Posts Tagged ‘ language ’

Free Speech, When The “Debate” is You (and You’re Not Invited)

Shout: “Help, I’m being silenced!”

There’s a duplicitous game of sleight-of-hand that is taking place in discussions about freedom of speech in academia and the public square.

Here’s how it works: at first, a person fishes for controversy by saying several things that they know will offend people.  If this garners enough attention, then the process recurs organically — say, whenever a politician wants to reference the controversy as a coded dog whistle to their base, or when a teaching assistant replays a recording in class because she thinks the discussion is interesting and challenging.

And the moment the people targeted by that discussion get angry and protest, they’re described not as being upset about the content of what is being said, but rather their protest is reframed as opposing freedom of speech itself.  Whether you see that as accidental or deliberate probably depends on how cynical you are about the whole issue.

And often in their anger and rush to respond, that target group will unwittingly play along and demand things that create the appearance of doing exactly that, rather than directly challenging the offensive comments (though to be fair, it’s incredibly insulting to expect people to participate in a debate when said debate is about whether they exist and should be treated with dignity).

Media, meanwhile, doesn’t have much incentive to challenge that narrative, since controversy sells — and the simpler and more iconic that controversy can be made, the more effective it becomes at drawing in readers.

That’s why even when it’s acknowledged that the protesters are also exercising freedom of speech, it can be made to sound like a perplexing situation in which “counter-protesters use free speech to protest free speech.”  It makes the protesters sound idiotic, reframes their protest and demands as unreasonable, and their actual objections are erased entirely.  It also helps validate manipulative messaging that transforms a group of people who are concerned about their human rights and their acceptance in society into some vague and deceptive “agenda” that is maliciously transforming our nation in ways that no one actually ever has to clarify or substantiate — because by this time, the people doing the framing already control the debate completely.

This also makes it possible to recast the substance of what is being debated into something that is so delicate and fragile that it shouldn’t ever be subjected to any scrutiny or challenge whatsoever, lest free speech itself be irreparably harmed.  It redefines free speech as speech-without-consequence, becoming “a little free speech for me, and a little shut-up-and-take-it for you.” The intended result is to bring about a “discussion” which is apparently about you, but ideally doesn’t involve you.

This is how freedom of speech — a principle which Canadians rightly value highly — can be weaponized. It’s an effective quandary to dupe people into, seems to work every time, and Canadian social conservatives love and have perfected it.  In fact, it’s become a lucrative source of income for some of the better-known personalities who use it (albeit with some hypocrisy).

Such is the nature of University of Toronto professor Jordan Peterson’s battle to deliberately disregard trans* peoples’ requested pronouns — he was so adamantly determined about it, in fact, that he urged the Senate to oppose a law to extend basic human rights protections to trans* people, for fear that he might be obligated to call someone “ze.”  While there are similar debates being engaged in regarding Islamophobia, immigration and abortion (and LGBTQ human rights are simultaneously being reconceptualized as religious persecution), trans-bashing continues to be a favourite and effective political strategy.  Apparently we’re today’s lucrative low-hanging fruits.

And so, the “Debate™” manages to fluctuate from the question of whether trans* people deserve to be dignified as the people they claim to be, to whether political correctness creates a toxic environment on campuses — the moment one is challenged on the former, one hides behind the latter and plays the victim.

Of course, you experience the debate a little differently when the “Debate™” is you.

Peterson’s debate arose from his objections to respecting trans* peoples’ choice of pronouns. In the process, he casts dubious aspersions on the whole question of trans* identity (and, if you listen long enough, chalks it all up to a Marxist / feminist conspiracy to destroy academia and society).  If you’re willing to plumb it to any depth, it quickly becomes a discussion about whether trans* people should have their identities respected… and by extension, whether they have any right to dignity.  You can’t have a debate like that without getting a lot of angry speech in response, especially if the people at issue don’t typically have a voice in that debate (or at least not one that is given any weight or credibility).  Even if Peterson himself isn’t intending to make trans* people the issue, it’s certainly where his proponents quickly go.

