Burn This Book?

Target’s banning of a controversial book.

Posted Nov 15, 2020

Recent reports indicated that Target had decided to pull from sale (henceforth ban, recognizing that this move only applies to Target sales), Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters. This raises now all-too-familiar questions of whether retailers have an obligation to shield audiences from controversial material and how retailers decide to do so. Is any controversy enough? To what extent does Twitter outrage dictate censorship? Does the Left now have the social-pressure advantage over the Right?

As of this moment, Target appears to have reversed its decision to ban the book, apparently due to backlash. Yet it’s worth asking what made them inclined to do so in the first place. To be upfront, I have not read the book (though I now intend to), so I can neither condemn nor condone it. It may be bigoted pseudo-science, or it may be well-researched if controversial. Which, however, is not the point.

From the book’s description on Target.com, it appears to endorse the position that expressing a transgender identity has become trendy and that such identities may be pushed on confused non-trans girls by counselors, parents, and medical professionals. Shrier argues that identifying as trans may increase social status, yet the hormonal and surgical interventions that may follow are difficult or impossible to reverse should an individual later decide they are not in fact trans. Some of these girls may become “detransitioners” who regret their decision once they are older. It does not appear that Shrier is arguing that transgenderism isn’t real — which would be absurd — but rather that complex social processes might push some girls to identify as trans boys, when in fact they are not. The phrase “Transgender craze” in the subtitle, though, is certainly explosive. Probably it could have been less sensationalistic, but, then again, less sensational is not how one sells books. 

Many trans activists view Shrier’s book as anti-trans, and likely to increase anti-trans discrimination, or to make it more difficult for young trans individuals to seek medical interventions they need such as blocking puberty for a sex with which they don’t identify. For one critical review, see Erin Holve’s response in The Orion. These are fair debate points, and Shrier’s book certainly should not be shielded for open debate and criticism. 

But to pull it from the shelves is an entirely different matter. Should a book or any other media be pulled from public consumption because some community members are upset by it? This is not a new question and, of course, plenty of censorship efforts have come from the political right as well as from the left. 

There are some nuances to this question. After all, would we want a book available that advocated for pedophilia? Or which spread blatant lies about a person? There are probably some other things that are beyond the pale, as advocates for censorship will always point out. Why, then, not also a book which some view as harmful to a marginalized community? 

The concept of the Overton Window helps to inform this question. Roughly, this concept suggests that society accepts a certain range of opinions or positions as worthy of debate, and individuals should not be punished for expressing such views even if they are passionately deliberated. The Overton Window can shift over time and, of course, people on either side of a debate commonly try to shift it so their opponents’ views are no longer within the Overton Window.

Understanding that the Overton Window is never absolute, it should probably nonetheless be as broad as possible. Its margins are always of dispute, but our civic values should open up most ideas, even controversial ones, even bad ones, for public argument, not censorship. Challenge bad speech with good speech, not with censorship, bannings, heckler’s vetoes, or deplatforming. 

Unfortunately, many companies have outsourced their public relations to Twitter and assume that any outrage on Twitter reflects a majority societal opinion. Target just experienced a harsh lesson in how untrue this is. Banning a book is seldom a good look.

Often, attempting to ban a book simply draws more attention to it. Frankly, I had no interest in reading Irreversible Damage until this brouhaha erupted. Now, as a free speech advocate, I feel it’s my duty to read it. This phenomenon, known as the Streisand Effect (after a failed effort by Barbara Streisand to keep photos of her home out of the press) suggests that the more one tries to block an offensive thing, the more one draws attention to it. 

Target was wrong to respond to Twitter outrage and block consumers from accessing a controversial book. The book may be good or bad, but they were right to restore it to their lists. Now we can each read it, if so inclined, and come to our own conclusions.