The hottest take I’ve heard, which I don’t know if I fully endorse, an interview with: P.E. Moskowitz
You can cancel us (please don't) but you can never cancel the truth
The discourse is broken; our brains are broken; the system is broken. None of this is a coincidence. But we’ve walked ourselves into a corner and we can’t seem to locate the exit. It’s easier to dump a friend with whom you disagree than it is to have a difficult talk with them. Criticism is conflated with crucifixion and we can barely speak to each other without adding 15 different qualifiers to each statement (“but, of course, as a white male I recognize the hegemonic forces at play…”).
My guest this week, P.E. Moskowitz, is sick of it all. In her newsletter, Mental Hellth, she, “challeng[es] popular, pro-individualist views on depression, diagnosis, and our emotional lives in modern times.” P.E.’s schtick is all about getting people to reconsider their preconceived notions about the way we live and think in our hostile society. That’s a broad mission, but there is obviously so much that is not working.
For instance, the First Amendment (see her book The Case Against Free Speech), the housing market (see her book, How to Kill a City), and the writing industry (see, the freelance resource she co-founded, Study Hall) to name but a few sources of frustration. More are covered in our talk. Read on to find out why people’s brains are so mushy, and how you can possibly make yours more firm.
Me: What’s most on your mind these days?
P.E.: Feeling overwhelmed by the restarting of the world. Feeling like I’m excited about the future for the first time in a long time. Feeling kind of hope-pilled, weirdly.
Me: I just read your controversial ADHD essay. What made you want to write that essay?
P.E.: I had been thinking about it for a long time. Even though it was about ADHD specifically, it was kind of the manifesto of this new project, which is [P.E.’s newsletter] Mental Hellth. I’m so sick of the way we talk about mental health. Even the leftists I cavort with and respect, when it comes to mental health they’re like, “Oh, depression. Sounds like an individual issue.” It pisses me off so much. I wanted to write something that’s just a scathing takedown of our individualistic way of thinking about mental health. But then I did a throwaway tweet 3 months ago that was like, “ADHD is a symptom of capitalism.” That was basically all it said. I got thousands upon thousands of people telling me I was a eugenicist. People were emailing me telling me to kill myself. All this fucking crazy shit. After that, I was like OK, I don’t wanna be like one of those people who’s like, “I’m canceled, woe is me.” But I felt like it was important to include that we’re so willing to defend the way that we think of mental health to the point that we will tell someone to kill themselves if they disagree with it. I thought that was a really interesting, accidental sociological study on the way people conceptualize their own mental health.
Me: What’s occupying you most these days as far as projects and assignments and things like that?
P.E.: The newsletter is probably my main thing… It’s a really good way to force myself to do deeper dives into things, like psychoanalytic theory books I probably wouldn’t read otherwise. That’s the main thing. I can’t say too much about it, but hopefully, that will be becoming a book of some kind. I’ve been writing more personal essays lately, which is weird for me. I think gender transition has helped me feel more comfortable writing about myself. I also think that writers get pigeonholed when they’re trans, or women, or both, into writing about themselves instead of doing normal journalism. But I’ve really been enjoying it. It’s nice to get my thoughts out there in a way that I haven’t before.
Me: Yeah. I really liked your piece in the Cut about Carmela Soprano. That was really good.
P.E.: I think it was on Vulture, actually. That was really fun to write. Not to toot my own horn but I re-read it yesterday just randomly and I was like, “Oh, this is good.” It was hard for me to write. I’m writing another piece for New York magazine right now about playing tennis and being trans and the idea of bodily autonomy and the ability to not feel dissociated and to feel embodied within yourself given the context of all these anti-trans sports bills. But mainly, it’s just about me playing tennis and how much I love it. Me and the editor have gone back and forth a million times. We had multiple phone calls where we dived deep into my childhood traumas and stuff and I’m just like, “Damn, this is a kind of writing and editing process that I’ve never done before and that I really enjoy,” but I’m like shaking after I get off the phone with the editor, like, “Oh my god, this is so intense.”
Me: I think that could be a segue. To editorialize a little here, I think that type of mentorship from an editor is almost a bygone art. Most of the time, when I write a piece, I send it in, I hear nothing for five days and then they’re like, “OK, we published it.”
