All posts filed under: Activism

The Internet Locusts Descend on Ristretto Roasters

Camila worked for Ristretto Roasters, my husband Din’s coffee roasting company in Portland, Oregon, for five years. She received regular promotions and by 2016 was earning a mid-five figure salary. In October of last year, Camila resigned. The end. Or, the end until last month, when she sent an email to more than two dozen former and current Ristretto Roasters employees, alerting them to the YouTube series, #MeNeither Show, that fellow journalist Leah McSweeney and I launched in December 2018. In three half-hour episodes, we had discussed, among other topics, celebrities who have exploited the #MeToo movement, and the difference between sexual predators and those swept-up in the excesses of the current moment. The show’s “about” page reads, “#MeNeither is an almost-weekly conversation about the cultural issues of the day, and an attempt to create a space where people can find ways to think out loud through uncomfortable topics.” In her email to Ristretto employees, Camila described our show as “vile, dangerous, and extremely misguided” and announced her intention to “take this information to [local newspapers] Willamette Week and The [Portland] …

A Witch-Hunt on Instagram

“Knitting is just so white. Let’s hope it gets better.” I overheard this puzzling remark in my local yarn store in Edinburgh, Scotland, last week. The store is in the affluent area of Marchmont, just outside the city centre. Its Edwardian and Victorian tenement flats, adjacent to huge green spaces, are popular with students and families alike. Two customers were chatting to the store owner: “It’s about time we had the conversation,” one of them offered. Her companion nodded in solemn agreement. Knitting, which helps lower the blood pressure and keep the mind busy, has enjoyed an upsurge in popularity in recent years. The Internet has allowed for the proliferation of new platforms from which to buy yarn and patterns, and has helped connect artisans and hobbyists worldwide. Usually, it’s a calming and creative pastime focussed on aesthetics rather than politics. However, a short browse through the knitting posts on Instagram steered me in the direction of the source of the exchange I had overhead and the “conversation” it had produced. On January 7, Karen …

Homophobia and the Modern Trans Movement

Two and a half years ago, I spoke in Vancouver at Q2Q: A Symposium on Queer Theatre and Performance. After I delivered my paper, I became a focal point for criticism—though not because of my the content of my presentation. The controversy emerged in the Q&A, when I mentioned the fact that I was not only a gay man, but also a drag queen. Members of the audience stood up and opined about the apparently problematic practice of a white drag queen (like me) lip-synching to “appropriated music”—by which they meant music originally written and performed by non-white artists. It is undeniably true that drag queens (of all races) have a special affection for the work of divas of colour—and pay homage to these idols by lip-synching. It’s also true that gay and drag entertainment culture is centered in large part around pop music more generally. This is an industry that owes much to musicians of colour, who often have had their work used or co-opted without adequate compensation. But while this was a fair …

What PETA Has Cost the Animal Rights Movement

Animal advocates constantly complain about the reputation of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). They frequently see their cause dismissed because of the strong associations with this rambunctious organization. Earlier this month was no exception, as PETA made major headlines by asking the internet to stop using idioms like “bring home the bacon”: In fact, the word “PETA” has become a pejorative for stunts, gimmicks, and putting feelings over facts when it comes to animal issues. I argue in my new book, The End of Animal Farming, that animal rights will succeed in building a food system where we eat meat, dairy, and eggs without the use of animals, but it’s a tragic irony that one of the biggest obstacles for activists might be the bad reputation of its best-known advocates. I should clarify. This isn’t to say PETA hasn’t done a lot of good. The first modern undercover investigation of farmed animal abuse was conducted by the pioneering organization in 1983 at a Texas horse exporter, shortly after PETA’s famous lab animal investigation …

The New Evolution Deniers

Evolutionary biology has always been controversial. Not controversial among biologists, but controversial among the general public. This is largely because Darwin’s theory directly contradicted the supernatural accounts of human origins rooted in religious tradition and replaced them with fully natural ones. The philosopher Daniel Dennett has described evolution as a sort of “universal acid” that “eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.” Fearing this corrosive idea, opposition in the US to evolution mainly came from Right-wing evangelical Christians who believed God created life in its present form, as described in Genesis. In the 1990s and 2000s there were repeated attempts by evangelicals to ban evolution in public schools or teach the so-called “controversy” by including Intelligent Design—the belief that life is too complex to have evolved without the aid of some “Intelligent Designer” (i.e. God)—in the biology curriculum alongside evolution. But these attempts failed when scientists demonstrated in court that Intelligent Design was nothing …

