Think Cancel Culture Doesn’t Exist? My Own ‘Lived Experience’ Says Otherwise
The entire academy is being held hostage by a vocal minority.
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A version of this article was originally published in Quillette on July 30, 2020.
Given the moral authority that many progressives assign to the lessons of “lived experience,” it seems counterintuitive that they are the ones now strenuously downplaying the scourge of cancel culture. No less a progressive icon than Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently brushed off the phenomenon as just a bunch of entitled people being “challenged” and “held accountable” for their problematic views. New York Times columnist Charles Blow believes cancel culture doesn’t even exist, except to the extent it’s simply a desirable by-product of grass-roots activism:
A common theme is that the faux-victims complaining about cancel culture are high-profile cynics, playing the martyr for the benefit of clicks and fans. Ocasio-Cortez describes the complainants as people who “get their thoughts published and amplified in major outlets,” while Blow tells us that “the rich and powerful are just upset that the masses can now organize their dissent.” It’s hard not to see this as a rhetorical shell game. If canceled individuals fade into obscurity, we never hear their stories. But if they do manage to get their story out to the media, they’re dismissed as pampered pundits. By means of this damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t logic, cancel-culture Truthers can pretend away the existence of thousands of victims.
Of course, it’s absolutely true that wealthy cancel-culture targets such as J. K. Rowling get enormous attention. But that’s not just because of their wealth and fame: It’s because their stories act as a stand-in for the many other, more obscure, figures who’ve been mobbed in the press, on campuses, on social-media forums, and in arts and literary subcultures. The vast majority of cancel culture’s victims are people you’ve never heard of, who don’t have the means to fight back, or who have learned to keep quiet so they don’t lose whatever reputation or job security they still have.
I know, because I was once one of them.
This isn’t the first time I’ve alluded publicly to my ordeal. I’ve spoken about it on Twitter and various podcasts. But the ongoing effort to deny cancel culture’s existence has convinced me that I need to lay out my own experience in a more systematic way.
In 2008, I decided to pursue a career as an academic biologist. Science in general, and evolutionary biology in particular, had been a passion from a young age. Even as an undergraduate, I maintained a blog that I used to debunk pseudoscience, and critique creationism and Intelligent Design. I was outspoken, and sometimes launched headlong into debates with Christian conservatives. Creationists and IDers frequently told me I was wrong or stupid, but my critics never called me a bigot.
This changed, however, when I started graduate school in 2013. This was an environment where I didn’t have to worry about right-wing creationists. Rather, the pseudoscience I observed was coming from the other side of the political spectrum—especially in the form of “Blank Slate” proponents who argued (falsely) that sex differences in human personality, preferences, and behavior are entirely the result of socialization.
It was also during this time that I started to take an interest in what many now call “gender ideology.” This ideology not only invites compassionate treatment for trans individuals (which I support), but also promotes the scientifically inaccurate claims that biological sex exists on a continuous “spectrum,” that notions of male and female may be mere social constructs, and that one’s sex may be determined by self-declared “identity” instead of reproductive anatomy. When I pushed back against these claims, I was smeared as a transphobic bigot. Fearing professional harm, I stopped engaging, ceding the field to those who champion fashionable fictions.
I graduated with a PhD in evolutionary biology from UC Santa Barbara in 2018, and took a postdoctoral position at Penn State. I’d just joined Twitter, and observed that the pseudoscience I’d seen on campus had by now metastasized to the wider world and become the stuff of everyday hashtags. Even scientists whom I knew personally and respected were parroting this nonsense as scientific fact. But I dared not say a word. I would soon be applying to tenure-track assistant-professor jobs; I could not be seen publicly arguing down the claim that internally felt gender feelings trumped biology.
In October 2018, the Grievance Studies scandal dropped, bringing renewed focus on the intellectual degradation within academic fields focused on gender and sex. A few weeks later, one of the world’s most prestigious scientific journals, Nature, published an editorial claiming that classifying an individual’s sex using any combination of anatomy and genetics “has no basis in science.” These events, happening in such close succession, pushed me beyond my threshold for restraint. Despite my academic mentors’ warnings that speaking up could ruin my career, I let my bottled-up frustrations out in an essay I sent to Quillette. It was published under the headline, The New Evolution Deniers.
