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How Jesse Singal Became the Symbol of Polarization on the Left

(Photo by Vuk Valcic/SOPA Images/Sipa USA)

“Whether or not Singal is wrong in his conclusions does not matter. He dared to question the truisms, the sacred cows, and that brands him irredeemably transphobic.”

Journalist Jesse Singal has long been a polarizing figure on the Left. In 2018, he kicked the hornets’ nest with his now-notorious Atlantic piece “When Children Say They’re Transgender.” It is the sort of well-researched piece that is difficult to get worked up about—unless one has not read it, or, worse, has only read tweets about it. And, in that case, it is likely to be not just upsetting but also rage-inducing for anyone sympathetic to trans activism.

Recently, Singal has become more than another polarizing figure. His particular brand of deeply-researched journalism, which often pokes holes in facile leftist truisms, has granted him status as the quintessential example of the online Left’s polarization problem. 

This became apparent at the 2023 Vidcon last month, when a panel of popular YouTubers discussed the topic “Uniting the Left.” The panel included Destiny, Vaush, and Emma Vigeland. Just a few minutes into the discussion, there was that uncomfortable sense of an elephant in the room. Before long, it became impossible to ignore. And, sure enough, 16 minutes into the talk, when reflecting on “all the fighting that the left does,” Destiny says, “Not to call out any particular people, but with Jesse Singal, who writes a lot of articles about trans-related issues: rather than people being able to engage with any of these issues honestly with good arguments…it just instantly becomes an outing of ‘transphobic-ism’ or whatever you can call the other person. And then you just move on and forget about it.”

To which Vigeland quickly retorts, “But Singal is transphobic.” 

Needless to say, Vigeland has never been able to muster a strong defense of this claim, not in the past and not during this Vidcon discussion. But she does not need to. The fact is, Singal has directed scrutiny upon leftist truisms regarding the trans movement. Whether or not Singal is wrong in his conclusions does not matter. He dared to question the truisms, the sacred cows, and that brands him irredeemably transphobic. 

The Vidcon conversation on “uniting the left” was perfectly timed to position Singal as the thorn in the side of this project—and of some on that very panel. In September of 2023, just a few weeks before Vidcon, Singal called into The Majority Report with Sam Seder, Sam Seder’s YouTube channel, co-hosted by Vigeland. The call was planned to allow Singal to respond to claims made against him by Majority Report staff. Singal began by expressing that “There’s a fair amount we agree on…including just how bad it is to ban youth gender medicine…I also think there are some places where there is a little bit of disagreement, but they tend to be edge cases where there’s going to have to be some debate and compromise.”

“Jesse, I don’t care where we agree,” Seder replies. “The reason why you are toxic and, at best, extremely unhelpful, is that you distort the importance of this issue.” In other words, the Left’s default position on anything related to transgenderism is a sacred cow, so even looking into it is crossing a line that must not be crossed. 

From there, the conversation goes entirely off the rails. Seder and Vigeland show no interest in hearing Singal’s perspective, let alone offering him an ounce of charity. At one point, Vigeland presses Singal on a central question: “Do you believe that gender affirming care works and is overwhelmingly effective with children?”

Singal responds, “I am with the five European countries who have looked into this question closely and all of them are like, ‘We don’t know yet; we need more data.’ So, no, it’s not established.” 

In characteristic anti-open-conversation fashion, Vigeland retorts simply, “It is established.”

At another point in the conversation, Singal clarifies his position as one that effectively aligns with the liberal view that Vigeland and Seder presumably grant their approval to. Referring to his Atlantic article, Singal says, “My work describes gender medicine as life-saving, and it quoted multiple trans adults who found it life-saving. So, you can’t read my article and—”

Here, Vigeland jumps in to ask: “How late in the piece, Jesse?” Vigeland and Seder are flabbergasted that this was not stated “at the top.” When Singal clarifies that it was indeed stated within the top third of the article, Seder has no time for this. That is not putting the approved position near enough the top for him.

At the end of the conversation, Vigeland, who had previously agreed to appear on Singal’s podcast, says, “I’m going to be honest with you. I don’t back down from anybody, but…” and she proceeds to back out. Seder jumps in, “As a boss, I will suspend her if she goes on your show.”

In the days following, this Seder vs. Singal debate took over online discourse. Everyone had a take—and mostly, it seemed, in Singal’s favor. Right-leaning media naturally ate it up. The Daily Caller ran the headline, “‘We’ve Got To Run’: Liberal Hosts Lose It, Hang Up On Journalist During Heated Discussion On Trans Procedures For Kids.” In Desinty’s scathing review of the Seder vs. Singal debate, Destiny marks Seder’s performance as “insanely bad faith.” Even many commentators on Seder’s own Subreddit took issue with Seder’s overbearing, uncharitable behavior. Opening the Reddit discussion, one Majority Report viewer observed:

“Sam clearly didn’t want to let Jesse get a word in edgewise, and explicitly refused to actually talk about the things Jesse said, in favor of essentially conceding that he’s correct, but that he shouldn’t be saying those (again, correct) things because it gives ammo to the right.” [Emphasis original]

To be clear, if Singal did have horribly offensive views about trans people or gender dysphoria, then, of course, the Seder-Vigeland position would be correct—or, at least, defensible. Some people are, unfortunately, transphobic in the genuine sense of the term. But Singal is not. It is certainly possible to disagree with Singal’s position. But it is not possible to find an ounce of bigotry in his writing. He is, in this respect, a “good liberal.”

Singal’s writing, often published in mainstream outlets, is easy to find. A casual observer does not need to agree fully with Singal’s analysis in order to see that he cares about facts, he cares about journalistic standards, he is willing to admit where he might be wrong or where more research is needed, and—as a normie leftist—he cares about being compassionate to marginalized people. If anyone with Vigeland’s politics needs any more reason to not write off Singal, he is also adamantly against former President Donald Trump. 

Transphobia happens to be the hot-button topic of the moment. Previously, it was the Black Lives Matter movement, where it was verboten on the Left to question the wisdom of the slogan “defund the police.” Before that, it was the #MeToo movement, where it was considered unacceptable to question the truism “believe all women.” 

In each of these cases, the bar for transgression was set so low by the online Left that most people, even those on the Left, could easily be written off by people like Vigeland as racist, sexist, or—in the contemporary case—transphobic. Notably, critics of the sacred cows of the BLM or #MeToo movements turned out in many cases to be correct about the facts, just as Singal may very well be correct on the facts regarding certain claims about the trans movement. But this does not matter. This is hardly even inconvenient for the Vigelands of the Left. She did her duty to call out the racists, sexists, and transphobes when it mattered and then was able to “move on and forget about it.”

But this is utter poison for the project of uniting the Left. As Destiny expressed at Vidcon, the Left needs to be able to engage with controversial issues honestly and with good arguments. In this moment, that means engaging with Singal.

Peter Clarke is a freelance journalist in San Francisco. He can be found on Twitter @HeyPeterClarke

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