I am publicly retracting and apologizing for a blog post I published on my blog A Trivial Knot in March of 2020. That post is “Trump’s Atrocious Trolley Tradeoff“. The essay contained a political discussion of the pandemic, and speculation on possible outcomes, and most regrettably, a comparison to the number of deaths in the Holocaust. This problem with this was pointed out by my (now former) coblogger and friend Sara, whom I treated rudely. Afterwards, Sara chose to disassociate herself with The Asexual Agenda, and the local ace meetup group.
The reason this has been much delayed is that Sara asked me not to explain why she left. However, I could have still retracted the essay without mentioning her. In any case, Sara has finally come forward to explain the problem.
Sara has not expressed a desire to reconcile me, and does not wish for me to speak to her. I do not think she wants an apology. Therefore, my goal is not to apologize her, but to apologize to everyone. I do not think this will fix my relationship with Sara, and I have always accepted her decision to disassociate with me.
My goal is to explain my errors, why they were wrong, commit to not making the same errors again, and persuade others to avoid the same.
At the time, I felt my comparison to the Holocaust was just following a common rhetorical pattern in my social group, especially the atheist and post-atheism blogosphere. I have come to realize that this does not justify my rhetoric, but rather implies that the rhetoric in my social group was unjustified. For that reason, I am posting this not just to The Asexual Agenda, but also to A Trivial Knot, where there are readers who may still use the Holocaust as a rhetorical device.
In this retraction, I will at various times explain my motivations and justifications. This is not a way to justify myself, but rather to undermine those justifications.
Summary of events
Almost the entirety of the events can be read in “Trump’s Atrocious Trolley Tradeoff” and the subsequent comment section–which I am preserving for posterity. Two days after my final comment, Sara e-mailed me asking to disassociate with me, and we never spoke about it again.
The essay discussed the potential consequences of opening up the economy in the US. There were various estimates for the number of deaths, but numbers do not speak for themselves, and I sought to make them meaningful by comparing to other sources of death. I settled on the Holocaust as the best comparison, because of how well known it is, and because I felt it had some black comedy to it.
Commenter reception was positive, until Sara expressed anger about the appropriateness of the analogy.
It wasn’t just the number of deaths that mattered, it was also the fact that it was premeditated murder.
In my reply, I explored other comparisons I could have made instead of using the Holocaust, but otherwise brushed off her concerns, made bad faith assumptions about her stance, and spoke cruelly.
In Sara’s recent post, she explains the trauma associated with being a descendant of survivors of the Holocaust. I believe it is better to read her words than for me to summarize it.
Following Sara’s recent post summarizing the events, I made a defensive post on social media. A few mutuals talked me down–I thank them and agree that I misread the situation. The post is deleted.
Why it was wrong
The Holocaust is not well known because of the number of deaths it represents–in fact, I had to look up that number. It is well known because of the magnitude of the trauma it caused to both victims, survivors, and descendants. Any source of death can be traumatic to victims and survivors, including deaths from infectious disease, but there is a clear difference in the magnitude and quality. I do not have any reference point in my life to even understand what it’s like to grow up knowing that large parts of one’s family and ethnic group were systematically murdered.
What made the Holocaust attractive as a comparison was the aura that it has in public discourse, an aura caused directly by trauma. I used this trauma to elevate the magnitude of deaths from the pandemic. And, in elevating the deaths from the pandemic, it also minimized the deaths from the Holocaust, as well as the trauma experienced by survivors.
The Holocaust was not even aligned with the essay’s goal, which was not to elevate the deaths from the pandemic, but rather provide an accurate sense of scale. The Holocaust provided an inaccurate sense of scale.
But even if the comparison served my point, and even if it were the only comparison available, then the slightly facetious tone of the essay was not suited to it. In cases where discussing the Holocaust is necessary, a more serious and sensitive approach is warranted.
In the comment section, I was deliberately rude to Sara. Rudeness is a valuable tactic to shut down conversations that are unproductive, but was inappropriate here, since it was not a conversation that should have been shut down. Our interaction was brief, with two comments on each side, barely enough space to understand each other much less reach a resolution. In my rudeness, I sabotaged the discussion, and ensured that it would be unproductive, and filled with misunderstanding.
Among those misunderstandings were certain bad faith assumptions about Sara’s point of view. For example, assuming that she was against any comparison to the Holocaust, and that she wanted me to change the article only for the benefit of her feelings.
In general, I value treating critics kindly and with charity, because that empowers critics to help us learn and grow. I should have applied that value here.
Response from Crip Dyke
Another thing that weighs on me is the initially positive commenter reception. One of the commenters was Crip Dyke, a respected FTB blogger at Pervert Justice. Crip Dyke also played off of the Holocaust comparison, and Sara’s first comment not only called me out, but Crip Dyke as well. So I reached out to Crip Dyke, who had some particularly important things to say:
As a “bad Jew” and one whose family did not suffer in the holocaust, I’m exquisitely sensitive to when I say something badly (intentionally or otherwise). I literally cannot imagine I would not have responded to Sara’s question had I seen it.
Sara mentions this:
For people who don’t have strong personal connections to the Shoah, the emotional cost of discussing it is much lower. I don’t wish it to be otherwise. It’s great that some people can talk about it with a much lower emotional toll, and some people use that advantage well. Sometimes, people who can talk about it with minimal emotional cost say things which need to be said so that the people for whom discussing it would impose a greater emotional cost don’t have to say it. If you have ever done this, thank you.
I try to do this because I know the emotional cost is lower, but it’s also hard because I don’t want to ever speak for the people who were (or whose families were) directly affected by the Holocaust. It’s a difficult thing even for me. It’s not harder for me than for people whose families were directly impacted, but even while different, and even while easier, it’s still complicated and painful and difficult. More so, I imagine, than for many non Jews. Sara’s perspective is actually fairly common: she doesn’t wish her pain on anyone. This provides a measure of grace to me, but it also invests some responsibility: the expectation is that I will use my different position, my less painful experience, to save our Saras from having to step in every time, to speak up every time.
I failed this time, and that’s sad and painful for me. Part of me makes me doubtful that, having failed Sara the first time if I am the right person to speak up now. But learning the lesson Sara wants us to learn, I must speak up, and be clearer, more explicit than I was a year ago.
Crip Dyke said she originally cringed at the essay, but responded positively because she thought it was redeemed by its conclusion. But I was not aware of the cringe, and do not think that the essay deserved such charity. So among my regrets is my causing readers like Crip Dyke to play along.
I do not expect this retraction to heal wounds, but I hope that by seeing both I and Crip Dyke taking this very seriously, the reader will be persuaded to take it seriously too, even if you had never seen the original post. On The Asexual Agenda, Queenie once wrote an influential series about why we shouldn’t use survivors as rhetorical devices, and though I was aware of that, I violated the rule. This shows that even being aware of it, I may still violate it again in the future. I will do my best to avoid it, and react graciously when someone points out my errors.