After I published a post this week about elite journalists’ increasing reliance on “therapeutic trauma jargon” to make professional demands, one of the journalists mentioned really went out of her way to confirm the core thrust of the post. Felicia Sonmez, a national political reporter at the Washington Post — I repeat, not some lowly precarious freelance rando, but a national political reporter at the Washington Post — appeared to claim I was morally derelict in failing to investigate her private health history before writing the Substack item. As it turns out, she’d had an especially fraught medical appointment the previous day, which I apparently should’ve known about. And so in publishing that post I was attempting to “silence trauma survivors” such as herself.
I had purposely avoided litigating the exact details of Sonmez’s claim to possessing untouchable “survivor” status, but anyone interested in further information would be well-advised to read Emily Yoffe’s feature-length 2019 magazine article on the subject, which at the very least raises some pertinent questions. Nonetheless, other journalists accused me of “silencing women” ... by writing a Substack post that women clearly felt free to “use their voices” in order to criticize. Which raises additional questions about what is precisely meant by “silencing,” if not inhibiting the ability of people to Make Their Voices Heard.
But the more significant late-breaking development was that PEN America — a flagship media advocacy organization whose mission statement proclaims its undying commitment “to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide” — published a sprawling new Report entitled “No Excuse For Abuse.”
Suffused with all the standard PR vernacular that one would expect to find in any contemporary corporate strategy document, the Report identifies journalists as a group suffering profoundly on account of being “disproportionately targeted” for online abuse. Consequently, the Report declares, journalists have found their “voices are silenced.” For all the “silencing” allegedly happening these days, a whole lot of people are loudly expressing their views on the topic at hand.
The Report issues a dazzling array of demands for how social media companies must ensure their platforms are made “safer” and “more equitable” on behalf of crippled and despondent journalists, with the category of “journalist” now all-but-christened as a new protected class which society must marshal massive resources to defend. Hence the Report’s call for Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to “develop content specifically tailored to the needs of writers and journalists.” It’s unclear, however, if the Report envisions all “writers and journalists” as expected beneficiaries of these demands. (A few paragraphs in, the Report clarifies: “PEN America has rooted our recommendations in the experiences and needs of writers and journalists who identify as women, BIPOC, LGBTQIA+, and as members of religious or ethnic minorities.”)
The Report provides another avalanche of evidence for how mainstream and institutionalized this style of therapeutic trauma jargon is rapidly becoming. A category distinction is drawn between “non-traumatized” versus “traumatized” journalists, indicating how “traumatized person” has been distilled into some sort of nifty identity-label you can just affix to yourself at your convenience. Which then, of course, “intersects” with your approximately 10,000 other approved identity traits. As the Report explains: “When online abuse drives women, LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, and minority writers and journalists to leave industries that are predominantly male, heteronormative, and white, public discourse is impoverished.”
PEN flips the script (presumably in order to maintain some semblance of fidelity to its original mission statement) by claiming that those purportedly engaged in online abuse against journalists are themselves the ones attempting to “censor,” even though trolls generally lack the power to impose formal speech restrictions. “Online abuse not only undermines equity and inclusion but also inhibits a free press and chills freedom of expression,” the Report charges.
To its credit, the Report occasionally feints at hypothetical concerns about how the blunt instrument of “proactive measures” to reduce “online harm” could curtail legitimate speech. But it is overwhelmingly focused on a suite of proposals for how Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram should institute a broad range of systemic reforms in accordance with the preferences of allegedly traumatized journalists — which would necessarily curtail vast amounts of speech. One of the hottest takes found in the Report is the recommended creation of an “SOS button” that would allow journalists to “instantly activate ... in-platform protections,” as well as “an emergency hotline (phone or chat) providing personalized, trauma-informed support in real-time.”
Also contained in the Report are plenty of exhortations for corporations and other interested parties to get serious about “facilitating allyship” for journalists in hot water: “We advise writers and journalists to proactively designate a rapid response team—a small network of trusted allies—who can be called upon to rally broader support.” The idea being that journalists and their “allies” need more tools to galvanize a coordinated defense when one of their colleagues comes under attack in a troll offensive.
Over the course of this 19,000+ word Report, only the haziest definition of “abuse” and/or “harassment” is ever proffered. Meaning the abuse-mitigation initiatives would be left up to the discretion of those who are proposed to be put in charge of administering them — namely people “who identify as women, LGBTQIA+, BIPOC, and/or members of religious or ethnic minorities.” Given that PEN defines “online abuse” as “pervasive or severe targeting of an individual or group online through harmful behavior,” the multiplicity of possible interpretations is obvious. I was personally astonished to learn that “abuse” may be defined as “a steady drumbeat of … insults,” in which case I’m ready to proclaim myself a traumatized abuse victim who needs special accommodations from Jack Dorsey himself.
The ambiguity only grows with the PEN definition of “harm” as “emotional distress, anxiety, intimidation, humiliation, invasion of privacy, the chilling of expression, professional damage, fear for physical safety, and physical violence.” The hyper-subjectivity of those concepts means that any journalist can simply claim to be harmed by anything at any time and expect to receive some sort of corporate therapeutic intervention.
