Twitter, Truth and Transgenderism: Catholic outlet suspended for Biden nominee report

Twitter Credit Twin Design Shutterstock CNA Twin Design via Shutterstock.

Updated February 2 with comment from a Twitter spokesperson who said the blocking of the Catholic World Report account was done in error.

Catholic World Report is no longer suspended on Twitter, but the publication is still concerned about the social media giant’s action against its post describing Biden appointee Dr. Rachel Levine as “a biological man who identifies as a transgender woman.”

The Twitter post linked to a Jan. 19 news report under the headline “Biden taps supporter of contraceptive mandate to HHS position.” The report was about President Joe Biden’s plans to nominate Levine as his Health and Human Services Assistant Secretary for Health. It was syndicated from Catholic News Agency, and carried the byline of CNA journalist Matt Hadro. The description of Levine comes from the article.

“It's evident that Twitter locked our account for several days because they deemed the description of Dr. Levine ‘a biological man who identifies as a transgender woman’ as not just offensive, but even hateful,” Carl E. Olson, editor of Catholic World Report, told CNA Feb. 1. “We’ve even had comments and e-mails stating the same, although the vast majority of comments and correspondence have been very supportive of Catholic World Report in this matter.

“But the descriptive is not hateful; it is not even ideological by any reasonable norm,” said Olson. “This is really an example of what Pope Francis rightly calls ‘gender ideology’.”

A Twitter spokesperson told CNA, "The enforcement action was taken in error and has been reversed."

Catholic World Report was launched in 1991. It is published by Ignatius Press, a Catholic publishing company founded over four decades ago by Father Joseph Fessio, S.J., a former student of Pope Benedict XVI.

The Catholic media outlet was informed of the Twitter suspension Jan. 24. It sought further explanation in a Jan. 25 message appealing the decision.

“Our support team has determined that a violation did take place, and therefore we will not overturn our decision,” the social media giant replied Jan. 27. “You will not be able to access Twitter through your account due to violations of the Twitter Rules.”

While the publication declined to delete the post, as of Feb. 1, its Twitter account had been unlocked online, and the post is still visible. There was a six-day gap between its Jan. 23 and Jan. 29 tweets.

Catholic World report went “entirely online” in late 2011, the same time period in which it launched its Twitter account, Olson said in a Jan. 28 blog post. The publication now has about 8,500 followers on Twitter. Most of its posts to Twitter have been links to “articles, reviews, interviews, and news briefs, with a headline, short descriptive, and links.”

Twitter had said the tweet about Levine violated rules against “hateful conduct.” The Twitter message to the Catholic publication cited its policy barring harassment of others on the basis of gender or gender identity, among other characteristics. Repeated violations may lead to permanent suspension on Twitter, the note said.

Twitter has over 180 million monthly active users around the world.

The social media company did not respond to further inquiry from Catholic World Report.

In its expanded section on hateful conduct, Twitter policy says “We prohibit targeting individuals with repeated slurs, tropes or other content that intends to dehumanize, degrade or reinforce negative or harmful stereotypes about a protected category. This includes targeted misgendering or deadnaming of transgender individuals.”

“Misgendering” is the gender-based description of someone that the person would not himself use, while “deadnaming” is using the name of a person before he or she underwent a purported gender transition.

For Olson, the “gender ideology” he sees in Twitter’s actions has links to critical theory. A key component of this is “to fixate on supposed abuses of power taking place through language, often to a point of absurdity.”

More in US

This “obsession with victimhood and systems of power and privilege (whether actual or not),” Olson told CNA, has led to “an Orwellian approach to language.” Citing Josef Pieper’s Abuse of Language, Abuse of Power, Olson said “those who control language, or are able to change language according to ideological ends, are really working to have power over others.”

“So, a key issue is truth and how best to describe and express reality within the limits of language,” said Olson. The standards of language are also “continually shifting,” he said. “A few years ago, the tweet in question would probably have been praised for identifying Dr. Levine in such a way; more recently, it would par for the course. Now it is considered offensive or hateful.”

Olson said the description of Levine is accurate, even if it does not provide “a comprehensive explanation of Catholic teaching.” Such descriptions are necessary for Catholic publications to serve their readers, he said.

