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Names and Pronouns in the Classroom, RBE 39 – TD Jacobs


I haven’t blogged in a while, having been bogged down by teaching, administrative tasks, and the same general, COVID malaise that has befallen many of my colleagues. However, something has inspired me to once again set my fingers to the keyboard. At a recent meeting of our department’s diversity commission, I proposed encouraging instructors to put their pronouns in the signature line on their emails. Until a few weeks ago, I had not done this myself. I’m open about being transgender in my department – my signature line already included a link to my YouTube vlogs on the topic. But I did not want to include my pronouns in my signature until I saw more people – specifically, cis people – doing it. In contexts and situations in which only transgender and gender non-conforming individuals specify their pronouns, they are easily singled out, and can receive unwanted attention or discrimination as a result. This is also the case in academia, where microaggressions including misgendering and tokenization do occur, whether unintentionally as the result of cisnormativity or even intentionally as a result of transphobia (see Pitcher’s 2017 publication on the subject for a more complete discussion). Indeed, Gaskins and McClain have found that even the small act of visibly changing your name in your publication record can result in academic discrimination. As such, I was reluctant to list my pronouns and inadvertently encourage a practice that until quite recently marked out transgender people in particular.

This was also the first year in which I directly addressed the matter of names and pronouns with a class. In part, that was because this was the first year in which I had to produce a pandemic communications strategy, and a detailed, written syllabus. And in part, I assumed that students would contact me of their own accord if they wanted to specify their name or pronouns, which is what I had done with my promoter when I transitioned. None ever had, and I thought that I just hadn’t had any transgender students. That seemed reasonable considering the miniscule size of our population in general. But within a week of including a statement inviting people to provide their chosen name and pronouns if they so desired, a few students did contact me. As someone who transitioned over the course of their doctorate, and not their undergraduate studies, I had lost sight of the needs of younger transgender students. I had forgotten that there is a quite a difference in confidence between 41-year-old me and a typical, eighteen-year-old first-year bachelor student. Not to mention the difference in position: I am technically an employee, and have a union to back me up if necessary. This is obviously anecdotal, but it indicated to me that there is more that can be done to create welcoming spaces for people who need them.

And they are needed. Misgendering and mis-naming transgender individuals has a negative impact on their mental health. Among others, McLemore’s 2018 large scale minority stress perspective survey found that misgendering caused feelings of stigmatization and psychological distress among transgender people. And transgender youth are an especially vulnerable subset of our population. That’s based not just on my personal experience, but on the scientific research carried out on the subject. In 2016, Connolly et al. published a review of 15 qualitative studies conducted in the previous five years, and concluded that “transgender youth have higher rates of depression, suicidality and self-harm, and eating disorders when compared with their peers.”  Among others, Russell et al. have found that supported social transition with the use of an individual’s chosen name reduced depression, and suicidal ideation and behavior among this group. There are obvious benefits for students when teachers use their chosen name and correct pronouns.

That being said, there is one practice I have seen enacted elsewhere that should not become the norm: asking students to give their chosen name and pronouns in front of their classmates. While this may seem at first glance to be an act of inclusion, it can be experienced as threatening. Even if everyone in the class does it, transgender students are again being singled out by being placed in a situation in which they may feel pressured to out themselves in front of their peers. And when an individual comes out – and how – should always be at that person’s discretion, not in response to others’ demands. Prior to medically transitioning and gaining the ability to pass as cis, I was exceedingly uncomfortable at a few academic gatherings I attended where the practice was to ask everyone’s name and pronouns. I spent most of the time wondering if people were staring at me (possibly) and worrying about whether I’d be subjected to uninvited questions (definitely). Overall, it felt more like exploitative virtue signaling on the part of the organizer than an act of welcoming, and I soon stopped going. Students, however, cannot escape the classroom or their classmates so easily.

Their particular vulnerability in this regard is extremely important to keep mind given that hate crimes and political violence against the transgender community is on the rise, with – among other things – a rash of anti-trans legislation being proposed in the United States; a recent major UK court ruling denying access to appropriate medical care to transgender youth; and the head of a Belgian political party openly espousing transphobic bigotry. The annual International Transgender Day of Visibility on March 31 is supposed to help inspire and cement the kind of year-round cisgender allyship that can combat these attacks. In academia, this means creating genuinely welcoming spaces for transgender students (and staff) by enacting policies and practices with our input, and ensuring that (in)visibility is always a choice.



Calluy, Kevin. “Vlaams Belang-voorzitter Van Grieken: ’13 procent K3-kandidaten geeft zich op als genderneutraal, ik geloof dat niet.'” VRT NWS, 15.3.2021.

Connolly, Maureen D., et al. “The mental health of transgender youth: advances in understanding.” Journal of Adolescent Health 59, no. 5 (2016): 489-95.

Gaskins, Leo Chan and McClain, Craig R. “Visible name changes promote inequity for transgender researchers.” PLoS Biology 19, no. 3 (2021).

McLemore, Kevin A. “A minority stress perspective on transgender individuals’ experiences with misgendering.” Stigma and Health 3, no. 1 (2018): 53-64.

Pitcher, Erich N. “‘There’s stuff that comes with being an unexpected guest'”: experiences of trans* academics with microaggressions.” International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 30, no. 7 (2017): 688-703.

Russell, Stephen T., et al. “Chosen name use is linked to reduced depressive symptoms, suicidal ideation, and suicidal behavior among transgender youth.” Journal of Adolescent Health 63, no. 4 (2018): 503-05.

White, Jenn. “What’s driving the spate of anti-transgender state legislation?” NPR, 1A, 15.3.2021.

Zoom and the 41st American Indian Workshop, RBE 38 – TD Jacobs

The 2020 American Indian Workshop was initially postponed as a result of the pandemic. The 41st edition of the AIW, it was to be hosted by the Ludwig Maximilians Universität München. Eventually, however, the organizers – Dr Henry Kammler, Dr Renate Bartl, Saskia Brill, and Friederike Nusko – decided to move the conference online. This year’s main topic was “Indigenous Shapes of Water,” and it was an important opportunity to present research considering the current struggles against colonial extraction capitalism. Nevertheless, I think that many of the regular attendees – and the organizers – were a bit apprehensive at the thought of a four-day long Zoom conference. Would there be low attendance? What about tech issues? Would there be chances to network and socialize? Could anyone stare at a screen that long?

In fact, the conference was quite successful. I was watching the ticker at the bottom of the Zoom screen, and attendance was just as high as it had been in previous years. Plus, having no more than two parallel sessions at a time meant that no one was in the unhappy position of delivering a paper to an audience of fellow panelists (something I’ve experienced at other conferences with too many sessions and not enough attendees!) There were a few minor glitches as people got used to the breakout rooms and screen sharing. But with one exception (bad microphone) the presentations went off without any major problems. Certainly no more so than in any other year. There were also plenty of chances to catch up with AIW friends and family during the breaks, using private chat, and taking advantage of the Gather Town space set up by one of the members. Moreover, the Zoom interface allowed the organizers to swiftly pull us out of our rambling discussions during the breaks – which struck me as much more efficient than attempting (and failing) to politely herd academics away from the coffee table.  Lastly, while my attention did start to wander on occasion, I simply turned off the camera and listened, keeping my notepad handy as did the dishes and folded my laundry. 

People may not have been as formal in previous years (I’m proud to say I wasn’t in my pj’s the entire time) but the presentations were as good as ever. The keynote speaker, Jackie Hookimaw-Witt, discussed the mining operations in Canada’s “Ring of Fire” and the resultant impact on the local First Nations peoples, including her own, the Attawapiskat. I found this highly informative given that I didn’t even know that diamond mining was a thing in North America. Additionally, the ecosystem in the region is a major, natural carbon sink, that is now being impacted by climate change. And as in so many other places, Canadian laws that intentionally break up Indigenous groups into artificial constructions that do not necessarily reflect identity or land relationships, are hindering unified resistance. Unfortunately, that is nothing new. 

