Well, That Was Unexpected

An Object Lesson

This newsletter being in its comparative infancy, most of my subscribers are folks I know personally in one way or another (Hi, my loves!). For those of you who don’t know me, let me tell you an essential truth about my life— my oldest child, Otto Evan Sanaker, who designed my logo and watches bad t.v. with me and is one of my favorite people on the entire planet— is a trans man.

Like most parents, I would move Heaven and Earth for this kid. I would fight off mobs and animals with big, pointy teeth with only my own two hands, which is a reference to Monty Python, admittedly, but also true. So, when I found out a week ago from another writer whose newsletter I subscribe to here on this platform that some queer writers are leaving Substack because of the subsidized platform they say it provides to anti-trans writers, I was unexpectedly confronted with an object lesson on integrity. Fun!

My intention with this project has always been to transition to paid subscriptions sometime in the first year. I want to make my living as a writer, and though it would be surprising in the extreme if this newsletter ever made me enough money to cover my entire income, I aspire to it covering a significant chunk of my monthly expenses. Given that this is a project about integrity, however, it would be the height of hypocrisy if I used a platform that expressly violated my values in order to fund my life.

At the same time, being confronted with this issue is perfect fodder for the discussion I’m trying to engage us all in. So, let’s dive into it together, shall we? Thanks, Substack, by the way, for being an ethical conundrum while also providing me with prime content. You’re a peach.

Here are all the factors I’m considering at the moment:

  • Queer, non-binary, feminist authors report that Substack is offering substantial incentive payments to trans-hostile authors to start newsletters on this platform.

  • These authors argue that some portion of the money that they bring into the platform is being used to fund these incentives, which implicates them in supporting speech that questions their legitimacy as human beings and civil rights as citizens. This violates their integrity and they are leaving.

  • Substack argues that its content guidelines and content moderation approach protect against violence and hate speech while promoting free speech and a free press.

  • Oppressed people must always be trusted to define their own oppression. People being subjected to hate should always be the first voice to say what constitutes hate, not the people who set up the systems through which oppressed people are subjected to hate. Systems are what they do, not what they intended to do.

  • Substack argues that their incentive program is a “business proposition” and not an “editorial” one. They are covering a small, diverse slate of writers’ income for a year, with the understanding that after a year the writers they court will be subject to the same deal as the rest of folks on the platform. These “high-profile” writers will drive traffic to the platform, where readers “may” encounter lesser-known writers from a similarly diverse list of perspectives and begin supporting them.

  • If $250,000 (which is what they paid Matthew Yglesias) is the necessary “incentive” required to court a given writer we have now officially moved beyond my scope of financial experience and sense of economic and social justice.

  • Free speech does not mean “free from consequences”. An appropriate consequence, it seems to me, of being hateful is having to make all your own money from the jump, not being offered a year’s worth of exorbitant income to see if you can “make a go” of building a community of similarly shitty people around you.

  • I have not actually read any of the authors who Jude Ellison Sady Doyle refers to as anti-trans, except in passing at other publications (Yglesias at Vox, Glenn Greenwald at The Intercept). I probably have to go read some of their work now in order to make an informed, ethical decision here and I tend to avoid rich, white guys’ writing as a general rule, so I’m feeling pretty cranky about that.

  • There are other platform options out there, with their own pros and cons. Buttondown and Ghost are both open source. I love the democracy of open source, but couldn’t code my way out of a paper bag. So now I have to learn to code to stay in my integrity? Dammit, y’all.

  • Ghost is real pretty, though. And cheaper to operate, in the end. I like pretty.

  • But they also provide a platform to all sorts of businesses that I may or may not agree with. However, they’re a non-profit that is pretty transparent about its business, so I know all of that going in.

  • Revue would be super easy, but just got bought out by Twitter, so that would be jumping from the frying pan into the fire ethically. NOPE.

  • There is likely no completely ethically clean option within the context of capitalism to make a living, so it comes down to how many people am I willing to run over with my trolley directly, or by extension. I hate knowing this.

  • As long as my newsletter is free for all I have some time to figure out what I’m going to do, but the clock is ticking.

If you’re tired just reading through this, welcome to my world. I never said integrity was easy, just right, and necessary to build the world we want to live in. Sometimes necessity is exhausting, but what else am I going to do? Knowingly insist that my exhaustion is more important than a society where my kid’s humanity matters more than profit?

I don’t know yet what I will do. Whatever it is, I promise to be transparent with you all about it. And luckily, if we move to another platform nothing different will be required of you. I’ll just be moving this party to a slightly cleaner house, maybe.

In closing, allow me to offer this, by Nobel Laureate Wisława Szymborska:

[Hans Christian] Andersen had the courage to write stories with unhappy endings. He didn’t believe that you should try to be good because it pays (as today’s moral tales insistently advertise, though it doesn’t necessarily turn out that way in real life), but because evil stems from intellectual and emotional stuntedness and is the one form of poverty that should be shunned.

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