Thought Catalog is a publishing platform that operates under the idea that "all thinking is relevant." Even disgustingly transphobic thought; even incoherent racist ramblings; even classist screeds; even dangerous pseudo-science; even pages upon pages of offensive, troll-y misogyny.
In the past week, two particularly egregious articles were published on the site. The first, by noted bigot Gavin McInnes — the illustrious scribe behind "Hey, Ladies! Short Hair Is Rape," and "When It's OK To Hit A Woman" — was titled "Transphobia Is Perfectly Natural." It's since been hidden behind a warning screen, reported by the community as "hateful or abusive content," and McInnes has been asked to take a leave of absence from the advertising company he founded for being a prejudiced, terrible shit. One wonders why this backlash took so long, given the shocking amount of of misogynist, racist, homophobic, transphobic, and otherwise reprehensible content McInnes has been known to spew across the Internet.
The second piece, by a writer named Anthony Rogers, was entitled "Ferguson, Missouri Looks Like a Rap Video." It's also been tagged as "hateful or abusive," because it was.
Yes, both pieces were dealt with after a great deal of public outcry, but it's troubling that they were allowed to be posted — and tweeted out to Thought Catalog's 363,000 followers — in the first place. It's also troubling that McInnes was allowed to publish such patently unacceptable content on such a large platform for so long, and it's upsetting that he's not the only bigot who regularly vomits up "relevant thinking" for the site. But bigoted vomiting is built into the business model, it seems: when Caroline O'Donovan of the Nieman Lab reached out to a Thought Catalog publisher for comment or justification, he responded, "This particular piece was not screened by a producer" and added that Thought Catalog will allow pretty much anything to go on their website: "basically just email us," he said, and you can publish whatever you want.
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In the aftermath of these two massive gaffes (and the many other gaffes that have preceded them), some writers who have previously had work published on the "platisher" are attempting to disassociate themselves from the site. At the time of publication, the number of former Thought Catalog writers demanding their work be taken down numbered at fifty-three, according to Nico Lang, a former Thought Catalog publisher helping to coordinate their requests.
In an essay for the Daily Dot, s.e. smith, one of the writers who wants their work removed, argues that Thought Catalog is "so dedicated to the idea of privileging commenters and readers over integrity... that it still won't critically evaluate whether hate speech really belongs on its pages in the first place." In different essay for Daily Dot, Samantha Allen claims that the supposedly value-neutral mantra of "all thinking is relevant" is specious, because it's not possible to "be apolitical in a world defined by power asymmetries." She continues:
In a world marked by marginalization, passively publishing every hateful piece you receive in your inbox will only reinforce that marginalization. By adamantly refusing to take a stance, then, Thought Catalog's editors are, in fact, taking a stance on the side of the hateful bigots whose opinions they validate with the "publish" button. And they can get away with profiting from violent hate speech as long as they pretend to be completely value-neutral.
Like Allen, many other writers who had previously had work published on Thought Catalog take issue with the way they feel the site validates bigotry. As smith wrote, "Associating myself with the site as a contributor indicated that I cared so little for the welfare of the communities I work in and with that I was willing to cravenly allow my work to add pageviews and legitimacy to a site that fosters hatred — and remaining silent in the face of intolerance didn't sit with me." Yes, Thought Catalog is perfectly within its rights to publish and profit from offensive garbage. But its contributors and readers are also within their rights to hold the site accountable for doing so.
In an email interview, smith told me that several former Thought Catalog writers began contacting each other behind the scenes. "Because of the delicate nature of coordinating the takedown requests, many of us didn't go public until the takedowns started going through, so there was a balance between getting enough writers together to create a block of us, and being aware that more writers would want to join in once we went public," ou (smith's preferred gender pronoun) said, adding, "I've already had two former Thought Catalog contributors contact me for information on how to get their content removed."
