This politically-correct witch-hunt is killing free speech, and we have to fight it

By Sarah A. Downey

This begins as a story about drag queens, but I promise it’s headed to a place that will make sense. I have been a fan of the show RuPaul’s Drag Race since its first season in 2009. If you don’t know it, it’s a reality show where drag queens compete to be America’s next drag superstar. I watch primarily with my two gay male friends and am active on the subreddit. I’m a bisexual woman myself, not that it should matter because identity politics censor and divide people. But we’ll get to that.

I noticed about three years ago that the conversation surrounding the show on social media… changed. It got angrier, more PC, more woke, and more out of touch with normalcy. People started directing lots of hate towards the queens, often based on how the show was edited that week; people getting a villain edit on the show got real life hatred on social media. People started angrily demanding that RuPaul allow trans women to compete on the show, or cisgender women competing as drag kings, or basically anyone identifying as anything and wanting to dress up as anything, and that his refusal to do so made him transphobic.

Some of the “love” for RuPaul

Keep in mind we’re talking about RuPaul here: RuPaul Charles, unquestionably one of the most effective and most important gay rights activists in history; someone who put drag on the map, destigmatized it, and made it mainstream. A black, gay man, a business owner, and an executive producer. It’s his show: he has a formula, the formula is for cisgender men to dress as women, the formula has worked for 17 seasons, and he’s stated he’s not changing it. Personally, I think adding trans performers would breathe life into Drag Race. But I’m a viewer, and I don’t get to decide that. The point is that RuPaul’s Drag Race is RuPaul’s show, and we don’t get to scream and cry and throw tantrums until he changes his own show. Drag performers don’t have a constitutional right to appear on RuPaul’s show; they can perform everywhere else. The Boulet Bros. Dragula, for example, allows anyone of any gender identity or expression to compete, and Dragula rocks. The entitlement required to think you deserve to benefit from someone else’s work by forcibly inserting yourself into it — while loudly criticizing it — is stunning.

This shift in the drag community was odd. And it started to affect the show itself, whereby its contestants realized that the public’s condemnation would be swift and severe if they came off badly. Almost all the real interpersonal drama on the show disappeared, because everyone started being nice (and fake) to everyone else to avoid looking like a villain. People stopped expressing themselves authentically. It started becoming a race to be the most likeable, to gain the most social media followers, or to possibly win the crown by being the least problematic contestant. Needless to say, the show has taken a dive. It won a bunch of Emmys and it’s become mainstream, but at a cost. We still watch it, but it’s RuPaul’s Best Friends Race now. RIP.

From that point on, almost every conversation I’d see publicly about this show felt more and more disconnected from reality. I recently saw a livid post where fans tried to destroy Gigi Goode, a drag queen from a recent season, calling her a “tonedeaf queer of privilege” for tweeting a side by side pic of her on the show in a scene where she was wearing a bald cap next to the famous photo of Britney Spears having her shaved head meltdown.

This is an iconic pop culture moment for everyone, but especially for the queer community. Gigi made some innocuous comment about how they were twins. And people were coming for her for this. It astounded me. I didn’t even get why. I had to dig to see that the “problem” was — and I’m still not totally sure I have it right — that Britney may have been having some mental health issues at that time, and therefore it’s bigoted to poke any fun whatsoever at her.

I was like, let me get this straight: drag queens are no longer allowed to make reference to celebrities? Drag queens are the definition of counter-culture: they’re standup comedians, people on the fringe of society, who make controversy part of their shows. And now they can’t make light-hearted references, let alone to legendary, extremely well-known celebrity freakouts? Apparently the same goes for comedians, who are getting canceled left and right for “problematic” punchlines, regardless of when they made them or what the context was. Welcome to 2020, a world where you could never make The Office, the South Park movie, Animal House, Sixteen Candles, Blazing Saddles…although I’m sure that 100% politically correct and inoffensive comedies will be just as good as these classics 🤦🏻‍♀️