In light of the ever-expanding bizarre ideological baggage now wrapped up in the notion of “harassment,” it seems doubtful that neutral, intelligible standards will be applied should the PEN demands be implemented. When PEN argues for sweeping cross-platform overhauls of “abuse” mitigation procedures, they are fundamentally arguing for the empowerment of functionaries and busy-bodies to dictate the terms and conditions of social media platforms, in line with their own political and cultural priorities. Lots of people would have to be hired to satisfy these demands. Perhaps the proposals are best understood as a prospective jobs program for under-employed journalists, who can claim “expertise” on what it means to be “harassed” online as they hawk their consulting services for Facebook bucks.
After reading the entire Report and querying numerous media figures on the matter, I still can’t get a workable, universalizable definition of what online “harassment” and/or “abuse” is even supposed to mean in practice. Upon the publication of my previous Substack post, one notable Twitter activist declared me a “little piss pants crybaby who would collapse under the weight of the kind of harassment he incites.” I’m fully in favor of enshrining @socialistdogmom’s eternal right to call me a little piss pants crybaby, and one might even argue that the insult is fairly amusing. So good for her.
But one also wonders whether this harsh criticism doesn’t qualify as the very kind of “abuse” we’re all supposed to be having a moral panic over. In the past 24-48 hours, I’ve also received multiple calls to kill myself, unkind comments about my physical appearance and alleged sexual proclivities, and so on. I’m not mentioning this to elicit sympathy from anybody — it’s all just bog-standard online trolling, and I totally understand why unfulfilled people on the internet enjoy throwing barbs at journos they’ve been acculturated into hating. Still, I can’t help but notice that these devastating attacks would appear to meet the “harassment” criteria being so vociferously advocated by the same people who — if we’re going by their professed standards — often seem to have no problem “inciting harassment” themselves against those they hold in low regard.
One corporate intervention solicited by PEN to ameliorate the scourge of anti-journalist “harm” is what they term “nudges” — i.e., “interventions that encourage… changes in behavior by presenting opportunities for feedback and education.” I don’t know about you, but I can’t wait to be “nudged” more by the benevolent overlords of Silicon Valley who are dissatisfied with my online etiquette. “For example,” the Report recommends, “a user in the process of drafting a post with abusive language could receive a nudge encouraging them to pause and reconsider.” So here we have a top organ of pro-journalism advocacy entreating Big Tech to employ behavioral manipulation techniques in an even more assertive manner, supposedly to rescue journalists from the terror of Twitter trolls. Little surprise that the German Marshall Fund, a central resource for journalists who spent every waking hour during the Trump Presidency trying to inflame hysteria over the dangers of Russian spam bots, is cited in the Report as a reference for how best to effectuate these “nudges.” Also demanded in the Report is a more visible integration of “guidelines governing acceptable behavior” into the primary user interface of social media apps, so that you’d have to come face-to-face with The Rules that journalists are so desperate to impose before tweeting something naughty.
“I wasn't prepared emotionally for the abuse I saw on my screen,” one journalist, Jasmine Bager, recounts in the Report. Left unexamined is why large corporations should be tasked with providing professional journalists any kind of emotional preparation in the first place. Evidently for these downtrodden journalists, the world is their therapist, and all conscientious citizens (in both the private and public sectors) are now obliged to assume an active role in aiding their navigation through a never-ending saga of psychological turmoil.
PEN America gave no indication that it sought input from journalists who are skeptical of the entire enterprise of enlisting tech companies to carry out therapeutic or mental health interventions on journalists’ behalf. That’s just taken as an uncontestable premise. I asked one of the Report’s authors, Viktorya Vilk, if she’d spoken to anyone who questioned that premise, but as of the time this post was published have not received a response.
One of the expert authorities cited in the Report is Talia Lavin, a journalist who claims to specialize in reporting on the Far Right; she says she has encountered a lot of troublesome online harassment as a result. Lavin recently participated in some sort of Substack colloquy with Lyz Lenz, another journalist who is extremely passionate about combating the plague of anti-journalist online harassment. One of Lavin’s recommendations for avoiding harassment is “do not go on hostile media,” particularly Fox News, because communicating with audiences who might not share your every niche political and cultural proclivity is a surefire way to engender harrowing abuse. (Lavin, a Harvard graduate, seemingly refers to herself as “marginalized.”)
Elsewhere in the exchange, Lenz reports, “90% of my life is spent crying alone in various rooms in my house” — which seems like a problem that adjusting Twitter’s content-moderation protocols is unlikely to fix. But regardless, Lenz makes another statement worth contemplating. “No one should have to live their lives like this,” she says, “where every day you wake up to an inbox full of hate.”
Lenz is exactly right. No one should “have to” live lives that entail receiving mean messages in their email inbox every day. Mercifully, no one “has to” be a journalist writing on controversial topics in public venues. That’s optional.