P.E.: Or like, here’s three copy edits.
Me: Yeah, yeah. How’s that experience compare to most of your experiences with writing? Do you like that more hands-on approach?
P.E.: Yeah. I think I tweeted about this (because I tweet about everything) but people don’t understand when you’re getting paid magazine rates it’s because you’re being asked to work 10x as hard. Even if I spend the same amount of time writing this piece for some theoretical online publication versus something like New York magazine, after it goes to the editor, it’s like literally we’ve been working on it for five weeks. It’s so much effort to pick apart every single line. We got into an argument about one word. She didn’t like the word ghost as a metaphor for dissociation and dysphoria, right? And we literally argued about it. I fuckin’ love it. It feels like an emotionally abusive relationship. As someone who has been in an emotionally abusive relationship, it’s like that intensity where you’re just like, “I want more of this. Tell me more ways I’m wrong.” It makes you a better writer, right? How can you get better as a writer if people are just publishing what you say? You need someone to be like, “This is bad. This is sloppy.” And you can’t do that yourself.
Me: I think that there’s not enough editors telling writers that they’re bad.
P.E.: Right. Exactly.
Me: Of all people you’d have a very keen sense of what the state of journalism is today, although, what does that even mean? Idk. I’m curious what your thoughts are.
P.E.: There’s two things. I do wanna comment on the “people not getting told they’re bad enough” thing, but I think it would be bad to say that without pointing out that this is a structural failure, right? The reason there aren’t as many editors and there aren’t as many writers is because people are just part of the gig economy now, essentially. We have to reframe how we think of ourselves as gig workers. We’re not gonna be The New York Times cushy job $150k reporters ever again probably. We’re gonna be more like Uber drivers if anything. So I think it’s really important to frame this as a structural issue and not something that’s like, “Oh people don’t know how to take criticism anymore.” That being said, I do feel like people don’t know how to take criticism anymore. It’s this whole cultural thing of like if someone is bad in a movie that means the movie is bad because you have to morally identify with every character. I feel like that’s the same thing that’s happening now where it’s like critique is seen as a moral sleight against someone as opposed to a helpful thing you do to someone you respect. There’s been books lately, written by trans people— Detransition, Baby for example—which, I really like as a book, mostly. I have my problems with it, and I want to critique it. And I wish other people were critiquing it because Torrey [Peters], who’s a great writer, deserves that. And yet every single piece about it is like, [*does affected tone*] “This revolutionary blah blah blah” and it just feels so patronizing. It’s like if you ever really think a work is smart then it deserves to be picked apart. It deserves to be analyzed and held in comparison to other things. That’s something that’s really pissed me off is this general culture of either things are good or are things are bad. And there can’t be any room for dialogue in between where things can be critiqued and that can be productive.
Me: I have a whole rant about this. America is such an anti-intellectual country and what you’re asking for is intellectual rigor. The publishing industry—the book industry—they champion a new author or new title once a month and we’re all told, “This is the new great book” and then there’s a slew of articles that all say the exact same thing. I’m not even sure half the time if the writer has read the whole book. It’s more biographical information than it is critical engagement with the text. I haven’t read this one yet [holds up hardcover of Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby], but I do have it. I’m planning on reading it. But I read Lauren Oyler’s Fake Accounts instead and I thought it was decent. But I didn’t think it was the next Bible the way some of the other websites made it seem.
P.E.: That’s how everything has to be these days. The next Bible or nothing.
[I]nstead of breaking down puritanicalism and the mental fascism of “Whiteness,” [we’ve] instead replace[d] it with another mental fascism. — P.E. Moskowitz
Me: In one interview I read with her, Oyler said, and I’m paraphrasing: “If people don’t criticize me, it means that they’re not taking me seriously.” [Ed: The quote is: “It would be sad to be a writer that nobody criticizes, because that means nobody is taking you seriously or engaging with your work, and to a certain extent you’re being used to make money.”
P.E.: That’s how I feel, too. I was actually just having a conversation with my friend, Charlie Markbreiter. Academic person on Twitter. Idk if you follow him.
Me: Is that @BerlantBro?