Silencing Women in the Name of Trans Activism

It all began with a warm and friendly email from an arts producer who runs a regular London-based project called the Truth to Power Café (TTP). Founder Jeremy Goldstein had seen my writing, and figured I might be a worthy performer. “[The show] includes live and spontaneous testimony from participants rising up in the name of free speech and political activism,” he told me. “During the course of the show, I invite participants to respond to the question, ‘Who has power over you and what do you want to say to them?’ before a live audience. This year, I’ve worked with over 100 participants in four countries including U.K., Australia, Netherlands and Croatia.” I hesitated before accepting. Performance art isn’t really my thing. And I already do a number of events as part of my feminist activism, so I need to be careful about how I allocate my remaining time (especially when, as in this case, I’m not being paid). But the free speech and truth-to-power elements appealed to me, so I agreed to take …

Do Advocacy Groups Belong in Academia?

A few months ago, The Washington Post published an opinion piece by Suzanna Danuta Walters. Its title was: “Why can’t we hate men?” Walters’s byline, printed before the body of the article, read: Suzanna Danuta Walters, a professor of sociology and director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University, is the editor of the gender studies journal Signs. As the byline suggests, Walters isn’t a layperson sharing an opinion; she’s a social scientist writing within her field of expertise. Her position as programme director at a prestigious university and as editor of an academic journal further underscore her academic credentials. Walters begins the article by describing incidences of abuse of women by men and notes that “it seems logical to hate men.” Although acknowledging the value of institutional analyses of power, she describes the “universal facts” of various forms of male domination (as opposed to citing examples of men abusing power within various structures and frameworks). Since men “have gone low for all of human history,” she writes, “maybe it’s time …

Single Issue Campaigning and the Polarisation Problem

In their new book, The Coddling of the American Mind, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue that a polarisation cycle exists at US universities. First, a progressive professor does or says something provocative in response to a real or perceived injustice caused by conservatives. Next, the right-wing press picks up the story, and it is shared and retold to amplify conservative outrage. Then, people are encouraged to email or tweet at academics. Finally, the university, which isn’t used to being attacked, makes a badly thought-through decision in order to make the problem go away, which too often means that someone leaves an institution when they probably shouldn’t. As progressive campaigners working outside of college campuses, the cycle Haidt and Lukianoff describe felt worryingly familiar. We began to wonder whether well-intentioned progressive campaigns were contributing to the same kind of polarisation in wider society. Polarisation is one of the few remaining political topics upon which there seems to be something approaching a consensus. There is widespread agreement that our political identities increasingly preclude us from listening …

Effective vs. Pathological Altruism

The effective altruism movement grew out of an understanding that sometimes charitable giving doesn’t achieve its desired effects. Even when aid works, effective altruists argue that aid can be given more efficiently through the application of cost-benefit analysis. Effective altruism enjoys widespread support, including among Quillette readers ranging from Sam Harris to Geoffrey Miller. In fact, it’s hard to deny that if we’re inclined to act charitably, we should follow our head as much as our heart. We should subject charity to scrutiny. When Helping Hurts The problem comes when the view we take of what we’re trying to achieve becomes too myopic. For example, we all agree that if we’re going to relieve a famine, we should find the cheapest way to feed the famished. But what if feeding the hungry creates more hungry people to feed? What if it indirectly contributes to more civil conflict, enriches warlords, or interferes with agricultural markets in ways that drive domestic farmers out of business? Recent studies suggest that food aid to African countries has done all …

My Unpopular Opinion: There Are Too Many Mediocre Artists

Every now and again, a friend of mine holds a ‘what’s your unpopular opinion?’ discussion in a club we jointly run. Everyone takes turns to say something not so much outrageous or contrarian (debates are seldom about politics) but bitter – as in ‘bitter truth’. People argue, say, that colonialism is a good idea (when done by the British, of course), or that sometimes historic buildings and artefacts are more important than people (and should by preference be preserved in wartime), or that corporal punishment is probably not such a bad idea for certain sorts of crimes (and criminals). He imposes the Chatham House rule so people aren’t set upon afterwards by mobs of offendotrons trying to get them sacked for wrongthink. Well, I’ve decided to go public with one of my unpopular opinions. There are too many artists, too many people who want to be artists, most of them aren’t very good, and schools should focus on inculcating self-discipline rather than dopey ‘all must have prizes’ creativity. Most people are only ever going to …