So, that’s the context that needs to be kept in mind.  Out of a sense of decency, we don’t debate other groups’ right to dignity, or argue about whether someone from a different characteristic class should be dignified as “Mr.” or “Ms.” (which is itself a relatively recent development in language). I’m sure if the debate was about whether clinical psychologists are true academics or just “mentally ill” (playing on the same negative and stigmatizing attitudes prevalent in society about mental health issues that anti-trans* speakers typically exploit), Peterson would find it very insulting very quickly — especially if he kept having to contend with those arguments constantly.  So to have that debate without remembering the responsibility to approach it with empathy, care and to elevate the voices of people being talked about… that is always going to be trouble.

As an example, let’s look at one snippet from the extended discussion about the Peterson controversy, courtesy of Rebel Media’s Ezra Levant:

“I have no patience for the predators.  For the sex offenders who just want to sneak into a women’s jail rather than a men’s jail. Makes sense: if you’re a sex offender, sometimes you get killed in a men’s jail — but you get into a women’s jail, well, now you get to be the rapist.  I’m against the predators in the Girl Guides.  Don’t foist yourself into a girl’s cabin at camp. I’m against the cheaters who want to compete in women’s sports leagues instead of men’s sports leagues. I’m hardline on that stuff. 

“But for the truly troubled men out there — and it’s almost all men — I have concern and worry and sorrow, and I don’t want them to kill themselves.  I want them to get help. Don’t cut things off your body. Being straight, being gay, whatever, do not cut yourself up.

“The American Psychiatric Association is using the dead bodies of these suicides as political weapons. So is the New York Times. And frankly, politicians like Justin Trudeau and Hillary Clinton, and the politicians at Wilfrid Laurier University are too.  If you care about transgender people – especially youth — stop normalizing their troubles. Stop accelerating it. Stop coaching it. Stop pushing them down the road to what the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says is a death sentence. Just stop it. And no, it is not transphobic to say so. It’s the opposite, actually…”

If Levant isn’t equating trans* women (who he essentializes as men) with sexual predators, then he at least certainly doesn’t see a need to make any effort to differentiate the two.  He still equates being trans* with mental illness (which in addition to invoking stigma also deliberately suggests that trans* peoples’ experiences are not “real”), and displays no understanding whatsoever about what gender dysphoria is (nor any apparent interest in finding out).

In his accompanying article, Levant goes on to warn about “insane attacks on society… done in the name of trans rights,” claims that Wilfrid Laurier University (WLU, which reprimanded teaching assistant Lindsay Shepherd for playing a recording of Peterson, and then subsequently apologized) has a “massively-funded Transgender Office,” and suggests that there weren’t any trans* people attending WLU (emphasis his) “until it became cool — free stuff, special rights, lots of attention.” Oh, those lazy socialists: exceedingly wealthy and powerful, yet totally unambitious until there’s free stuff going around. And I’m not even going to dignify his “not transphobic” nonsense.

But he goes further to allege that acceptance, accommodation and medical transition are responsible for an extremely high rate of suicide among trans* people.  Levant appears to refer (but does not link) to a 2014 report that the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention co-authored (Ann P. Haas and Philip L. Rodgers) with UCLA’s Williams Institute (Jody L. Herman), entitled Suicide Attempts among Transgender and Gender Non-Conforming Adults: Findings of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, documenting the effect of stigma and transphobia on escalating suicide ideation.  If this is indeed the report that Levant is referring to, then he is certainly mischaracterizing their findings.

So in other words, Ezra Levant is so willfully blind to the stigmatizing effect that attitudes like his have on trans* people (or as he dismissively minimizes whenever it comes to human rights issues, “hurt feelings“) that he has to twist the high incidence of suicide back into his “illness” paradigm by asserting that all of their troubles would be solved if they would simply stop being trans* — which is an easy expectation to have when you start from a premise that the existence of trans* people has no basis in reality whatsoever.

It should be no surprise to anyone that trans* people find the “Debate™” to be triggering and toxic.

Of course, Ezra Levant might be a bad example.  Social conservatives aren’t usually as candid (or as classless) as Levant, and instead hide these views in coded language about sinister, ideologically-driven social agendas, a nebulous transgender “craze,” totalitarianism (as if trans* people had that much power!), political correctness, “cultural Marxists,” and persecution by “compelled speech” (which — on a legal level, at least — is factually incorrect, regardless of what overzealous professors at WLU reportedly told Lindsay Shepherd).