However, the settler government has an additional weapon in its arsenal: the environmental impact review process itself. When a new company seeks a mining contract, it seems the process starts all over. And the information gathered earlier – including statements from elders who may have since passed on – is lost. People are being ground down fighting the same battles over and over, with increasingly scarce resources. I don’t know what the solution to these problems may be. However, I do think it good that more scrutiny is being brought to bear on the Canadian government, which is often given a pass on its genocidal practices because it borders the more openly violent United States. 

The presenters that followed Jackie Hookimaw-Witt the first day focused on DAPL. Ashly Hanna, an undergraduate and member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, discussed the results of her research concerning the Bismarck Tribune. She succinctly and convincingly argued that the region’s most prominent newspaper – while covering peoples’ concerns regarding pipeline oil spills – was extremely biased in its coverage of the protests. For example, the paper reported on the littering in the protest camps, while conveniently forgetting to mention that the protestors were forcibly removed without being allowed to clean up the sites. The photographs in the paper were also carefully selected so as to avoid depicting protestors as the victims of state sponsored violence. Hanna’s presentation was an insightful examination of the ways in which the media can manipulate public perception concerning Indigenous resistance movements. 

Hanna was followed by Aurélie Journée-Duez, a doctoral student at the EHESS/Université Paris. She analyzed the art produced in the context of the DAPL protests. Space was set aside at the camps for the development of protest signs and posters in order to help raise awareness. I recall seeing many of the results spread through social media, often in the form of printable files for use elsewhere – and they were very successful in terms of the clarity of message. Journée-Duez’s examination led to a fruitful analysis of feminism in Indigenous protests. ‘Extractivism’ often compares environmental exploitation to rape culture. And this was reflected in much of the artwork produced. Considering the established links between the ‘man camps’ along pipeline projects and the rise in sexual assaults and murders committed against Indigenous women in the surrounding populations, I think that the comparison rises above the level of metaphor. Journée-Duez quite rightly – in my view – highlighted the difference between current, woman and queer led protest movements, and the hypermasculinity of AIM leadership in previous decades. Moreover, she made an important distinction between intersectional, Indigenous feminism and white feminism, the latter of which is facing growing criticism for its narrow scope. 

For me, Wednesday’s highlight was undoubtedly the panel discussion on “Native Americans and Museums: International Perspectives and Collaborative Prospects.” Dr Rob Collins from San Francisco State University moderated. He was one of the curators of the 2009 exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian IndiVisible: African-Native American Lives in the Americas – a highly important project in light of the fierce controversy surrounding the Cherokee Freedmen at the time. Dr Markus Lindner of Goethe University presented his experiences in organizing exhibitions with students and in attempting to get source community participation. Dr Justin Richland of the University of California, Irvine, contributed his insights as both a lawyer and anthropologist in discussions about NAGPRA in particular. Finally, Dr Alaka Wali from the Field Museum in Chicago talked about the renovation of the Native American exhibits there. 

One of the most interesting aspects of the discussion was the difference between what Indigenous participants in exhibitions wish to present, and what the non-Indigenous audience may expect to see. Rather than focusing on the pain of the past, Native curators are centering their work on the vibrancy of the present. I found this especially relevant to Dr Wali’s presentation about the updates to the Field Museum. I visited that institution as a kid several times with my father during trips to Chicago. He loved the museum but he hated the Native American hall. I won’t repeat his commentary here because while pithy, it was obscenity laden. I, on the other hand – being too young to wonder why we were featured in a museum alongside dinosaurs – loved it. But on later trips, the weird mannequins and their dry, oddly non-descriptive labels began to remind me a bit too much of the stuffed animals elsewhere in the museum.

Dr Wali’s pictures demonstrated that little had changed in the thirty years since I had visited. Indeed, it looked (depressingly) exactly as I remembered it. However, Dr Wali has embarked on a major reform program. Following a collaboration with Bunky Echo-Hawk in 2013, she put in a confrontational installation by Kanza artist Chris Pappan in 2016-19, Drawing on Tradition. The stark contrast between contemporary Native perspectives and the drab display cases appears to have finally goaded the museum’s directors into committing to do better.  The new exhibit is set to open in 2021, and I may (pandemic permitting) make a special trip home to the States just to see it. Finally, the panel discussed the importance of establishing lasting relationships with source communities, the kind of relationships that were implied by the giving/taking of objects to start with. It is not enough to bring in the occasional Indigenous curator to boost attendance. That’s just another kind of exploitation. Instead, as Dr Collins put it, we should be seeking to transform museums into sites of Native agency. 

The first panel on Thursday centered on “Queer + Indigenous Perspectives on Fluid Identities,” and it was one that I had been highly anticipating. I was not disappointed. I was particularly intrigued by James Mackay’s analysis of works by Smokii Sumac, a Ktunaxa poet, two-spirit and transgender educator, and PhD student at Trent University. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I find his collection, you are enough: love poems for the end of the world, very moving. Dr Mackay’s presentation covered the theme of fluids and fluidity, in keeping with the theme of the conference, but even more interestingly, he zeroed in on the digital aspects of Sumac’s work. Something that I really had not paid a huge amount of attention to previously – likely because I’m old and use hashtags without actually having an active Twitter account. In any case, I look forward to re-reading Sumac with fresh eyes. 

Friday’s program brought with it several novel presentations. Among them, I was especially impressed by Daniel Dumas’s research on Canadian stamps. As an early modernist, I’m aware of the value of currency as an almost omnipresent representation of assertions of sovereignty. That stamps could fulfill a similar function in the modern era had never occurred to me. And while just as ubiquitous as money, they’re even more flexible in terms of their iconography. Moreover, Dumas – a PhD student at the Rachel Carson Center – pointed out that the post office as both service and physical place was the governmental office that people had the most continuous contact with, giving it additional representational power. Dumas’s work gave me much food for thought.    

Friday ended for me with a report on the results from a collaborative project presented by independent scholar Amy Ruckes on the “Exploitation of Indigenous Social Media for Political Propaganda.” As a specialist in disinformation and human-computer interactions, she analyzed mass data generated by social media such as Twitter and identified various non-Indigenous groups making use of Indigenous related imagery or wording for their own political purposes. In one instance, it became clear that hashtags associated with legitimate Native protests were being promoted by foreign actors with an interest in disrupting US energy supplies. Another such example of identity co-opting was the circulation of memes by far-right European political groups with messages depicting Native Americans as the victims of illegal immigration. Having seen similar posts on Facebook from predominantly non-Native, ‘pro-wall,’ conservatives, I cannot say that I was surprised. I’ve also noticed a proliferation of pro-NRA memes in which Native populations are cast as the victims of disarmament. Ruckes also reflected on the use of social media to directly target Indigenous voters with disinformation in the 2020 US presidential election and its possible impact. On the whole, the research findings are not encouraging. However, that research in this area is being conducted by anyone at all is.

On the face of it, it is hard to see what – if anything – Native people can do to prevent such use of Indigeneity for exploitative purposes, let alone fight carefully targeted political disinformation campaigns on social media. Or digital monoculture for that matter. However, discussion during the break highlighted the usage of social media as an organizational tool, as well as the proliferation of Indigenous spaces online in forms such as Native TikTok. I imagine we’re going to have to take the good with the bad to a certain extent – at least until platforms begin applying their Terms of Service policies in a less haphazard fashion. And there is increasing pressure for them to do so as minorities become more vocal about online discrimination. 

I’ll admit that by Saturday I was flagging a wee bit. But I’d be remiss if I did not mention that the presentations included two by recent graduates from Ghent University’s master’s in history program: Adeline Moons and Jeroen Petit. Moons presented the results of her MA thesis in a talk titled “’That all past injurys are buryd and forgotten’: Agency of Native Americans in seventeenth century intercultural diplomacy in New Netherland/New York.” In it, she covered the treaties and renewals engaged in by the little-known ‘Esopus.’ She convincingly demonstrated that these encounters were not dominated by the colonizers, and reflected Indigenous diplomatic practices and norms as well. Petit came to a similar conclusion in his presentation, “The Third Anglo-Dutch War and the Articles of Peace between Charles II and several Indian kings and queens,” again based on his MA thesis. In particular, he highlighted the political maneuvering of both the king of England and ‘Queen’ Cockacoeske of the Pamunkey that resulted in a treaty that promoted the political and representational ambitions of both parties.