P.E.: Yeah, @BerlantBro. I was having a conversation with him about this filtering down even to friendship. I have people I know who are just like, “Wow, everything you do is so great.” And I’m supposed to say to them, “Good job” to everything. And then it’s like my actual good friends will tell me I’m a fucking idiot. I have plenty of friends who are like, “That’s a stupid idea.” Or like, “This is bad writing.” Or like, “Don’t say that to someone who you like because you’ll come off as psychotic.” And that’s real friendship to me. That’s real love and care. The hottest take I’ve heard, which I don’t know if I fully endorse, if you wanna hear it, but the way this discourse operates is inherently anti-Semitic and anti-Black and what we’ve done, instead of breaking down puritanicalism and the mental fascism of “Whiteness,” is instead replace it with another mental fascism. People were like, “Stop being racist. Stop being anti-Semitic.” And instead of responding to that by realizing that the dogma of society would need to be challenged at all times, people were just like, “OK, we’ll replace it with an equally dogmatic version of being anti-racist and anti-Semitic” and all these other things, right? We haven’t actually gotten to the root, which is that we live in this white supremacist country where people are either morally right or morally wrong and if you’re morally right, you get power and if you’re morally wrong, you get shunned from the group. I feel like that’s what’s going on.
Me: That’s definitely hitting on something. I think it’s really scary how we’ve just inverted the model and now you can be an incredibly shitty, problematic trans person, like Caitlin Jenner, but then you’re afforded this pass because you tick off certain identities. It’s easy enough to be a marginalized identity and have shitty opinions and then have people think that maybe there’s some validity to what you have to say. And it’s like that’s not really how it works.
P.E.: Lots of Jewish people have fucking terrible opinions who shouldn’t be listened to when it comes to things like Isreal.
Me: For sure. I’m not trying to point fingers at anyone. There’s no room for any engagement or nuance. It’s really fucked up and weird when people are like, “This Holocaust survivor says, “Israel has to exist.” And it’s like, “Is it possible this Holocaust survivor doesn’t know what they’re fucking talking about?”
P.E.: Exactly. I honestly think what we thought is identity politics is actually a furtherance of the surveillance state where you have to explicate all of your traumas at all times, your entire personal history, and your entire identity in order to be taken seriously as a person. That’s fucking terrible. It’s really frustrating to me because I feel like I talk about it and then I get all these DMs being like, “Oh my god, I’m an organizer and this is happening where people feel like they can talk over each other because they have X, Y, or Z identity.” But people are too afraid to really say that it’s happening and that it’s pervasive and pernicious and all the rest. It sucks because cancel culture has been taken over by the far right as their thing so if we say something about it we’ve aligned ourselves with those terrible, evil people. But I think it’s actually a real problem.
Me: It’s too easy to silence people and make bad takes on what they say. It’s so weird when you somewhat believe what the far-right believes. It’s like there is sort of a witch-hunt, in a way. I do think that cancel culture is so much about pointing to someone else before someone can point to you and be like, “No, but they hold problematic opinions. Don’t look at me.”
P.E.: It’s a losing game.
Me: Is being canceled a big anxiety for you?
P.E.: Yes, it is. These days it’s like everyone is canceled eventually and therefore if everyone’s canceled, no one’s canceled. It’s not capital T traumatic but there were two days when every time I opened my computer, I had DMs, emails, messages—I’m pretty sure someone tried to hack my Google account—everyone calling me a eugenicist. That shit sucks. It shook me. It’s really not fun. It’s really sad that that’s how our discourse operates. Again, to bring it back to materialism, because I think that’s important in everything, this is a function of how the internet surveillance apparatus works, right, more than it is just people being stupid. And this is a function of the history of things like COINTELPRO where everyone was taught to fucking come after each other’s necks through purposeful surveillance and infiltration from the FBI. It makes sense that we’re all doing this, I just wish we could understand this is not good. I don’t know who the they is, but this is what they want. I’m sure if the Koch brothers knew how to use the internet, they’d love to watch us tear each other to shreds over asinine bullshit like [whether the word insane is ableist]. I just wish we could give it up.