From his argument before the Senate against trans* human rights protections, Peterson himself makes it clear that he sees gender identity as as something that cannot be substantiated scientifically, and therefore as something that should not be dignified by giving it any credence:

“It’s incorrect in that identity is not and will never be something that people define subjectively because your identity is something you actually have to act out in the world as a set of procedural tools, which most people learn – and I’m being technical about this – between the ages of two and four. It’s a fundamental human reality. It’s well recognized by the relevant, say, developmental psychological authorities. The idea that identity is something you define purely subjectively is an idea without status as far as I’m concerned.

“I also think it’s unbelievably dangerous for us to move towards representing a social constructionist view of identity in our legal system. The social constructionist view insists that human identity is nothing but a consequence of socialization, and there’s an inordinate amount of scientific evidence suggesting that that happens to not be the case. So the reason that this is being instantiated into law is because the people who are promoting that sort of perspective, or at least in part because the people promoting that sort of perspective, know perfectly well they’ve lost the battle completely on scientific grounds.

“… the social constructionist view of gender isn’t another opinion; it’s just wrong…. 99.7 per cent of people who inhabit a body with a given biological sex identify with that biological sex. They’re incredibly tightly linked.

“If you can’t attribute causality to a link that’s that tight, you have to dispense with the notion of causality altogether. Of the people who identify as male or female who are also biologically male or female, the vast majority of them have the sexual preference that would go along with that and the gender identity and the gender expression.

“These levels of analysis are unbelievably tightly linked, and the evidence that biological factors play a role in determining gender identity is, in a word, overwhelming. There isn’t a serious scientist alive who would dispute that. You get disputes about it, but they always stem, essentially, from the humanities. As far as I’m concerned – I’ve looked at it very carefully – those arguments are entirely ideologically driven. It’s a tenet of the ideology that identity is socially constructed, and that’s partly why it’s been instantiated into law, because there’s no way they can win the argument but they can certainly win the propaganda war…”

I don’t know about you, but to me, that says that if there are so few trans* people and they can’t prove their existence on a scientific level that Peterson is willing to accept, then he shouldn’t have to accept their existence or treat them as anything other than deluded people.

For what it’s worth, to make this argument, Peterson has to disregard decades of medical case histories which have consistently demonstrated two key points: 1) that suppression and reparative therapies are extremely harmful to trans-identified individuals, and 2) acceptance and accommodation alleviates distress to the point that it (social stigma and circumstance aside) allows them to reach a kind of “square one,” from which they hopefully move on to happier and productive lives.  There is some discussion about the medical study of gender identity here, here, here, here, and elsewhere, but the bottom line is that the overwhelming weight of case histories has been so compelling that the American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, and all other major medical professional organizations (with the lone exception of an astroturf reparative therapy advocacy group with the official-sounding name of the American College of Pediatricians) call for the accommodation of, medical access for, and acceptance of trans* people.  So even though you can’t circle someone’s gender identity on a radiograph, the medical evidence is there — and when it comes to human rights, also isn’t the point.

Indeed, it’s become a common adage for trans* folk to say that we only hear about ten “regret” stories a year, and nine of them are Walt Heyer (although since the backlash to trans* human rights protections arose, that ratio has become more like 70 out of 80).

With all of that said, freedom of speech is a critically important part of Canadian life — and not just in academic settings.  The people who are first to lose it are typically those who are marginalized, those who never really had much visibility, or a public voice, or access to platforms to speak out in their defense. Whatever else they may feel about it, trans* people must take the side of freedom of speech, because their continued existence and eventual acceptance depends on it.  What is critically important, then, is to seek true freedom of speech, which as Abigail Curlew points out is not a neutral proposition that all parties come to with equal enfranchisement:

“From a sociological perspective, our society suffers from extreme stratification along the lines of race, gender, sexuality, and class. Your identity shapes where you might be located within society’s opportunity structure. Where you were born and what body you were born with matters and has a significant impact on your material and symbolic wealth.