I’m afraid that I missed most of Dr Kammler’s closing remarks. People were busy saying goodbye to one another in the chat window, exchanging email addresses, and (in my case) trying to source bottle gourd seeds. Four days of Zoom conferencing was tiring, and my concentration was gone by that point. However, having had so much else ruined or cancelled by the disaster of 2020, I appreciated this year’s AIW more than previous editions. And I am already looking forward to next year’s AIW, being hosted by Dr James Mackay of the European University of Cyprus, titled “The Sovereign Erotic.” It too is going to be held virtually, and hopefully we will all still be around to attend – in pj’s or otherwise. 

41st AIW program:  

42nd AIW call for papers:

The Great Plague and diplomatic news networks, part 1, RBE 37 – TD Jacobs

The Great Plague of 1665/66 eventually claimed an estimated 100,000 lives in and around London. The start of the outbreak, caused by Yersinia pestis, can be traced to the spring of 1665 but only became noticeable to the city’s wealthier denizens in June. The famous diarist, Samuel Pepys marked the occasion:

This day [June 7], much against my will, I did in Drury Lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there – which was a sad sight to me – which was a sad sight to me, being the first of the kind that to my remembrance I ever saw.[1]

On June 10, Pepys noted it had reached London proper, writing that “the plague is come into the City (though it hath these three or four weeks since its beginning been wholly out of the City.)” However, even as Pepys began to put his affairs in order “in case it should please God to call me away,”[2] this momentous event was overshadowed in the capital by other news: a major victory over the Dutch.

War with the United Provinces had begun in March of 1665, following rising tensions and a number of skirmishes over control of maritime commerce and overseas trade. The Second-Anglo Dutch War ended a scant two years later,[3] but while it lasted, it inspired a great deal of propaganda on both sides of the North Sea – some of it pretty ripe. The title of the broadsheet “The Dutch Boare Dissected, or a Description of Hogg-Land” gives some indication as to how the English felt about what they considered Netherlandish greed. The description continues “A Dutch man is a lusty, fat, two legged cheese-worm: A creature, that is so addicted to eating butter, drinking fat drink, and sliding, that all the world knows him for a slippery fellow. An Hollander is not a High-lander, but a Low-lander; for he loves to be down in the dirt, and boar-like, to wallow therein.”[4] One of the pictures has an accompanying verse:

The monstrous pig,
With vipers big,
That seven-headed beast,
Shows how they still,
Pay good with ill
To th’ English and the rest.
The vipers come
Forth of the wombe,
With death of their own mother:
Such are that nation,
A generation,
That rise by fall of other

Dutch MonsterDetail from “The Dutch Boare Dissected, or a Description of Hogg-Land.”

Unsurprisingly, the bitter conflict also affected the diplomatic corps in London, which was already in something of a disordered condition. As the letters of the various Venetian representatives around Europe attest to, the major powers and gossipy players were embroiled in various fights with the English court. When war was officially declared in March of 1665, no ambassador from Venice was present. Spain was in the process of appointing a new resident. The Dutch ambassador was being threatened by mobs. France was planning to send an extraordinary embassy to England, supposedly to mediate. And – as if things were not exciting enough – the Tsar’s envoy had upset Charles II for some obscure reason involving the refusal of a gift, and had “not yet obtained any reception or ceremonial audience, and so far as has been heard as a private individual he is looked on with great disfavour by his Majesty.”[5]

Ambassadors arrived from Spain and France towards the end of April 1665, but the French made little apparent headway. An informant in London wrote the Venetian ambassador in Paris, Alvise Sagredo,

 the ambassadors of the Most Christian have not yet made their public entry, yet they have had many private audiences of King Charles, and it is believed to be with respect to the mediation between England and Holland, but as yet one sees no disposition in his Majesty to consent to an adjustment, as greater preparations for the war are made here daily. Besides this they say that these ambassadors have no instructions to make any considerable proposal to his Majesty with respect to reparation for the injuries done to him and his subjects by the Dutch, without which it seems practically impossible that their mediation can have effect.[6]

Nor did the French mediators have long to work. The aforementioned victory over the Dutch on June 3 (o.s.) at the Battle of Lowestoft only served to convince the English that their triumph was near at hand, despite the escape of most of the Netherlandish fleet. The Venetian correspondence is full of naught but speculation over the further prosecution of the war. Indeed, the first mentions of the outbreak in their letters are sandwiched between passages about Charles II’s younger brother and chief commander, James, Duke of York, and the location of the Dutch fleet. Sagredo’s informant simply wrote on June 19 that “The plague is spreading in several places of this city and its suburbs although there are only forty-three dead of it this week. It is feared that it will increase greatly with the intense heat of the present season.”[7] A week later, Sagredo’s informant penned the news that “The plague continues to spread in this city, 112 having died of it this week according to the bulletins and as the bulletins admit such a number it is feared that the numbers are double, more than fourteen parishes being affected.”[8]

But even as the disease took hold of London over the month of June and the start of July – as attested to by the increased frequency with which Pepys mentions houses being ‘shut up’ and his having sent his wife from the city[9] – the business of diplomacy proceeded with an almost bizarre normalcy against the general backdrop of disease. Sagredo’s informant wrote him that

This week the Count of Molina, ordinary ambassador of his Catholic Majesty made his public entry into London with great splendour and magnificence. He was conducted in his Majesty’s coaches and accompanied by more than sixty others from the Tower of London as far as his house at Chelsea […] The plague is spreading in London, 168 having died this week and nineteen parishes being affected. They say that it is beginning to spread into the country and especially in the neighbourhood of the metropolis.[10]

In fact, it is unclear who would have been present to watch the Spanish ambassador’s big entrance. Pepys’s own entry for the day doesn’t mention it; instead, he wrote “I find all the towne almost going out of towne, the coaches and waggons being all full of people going into the country.”[11] The king and queen had already removed to Hampton Court, only returning to London when necessary.

It is at this point that Sagredo stopped receiving regular letters from England, and appears to have resorted to filling his reports to the Doge and Senate with information gleaned at the French court, where people had begun to speculate as to the impact of the outbreak on the ongoing war. It was believed that the plague might persuade England to finally take advantage of France’s mediation, so as to “avoid the chance of perishing by arms as well.” As such, Louis XIV refused his ambassadors’ requests that the two weakest members of the party should be allowed to return home “in view of the slaughter wrought by the plague.” Even so, the disease finally had an impact on the conduct of business with the dismissal of much of the embassy party, so that the ambassadors could “follow the court with less danger, by limiting communication.”[12]

Unfortunately, the patchiness of Sagredo’s dispatches with regard to English affairs hinders their use as a source of information about the Great Plague. However, the disruption in the flow of information may help to shed some light on an interesting aspect of diplomatic culture: the spread of news between diplomats. Both the extant letters as well as the gaps that appeared as 1665 ran its course reveals that the Venetian’s informant in England was none other than the agent of the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, Giovanni Salvetti Anterminelli.

Salvetti, who had obtained his father’s diplomatic post upon the latter’s death in 1657, also allotted scant space in his correspondence to the start of the outbreak. His letter home of June 5 was almost entirely devoted to news of the war and the Battle of Lowestoft. A small insertion noted that “La peste [continua] d’aumentusti in queste cittá” – the plague continues to increase in this city – and that people were in doubt about the number of deaths being reported.[13] His letter of July 9, 1665, described the entrance of the Spanish ambassador, before ominously noting that that “il consuggio cresce” – the consumption grows – and that 168 people had died of the disease that week.[14]

The contents of this missive obviously mirror those of July 9 letter sent to Sagredo in Paris. Allen B Hinds, an editor of the Calendar of State Papers Relating to English Affairs in the Archives of Vencie,  remarked upon the similarity in the records, writing that “for the whole of the period from November 1664 the advices from England are practically identical with those forwarded by the Tuscan agent, Giovanni Salvetti Anterminelli, to his government” but that the missives Sagredo sent onwards were either in French, “or have been translated from the French.”[15] That may explain why Hinds did not go so far as to definitively state that the agent and informant were one in the same. But a closer look at the July 9 document both supports this identification of the mysterious agent, as well as why Sagredo may have received letters in French despite being a fellow Italian. The copy in Salvetti’s records lacks an addressee. It was not sent to a member of his own government, something he would have had no reason to hide considering that the missive contains no information not contained in the letters that bracket it.