The essay went viral. And while I received my fair share of praise for it, I also knew I’d provided critics with a bona fide gotcha moment. (“I did not train to be a scientist for over a decade just to sit quietly while science in general, and my field in particular, comes under attack from activists who subvert truth to ideology and narrative,” I wrote.) Blank-Slate feminists and trans activists alike publicly accused me of wrongthink.
What’s worse, my heresies were multiplying, as I had taken to Twitter to defend my views and confront my critics. I also eventually co-authored another Quillette essay, with endocrinologist Dr. William Malone and author Julia Robertson, titled No One Is Born in ‘The Wrong Body’, arguing that children are put at risk of long-term harm if they are indoctrinated with ideologically torqued misinformation about their bodies and behavior.
In October 2019, following the publication of that second article, I received word that someone had posted a new listing in EcoEvoJobs, the largest job board in my field, that read, “Colin Wright is a Transphobe who supports Race Science.” This was during the height of the academic-recruitment season. The post was eventually removed by the board operator. But there was no telling how long it was up or how many of my colleagues had seen it. (I expressed concern to the board operator, and urged that they vet listings before they go live, but was told this wasn’t possible. Luckily, a tech-savvy friend volunteered to run a script that scanned the board for my name on a minute-by-minute basis, and sent me a text message when it got a hit.) At the time, I had nearly a hundred job applications being reviewed by search committees. I locked my Twitter and resolved, once again, to lay low.
But of course, I fell off the wagon. If you’re looking for common characteristics among those of us who get targeted for cancelation, it isn’t money or privilege. Rather, many of us simply have an inability to mumble slogans we know aren’t true. Over time, we become exasperated with dishonest propaganda that masquerades as social justice, and we speak out. It’s a habit rooted in the truth-telling, whistle-blowing impulse that, not so long ago, progressives applauded.
I broke my Twitter silence on Valentine’s Day, 2020, when the Wall Street Journal published an essay I’d co-authored with developmental biologist Dr. Emma Hilton, titled The Dangerous Denial of Sex. Although constrained by the space limitations of the op-ed format, Dr. Hilton and I were able to briefly outline the science of biological sex, and detail how its denial harms vulnerable groups, including women, gay men, lesbians, and, especially, gender non-conforming children. Even more than other pieces I’d bylined, this one unleashed a tidal wave of online hate—perhaps because we’d pricked the precious conceit that gender ideology saves children instead of harming them. Several Penn State professors publicly denounced the essay as transphobic. Students and faculty complained to my department’s diversity committee that I’d launched “a personal attack on individuals with non-binary gender identity,” and that my presence at PSU “made them feel less comfortable.”
“In for a penny, in for a pound,” as the expression goes. Earlier this year, on February 22nd, I tweeted out a Guardian article titled, “Teenage transgender row splits Sweden as dysphoria diagnoses soar by 1,500%,” accompanied by my own two-word commentary: “social contagion.” My tweet would have made sense to those familiar with the work of Brown University academic Lisa Littman, and particularly her scientific paper hypothesizing links between “rapid onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD) and peer contagion within cliques of teenage girls. However, activists were able to contort my comment in a way that suggested I was targeting the children themselves or suggesting gender dysphoria was akin to a virus. Knowing I was on the job market, a Michigan State University graduate student (and president of the Graduate Employees Union) named Kevin Bird accused me of “spreading disgusting transphobic pseudoscience.” Unlike other critics, Bird didn’t even pretend to be motivated by anything other than a desire to deny me employment in my field.
Bird himself offers an interesting case study, because his example illustrates how even a single ideologically radicalized troll can present the appearance of a grass-roots campaign. If Bird’s name sounds familiar, it’s because he is the same activist who led a campaign against his own university’s senior vice president of research and innovation, theoretical physicist Stephen Hsu. Bird has no particular distinction in his academic field, has tweeted support for burning banks, and is on record stating that he has no “interest in attaining or discovering truth” when he does science. But he also has worked tirelessly to build up his online stature as a cancel-culture enforcer and a warrior “against fascism.” As such, he has been able to mobilize flash mobs of online trolls to aid in his deplatforming efforts—which is why Hsu was forced to resign his VP position despite the spurious nature of Bird’s racism accusations.