Me: Yeah, I totally agree with what you’re saying. I think we’re taught this middle school understanding of how words work and we’re all arguing about theoretical things when there are real material factors that can be changed. Instead, we’re so focused on how certain words can be used, whether cops can be at Pride, whether kink can be at Pride, and it’s just like those things do matter to some extent, but most people aren’t even arguing because they have a good point. Instead, they’re just trying to place themselves on one side of a line so then they can gesture towards some political ideology that they think will grant them brownie points on Twitter.com
P.E.: I think the no cops at Pride versus the no kink at Pride is a good instructive example of the difference we should be aiming for. No cops at Pride is a materialist demand. The enforcers of the capitalist state should not be at this event. No kink at Pride is an abstract concept that has no relation to reality because no matter what you say people are either going to do kink at Pride or not, and kink is not an oppressive state apparatus in the same way police are. But those things are conflated online as if they’re equally important things and that I think proves how mushy people's brains are.
Me: I think of Twitter as my shitposting online diary. Any time I feel like I really want to pop-off about something that is going on, I’ll write up a tweet and then delete it. I’ll be like, “No, this is gonna get misinterpreted. I’m gonna get dragged. Not worth it.” I only have 900 followers. I’m not gonna get canceled on a large scale. Nobody’s gonna email me. But I think that fear lives inside all of us. That something we say at 1am on a Tuesday evening, stoned on eight bong hits and two Budweisers, is gonna be, the next morning, talk of the town. That’s not what it’s meant to be. This is just me being an idiot online.
P.E.: Right. Although, unfortunately, I think this goes far beyond online. I’m a very online person. I’m a writer. I am involved in the discourse wars so I was convinced this was just me making a bigger deal of things in my head than they were. Then I taught a class at SUNY Purchase. A continuing-ed class. The students are mostly poor, working other jobs, they have kids, yadda yadda yadda. They are not involved in the online discourse, by and large, and they’re terrified. They’re terrified to ask questions about my gender, about being non-binary. They have good-natured questions that they want to ask and they are terrified to say the wrong thing. I was like, “I am anti-capitalist, I encourage you to disagree with me. I want to hear what you have to say” and none of them would speak. Finally, by the end of the class, we got to a place where people were actually disagreeing with each other, but it took eight classes to get there. I hear the same thing in organizing spaces. I remember the same thing in college where people were canceled for the stupidest things. It became this moralistic war against each other. I think we have a deep, deep problem with how we interact with each other. It’s unfortunately not limited to online.
Me: It’s definitely an IRL and URL thing. Do you have any idea how we can move forward? Why are we getting so bogged down in this stupidity?
P.E.: [deep sigh]. We are somewhat moving past it. People have hit a breaking point where they’re like, “I can’t do this anymore. I can’t discourse in this way; I can’t think in this way.” There’s been a lot of pushback in a good way to that method of thinking. Discourse is a material outcome of the way society is structured, right? And we think of it as this abstract thing where we have freedom of speech to say whatever we want, but no, really, all these things are affected and limited by the technologies through which we communicate. So I think as long as there’s capitalism, our discourse will kind of suck. That doesn’t mean it will always suck and that doesn't mean it sucks 100 percent, all of the time, right now. It just means that all of these things are features, not bugs of how this system operates.
Me: When you were talking about how people are sick of it, something that came to mind was the dirtbag left, who I think suck for a lot of reasons, but the one thing that I find inspiring about them is their total disregard of the rules of cancel culture. They’re like, “We’re gonna say whatever we want and if you want to cancel us, that’s great.”
P.E.: I think a lot of them are stupid and a lot of them say stupid shit that I disagree with. But, if you’re wondering why they appeal to people, do you want to go listen to people scold you about how you’re a terrible person or do you want to listen to people who tell funny jokes and make you feel good about your politics? I wonder why they’re more popular than podcasts that are like, “Everyone’s a terrible person and you’re contributing to blah blah blah by existing.” If those are the two options, obviously people are going to gravitate toward the one that feels fun and liberatory in the sense of how you can say things and think things. I think there’s a lot to learn from that in terms of, “Hey, maybe we should be a little looser in how we talk.” I’ll use the word faggot because I feel comfortable saying it, but you can replace it with any “bad” word. If someone uses that word, maybe we shouldn’t cancel them forever. Maybe that is a learning opportunity. I think we have a lot to learn with how we interact with people on a daily basis. Something I was just thinking about recently is the word chasers: people who fetishize trans people. I’m transitioning and I’m on Grindr. I’ve had by-and-large great experiences hooking up with dudes on Grindr. The online discourse is, “Everyone on there is a chaser who fetishizes trans women.” Meanwhile, I’m having sex where everyone’s like, “I love you, I love your body.” And it’s like, “What are we doing? Why are we so fucking scared of each other? Why do we insist everyone is an evil person before we even know who they are?” There’s something deeply wrong going on.
