The trouble with Thought Catalog
The slogan for Thought Catalog proudly declares that “all thinking is relevant” with all the puffed-up bravura of an 18-year-old, completely lacking in expertise but absolutely certain that his opinion is important and deserves to be heard. But some “thinking,” if you can even call it that, doesn’t deserve a mass media platform. Some “thinking” should stay inside someone’s head or find expression on their personal blog.
Yesterday, for example, Thought Catalog published a piece by Gavin McInnes, cofounder of Vice, entitled “Transphobia is Perfectly Natural.” With the exception of Kevin D. Williamson’s recent rant about Laverne Cox’s rising star, it may be the most vile, gut-wrenching piece of transphobia ever put to print on a widely read media platform. I refuse to link to it—that’s how bad it is. McInnes willfully misgenders all transgender people, Janet Mock included, while pathologizing them as “nuts” and fixating at great length on the state of their genitals. It’s repulsive.
McInnes’ piece doesn’t deserve a formal response. No one should have to say out loud that the legitimacy of transgender identity has long been recognized by both the U.S. government and by the American Psychological Association. No one should have to remind him that medical studies have proved that hormone replacement therapy is safe or that most transgender women who undergo genital surgery feel that it improves their lives emotionally, socially, and sexually.
McInnes shouldn’t need an Internet outcry to learn that the high rates of depression and suicide in the transgender community do not stem from some inherent flaw in transgender identity itself, but from the lingering social stigma he perpetuates, a stigma that makes men feel justified in committing acts of transphobic violence, a stigma that allows employers to discriminate against transgender people, and a stigma that shores up decisions to deny transgender people access to medical treatment.
But we live in a world where people still believe McInnes’s lies and sympathize with his visceral hatred. So it is, in fact, necessary to say that his article is not just irreverent. It’s not just offensive. It’s not just another sensationalist relic from a dying breed of white dude Internet shock jocks. It is violent, dehumanizing hate speech, hate speech that Thought Catalog has implicitly deemed “relevant.” This is an article that will help embolden a new generation of transphobic people, some of whom will go on to commit horrific acts of violence. And this is an article that was almost certainly read yesterday by transgender people with suicidal ideation, people who did not need another reminder that people like McInnes hate them.
I have no interest in going toe-to-toe with McInnes himself. But I would like to know why Thought Catalog published his piece. I would like to know why it’s still up today after its editors undoubtedly heard the tremendous outcry from the LGBT community, its allies, and other decent human beings. I want Thought Catalog to explain to me in what world McInnes’ article counts as “thinking.” And I want them to explain to me how, exactly, it is “relevant” and to whom.
But maybe I don’t need a statement from an editor to understand Thought Catalog’s motivation. The answer is sitting in plain sight on McInnes’ article on the left-hand side of the screen: 14,700 shares. By the time this piece airs, that number will probably have doubled. The silence from top Thought Catalog editorial staff speaks volumes: They want the controversy because they profit from it. Thought Catalog just wants clickbait, the more violent the rhetoric, the better. The editors have decided that pageviews are more important than protecting the lives of the people endangered by these hateful screeds.
The only justification Thought Catalog’s editors will ever offer is their hollow mantra: “all thinking is relevant.” Thought Catalog postures as some sort of classical Greek agora where everyone can gather and exchange their ideas freely. It is a website that still believes that it’s possible to be apolitical in a world defined by power asymmetries. It’s a website that attracts bigots because it reassures them that their feelings are important. Thought Catalog’s ostensible position of neutrality ends up turning their website into nothing but a reflection of the power hierarchies in the real world.
In a world marked by marginalization, passively publishing every hateful piece you receive in your inbox will only reinforce that marginalization. By adamantly refusing to take a stance, then, Thought Catalog’s editors are, in fact, taking a stance on the side of the hateful bigots whose opinions they validate with the “publish” button. And they can get away with profiting from violent hate speech as long as they pretend to be completely value-neutral.
Under this smokescreen of neutrality, Thought Catalog has quietly turned bigotry into a cottage industry. They’ve been making money off of people like McInnes for a long time. Straight white men looking to offend people have always been able to find a platform at Thought Catalog. Around this same time last year, Jim Goad (yet another white, free-speech-loving Internet shock jock) wrote a racist and transphobic article for Thought Catalog entitled “Spaying the Queen’s English,” which refers to transgender people as “self-mutilating freaks” and uses the word “Negro.” But all thinking is relevant, right?
A sympathetic editor at Thought Catalog reached out to me at that time because he wanted to drown out Goad’s transphobic screed with helpful pieces that could reach the website’s young audience. I taught college students back then, people who actively read Thought Catalog, and I didn’t want to leave them alone with people like Goad. I wrote a series of pieces about calling out transphobia, about being a transgender ally, and about knowing how to swallow your pride when you say something fucked up. I made my voice as playful and hip as I could, I peppered the pieces with GIFs, and it worked. The pieces were shared widely in precisely the demographic I wanted to reach.
I parachuted into Thought Catalog and I ducked out just as quickly. They kept on publishing awful pieces, even pieces that made light of the Trayvon Martin shooting. I moved on to better paying writing gigs for more respectable outlets. (Disclosure: Daily Dot Opinion editor Nico Lang is a former Thought Catalog editor.) But Jim Goad? He got hired by Thought Catalog and his piece is still live on the site to this day. His most recent article? A mockery of the concept of hate speech. McInnes is just following the footsteps that Thought Catalog has so carefully preserved for him at the expense of the marginalized.
Thought Catalog has proved time and again that its doors are wide open for people with a bigoted opinion that they can’t publish anywhere else. It will never issue a statement, it will never apologize, and it will never retract an offensive piece. The only explanation we will ever receive is the “all thinking is relevant” mantra, the site’s sole statement of editorial direction. So maybe it’s time they at least changed their slogan to something more honest: “all pageviews are profitable.”
Samantha Allen writes about gender, sexuality, and technology. Her opinion columns appear regularly at the Daily Dot and her work has also appeared on the Daily Beast, Jacobin, the Advocate, Paste, Polygon, and Kotaku. You can find her on Twitter at @CousinDangereux or on the Web at www.samanthaleighallen.com.