Or, "A cannot be both itself and non-A at the same time," Logic 101.
This instructive cartoon is from Tom Gauld’s latest, Revenge of the Librarians, published by Drawn and Quarterly, purveyor of fine comix. It’s a perfect New Year’s gift for the bookish, a little too on-the-mark for writers and their bad habits (I blush and squirm re: procrastination), and can be added to Gauld’s book of tear-out postcards, The Snooty Bookshop, so useful for birthday cards for the oppressively well-read.
It’s also a spot-on illustration for … (drumroll) … Substack’s Dilemma.
Substack’s Dilemma is this. There’s been a fracas around this agreeable, well-designed platform in the past little while. Turns out there are some self-declared Nazis on it, complete with insignia and so forth. An Open Letter was recently published, signed by @ 200 Substackers. Here it is:
Dear Chris, Hamish & Jairaj:
We’re asking a very simple question that has somehow been made complicated: Why are you platforming and monetizing Nazis?
“Some Substack newsletters by Nazis and white nationalists have thousands or tens of thousands of subscribers, making the platform a new and valuable tool for creating mailing lists for the far right. And many accept paid subscriptions through Substack, seemingly flouting terms of service that ban attempts to ‘publish content or fund initiatives that incite violence based on protected classes’...Substack, which takes a 10 percent cut of subscription revenue, makes money when readers pay for Nazi newsletters.”
As Patrick Casey, a leader of a now-defunct neo-Nazi group who is banned on nearly every other social platform except Substack, wrote on here in 2021: “I’m able to live comfortably doing something I find enjoyable and fulfilling. The cause isn’t going anywhere.” Several Nazis and white supremacists including Richard Spencer not only have paid subscriptions turned on but have received Substack “Bestseller” badges, indicating that they are making at a minimum thousands of dollars a year.
From our perspective as Substack publishers, it is unfathomable that someone with a swastika avatar, who writes about “The Jewish question,” or who promotes Great Replacement Theory, could be given the tools to succeed on your platform. And yet you’ve been unable to adequately explain your position.
In the past you have defended your decision to platform bigotry by saying you “make decisions based on principles not PR” and “will stick to our hands-off approach to content moderation.” But there’s a difference between a hands-off approach and putting your thumb on the scale. We know you moderate some content, including spam sites and newsletters written by sex workers. Why do you choose to promote and allow the monetization of sites that traffic in white nationalism?
Your unwillingness to play by your own rules on this issue has already led to the announced departures of several prominent Substackers, including Rusty Foster and Helena Fitzgerald.
They follow previous exoduses of writers, including Substack Pro recipient Grace Lavery and Jude Ellison S. Doyle, who left with similar concerns.
As journalist Casey Newton told his more than 166,000 Substack subscribers after Katz’s piece came out: “The correct number of newsletters using Nazi symbols that you host and profit from on your platform is zero.”
We, your publishers, want to hear from you on the official Substack newsletter. Is platforming Nazis part of your vision of success? Let us know—from there we can each decide if this is still where we want to be.
Substackers Against Nazis
Thanks for reading. If this letter resonates, please share this post with others. If you’re a publisher who would like to join this collective effort, we encourage you to repost the letter on your own Substack.””
Now, Substack purports to be hands-off when it comes to content moderation, feeling that what people such as you and me say on their Substacks is up to them, or us, and the market — namely them, or us — will decide. But they do have a set of policies (you can find them on the website), including this one:
“Substack cannot be used to publish content or fund initiatives that incite violence based on protected classes. Offending behavior includes credible threats of physical harm to people based on their race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, disability or medical condition.”
First set of definitions.
a) I don’t know what a “protected class” is, but let’s say it means any group of people that can be identified as such and harassed or exterminated accordingly.
b) Let’s say that “violence” includes killing and/or murdering. I think we can all agree on that. Let’s say that "physical harm” also includes killing and/or murdering. So far, so explicit.
c) Let’s say that “inciting” means calling for action, as in “Kill all aliens from Planet Zycron,” or even “All aliens from Planet Zycron should be killed.” Speakers of the latter might say it is not a call for action but an “opinion.” Doubtful.
d) "Credible threats” is a little murkier: who is to decide what is credible? “I will pelt you to death with marshmallows” is not very credible, though it might conceivably be done if one had a great many marshmallows. But if someone self-identifies as a member of a movement that has done quite a lot of murdering in the past then calls for an identifiable group of people (or protected class) to be murdered, I’d say that’s a credible threat.
What does “Nazi” mean, or signify? Many things, but among them is “Kill all Jews.” This is not an opinion. It’s a call for actions, such as blowing up a synagogue with people inside or murdering 6 million people who are Jews. If “Nazi” does not mean this, what does it mean instead? I’d be eager to know. As it is, anyone displaying the insignia or claiming the name is in effect saying “Kill all Jews.”
The question, simply put: Is Substack violating its own terms of service (see 1. above) by permitting Nazis to publish on it (see 2. above)? I’d say yes.
The letter (see above) makes something of the fact that the paid-subscription Nazis are helping to fund Substack, but that’s immaterial: the content, whether paid or not, either violates the terms of service or it does not.
No, Substack: You can’t have both the dystopian nightmare and “Flopsy Bunny’s Very Busy Day.” You can’t have both the terms of service you have spelled out and a bunch of individial publishers who violate those terms of service. One or the other has got to go, and hiding under the sofa and pretending it isn’t happening will not make your dilemma go away. Nor will some laudable rhetoric about free speech – not when you yourselves have clearly stated that not everything is allowable, including threats of “violence” and “physical harm” to “protected classes.”
So, one or the other, dear Substack. Tell us which. I am sure you mean well, but you are young and inexperienced, and did not think this through. It’s not too late! You aren’t doomed to the dystopian nightmare! You can still have “Flopsy Bunny’s Very Busy Day,” if you close your eyes tight and wish very hard.