However, the Tuscan agent may very well have wished to obscure his contact with Sagredo in his record keeping, or – even more intriguingly – Salvetti was sending the same letter to more than one individual, and he drafted it in Italian before translating it to French and dispatching it. A more thorough comparison of letters in the Venetian correspondence and addressees (or lack thereof) in Salvetti’s copies is required, as is a search of other collections of correspondence from the period for enclosures with news from London sent on the same days.

Lastly, another aspect of the letters that Hinds overlooked establishes Salvetti as Sagredo’s informant: the locations at which they were written. Just as the Venetian ambassador’s anonymous correspondent moves to Tonbridge in Kent to escape the plague, so does Salvetti. Indeed, this is the first time in his letters that the agent demonstrates some degree of alarm over the unfolding disaster, writing to the grand duke that “Only by the grace of God have I arrived in perfect health at Tonbridge.”[16] But while the Tuscan agent survived to continue reporting from England, it would be some time before the Venetian ambassador received any further news. As Sagredo informed his superiors in Venice on July 31, “Parlement here has forbidden communication with England.”[17]

[1] Samuel Pepys, 7.6.1665. All quotations from the diary come from Samuel Pepys, “The Diary of Samuel Pepys. Daily entries from the 17th century London Diary.”

[2] Pepys, 10.6.1665.

[3] For the most recent treatise on the topic, see Gijs Rommelse, The Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667): raison d’état, mercantilism and maritime strife (Hilversum: Verloren, 2006).

[4] Anon., “The Dutch Boare Dissected, or a Description of Hogg-Land” (London: s.n., 1665).

[5] See Marin Zorzi, Venetian Ambassador in Spain, to the Doge and Senate, 4.3.1665; Alvise Sagredo, Venetian Ambassador in France, to the Doge and Senate, 6.3.1665; Sagredo to the same, 20.3.1665, and enclosure. All Venetian correspondence taken from Calendar of State Papers Relating To English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 34, 1664-1666, ed. Allen B Hinds (London: 1933).

[6] Sagredo to the Doge and Senate, 1.5.1665 and 8.5.1665 and enclosures.

[7] Sagredo to the Doge and Senate, 23.6.1665, enclosure.

[8] Sagredo to the Doge and Senate, 3.7.1665, enclosure.

[9] Pepys, 5.7.1665: “I left them going to supper, grieved in my heart to part with my wife, being worse by much without her, though some trouble there is in having the care of a family at home in this plague time, and so took leave […] Late home and to bed, very lonely.”

[10] Sagredo to the Doge and Senate, 17.7.1665, enclosure. The entry took place on June 21 (o.s.)/July 1 (n.s.). The enclosure itself is dated July 9.

[11] Pepys, 21.6.1665.

[12] Sagredo to the Doge and Senate, 24.7.1665.

[13] Giovanni Salvetti Anterminelli to Perseo Falconcini, 5.6.1665, 208v-210v, Additional MS 27962 R(1), British Library, London, UK.

[14] Salvetti to anonymous, 9.7.1665, 225v-228v.

[15] Allen B. Hinds, “Preface” in Calendar of State Papers Relating To English Affairs in the Archives of Venice, Volume 34, 1664-1666, ed. Allen B Hinds (London, 1933).

[16] Salvetti to Ferdinando II de’Medici, 17.7.1665, 228v-233r, Add. MS 27962 R(1).

[17] Sagredo to the Doge and Senate, 31.7.1665.

Early modern “anti-vaxxers” and public health debates: reflections on the 1721 Boston smallpox epidemic, RBE 36 – TD Jacobs

The outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic has inspired numerous conspiracy theories, which have appeared in various forms on different social media platforms. From pathetically anti-Semitic memes on Facebook, to the equally predictable and utterly unsubstantiated claims in Reddit forums that the virus was lab grown, to sadly amusing Twitter threads about Bill Gates’s burning desire to track our trips to the Piggly Wiggly via injectable microchips.  However, one conspiracy theory found instant success: the YouTube video, “Plandemic,” which claims ‘Big Pharma’ is in cahoots with doctors to keep people sick. In part, the popularity of the fake documentary derived from how it plays off the views held by established conspiracy groups concerning the safety and effectiveness of vaccines. The danger to public health represented by the misinformation campaign caused Facebook and Twitter to remove the video from their respective platforms in May, but not before it had been viewed an estimated 1.8 million times. And fears are growing among scientists and public health experts that anti-vaxxers will prolong the pandemic. Indeed, governments such as Germany’s are already having to make assurances that any future vaccine to combat COVID-19 will only be administered voluntarily.

While the impact of the anti-vaxxer movement on the current pandemic remains to be seen, it has had a demonstrable effect on public health with regard to other illnesses. Studies have linked anti-vaxxers to a rise in outbreaks of other preventable, infectious diseases. Remarkably, impetus for the movement can largely be traced back to a single scam artist: Andrew Wakefield. In 1998, he published a study claiming a causal relationship between the MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) vaccine and autism. Wakefield’s paper was retracted by The Lancet after his results were unable to be substantiated. Moreover, it was revealed that he had mistreated patients and that he stood to gain financially from his fraudulent research. As a result, Wakefield was barred from practicing medicine in the United Kingdom. And even though studies have since disproven any causal link between the MMR vaccine and autism – including a notable Danish study of over half a million children – Wakefield’s claims continue to find adherents. Measles, which had been declared eradicated in the United States in 2000, began to reappear as parents refused to vaccinate their children.  In 2019, the Centers for Disease Control reported that there had been over 1,200 measles cases across 31 states, leading to at least sixty cases that resulted in serious complications.

And while they banned ‘Plandemic’, social media platforms have done little to combat anti-vaccination groups in general. For example, anti-vaxxers have been permitted to run rampant on Facebook, harassing vaccine advocates and even threatening them with death – actions the platform recognizes as violations of its community guidelines, but says it can do nothing about. Moreover, a recent study tracking discussions on vaccines on Facebook found that anti-vaxxer views are growing unchecked, and will dominate the platform within a decade. Results from the investigation found that anti-vaxxers discuss their views more frequently, and actively target groups and individuals, so despite being smaller in number than those that support vaccines, they are more effective in spreading their beliefs. But was this the case with a similar controversy in the eighteenth-century?

In 1721, Boston was rocked by an outbreak of smallpox, and the debate over how best to stop the spread of the disease played out in the press. At the time, severe epidemics were simply a part of life. During a measles epidemic in 1713-15 that swept the North American coast line, a Boston minister, Cotton Mather chronicled the outbreak in his diary. It reached the city in mid-October, and five individuals in his own household began showing symptoms on the same day, November 4. His wife died just five days later, then his maidservant, and three of his children. On November 23, Mather wrote: “My poor family is now left without any infant in it, or any under seven years of age.” In his own house, measles had killed 5 of the 11 people infected, a fatality rate of 45%. While the lack of uniform colonial records regarding populations at the time makes it difficult to say how many people died in total during the outbreak, a recent study using data from New France estimated a fatality rate of between 20 and 30% among infants and young children – those considered most susceptible to the disease. And indeed, Mather’s own observations regarding what part of his household was most affected by the measles would appear to confirm those findings.

It seems only natural that anyone who had experienced at first hand the deadly toll  extracted by infectious diseases would seize upon any and all means to combat them. Nevertheless, when smallpox arrived in Boston in April of 1721, community leaders were strongly divided over whether to adopt inoculation. Looking back from our current climate, with all the reports of conservative Christian pastors unwittingly spreading COVID among their flocks, it may be tempting to ascribe their eighteenth-century predecessors’ reluctance to some kind of religious superstition. However, that is not at all an accurate reflection of the divisions at the time. For one thing, clergymen were among the most outspoken participants on both sides of the debate, and one group of Puritan ministers formed the core of the pro-inoculation party. Their intense involvement is understandable considering that there were few actual physicians in the English colonies, and ministers regularly dispensed medical advice and served on the frontlines in any epidemic. Moreover, professional doctors were also divided on the issue. Indeed, William Douglass, who actually held a medical degree, was the loudest opponent of inoculation. His position may strike us incongruous now, but two factors must be taken into consideration: first, inoculation was a relatively unknown practice in Europe and in the American colonies. Second, inoculation – unlike vaccination – could result in death from the very disease it was meant to combat.

