Even if you’ve never heard of James Lindsay, you probably know a few of his hits.
He was part of that “grievance studies hoax” a few years back, where he and a couple of other anti-woke activists published a handful of ridiculous papers (the most headline-grabbing was arguably one about “rape culture” at Portland dog parks) in academic journals. It became known as the “Sokal Squared Hoax,” and to its admirers it was a devastating exposé of how far the humanities in higher education had sunk in service of identity politics.
At the time, in 2018, Lindsay insisted he was a “left-leaning liberal,” a fellow traveler of the erstwhile anti-woke collective that once called it itself the “Intellectual Dark Web,” and he was praised and promoted by some of its leading figures as an important and brave public intellectual.
But in 2022, he’s a Trump-supporting, Big Lie-espousing, vaccine-denying, far-right bigot who thinks Sen. Joe McCarthy “had it right” and “didn’t go nearly far enough” during his infamous (and near-universally repudiated) witch hunts of suspected communists during the 1950s.
And, perhaps most notably, he helped popularize the “Ok Groomer” epithet (and hashtag) on Twitter, feeding the right wing’s moral panic about LGBTQ teachers.
Here’s a quick sampling of some recent @conceptualjames bangers. Last year, Lindsay got into a fight with the Auschwitz Memorial’s Twitter account over “atrocities,” such as temporary COVID vaccine mandates:
He called Dr. Peter Hotez, who is Jewish (and an occasional contributor to The Daily Beast), “Dr. Lampshades”:
And despite being promoted by a number of prominent heterodox gay writers and intellectuals, Lindsay responded to an Air Force recruitment tweet featuring a pride flag with: “Carrying the flag of a hostile enemy in the military. Shame.”
We can parse descriptors all day, but it’s fair to call Lindsay a purveyor of false conspiracy theories who is (to put it generously) openly flirting with racism, antisemitism, homophobia, transphobia, and fascism.
What he is not is any kind of “free speech activist.” He is a vicious, and sadly effective, far-right culture warrior.
Along with compatriots like Christopher Rufo of the right-leaning Manhattan Institute, Lindsay has relentlessly stoked both the critical race theory (CRT) and groomer panics, which have already led to book bans, speech restrictions, and history erasures—lest students be taught “divisive topics.”
Right-wing culture war heroes such as former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have embraced both panics, helping to stuff their supporters’ brains with nightmare visions of Marxist pedophiles indoctrinating their children.
So even if you're unfamiliar with the name “James Lindsay,” if you follow U.S. politics, you’ve probably heard his increasingly mainstreamed illiberal ideas (thanks in large part to overly credulous anti-woke centrists) subsequently filtered through Republican politicians, conservative news aggregators, and cable TV/talk radio gasbags.
Lindsay’s right-wing celebrity received another boost this week, after he was permanently banned by Twitter. On cue, his allies screeched “censorship” and framed his removal from a social media website (after repeated violations of its terms of service) as some kind of free speech outrage.
Regardless of the fact that Lindsay is himself a would-be censor who does not believe in the marketplace of ideas—but rather prefers a state-enforced mechanism to stamp out voices he doesn’t like (There’s a word for that, right? Something beginning with an “F”)—his Twitter exile is not a free speech concern. At least, not in the way the right is framing it.
Twitter Exercised Its Right of Free Association, My Friends
I should briefly explain that I generally don’t like Twitter bans, and were I running the site, I wouldn’t have banned Lindsay.
Where I struggle with that position, as a staunch free speech advocate, isn’t over the content of Lindsay’s speech—which I think is disgusting, bigoted, and legitimately harmful. But I believe in a robust culture of free speech, and I’m wary of demanding that billionaire tech bros and their profit-driven boards of directors become the de facto arbiters of free expression (we can argue over this another time).
I also believe that a culture of free expression (beyond just what the government can and can’t ban) is the healthiest and most advantageous condition for marginalized groups to be heard, fight for their rights, and affect change.
So, I wouldn’t have suspended James Lindsay for his scumbaggery. But that’s just me.
It’s Lindsay’s style of trolling—his hundreds of shitposts per day which drew over 300,000 Twitter followers, and which has on more than one occasion manifested itself as straight-up harassment—that I consider a legitimate contender for platform moderation.
On occasion, I've mixed it up with Lindsay on Twitter, and I can attest that the resultant swarm of anonymous psycho @conceptualames fan accounts that floods your mentions for a few days isn’t fun. (Ask any woman who has run afoul of Lindsay online, his Twitter minions target those who displease him online with disgusting, misogynistic, and bigoted attacks—frequently earning Lindsay’s approvals with amplifying retweets.)
But now that Lindsay has lost his preferred amplifier for reaching the general public, many of his anti-woke allies have poured on the fallen hero tributes and pearl-clutching.
The anonymous anti-woke account Wokal Distance called Lindsay “the intellectual lighthouse, compass, and anchor of the counter-woke movement”:
Fellow anti-woke panic-monger Chris Rufo—who lobbies for government-enforced speech restrictions—called Lindsay’s ban “an outrageous act of censorship”:
And the national Libertarian Party (recently taken over by far-right culture warriors), ditched its long-held free speech absolutism to tweet in support of Lindsay’s McCarthyite anti-communism:
Another defender was Lindsay’s fellow “grievance studies” hoaxer Peter Boghossian, who tweeted that Twitter “arbitrarily” enforces its speech codes, and that the company did so when it banned Lindsay. He’s got a point. The tweet that supposedly got Lindsay banned wasn’t much different than thousands of other posts in which he’s spouted bigoted bile or sicced his followers on a target of his ire. (When asked for clarification, a Twitter spokesperson told The Daily Beast: "The account you referenced was permanently suspended for violating the Twitter Rules against hateful conduct.")
However arbitrary the enforcement, Twitter exercised its free speech rights by swatting away a gnat—one that needs Twitter much more than Twitter needs him—away from its table.
Do I delight in seeing a bully get some comeuppance? Sure. Does it make my free speech heart sing, do I think “justice” has been served, do I think Lindsay’s toxic ideas have been defeated? Nope, none of that.
But Republicans are pushing (and in some cases, passing) laws that would ban Twitter from exercising its right of free association. They’re effectively saying a bar couldn’t deny a Nazi the privilege of performing at its open mic night, for free speech. It’s an illiberal and un-American view of “speech.” And some of Lindsay’s Intellectual Dark Web boosters—so concerned with the left’s attacks on free expression—are openly calling for the criminalization of trans-affirming surgery, the overturning of a Supreme Court ruling that protects news organizations’ free speech rights, and the firing of employees with “wrong” politics.
Ignore these free speech tourists. Lindsay is no martyr.
Denying Twitter its First Amendment rights to keep James Lindsay from using its product would be a far more concerning “free speech problem” than whether or not @conceptualjames can continue to act like an asshole on Twitter.
That’s why even though Lindsay vigorously welcomes government intervention into free speech—as his hack allies suck their thumbs over “censorship”—it’s not the primary reason his claims to martyrdom are bullshit. It’s because in the marketplace of ideas, Lindsay expressed himself, and then Twitter expressed itself in kind.