I spoke to several other writers, all of whom have asked Thought Catalog to remove everything they'd written for the site. Each person I interviewed maintains that Thought Catalog has no feasible justification for repeatedly posting transphobic, racist and misogynistic articles, and none of them wish to be associated with a publisher that allows bigotry to proliferate under the guise of free expression.
s.e. smith pointed out that "Thought Catalog has indicated that it won't publish 'illegal content and visual pornography.'" This means that "the site has some editorial standards," ou says, that "it's exercising control." Over email, Samantha Allen — whose past work Thought Catalog has already removed — further noted that the website isn't actually an equal opportunity offender. "I'm pretty sure I couldn't write an article for Thought Catalog called 'The Nazis Were Right' or 'Gay People Are Disgusting' but 'Transphobia is Perfectly Natural' is allowed to fly," she said in an email. "The hate on their site is still pretty heavily anti-black and anti-trans and that, to me, says something about the people who click the publish button or insert a piece into [tweet-scheduling program] Social Flow. There are decisions being made and refusing accountability for them under the guise of neutrality is completely disingenuous."
Parker Marie Molloy, a writer and transgender advocate whose Thought Catalog profile has yet to be taken down, described McInnes' essay as "the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back." Thought Catalog used to publish "some truly excellent writing" in addition to "angst-laden screeds," she said, but now the latter are starting to far outnumber the former. "What I've been increasingly seeing over the past year or so has been the decrease in the amount of excellent writing being produced on the site, and a stark increase in those screeds, which in themselves have gotten progressively more racist, homophobic, transphobic, and just generally, xenophobic." After McInnes' piece, she told me, she "finally said, 'That's it. I'm done with them.'"
By demanding that their work be taken down, many of the former Thought Catalog writers hope that they'll be able to force the site to take accountability for its actions and institute a more effective editorial policy. "I'd like to see Thought Catalog instituting some basic publication standards that exclude hate speech, and bringing on an editorial advisory board or panel to address marginalized communities who are vulnerable at Thought Catalog and not well-represented there," smith told me.
Kat Haché, who now writes for the Daily Dot and Bustle, also noted that the site's purported dedication to free speech belies a callous insensitivity to marginalized people whose voices are dangerously underrepresented in the media landscape. "For anyone crying 'censorship" or "thought police', they can blow it out their ass," she said over email. "[McInnes] had a platform for his bile, now people have the freedom to respond to it or refuse to associate with him. For people handwringing about how this privileged cis white dude lost his job due to his own shitty behavior, my heart bleeds as I think of all the trans people who either lose their jobs or face difficulty obtaining one due to prejudice that he reinforces." Her profile, like Allen's, has been taken down.
Several other writers pointed out that the backlash is just a natural consequence of Thought Catalog's thoughtless editorial culture. "I'd like them to own up to their mistakes, rather than hiding behind this 'all thinking is relevant' nonsense," Molloy told me. "I would like to see Thought Catalog... create new standards for what they will publish, and for them to part ways with employees like [Jim] Goad and [Nicole] Mullen, who have both been rewarded for their hate-filled invective. So long as the site remains a free-for-all, and so long as they continue to put hateful individuals on their payroll, I encourage writers to take their work elsewhere, and for others to put pressure on the site's advertisers to remove their support."
For some writers, the reasoning behind the take-down request is more personal. "I would like for Thought Catalog to say, 'We will no longer serve as a platform for hatred, misinformation, and prejudice,' and then make good on that promise," said writer/activist Miri Mogilevsky over email. "But I also understand that they will not do this... So, my other motivation for having my writing removed from the site is so that I can be more consistent with my own principles." She continued, "I don't want to link my friends to a piece I have on Thought Catalog and have them accidentally come across another piece demeaning them for their identity. I don't want to list Thought Catalog on my bio or C.V. and have people think, 'Wow, so she's okay with that racist/sexist/homophobic/ableist/transphobic stuff they keep publishing?' No, I am not okay with that." Her work, too, has been expunged from the website.
But others are more hopeful for positive change: "So many people have joined forces, including former and current contributors, forcing Thought Catalog's hand and bringing the issue to the attention of the larger community," smith told me. "When your own contributors are turning on you, there's a problem."
Image by Jim Cooke.