Modern vaccination typically uses a dead or inactivated form of a microbe, and cannot cause the disease in question. Rather, it primes the immune system to recognize the live microbe if and when it appears. But vaccines as we now understand them did not begin to develop until the end of the eighteenth century through the innovations of Edward Jenner. Inoculation, on the other hand, involves taking live, infected material from a patient and introducing it by various means into a healthy person. In this way, a milder, survivable form of the disease would be induced. Sometimes, however, the inoculated subject developed severe symptoms and died. Moreover, the inoculated subject was contagious and could spread the illness unless placed in strict quarantine. The practice had been employed in China since the fifteenth century but it was not promoted in Western Europe until the early eighteenth century via the work of Emmanuel Timonius, Mary Wortley Montague, and a somewhat more unlikely figure: the aforementioned Cotton Mather, now better known for his involvement in the Salem Witch Trials.

By the time of the smallpox epidemic, Mather had learned of inoculation from one of his own slaves and by questioning others, and he had read Timonius’s accounts in the Philosophical Transactions. Convinced that inoculation was effective, he laid plans to implement the practice in case of an outbreak. When the disease appeared in 1721, he immediately began to marshal his forces and lobby the Boston medical community. However, inoculation was met with fierce resistance – primarily in the form of James Franklin’s New-England Courant.

In fact, it has been argued that the Courant‘s entire raison d’être was to capitalize on the inoculation controversy. It is certainly no coincidence that the paper was founded in August of 1721, months after the outbreak of both the disease and the debate, and its first issue focused on smallpox. But those involved in the venture had varying reasons for taking part. As David Copeland has argued, the printer and his backers were not just motived by concerns over public health. Rather, the paper – and the debate on inoculation – was used to try and discredit the Puritan community to the advantage of Massachusetts’s Anglican contingent, which wanted to see the Church of England established as the colony’s official state church. And Douglass, as James Schmotter has pointed out, had a further motivation: establishing medicine as an actual profession in the colonies. This entailed challenging theories and practices that originated outside of the medical community.  

The anti-inoculation pieces in the Courant made use of a wide variety of arguments and discursive strategies, some of which probably sound familiar to us now. For example, references were made to a conspiracy to take down the local government and strengthen the authority of the English crown in the colony. Then too there were the exhortations that inoculation thwarted the will of god. The medical arguments were numerous, and essentially summed up by Douglass’s editorial in the first edition of the Courant titled “At the request of several gentlemen in town: a continuation of the history of inoculation in Boston.The doctor, identified as “a Society of the Practitioners in Physick,” wrote that inoculation was:

“entirely new, not in the least vouched or recommended (being merely published, in the philosophick transactions by way of amusement) from Britain, tho’ it came to us via London from the Turk, and by a strong viva voce evidence, was proved to be of fatal & dangerous consequence.”

Douglass went on to deride Mather and his associates as “six gentlemen of piety and learning, profoundly ignorant of the matter” who were making the case for inoculation on the basis of naught but their character for they certainly had no credentials. Lastly, he reported on one case in which a person who had been inoculated nearly died.

When it came to swaying the Boston public to his point of view, Douglass employed a shotgun approach. He made active use of xenophobia and racism by summoning the boogeyman of “the Turk.” He argued from authority and went after the credentials of those promoting inoculation. He misrepresented Timonius’s publications concerning inoculation. He tried arguing from anecdote rather than data. In fact, Douglass’s only scientifically sound arguments – that inoculation indisputably caused illness, and could possibly help spread it – were rapidly passed over with the briefest of references to “strong” yet unspecified evidence obtained by word of mouth.

For their part, the pro-inoculation camp tended to focus on direct observations and the data, such as it was. By the time the Courant was established, Mather had convinced a locally trained physician, Zabdiel Boylston, to begin inoculation. Boylston initially inoculated ten people over several weeks and his results were reported in another local paper, the Boston Gazette, that July. According to John Blake, during the course of the city’s epidemic, Boylston and other physicians inoculated a total of 287 persons (not all voluntarily) six of whom died – 2.1%. Meanwhile, 5,889 people had caught the disease naturally from a total population of 10,567, 842 of whom died – 14.6%. These fatalities made up more than three quarters of the total deaths in Boston that year. I have found no information concerning the relative rates of smallpox’s long-term effects (severe scarring and blindness) among the survivors in either population, but inoculation was undoubtedly better when it came to survivability.

To return to the question asked at the start of this essay, it is difficult to say what effect the arguments of either camp had upon the attitudes and actions of Bostonians in general. As is typical for early modern publications, we have little insight into audience reception. However, the vitriolic coverage in the Courant led – at least according to Franklin – to his being accosted in the street. And whoever threw a bomb into Mather’s house in November of 1721, attached a note referencing the inoculation controversy. Mather had no doubt who was to blame for his troubles, writing in December that:

“Warnings are to be given unto the wicked printer, and his accomplices, who every week publish a vile paper to less and blacken the ministers of the town & render their ministry ineffectual. A wickedness never parallel’d anywhere upon the face of the earth.”

On the other side of the debate, it is harder to tell what impact pro-inoculation reports in the Gazette had. Boylston later published an account of his activities and patients, and while it isn’t immediately clear how he and his colleagues found the vast majority of their test subjects, one passage indicates that it was largely via personal testimonies, as opposed to the presentation of carefully framed scientific arguments in the press:    

“These gentlemen came from Roxbury into Boston to be inoculated […] and their recommendation of this practice, at their return prov’d to be of great service to that town, in carrying the inhabitants soon thro’ that distemper, and in saving many lives”

At the same time, however, Boylston indicated that the “idle, unjust, and ridiculous stories and misrepresentations” published by anti-inoculators had been effective in influencing people against the practice.

Naturally, the public discourses surrounding the smallpox outbreak of 1721 and the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 are not entirely comparable. Apart from the differences in scale and the kind of media in which debates have taken place, there are massive societal changes that need to be taken into account. Not least of which is that the residents of the industrialised West generally have less direct experience of virulent, infectious diseases. As has been pointed out elsewhere, modern medicine has become the victim of its own success. The necessity of vaccination becomes less apparent when the communicable illnesses that drove the science to produce solutions are no longer as familiar. Smallpox was officially eradicated in 1977, and the last outbreak of polio in the United States occurred in 1979. Then too, COVID-19 – often conflated with the seasonal flu – does not inspire the same visceral response in comparison to smallpox, or two diseases still extant: measles and the bubonic plague. All of which graphically advertise their presence upon their victims’ bodies. The odd case of “COVID toes,” on the other foot, are easily hidden from sight. These basic differences may help to explain why people question the existence of COVID-19, while the historical record doesn’t seem to contain references to Bostonians denying that there was a smallpox epidemic.

Nevertheless, there do seem to be some common features: conspiracy theories; effective, multi-faceted discursive strategies used by ‘science deniers;’ and ineffectual scientific communication. To this must be added the issue of impartiality in the framing of the debate by the platform on which it was held. James Franklin asserted that his paper was neutral. For example, in the eighteenth issue, he wrote:

“The Courant was never design’d for a party paper. I have once and again given out, that both inoculators and anti-inoculators are welcome to speak their minds in it.”

However, upon closer examination this appears to be the wordier, eighteenth-century equivalent of Fox News’s ‘fair and balanced’ slogan. Yes, the pro-inoculation party was given some space in the paper, but from my own observations it was nowhere near the amount provided anti-inoculators. Moreover, the pro-inoculator viewpoints were rarely presented in their entirety. Rather, they often took the form of snippet references to articles published in other papers and advertisements for pamphlets like this one:

“Just publish’d the Second Edition of Several arguments, proving that inoculation of the small pox is not contained in the Law of Physick, either Natural or Divine, and therefore unlawful. Together with a reply to two short pieces, one by the Rev. Dr. Increase Mather, and another by an anonymous author, intituled, Sentiments on the small pox inoculated. And also, A short answer to a late letter in the New- England Courant. By John Williams”

What the advertisement fails to mention is that Franklin was both printer and seller of this booklet – and several others. He had a clear financial stake in the continuation of the controversy, not its resolution. Just like Facebook, the money the platform has made on ads that specifically target anti-vaxxers possibly explains why the company is unable to do anything about them.