P.E.: Sorry, that’s a roundabout way to brag about me having sex.
Me: [Laughs heartily] I’m happy for you. A big argument my girlfriend and I get into is whether or not you can change someone’s politics and if so, how? And I think what you’re talking about about fear is really big. I have friends who are less politically engaged than me, less radical, and I can sense that when I start talking about these things, (and I’m not lambasting them or doing a diatribe, just when it comes up,) they kinda go silent because they wanna ask questions, but it’s like what you said: they’re so arrested by the fact that maybe something they’ll say will be misperceived by me…
P.E.: Or they don’t have the right answer in their head immediately
Me: I think the predominant emotion when it comes to liberalism, or even sometimes leftism, is shaming people into the right opinions. My girlfriend is someone who is easily shamed.
P.E.: Is she Jewish?
Me: But also Catholic
P.E.: That’s where it comes from. The thing about being Jewish is we have a lot of guilt but we don’t have a lot of shame.
Me: That’s actually really well put. It doesn’t work on me. I’m not going to kowtow. If something is something I don’t believe and then people are like, “Oh, we’re gonna judge you now,” I’m like, “Go ahead. You’re wrong.” I posted a lot of pro-Palestine stuff on my Instagram story. I went to a Jewish high school and I got a lot of people telling me I’m a fucking moron. And my sisters, I could sense that they felt ashamed or guilty, idk. They wanted me to take it down and stop doing this and I was like, “No, I’m not gonna be shamed because I know that I’m right.”
P.E.: There’s this great Jewish tradition of discoursing and arguing. Most of my family dinners growing up were just me and my parents yelling at each other. In a friendly way. About politics, about life, whatever. But I remember that I once had this shitty ex-, you can put in there that he’s shitty, I hope he reads it, that came over for dinner and we were yelling about politics and my parents were taking food off his plate, whatever, typical Jewish things. And at the end, he cried. He was like, “I couldn’t get a word in. I felt like everyone was mad at me.” And I was like, “This is just how you converse. What do you mean?” I feel like there’s this huge culture of shame and fear that is a Christian, white supremacist thing. It does play into this identity shit. I wrote that in “The BuzzFeedification of Mental Health '' essay. Once you find your identity, whether that’s, “I like basketball” or, “I am a leftist” or whatever it is, “I am trans” whatever, it’s like you must then defend your turf against this deluge of shit on the internet and real life, too. People get really firm in their identity and then they feel like their security is being threatened if you challenge that in any way. That’s what I feel like happened with my ADHD tweets and mental health discourse in general is like I wasn’t just saying, “We disagree about mental health.” It was interpreted as, “Your entire identity, how you found friends online, how you came to conceptualize your entire life and the problems in it is invalid. It doesn’t make sense.” That’s what people are scared of. They’re scared of saying the wrong thing. But it’s more than that. They’re scared of being invalidated from who they think they are.
Me: I started getting a ton of content on TikTok that was like, “If this is how you are, it’s because you have ADHD.” There was definitely a month where I was like, “No, I don’t have to do laundry. I have ADHD. I can talk over people. It’s an ADHD thing.” And it is a really bad way to view things because it strips you of any sort of agency. Two things can be true at the same time: You can have ADHD and you can be a lazy prick.
P.E.: I meet every criteria for ADHD, right? I also kind of refuse to identify with it as a real thing because I don’t want it to pigeonhole me. I think people have to hold these two thoughts in their head at the same time. You can be traumatized, you can have disorders, you can identify however the fuck you wanna identify. I see the same thing with trans people. You know that meme that’s like racism and then a cut and then there’s a Band-Aid with queerness. It’s the same thing where it’s like, “I can’t be a terrible person because I’m trans and I’m traumatized.” And it’s like news flash, you suck. People can be both and I think people have a really hard time holding two thoughts in their head at the same time.