During this period, I’d basically sworn off politics. I got my law degree in 2010, immediately started working in startups, moved to Boston, and focused on work. I only filtered in tech news; politics seemed overly negative and click-baity and a waste of mental energy. My only major areas of concern were privacy and free speech, given that I worked at a privacy startup. I view those two as opposite sides of the same coin: when our privacy is violated or undefined, when we feel we’re being watched, we censor ourselves. Tracking and surveillance have chilling effects on freedom of speech, freedom of association, self-expression, and other celebrated, protected activities. We aren’t ourselves when we think others are watching, and we don’t speak freely. And even back then, I was seeing signs that a world was coming that would sift through your metadata and your old posts and likes and judge you, potentially preventing you from getting hired, getting you fired, and otherwise putting your livelihood at risk. I fought against that and saw it was a losing battle. I even got doxxed myself once on Reddit, having to delete my first account. But I was still an active member of these Drag Race communities, and I was seeing the culture shift through that lens.

Over the past 3 months during the quarantine, I started noticing the discourse change extremely severely. Fear crept in and made people accept what they heard from “authorites” and stop questioning messages. The things I’d been seeing that made me feel alienated and unrepresented among a show I’d been a fan of for over a decade were now everywhere on the internet. I used to see multiple views on social media; suddenly I only saw only one. It was like everyone online got a copy of the same script.

At first, the script was about COVID: “if you don’t stay home and don’t wear a mask, you are literally committing murder.” I didn’t agree with this overly simplified statement for a lot of reasons, most of all that it demands that people remain at home in potentially horrible environments. This is most applicable to poor people, who are disproportionately likely to have unsafe home environments, abusive family members, or otherwise violent and unhealthy surroundings. And yet mostly white, mostly wealthy virtue-signaling people were shaming everyone into a unified behavior, without regard for individual differences, without regard for the crushing effect on the economy, without regard for the fact that 50% of Americans have less than $1k in their savings accounts and that a forced quarantine without work would bankrupt them. The poor have borne a disproprionate amount of the inequality of this pandemic.

Then, obviously, BLM was reinvigorated in a big way. Like pretty much every American with a soul, I was appalled by the death of George Floyd. Justice for George Floyd is a paramount goal for US society. I understood the protests. But despite his killer getting fired and arrested, the protests became more violent, more destructive, and more divisive. Suddenly it was “racist” to take the nuanced view that protests are okay but smashing businesses’ windows and walking out with big screen TVs is not, despite the former looking like activism and the latter looking like a felony. Not to mention the nearly overnight shift in The One True Message being “stay home and isolate from people or you’re the devil” to “go out and protest in large groups of people or you’re the devil.” It reminds me of 1984 and the sudden shifts in allies and enemies in war:

“The past was alterable. The past never had been altered. Oceania was at war with Eastasia. Oceania had always been at war with Eastasia.”

And then came the over-the-top wave of social media bullying. If you aren’t posting #BLM, you’re racist. If you ARE posting #BLM but you say it in the wrong way, you’re racist. If you’re white and you’re silent, that’s violence. If you’re white and you’re speaking up, you’re talking over black voices and only they should be heard. If you’re white, you’re privileged and racist; your “fragility” means you’re also racist if you deny it. If you’re one of the 26.3% of Americans who are neither black nor white, do you get a say in all this? If you’re black and you disagree with any of the BLM tenets, you’re an “Uncle Tom” (their words, not mine), and “you’ve been so traumatized” through racism that you’re incapable of thinking for yourself.” I highly recommend the documentary Uncle Tom — featuring 100% black thinkers and advocates — if you want to learn about this phenomenon. The hate for Candace Owens in particular is hard to stomach. You might not agree with her politics or enjoy her way of delivering them, but she doesn’t deserve death threats.

I watched as many drag queens — a white queen in particular having the most vitriol — yelled at RuPaul for not posting anything expressly supporting the BLM movement. Again, this is despite RuPaul’s 59 years of lived advocacy on this planet. It started to feel as though image mattered more than substance, as though the bullying around failing to post or posting the wrong thing mattered more than how you’ve lived your life across decades. It’s an unwinnable situation: agree with the mob, or disagree/stay silent and get labeled a racist. Listen to Obama: wokeness sucks.

Then I saw the vicious hatred that JK Rowling was getting, not for a racist comment but an allegedly transphobic one. She reacted to an article titled “Creating a more equal post-COVID world for people who menstruate.” She tweeted, “I’m sure there used to be a word for those people [….] Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” Basically she called out that women menstruate. You’d think she tweeted that trans people deserve to die, because instantaneously there was outrage everywhere I looked. She responded by writing this blog post.