Closer examination of such debates in the past, their framing, their outcomes, and what discursive strategies worked, could aid us in finding a way to combat modern misinformation campaigns. At least one aspect of the 1721 case seems to reflect the findings of the aforementioned study regarding the on-line competition between anti-vaxxer and pro-vaccination narratives, namely the effectiveness of multiple narratives vs. a largely monothematic, data driven argument that can seem too theoretical. Researchers are currently discussing ways scientists and doctors can improve this aspect of their communication to combat anti-vax misinformation over the long haul, such as taking the time to address the concerns of individual patients. But the height of a global pandemic possibly requires an approach that is both more concrete and more diffuse – such as the dissemination of testimonials by those directly impacted by both disease and treatment across the same social media networks anti-vaxxers make active use of. Such a personal, anecdotal form of science communication seems counter-intuitive, but the above – admittedly preliminary investigation – suggests that it was somewhat effective in the inoculation fight during the midst of the 1721 smallpox epidemic.


New-England Courant, nos. 1 and 18, 7.8.1721 and 27.11.1721. 

CDC, “Measles Cases and Outbreaks,” consulted 1.7.2020.

Travis M. Andrews, “Facebook and other companies are removing viral ‘Plandemic’ conspiracy video,” The Washington Post, 8.5.2020.

Philip Ball, “Anti-vaccine movement could undermine efforts to end coronavirus pandemic, researchers warn,” Nature, 13.5.2020.

John. B. Blake, “The inoculation controversy in Boston: 1721-1722,” The New England Quarterly 25, no. 4 (1952): 489-506.

John B. Blake, Public health in the town of Boston, 1630-1822 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1858).

Zabdiel Boylston, An historical account of the small-pox inoculated in New-England (London: Printed for S. Chandler, 1726).

Shawn Buhr, “To inoculate or note to inoculate?: The debate and the smallpox epidemic of Boston in 1721,” Constructing the Past 1, no. 1 (2000). ttps://

Elizabeth Cohen, “Facebook vowed to investigate horrific abuse by anti-vaxxers. Nine months later, no one was penalized,” CNN, 21.6.2020.

David A. Copeland, Debating the issues in colonial newspapers: primary documents on events of the period (Westport: Greenwood Press, 2000).

David A. Copeland, The media’s role in defining the nation: the active voice (New York: Peter Lang, 2010).

Stephen Coss, The fever of 1721: the epidemic that revolutionized medicine and American politics (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2016).

Joan Donovan, “Vaccines stop diseases safely – why all the suspicion?” Nature, 22.7.2020.

Neil F. Johnson, et al., “The online competition between pro- and anti-vaccination views,” Nature, 13.5.2020.

Ryan Mazan, et al., “The measles epidemic of 1714-1715 in New-France,” PSC Discussion Papers Series 21, no. 4 (2007).

Kreesten Meldgaard Madsen, et al., “A population-based study of measles, mumps, and rubella vaccination and autism,” New England Journal of Medicine 347, no. 19 (2002): 1477-482.

David M. Morens, “The past is never dead – measles epidemic, Boston, Massachusetts, 1713,” Emerging Infectious Diseases 21, no. 7 (2015): 1257-260.

Loveday Morris and William Glucroft, “Prospect of a coronavirus vaccine unites anti-vaxxers, conspiracy theorists and hippie moms in Germany.” The Washington Post, 3.7.2020.

James W. Schmotter, “William Douglass and the beginnings of medical professionalism: a reinterpretation of the 1721 Boston inoculation controversy,” Historical Journal of Western Massachusetts 6, no. 1 (1977).

Julia Carrie Wong, “Revealed: Facebook enables ads to target users interested in ‘vaccine controversies,” The Guardian, 15.2.2019.

“Free debate” has hidden costs – TD Jacobs

When I was a bachelor student, there was a conspiracy theorist who regularly appeared outside our university buildings to harangue students. His interests ranged from the relatively mainstream moon landing and 9-11 conspiracies, to an extremely offensive fringe belief that birth control pills turned women into hairy lesbians. Nor did he settle for handing out fliers – he demanded, in the name of freedom of speech and academic debate, admittance to lecture halls during classes to present his evidence. Once, a professor gave him ten minutes to mathematically prove that humans have not achieved space travel. When this entertaining interlude in our otherwise dull day ended, the conspiracy theorist was shown the door and I don’t recall any professor providing him with a platform ever again.

Rather more recently (and somewhat less amusingly) a university funded student group at my own institution invited a well-known misogynist to give a lecture on university grounds. Among other things, the speaker expressed the quaint Victorian notion that women are simply biologically not suited to academic pursuits. Understandably, this event was roundly denounced by many – including myself, many of my colleagues, the ACCOD union, and other student groups – and demands made that neither the university buildings nor its funds be used for such purposes.[1] Not only have his opinions long been consigned to the scientific dustbin, but his airing of them at our institution was seen as contributing to the creation of a hostile work environment. Moreover, many have rightfully pointed out that this is particularly damaging in consideration of the systematic and structural inequalities women are already confronted with in academia.

The denial of an academic platform in either instance is not an attack on free speech. Our resident conspiracy theorist was free to say what he wanted out on the sidewalk. The misogynist is free to seek gullible audiences and speaker’s fees elsewhere. Moreover, academics routinely place limits on speech in academic settings. Scientists recognize that there are points at which unstructured, unlimited debate is not productive, and is even disruptive to the advancing of a discussion. For example, you will not find a creationist ‘teaching the controversy’ alongside evolutionary biologists at very many accredited institutions.[2] Nowhere, I dare say, will you find an expert in phrenology plying their trade in a medical school. No astrologers on staff in astronomy departments, or practitioners of alchemy in chemistry or physics. The debates between these competing views on the world are regarded as settled, and to continuously rehash them would waste time, money, and material resources.

Historians also place limits on debate. Just as with the ‘hard sciences,’ claimants must establish their knowledge of the subject with regard to what has been argued, dismissed, and demonstrated. Students and professionals alike must identify new questions that critique and build on older analyses and – above all – provide evidence, with receipts. Pupils who fail to meet these criteria are not given passing grades. Under ideal circumstances, colleagues who don’t meet these criteriawill not pass peer review processes. And historians who stray entirely outside their field of expertise to make pronouncements in another area of scholarship are often met with derision.

This is why I find it incredible that colleagues both at my own university and elsewhere are struggling to critically engage with the open letter published in Harper’s Magazine recently, decrying the “restriction of debate” in society and academia.[3] Perhaps this is because Noam Chomsky was, unsurprisingly, among its signatories. For decades, Chomsky has led the fight for free and open discussion in academia and elsewhere.[4] And I have generally been behind him in his crusade, which has helped draw attention to the problems of conservative reactionary movements against developments in the field of history such as the increased critique of a-historical nationalist narratives that have helped to justify and perpetuate state violence.[5] Not this time, however.

The letter was endorsed by a number of other individuals, including JK Rowling, who recently published her own essay on ‘cancel culture.’[6] And her signature highlights a problem that the letter fails to address: imbalances of power in public and academic spaces that help to perpetuate discrimination against minorities. Rowling, who achieved wealth and renown as a beloved children’s author, has become the avowed champion of Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) in academia. TERFs – or ‘gender critical theorists’ as they prefer to be called – have aggressively targeted the transgender community.[7] According to their reductionist and antiquated view of biology,[8] gender identity, expression, or perception are irrelevant. Transgender men (such as myself) are women who have been brainwashed into hating our biological sex, while transgender women are predatory men in dresses. Such claims are, of course, extremely offensive. But more importantly for the purposes of this essay, they are unfounded. Not only do they lack evidence and a cohesive body of nuanced interdisciplinary research to support their views, their opinions are actually contradicted by both researchers and practitioners across various disciplines, including biology, gender studies, psychology, transgender healthcare, [9] and even in history and anthropology.[10] Indeed, the last two fields have contributed enormously to our understanding of how gender has been variously socially constructed through time and space.