It was around this time that I was contacted by a biology-department chair at a private liberal arts college in the Midwest. He commended me for my writings, and told me that he’d even used my New Evolution Deniers essay as a basis for discussion in his own classes. But while he and his fellow biology-department faculty would likely support my hiring, he said, the school’s own human-resources department would almost certainly block me as “too risky.” These experiences remind me that when Blow extols “the masses” who are canceling people like me, the people he’s praising are actually just a small coalition of professional trolls such as Bird, working in effective concert with the risk-averse, upper-middle corporate bureaucrats who now have taken over decision-making on many college and university campuses.
Guilt by association is a hallmark of all social panics. And in early March, I received a text message from a close friend and research collaborator who is now an assistant professor at a major research university, informing me that his colleagues had started questioning him about our affiliation. He told me that this sort of thing was happening frequently enough that he felt the need to publicly denounce my views to clear his name. And that’s exactly what he did. Ask yourself what other ideological movements and historical periods we tend to associate with such performative acts.
Later that month, someone again posted “Colin Wright is a Transphobe who supports Race Science” to the EcoEvoJobs board. I contacted the board operator—again—expressing my concerns. This time, I received no response.
Meanwhile, an anonymous Twitter account informed me that “preemptive emails” had been sent to academic search committees about me. While it is impossible to verify these claims, I note that the same tactic is known to have been used against former psychology professor Bo Winegard, who was recently fired from Marietta College after a persistent effort by similar (perhaps the same) activists to smear him as a racist and “race scientist.” In fact, these anonymous “masses,” as Blow calls them, may just be one person.
In April of 2020, I chose to leave academia. To give credit to Penn State, I was not fired. In fact, I had the opportunity to extend my postdoc fellowship contract for another year. However, I no longer believed that any amount of hard work or talent on my part would lead to a tenure-track academic job in the current climate. Nor did I want to spend my time constantly responding to false accusations of transphobia and racism. I had embarked on this journey because I love science, and wanted to help beat back the forces of pseudoscience in the public sphere. But that project is impossible when scientists themselves have become intimidated by small clusters of activists who demand that the scientific method be subordinated to magical thinking, and who seek to ruin the lives of those who dissent. If you follow in my footsteps, you can expect to receive similar treatment.
None of the views I have ever espoused are extreme. Indeed, all or most are taken as common sense by pretty much anyone who isn’t an activist or professional academic. And I will repeat them here. Male and female are not social constructs, but are real biological categories that do not fall on a spectrum. Humans are sexually dimorphic, and this matters in certain contexts, such as sports. Ignoring the reality of sexual dimorphism can harm women and members of the gay community whose experience of discrimination is rooted in these real differences between male and female bodies. Esoteric theories of gender that purport to deny the reality of biology, or that conflate biological sex with secondary sexual characteristics or sex-based stereotypes, can confuse children; and are likely partly responsible for the massive uptick in self-reported gender dysphoria among adolescents, especially teen girls.
In the closing lines of The New Evolution Deniers, I wrote that academia was “no longer a refuge for outspoken, free-thinking intellectuals,” and that “one must now choose between living a zipper-lipped life as an academic scientist, or living a life as a fulfilled intellectual.” My own experience, reinforced by the steady flow of emails I receive from concerned academics, would suggest that the situation has only gotten worse.
What you have read here is the story of just one ex-academic. But it should concern everyone that the entire academy is now being held hostage to a vocal minority that insists we should inhabit a fantasy intellectual milieu that is little more than an ideologically deflected play on Christian myths. Make no mistake: Cancel culture is very real. And its manifestations are not confined to the rich and powerful. As with many cultural processes, the fight to roll it back will be a long, hard struggle. I don’t pretend to know how it will end. But I do know that it begins by opening our eyes to the problem. To do otherwise would represent—if I may borrow a phrase from the social-justice lexicon—the literal erasure of my own lived experience.