I read it and found it well-researched and poignant. For example, one of her points is that some trans rights activists maintain the position that lesbians are bigots if they have a preference for dating a woman without a penis. Yes, just let that sink in: it’s transphobic to prefer that your female lover not come equipped with a penis.

I thought this was nuts, because obviously there is a biological difference between the sexes. All reasonable people know this. This is what allows people to transition: you’re going from one state to another. This is also why you never see people up in arms about trans men threatening fair competition in most sports. I’m not here to argue this fact because evolutionary biologists have done it countless times.

This issue is not like society’s slow adoption of racial equality or gay rights, where older generations were stubborn in their conservatism and got aged out in their social beliefs. Those were beliefs. We are talking about established science here, and all you accomplish when you — the mob — scream “transphobe” at people is push them underground where they don’t publicly voice their acknowledgement of these scientific facts. They do not change their minds or go away; they are still the majority of the population. And frankly you’re making trans people look like irrational bullies, when most are not.

Gender is a spectrum, biological sex is real, and trans people exist and deserve equal rights and protections. All three of these statements coexist simultaneously and none should threaten the other. Plenty of trans people stand up and acknowledge these scientific facts and don’t agree that the existence of biological sex differences invalidates them, people like Buck Angel and Blaire White, to name a few. These people have done their research, made up their minds, and are now standing by their positions and are not afraid to express them. They shouldn’t feel afraid to talk, and you shouldn’t feel personally attacked by what they say.

But none of that appeared to matter regarding JK Rowling, because hordes of trans rights activists (most of whom aren’t trans themselves, by the way), had labeled her a modern-day Hitler. That includes most of the drag queens I love and follow via Drag Race, who have vehemently blasted their hatred for her, as well all the child actors from the Harry Potter movies, who’d have nowhere near the success they have today without her stories.

We should pause here to talk about the ever-evolving rules of speech based on identity, or “intersectionality,” where the more “victimized” you are by society, the more you’re allowed to talk:

Intersectionality is a form of identity politics in which the value of your opinion depends on how many victim groups you belong to. At the bottom of the totem pole is the person everybody loves to hate — the straight, white male.

And who’s at the top? Well, it’s very hard to say, because new groups claim victim status all the time. No one can keep track.

Not only is it impossible to track or apply logic to — e.g., I’m a bisexual white woman, so do I have more speaking privileges than a straight black woman on LGBTQ issues? Less? — but it constantly draws attention to the characteristics that make people different.

I’m often the only woman on company boards, and the last thing I want people thinking about in those meetings is how I’m the only woman there. It’d be terrible to preface every comment I make with “well, as a woman in tech, here’s what I think.” Let me speak for myself, not for all other women. Judge me as a human being by my contributions, please. Intersectionality is a clownish social policy that prevents any meaningful discourse because the issues at stake affect everyone; everyone needs to pitch in and be able to discuss them. It’s actually racist to assume that everyone in an identity group has the same opinion.

Intersectionality creates a lot of lopsided exceptions to its own rules, too. Take the concept of cultural appropriation. Assuming a positive context, of course, wearing an outfit inspired by another culture used to be considered an homage. It drew attention to different groups of people and their unique styles. But today, beware of wearing anything outside your own culture lest you commit the sin of “cultural appropriation.” The line between celebration and appropriation is invisible and moves depending on the race of the wearer. And in a country like America, better for being a cultural melting pot, who can even tell which race “owns” what? How much of a certain ethnicity do you need to have in your blood before you gain the right to make reference to it? E.g., drag queens Raja and Shuga Cain have worn Native American looks on Drag Race, although Raja (left) received complaints because she isn’t part Native American, and Shuga (right) did not because her mother is part Native American:

Raja on the left (no Native American ancestry); Shuga Cain on the right (mixed Native American ancestry)

Or how about the Madonna runway (season 9, episode 6) where four different queens opted to portray Madonna by wearing Kimonos? Is it fine because they’re portraying Madonna, and Madonna is the one who originally culturally appropriated when she wore kimonos in the first place? Or is it not fine and appropriating Japanese culture, because none of the queens wearing kimonos are Japanese? But Kim Chi is Korean, and Koreans also wear a type of kimono called a Hanbok, although kimonos generally originated in Japan, so…is that fine? You see where this gets complicated.