“While those who are in the middle of these battles are quite familiar with the terrain and language, there are many readers who aren’t,” he added. “Not everyone understands what a ‘transgender woman’ is. I’ve talked with more than a few folks who don’t really know what ‘transgender’ means, or maybe wonder, ‘Is a “transgender woman” a man who has become a woman or a woman who has become a man?’ It’s necessary and legitimate to communicate as clearly as possible about such things, mindful of the particular intent of the piece in question.”

The Daily Citizen, a publication of the Colorado-based evangelical Christian group Focus on the Family, was also suspended on Twitter for several days after a Jan. 19 post that said in part “Dr. Levine is a transgender woman, that is, a man who believes he is a woman.” The post is no longer viewable on Twitter, and appears to be described as “no longer available.”

While the Daily Citizen’s Twitter account was available for viewing as of Feb. 1, it had not posted anything since Jan. 22. Supporters of the organization protested using the hashtag “#AreWeNext”.

Olson said that if his publication had deleted the tweet, it would have been equivalent to saying “Well, it’s not worth the fight” or even “Okay, maybe it really is hateful and offensive in nature.”

(Story continues below)

“And that would be a capitulation of both language and truth,” Olson told CNA.

For Olson, the conflict over what is really offensive is based in the conflict of “what is really real.”

“Dr. Levine was indeed born a biological male; he remains a biological man. He insists on being called a woman, but this is a falsehood, rooted in the continually evolving term ‘gender’, which insists that what a person really is is distinct from his biological and physical nature,” he said.

He criticized this “neo-gnostic” tendency “in which who I am is torn apart from what I am.”

“And that, again, is part of ideology that Pope Francis and others have rightly criticized and warned against.”

In a June 2019 document titled “Male and Female He Created Them,” the Vatican’s Congregation for Catholic Education criticized gender theories that hold “that one’s gender ends up being viewed as more important than being of male or female sex.” It saw “a need to reaffirm the metaphysical roots of sexual difference” and criticized trends which see a “radical separation” between gender and biological sex, wrongly prioritizing the former.

“The generic concept of ‘non-discrimination’ often hides an ideology that denies the difference as well as natural reciprocity that exists between men and women,” it said. The document said that despite the challenges, dialogue remains possible. It also called for protection of human and family rights, decried unjust discrimination, and noted points of unity among people of divergent perspectives on gender ideology.

Olson said his statements to CNA would be deemed “harmful” and “degrading” by Twitter and other major social media platforms.

“So, what to do? I think we have to calmly and consistently state the truth; we’re not looking to start fights, but this is an ideological conflict that has been coming to a head for quite a while now, so it really cannot be avoided in the long run,” he said.

“As Catholics and as members of the media, we have an obligation to prudently use whatever tools we can to do our work,” Olson said. “Personally, I think it’s still worthwhile to use such platforms as best we can, as we’ve put in a lot of time and effort to build up readership and to regularly use those platforms to share news and links.”

At the same time, he was willing to consider alternative social media platforms. Despite their difficulties in growth, he said, “I don’t think we should accept that the Big Hitters are going to be around forever.”

Twitter bans on various organizations and individuals, including former U.S. President Donald Trump, have prompted debates about free speech; diversity of opinion; the power of social media companies; misinformation or disinformation about politics or major events like the coronavirus pandemic; efforts to manipulate elections or public sentiments; and hateful conduct or harassment.

CNA’s story on Levine’s appointment cited various concerns about likely HHS policy.

Levine has been outspoken on social issues, supporting gender-transition surgery while opposing a proposed 20-week abortion ban. Regarding the Obama-era HHS contraceptive mandate, Levine in 2017 called it “immoral and unethical” to allow for religious exemptions to the mandate. Hundreds of non-profits and businesses, including the Little Sisters of the Poor, had objected to the mandate and the Obama administration’s opt-out process for objecting non-profits. Court challenges to the mandate are still pending.

Other possible HHS policies could include re-imposing the full transgender mandate, a requirement that doctors perform or refer for gender-transition surgery. Revised HHS grant rules could also exclude religious groups, such as adoption agencies that decline to match children with same-sex couples.

Our mission is the truth. Join us!

Your monthly donation will help our team continue reporting the truth, with fairness, integrity, and fidelity to Jesus Christ and his Church.