TERFs have no convincing response to any of these critiques, and for that reason they are – like the misogynist mentioned above – largely shut out from serious academic discussions on gender. Instead, they have had their greatest successes in the areas of media and politics, where intellectual honesty and scientific standards generally don’t apply but where their academic credentials hold some sway.[11] And the ensnarement of a platform such as Rowling’s has substantially increased their reach. For example, Rowling was recently cited in the US Senate during the debate on the Equality Act, which seeks to amend the Civil Rights Act to prohibit discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity in numerous areas, including employment, education, housing, and public accommodations. The vote on the act was blocked by James Lankford, an anti-gay rights Republican from Oklahoma, who quoted a passage from Rowling’s essay on ‘cancel culture’ in which she claimed that women were being threatened and abused while trying to express their concerns regarding the threat posed by transgender people.[12]

The women Rowling referenced complain that they are being victimized by transgender activists pushing a radical agenda that seeks to stifle free speech and intellectual debate. But the reality is quite different from the scenario that Rowling has presented on Twitter and in her essay. For example, one TERF that Rowling has supported, Maya Forstater, was not – as Rowling has insisted – ‘fired’ for saying biological sex is real (something that the vast majority of transgender people do not dispute.) In actuality, Forstater continually Tweeted undeniably bigoted statements directed at specific individuals, and made other more generally discriminatory statements on the platform in an effort to derail changes to the UK’s Gender Recognition Act that would have granted transgender people easier access to necessary paperwork changes. Colleagues at the Center for Global Development, a nonprofit think tank, complained of Forstater’s transphobic Tweets. However, she persisted, and her contract as a tax expert was not renewed. Forstater decided that she was being unfairly discriminated against and took her case to an employment tribunal, where she lost. The judge applied a carefully formulated set of criteria and ruled that her intolerant, absolutist views were “not worthy of respect in a democratic society,” and did not warrant the special protection afforded other strongly held, philosophical beliefs.[13]

Rowling has also cited a highly contentious study that led to accusations of academic censorship against its critics. In 2018, Lisa Littman, an assistant professor at Brown University, published a paper in PLOS ONE in which sheinvented the diagnosis ‘rapid onset gender dysphoria.’ The crux of Littman’s argument was that gender dysphoria among transgender youth is not real, but rather is a socially induced phenomenon that may mask other mental health disorders.[14] However, Littman interviewed no transgender youth or transgender healthcare specialists before coming to this conclusion. In fact, her research consisted of a survey for parents that she posted on anti-transgender websites. Following critiques that Littman’s research was ideologically biased, lacked methodological rigor, and fell below scientific standards, the journal opened a post-publication review and her university withdrew a public endorsement in the form of a press release.[15] While Littman agreed to rewrite her paper to clarify her methodology and provide context,[16] her invention is still not recognized as a legitimate diagnosis among medical professionals, including her own colleagues in the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH).[17]

Neither of these cases represent factual attacks on freedom of speech or academic debate. Forstator’s bigoted speech was not limited. It was criticized. Transgender activists and allies have the freedom to respond to attacks on efforts to gain greater equality in society. She sought to perpetuate a gross injustice, but was not the victim of one. Moreover, freedom of speech has never been an absolute guarantee against the consequences of said speech, and not all speech is protected. In many countries, including her own, hate speech such as Forstator’s is not. In Littman’s case, she attempted to engage in academic debate, but her initial argument was deemed scientifically invalid upon closer examination because her methodology was poor and her results improperly founded. That is, as indicated above, how academic debate is supposed to work. A fact based charge of incompetence is not censorship.

Rowling’s defense of Forstator and Littman, among others, as the victims of ‘cancel culture’ is disingenuous, and the Harper’s letter does nothing to address this increasingly common discursive power play.[18] As several critics of the missive have pointed out, Rowling is not the only high placed signatory who cannot be considered to be engaged in “good-faith disagreements.” Quite a handful of them have been called out for misconduct or the promotion of extremist ideologies.[19] Nor do the claims made in the letter regarding discrimination or censorship appear to hold up under closer scrutiny.[20] And now, as Valentini puts it, “they want to be able to say whatever they want without consequence and to paint themselves as the victims even as they wield more institutional and systemic power than anyone criticizing them.”[21] This is, as Hannah Giorgis has termed it, “a deeply provincial view of free speech.”[22]

Some of my colleagues, I am afraid to say, are overlooking this key point. And Rowling is once again a prime example of this feigned victimhood. She demonstrably does not care about the freedom of speech of others, and is more than willing to use her considerable resources to ‘cancel’ her critics. After all, Rowlingsigned the Harper’s letter but recently threatened one critic of her outspoken transphobia with a lawsuit – and since she has all the lawyers one could buy at her disposal, the threat was effective. Nicola Spurling deleted her Tweet stating that Rowling can’t be trusted around children, but has stood by her point regarding the harmful nature of Rowling’s views.[23] And considering Rowling’s recent remarks equating legitimate medical treatment for transgender youth with the increasingly banned practice of so-called ‘conversion therapy,’[24] the author’s opinions most certainly do pose a danger to transgender children, who are already at a higher risk of suicide.[25] She cannot be trusted around them. Her signature – alongside those of others with platforms that they’ve used to ‘debate’ the validity of transgender people via such ‘concern trolling’[26] – cannot simply be dismissed as an obscuration of a greater point as some of my colleagues have proposed.

That brings me to the following: colleagues rushing to jump on Chomsky’s now hijacked bandwagon need to acknowledge that not all proposed academic debates have the same weight in terms of their potential consequences, nor do they burden those most closely concerned with the same amount of mental and emotional labour. For example, if I lost an argument regarding my own research, which centers on early modern diplomacy, the cost is somewhat negligible in that it would mostly affect my own career and not have any broader societal implications. And I engage in those debates because it’s my job.

However, the debate TERFs persist in demanding despite having long ago lost on scientific grounds concerns my validity as a person, my life. And the ultimate price of failure in such a debate is my right to move unmolested through society. It is not an ‘academic’ debate in the colloquial sense because it is not confined to academic spaces, and it can have a real-world impact on a marginalized and vulnerable minority by legitimizing discrimination. Academics have a professional, ethical obligation to ask who is demanding and framing such debates and to what end, and how is general societal capital – as well as academic access and resources – being distributed between the participants and subjects of such debates. And the same holds true for debates regarding the real-time struggles of other minorities, such as the Black Lives Matter movement or the resurgence of Indigenous activism against settler colonialism – the latter being of particular interest to me as a Native American. If the concerns and the costs to these communities are not actively taken on board or are condescendingly dismissed as ‘identity politics’ by those debating with no risk to themselves other than a witty riposte, then that isn’t an honest intellectual pursuit. It’s exploitative mental masturbation.

Lastly, like other transgender scholars who are not actually working in the field of gender studies, I feel press ganged at times to engage in conversations I’m not paid to have, don’t want to have, and in which I simply don’t have the luxury of ‘agreeing to disagree’ as I can with points of contention relating to my dissertation. Apart from having to educate people about being transgender – which I generally don’t mind so long as the subject of what’s in my pants isn’t raised too often – I’ve also had to defend my existence to some colleagues, ward off attacks from conservative students, and at times fight the Byzantine university administration for the most mundane changes to paperwork. Nor have role models or peer support always been readily at hand. Indeed, I have often felt obligated to provide help to students facing similar problems. That is the reality of being a minority in an academic setting. The toll in terms of additional stress and anxiety is significantly higher than what is demanded of me by my actual job, not just because of what is at stake but because there is no apparent end in sight. At least my dissertation has a definitive deadline.

So before colleagues excitedly and enthusiastically endorse calls for more ‘free debate’ from the intellectually dishonest and yet disproportionately powerful, I’d ask them to carefully consider what they are asking for. Because unlike recondite arguments concerning the ceremonial use of hats in diplomatic encounters in the seventeenth century, these debates have actual costs.