Kimonogate

Words that someone used ten years ago, that didn’t mean anything loaded at the time, are now being declared “offensive” and used to get people fired, or at the very least grovel pathetically for forgiveness for something they didn’t do or intend. It’s as if people don’t understand that language is a living, breathing, evolving thing. I just saw a beloved fitness influencer on Instagram do an unironic, grave apology for releasing a line of t-shirts 5 years ago that say “feminist savage” on them. As in, “it’s savage to be a woman who’s a weightlifter and strong.” Somehow “savage” is offensive to Native Americans now, even though her post was filled with comments from actual Native Americans saying this is, in fact, stupid and they don’t find it offensive at all.

I’m ethnically Jewish, but it factors very little into my day-to-day life. I rarely think about it unless I see blatant anti-semitism (or my 23andMe results). But I don’t spend every day hating Germans. I’ve visited Germany and it’s a delightful country. It disgusts me when Holocaust deniers say it didn’t happen, not even because I’m Jewish, but because I’m a human being with a fucking soul who knows right from wrong. But I respect their right to have a voice, even if I completely disagree with it. Especially because I completely disagree with it.

I’m fighting for truly free speech, which means that everyone can say anything, so long as A), it’s not an immediate, direct call to violence, or B), it has the effect of inciting violence (like yelling “fire” in a crowded movie theater, which causes people to freak out and stampede all over each other). This is what the First Amendment protects. Truly free speech is divorced from what you look like, where you were born, the gender you prefer to date, or the color of your skin. You shouldn’t get speaking rights based on skin-deep traits.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

BLM may have started as a movement to get justice for George Floyd’s killers, but it’s become about much more. It’s Occupy Wall Street 2.0, as Bret Weinstein says. It’s been co-opted by shrill SJWs policing language and screaming about Eskimo Pies and Splash Mountain and chess and Aunt Jemima being allegedly racist (despite Aunt Jemima’s own family saying the opposite), rather than doing much that’s meaningful to improve the experiences of black people in America. You could say it looks less about black lives and problems plaguing that community, and more about censorship, vilifying, and fear. Which is unfortunate.

When I talk about free speech, I’d be remiss not to address the censorship that black people have received through their overrepresentation in prisons. Not only does the physical state of being in prison make it harder for their voices to be heard, but the difficulty of their lives after release also negatively impacts their ability to speak: e.g., through being denied voting rights after a felony conviction, which affects 1 in 13 black Americans versus 1 in 56 non-black. Legalizing most drugs, releasing prisoners with non-violent drug-related offenses, removing mandatory minimum sentencing rules, ending felony voting disenfranchisement, and incentivizing employers to hire people emerging from the prison system (rather than shun them, and make it more likely they’ll return to their former lives) would all help to amplify black voices.

I want to be extremely clear on this: of course black lives matter. Most Americans believe this wholeheartedly, despite the racist finger-pointing you’re seeing all around you. The actual racists — not those declared “racists” under these new definitions using fragility and microaggressions and unconscious bias and privilege and who’s not posting what hashtag — are scum and they’re the minority. The statement “black lives matter” is easy to agree with if you’re a decent human being. The entity and the organization Black Lives Matter, however, is a different story and a different beast. Make your own interpretation of the fact that the BLM founders describe themselves as “trained Marxists.” Peruse their mission statement. Watch this video of a BLM leader. It’s smart marketing to cram a group that espouses radical ideas underneath a statement as impossible to disagree with as “black lives matter.” It’s about oppressed versus oppressor, the haves and the have-nots, capitalism versus socialism. I’ll discuss this in an upcoming post.

This has become a moral panic, a witch hunt where people point fingers at their friends, family, and co-workers to label them “racist,” the dirtiest word in America. It’s like the Cold War era, except we’re turning in racists instead of communists. Or Nazi Germany, which everyone seems to forget happened slowly and creepingly among normal citizens who turned on each other over the supposed moral high ground. Why people think this can’t happen in the US, I don’t know. But it’s happening, and I see it. Socialism kills people. People not thinking critically and blindly following others kills people. Stalin’s socialist Russia killed 20 million people. Do we really need to run that experiment here?