.

As everything unfolded, I started to feel like I was hallucinating my own life. The whole thing stopped being about Matt or even about me and became about some imagined phantom, a version of myself who would stop at nothing to have everyone who disagreed with me canceled.

I stopped sleeping. Finally, everybody around me gently convinced me I was chasing the worst in a vague attempt to convince myself I could correct the record. I took a few days off of work. I turned over my Twitter account to some friends. For weeks after, I had to keep asking them if it had really happened, if it had really been that bad, only for them to remind me that yes, yes it had.. The most persistent lie that still crops up around what happened is that I was trying to get Matt fired and went to HR to do so. Literally none of this is true. I had discussions with people from Vox’s senior leadership in the days after July 7, but always about finding ways to mitigate the harassment directed at me. No one asked me if I wanted Matt so much as punished, because I had been quite clear that I didn’t, and doling out punishment wasn’t up to me anyway. I have no institutional power within Vox Media. I made sure I was not accusing him of anything against Vox Media policy. I was as careful with my words as those accusing me of being a firebrand weren’t careful with theirs.

If I had been trying to get anyone fired, it was sure a weird way to do so. Matt continued to tweet and post his many thoughts. I continued to tweet and post mine. We continued to be cordial in official workplace settings like Slack and in more public arenas like Twitter. Literally nothing that happened in the months that followed suggested anything other than a brief disagreement between colleagues over an important issue, something that happens all the time.

In the Atlantic article linked to above, Matt says his choice to leave Vox (announced Friday — he’s leaving for Substack, where I am writing this very newsletter, though he will continue to co-host Vox’s podcast The Weeds) was because of a tension between his role as a founder of the site and his desire to be more outspoken, but I was not his superior and do not work in his former department. I had no power over him. I was not making these requests, even indirectly. And yet the Atlantic article also suggests that I am somehow at fault, even if it doesn’t quite come out and say that.

Who came closest to being canceled here: the person who signed the letter, or the person who said she wished he hadn’t and received death threats for it?

The reason I wish I hadn’t used the words “less safe” is that in retrospect, I can see how it was taken in its sense as a buzzword — “safe spaces” and all that. Had I thought a little bit harder about this, I probably would have written something that better captured my point.

Then again: lol if you think none of this would have happened if I hadn’t used the words “less safe.” Maybe the tenor of the harassment would have changed, but there still would have been harassment. The act of criticism is taken by too many to be de facto censorship, instead of the critic practicing her own free speech rights.

I fear what I say might be taken as “I am allowed to criticize others, but they are not allowed to criticize me,” which couldn’t be further from the truth. My writing, my point-of-view, and my life have been immeasurably improved by criticism, by people who gave me constructive notes and people who called me on my bullshit. Criticism is vital. It is healthy. It is necessary. If it wasn’t, I wouldn’t have a job.

What concerns me is the idea that free speech is a finite resource that must be parceled out sparingly, with those who have traditionally had the most of it continuing to control the main supply lines, then sprinkling a few stray grains of it over all of the rest of us.

Free speech isn’t free if you shriek that earnest criticism by traditionally marginalized groups is somehow oppressing you. Ideological diversity isn’t ideological diversity if it doesn’t have room for people of color and queer folks to say, “Hmmmmmm… I don’t know. Seems bad!” Vox, to its credit, has mechanisms in place that allow for this sort of thoughtful disagreement.

But the idea that the disagreement itself is an attack on free speech is a weapon used by the privileged to silence those who would try to tell them they have blinders on. Groupthink helps no one, but kneejerk skepticism is a kind of groupthink too.

There is no cancel culture. There are people who have been canceled, here and there, but usually because of their own bad behavior (and even then, folks like Louis C.K. continue to ply their trade out of the limelight). You can point to a handful of people who have unjustly lost jobs or status because they said something politically unpopular within their workplace. (Here’s my former colleague Matt Yglesias writing about just such a case!) I don’t want to say getting canceled can’t happen.

But cancel culture itself is a phantom, an imagined monster that rises up whenever a boogeyman is needed. The same people who’ve always had the biggest salaries and the loudest megaphones continue to have the biggest salaries and the loudest megaphones. The vast majority of journalists of color and queer journalists — especially freelancers — continue to scrabble for whatever crumbs are left.

I do not want to say that folks who critique the established social order, who often include me among their ranks, are always right. We screw up, and we should be called out for it when it happens. But I do think it’s interesting how many people will be caught red-handed, breaking into your house, then insist the true culprit is the creak in the floorboards above. The house is only haunted because they say it is, and if we go upstairs to investigate, they’ll continue robbing us blind.

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What I’ve been up to: It feels very weird to just transition into business as usual at this point, but hey, we’ve gotta resume business as usual eventually. So. It’s been a good couple of weeks for me at Vox! I’ve published a number of articles I’m proud of, chief among them this look at the 24-hour news network Newsmax TV, which is aiming to take down Fox News from the right. I watched it for two solid days and was… concerned.

So far as I can tell, Newsmax doesn’t go full arch-conservative. The network doesn’t give airtime to QAnon paranoiacs, at least that I’ve seen. But over the last few days, it has spent lots of time arguing that other media outlets jumped the gun in calling the election for Biden and that Trump still has a path to win this thing.

The network’s lineup of pundits is mostly made up of minor conservative talk radio hosts. Carr, for instance, hosts a right-wing radio show in the Boston area, and his one-hour Newsmax show is a sort of distilled version of that.

Aesthetically, The Howie Carr Show may speak to Newsmax’s biggest challenge in catching up to Fox News, which is that it’s ugly as hell. Carr sits in front of an American flag background, staring not at the camera in front of him but just off to its side, while Curley says things to him off-camera and he reacts. It’s one of the weirdest things I’ve ever seen on TV, only a couple of steps above public-access television but with just high enough production values to make you wonder why it’s not better than it is.

And guess what?! The second half of this season of Arden, the audio fiction podcast I make that is about women flirting with each other, comedic banter, and generational trauma kicked off this past week with one of the best episodes we’ve ever done. It’s not super easy for a newcomer to dive into, but I think it will give a good sense of how our ambitions have grown across both seasons. You can find it on all major podcast platforms or just listen to the YouTube video embedded below.

Read me: This story by Eric Tonjes about the games he and his dying wife played throughout their marriage is beautiful and heartfelt in all the ways you’d hope it would be.

Elizabeth’s cancer came back with a vengeance a few years ago. We knew it was incurable. There were many nights, once the kids were down, tired from the uncertainty and grief, that she would ask to play a game. Sometimes I said no. I wish I hadn’t. Even though we were too emotionally spent to stare into each other’s eyes and talk about deep things, the evenings we did break something out were a chance to be together, to know and be known. Part of a relationship is built face-to-face, through conversations and revelations, but much is built side-by-side as you do things together, sharing experiences in the company of another. Board games were for us both a chance to learn about each other and a voyage of discovering a story, an artifact, a world.

Watch me: The terrific young critic Emily Lynch has finally released the second entry in her series on trans feminine representation on film, centered on Tom Hooper’s 2015 film The Danish Girl. Check it out!

And another thing… I have become obsessed with ambient soundscapes meant to capture being out in public during the holiday season. So far, my favorite is this video that offers a step into a cozy cafe that’s all decked out for Christmas. It’s eight hours long!

This week’s reading music: “Good Things” by Kathleen Edwards

Episodes is published once per week and is about whatever I feel like that particular week. Suggest topics for future installments via email or on Twitter. Read more of my work at Vox.

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