[1] Mingtje Wange, “KVHV onder vuur na seksistische uitspraken op lezing,” Schamper, 11.12. 2019. is UGent’s student magazine, and it has done a great deal of reporting on the rise of extreme right student groups. There was a video made of the event, “Video opgedoken van seksistische uitspraken Jeff Hoeyberghs aan UGent,” De Morgen, 9.10.19.  The complaints also led to investigation being opened into the conduct of the misogynist by the Orde der Artsen, the national licensing board. Tuly Salumu, “Massa klachten na seksistsche lezing van Jeff Hoeybergs, Orde der Artsen opent onderzoek,” Het Nieusblad. 10.12.2019.

[2] The assertion that there is a controversy between creationist beliefs and scientific findings that deserves to be debated in classrooms is actually a known tactic that is specifically employed by religious groups in order to gain access to academic and educational platforms. See, among others, Barbara Forrest and Paul R. Gross, Creationism’s Trojan Horse: the wedge of Intelligent Design (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007, updated edition), and the chapter “The Wedge Document: a design for Design” in particular.

[3] “A letter on justice and open debate,” Harper’s Magazine, 7.7.2020.

[4] This is not the first time that Chomsky’s longstanding work on intellectual freedom has become embroiled in controversy. See Jean Bricmont, “Chomsky, Faurisson, and Vidal-Naquet,” in Julie Franck and Jean Bricmont, eds., Chomsky Notebook (New York: Columbia University Press, 2010), 292-308.

[5] Among others, see Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky, Manufacturing consent: the political economy of the mass media (first published in 1988, revised in 2002); Noam Chomsky, Objectivity and Liberal scholarship (first published in 1997); Noam Chomsky, Hegemony or survival: America’s quest for global dominance (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2003).

[6] J.K. Rowling, “J.K. Rowling writes about her reasons for speaking out on sex and gender issues,” 10.6.2020.

[7] TERFs generally claim that the term is a slur, but in my opinion that is the discursive equivalent of racists complaining about being called racist, and I am not going to participate in their rebranding efforts. However, Sophie Lewis has provided a useful critique of the term, noting that there are anti-trans individuals and groups, particularly in the United States, willing to associate with TERFs but who do not claim – and cannot be considered to have – any kind of connection to feminism, Sophie Lewis “How British feminism became anti-trans,” The New York Times, 7.2.2019. Viv Smythe, thought to have invented the term, has since written about it: “I’m credited with having coined the word ‘Terf.’ Here’s how it happened,” The Guardian, 28.11.2018.

[8] Biological sex, both in terms of genotypes and phenotypes, is more complicated than the binary narrative (i.e. XY equals boy, XX equals girl) taught in primary schools. Nor do genotypes map directly to complex human behaviors. Having XX chromosomes does not mean an individual will prefer the colour pink, any more than it means that they are unsuited to academic pursuits. For a basic,general rebuttal of essentialism, see Gisela Kaplan and Lesley J. Rogers, Gene worship: moving beyond the nature/nuture debate over genes, brain, and gender (New York: Other Press, 2003).  For an advanced review article on the plasticity of the phenotypical expression of sex characteristics, see Malin Ah-King and Sören Nyllin, “Sex in an evolutionary perspective: just another reaction norm,” Evolutionary Biology 37, (2010).

[9] A biological basis for transgenderism in at least some portion of the population is still being established, but epigenetics is an increasing area of focus. An overview of various theories, and those relating to epigenetics in particular, can be found in Dana Jennett Bevan, Transgender health and medicine: history, practice, research, and the future (Santa Barbara: Praeger, 2019). Bevan’s tome contains such a wealth of references to peer reviewed papers that it is an excellent starting point for anyone wanting to study the subject further.

[10] Anthropological studies on non-Western conceptualizations of gender include Will Roscoe, Changing Ones: third and fourth gender in Native North America (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 1998); Sue-Ellen Jacobs, Wesley Thomas and Sabine Lang, eds. Two-spirit people: Native American gender identity, sexuality, and spirituality (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1997). Individuals in pre-modern Europe who appear to have engaged in more than mere situational cross dressing have been subject to investigation, see for example Sherry Velasco, The lieutenant nun: transgenderism, lesbian desire, and Catalina de Erauso (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2000). Studies relating to early modern European conceptualizations and performance of gender in literature are particularly numerous, but a good and nuanced oversight is provided by Simone Chess, Male-to-female crossdressing in early modern English literature: gender, performance, and queer relations (New York: Routledge, 2016).  Modern and contemporary’Western’ transgender history has been covered elsewhere; see for example, Susan Stryker, Transgender history (London: Hachette: 2007).

[11] For an excellent essay on the history of UK media representation, see Hannah Ewens, “Inside the great British TERF war,” Vice, 16.6.2020.

[12] Chris Johnson, “User clip: Kames Lankford cites J.K. Rowling in opposition to Equality Act,” C-Span, 18.6.2020.

[13] “Forstater v CGD,” Case Number: 220909/2019.

[14] Lisa Littman, “Parent reports of adolescents and young adults perceived to show signs of a rapid onset of gender dysphoria,” PLOS ONE 13, no. 8 (2018).

[15] Brown University, “Updated: Brown statements on gender dysphoria study,” 19.3.2019.

[16] Lisa Littman, “Correction: parent reports of adolescents and young adults perceived to show signs of a rapid onset of gender dysphoria,” PLOS ONE 14, no. 3 (2019).

[17] WPATH, “WPATH position on “rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD),” 4.9.2018. The reasons why Littman’s invention has no credibility in the medical community are pretty much summed up in just one review of her work: Arjee Javellana Restar, “Methodological critique of Littman’s (2018) parental-respondents accounts of “rapid-onset gender dysphoria,” Archives of Sexual Behavior (2019). Somewhat worryingly, Littman is now purportedly researching desistance and de-transitioning.

[18] The Harper’s letter has already inspired an equally ridiculous Belgian equivalent, warning against “radical activists” purportedly seeking to silence debates that according to the text “deserve to be held on every topic.” However, it must be noted that the so-called “radical activists” in this case are further identified as those that “say they want to fight (institutional) racism.” In other words: the Black Lives Matter movement. It is therefore not surprising that the letter was signed by a prominent nationalist who has been criticized for his bigoted positions. Bonne Kerstens, “Theo Francken (N-VA) en tientallen anderen ondertekenen manifest tegen ‘afrekencultuur,” De Morgen, 16.7.2020.

[19] It seems some of the lesser known signatories of the Harper’s letter were unaware of the other signers, and some may not have agreed to sign it at all: Aaron Huertas, “How did the organizers of the Harper’s letter mislead some of the signers? (It’s about ethics in open letters),” Medium, 9.7.2020.

[20] “A more specific letter on justice and open debate,” The Objective, 10.7.2020.

[21] Jessica Valenti, “‘Cancel culture’ is how the powerful play victim,” Gen, 8.7.2020.

[22] Hanna Giorgis, “A deeply provincial view of free speech,” The Atlantic, 13.7.2020.

[23] Megan Lalonde, “J.K. Rowling threatens legal action against Coquitlam transgender activist over tweets,” Tricity News, 29.5.2020. Despite this, and in an example of the kind of solidarity that Rowling purports to believe in but does not practice, a group of transgender and non-binary activists recently criticized a UK tabloid for its lurid reporting regarding Rowling’s personal life: Jim Waterson, “Trans activists write to Sun condemning JK Rowling abuse story,” 15.7.2020, The Guardian,

[24] For just one critique of Rowling’s remarks on conversion therapy see: Garrard Conley, “J.K. Rowling’s bigotry is painful and maddening,” CNN, 8.7.2020.

[25] Two of the most recent studies include Russell B. Toomey, et al. “Transgender adolescent suicide behavior,” Pediatrics, 142, no. 4 (2018); Brian C. Thomas, et al. “Suicidal disparities between transgender and cisgender adolescents,” Pediatrics 144, no. 5 (2019).

[26] Among other critiques see: Zack Ford, “Atlantic cover story is a loud dog whistle for anti-transgender parents,” Think Progress, 20.6.2018,; Karter Booher, “(Trans)itioning from false narratives,” South Seattle Emerald, 7.7.2017.; Noah Berlatsky, “We don’t value trans voices – even on trans issues,” The Establishment, 16.11.2015.