What I Told the Students of Princeton

I was so honored tonight to be hosted by the Princeton Tory, the Witherspoon Institute and the Tikvah Fund. The undergraduates I met tonight were clear sighted and brilliant and astonishingly well read. There’s so much on their shoulders. Here was my message to them.

The question I get most often—the thing that most interviewers want to know, even when they’re pretending to care about more high-minded things—is:  What’s it like to be so hated?  I can only assume that’s what some of you rubberneckers want to know as well:  What’s it like to be on a GLAAD black list? What’s it like to have top ACLU lawyers come out in favor of banning your book? What’s it like to have prestigious institutions disavow you as an alum? What’s it like to lose the favor of the fancy people who once claimed you as their own?

So, perhaps I’ll begin by telling you a little bit about myself mainly because I’m not so different from many of you. I grew up, daughter of two Maryland State judges, in a multi-racial suburb in Prince George’s County, Maryland. I attended a community Jewish day school, which I loved. In high school, I worked as a stringer for the Washington Jewish Week and edited my school paper. I attended Columbia University, where I received the Kellett Fellowship for two years of graduate study at Oxford. From there, I earned my J.D. from Yale Law School and then clerked for a Clinton-appointee on the D.C. Circuit.

At the beginning of my clerkship, I accepted a setup with a guy from Los Angeles, and by the end of that year, had decided to follow my then-boyfriend to California. I took a job with a terribly prestigious LA firm, whose daily tasks nearly anesthetized me. I married my boyfriend, struggled to hold onto pregnancies, quit law firm life and had three children. I taught them to read and sang them songs very badly and wrote a series of unpublishable novels. Most people who’d known me before wondered what the hell I was doing.

I began writing a few op-eds for our local Jewish paper, one of which was spotted by a Wall Street Journal editor, who invited me to submit to the Wall Street Journal. I did, and in the course of that year, published 13 op-eds with the Journal. One of those op-eds inspired a reader to contact me and tell me the story of her teen daughter who was rushing into a sudden gender transition. After trying and failing to find an investigative journalist who wanted the assignment, I took it on myself. My investigations turned into a book called Irreversible Damage.

All of which is to say: I’m not a provocateur. I don’t get a rush from making people angry. You don’t have to be a troll to find yourself in the center of controversy. You need only be two things: effective, and unwilling to back down.

Why am I unwilling to back down? Why wouldn’t I prostrate myself before the petulant mobs who insist that my standard journalistic investigation into a medical mystery—specifically, why so many teen girls were suddenly identifying as transgender and clamoring to alter their bodies—makes me a hater? Why on earth would I have chosen to write this book in the first place and am I glad that I wrote it?

You don’t have to be a troll to find yourself in the center of controversy. You need only be two things: effective and unwilling to back down.

If you’re here, you no doubt are familiar with at least some of the unpleasantness you encounter whenever you deviate from the approved script. So, again, what’s it like to be the target of so much hate? It’s freeing. That’s what I’d like to talk about tonight.

As an undergraduate studying philosophy, I spent an inordinate amount of time wondering whether my will was free. This is the metaphysical question of whether anyone can be said to have acted ‘freely.’ And most of the philosophers seemed to agree that our will wasn’t all that free. The hard determinists painted a world in which every human action was ultimately explicable by the wave function of elementary particles, ultimately leading neurons to fire—setting off of axonal conduction well beyond our control and none of which we directed.

Even if you weren’t a hard determinist, you struggled with the obvious problem that human decisions – and the reasons behind them – are structured by one’s upbringing, experience or even inborn personality traits, all of which shape our motivations. Compatibilists claimed that, at most, one could hope to live according to one’s own motives and preferences. That is, motives and preferences that were largely determined by things like personality.

“The Actions of man are never free;” 18th Century determinist Baron Holbach once wrote. “They are always the necessary consequence of his temperament, of the received ideas, and of the notions, either true or false, which he has formed to himself of happiness, of his opinions, strengthened by example, by education, and by daily experience.

I remember reading those lines as an undergraduate, tugged by the worry that Holbach was right: maybe our motivations were determined by our personalities and upbringing and received ideas. Today, I read them and think: if only.

In 2021, it seems a luxury to worry that a will determined and shaped entirely by received ideas and our own personality-driven desires might not be entirely free. Today, before any of us decides what it is we want, we open our phones and participate in our own manipulation at the hands of those who actively want us to think, and see, and vote differently than our own wills would have us do. If we were not entirely free before, in other words—we are far less so now.

Every dating app pushes us toward the same few attractive mate choices; Spotify presses us to like the same music; Amazon pushes us to purchase specific books and away from others. If you’re under the impression that the books Amazon recommends to you are based solely on a content-neutral algorithm, I can disabuse you of that fiction right now. I once asked one of my sources at Amazon, who was concerned about the ways the search results were being manipulated, whether he’d ever seen a book deliberately boosted. Yes, he said. Becoming by Michelle Obama. When that book came out – he told me – virtually every search you did led to the recommendation to buy the former First Lady’s book. And the opposite is also true. There are books that are never recommended by the Amazon algorithm, irrespective of how well they’ve sold or how likely a specific shopper is to buy them. Or, at least, there’s one such book. I’ll let you try and guess what it is.

But the larger point is, your will is being toyed with, subverted, manipulated. And in a fairly insidious manner. None of you will be shocked to hear that Google promotes certain search results in order to lead us to a certain perspective. But did you know that, for contested entries, Wikipedia assigns editors, some of whom are ideologically committed activists, many of whom have very particular views they want you to walk away with.

If you form views based on those Wikipedia articles or reports by corrupt fact-checkers, if you act based on them, are you exercising freedom of will? Given that you’ve been spun and prodded along to a pre-determined conclusion by hidden persuaders, perhaps you aren’t. Perhaps you’re left in the same sorry state as the Moor of Venice: toyed with, subverted, manipulated. Acting out someone else’s plan, pointed in the direction that he wants you to walk.

We’ve spent a lot of time in the past few years debating whether this kind of manipulation is at the root of our political divisions, but I don’t think we’ve paid enough attention to an even more basic question: how it has interfered with freedom of conscience and ultimately free will.

When polled, nearly two out of three Americans (62%) say they are afraid to express an unpopular opinion. That doesn’t sound like a free people in a free country. We are, each day, force-fed falsehoods we are all expected to take seriously, on pain of forfeiting esteem and professional opportunity:

Some men have periods and get pregnant.” “Hard work and objectivity are hallmarks of whiteness.” “Only a child knows her own true gender.”  “Transwomen don’t have an unfair advantage when playing girls’ sports.”

On that final example of a lie, the one about transwomen in girls’ sports, I want you to think for a moment about a young woman here at Princeton. She’s a magnificent athlete named Ellie Marquardt, an all-American swimmer who set an Ivy League record in the 500-meter freestyle event as a freshman. Just before Thanksgiving, Ellie was defeated in the 500-meter, the event she held the record in, by almost 14 seconds by a 22 year old biological male at Penn who was competing on the men’s team as recently as November of 2019. That male athlete now holds multiple U.S. records in women’s swimming, erasing the hard work of so many of our best female athletes, and making a mockery of the rights women fought for generations to achieve.

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