“For transgender folks, this positions us in a precarious reality. A great portion of Canadian society doesn’t recognize trans folks as real persons. And when they recognize us, it is often filtered through crude stereotypes that emphasize perversion or mental illness. The point is, we must go to great lengths to justify and defend our very existence in everyday situations.

“… The pressures of daily transphobia and cissexism push us back into the closets where we are unable to express our voices. The “freedom of speech” of those who hold bigoted views silence the freedom of speech of those they target…”

In the end, the very reason that opponents use free speech as a weapon is because they feel threatened.  This is because in recent years, trans* people have demanded to have a voice in the cultural debate, have increasingly been given that opportunity, and have been compelling when they are heard. Indeed, by telling their stories and having the audacity to assert themselves as authorities on their own experiences, trans* people have already changed the actual debate, making it necessary for opponents to use some twist of logic to re-establish a hegemony that uses the language of academia — couched in theory that can be misguided or at times even deceptive — but removing the authority of lived experience, to once again justify trans* exclusion from that discussion.

This, then, is the solution for trans* people: to keep speaking their experiences, and for there to be continued platforms available for them to do so.  Protest, yes (with an effort to be clear what is being protested and what non-censorious remedy is being sought), but do not waste an overly unnecessary amount of energy on them (especially since that draws undue attention to them).  When trans* people are considered authorities about themselves and are prioritized, then opponents’ collective stance against acceptance begins to be recognized as archaic.

For people like Jordan Peterson and Ezra Levant, the thought of this is apparently terrifying.

(image source: Adobe Stock, with modification by author)

Crossposted to rabble.ca

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What the “Walk on the Wild Side” controversy says about trans* awareness and a changing social movement

A little over a week ago, a University of Guelph student union drew international ire for condemning Lou Reed’s 1972 song “Walk on the Wild Side” as transphobic.  This occurred after the Central Student Association apologized on social media for playing the song at a campus event.  Although this might seem like a minor thing to get upset about (especially in the outrage-saturated age of Donald Trump), and most of the reaction has focused on the historic roots and intent of the song, the controversy is actually a noteworthy reflection of the changes that take place as a social movement — in this case, trans* activism — matures.

This brings to the surface a lot of mixed feelings for me, as a former activist who chose to be visible and vocal at a time before trans* people were taken seriously, let alone had much in the way of public acceptance.  “Walk on the Wild Side” was an inclusive part of the subculture; one of the rebellious anthems we rallied around and took pride in.

It shows how profoundly things can change as a marginalized class of people becomes better understood and more enfranchised: even those things that had once been welcome and validating can become sour and invalidating.  It also says much about how social movements evolve, and how each generation inevitably repudiates the last, as they seek to distinguish themselves.

It’s a process I came face-to-face with several years ago, while trying to form a trans-specific support organization in Alberta.  One of the town hall participants took me aside and tried to impress upon me that in order for the trans* movement to advance, the “dinosaurs” (which included me, apparently) needed to “make way for the new age.”  As hurtful as the discussion was, they did have some points that resonated in the years that followed, and ultimately contributed to my decision from withdrawing from trans* activism and (mostly) from writing about trans* issues.  Some of the concerns they raised were painfully pragmatic (i.e. needing to have leaders who didn’t bring with them the baggage of bitterness and ill will of having fought the lesbian and gay establishment for inclusion in LGBTQ activism), some insulting (i.e. suggesting that one had to be younger, academic and/or trans-male in order to be an acceptable “face” of trans* activism), but other arguments were the byproduct of recognizing the changing language we use to communicate trans-ness… and the tide of acceptance that was coming with it.

After all, the activism I was accustomed to was a kind of triage, of coping with and trying to educate traditionally hostile medical, governmental and social institutions, while directing people in need to safe, welcoming inroads and pushing those institutions behind the scene to provide better options and opportunities.  I’ve often likened the experience to dashing ourselves against the rocks in the hopes of blunting them enough for the next people to come along.  But the activism that was quickly becoming needed was more direct — lobbying, legal challenges, public actions — and although I started making some of those changes in what I was doing, there was a danger that by trying to be an intrinsic part of that activism, I might inadvertently hold it back by defaulting to the triage-style efforts I’d been accustomed to.  In the end, I realized there was some important truth to this.

My point, of course, is that along with awareness about trans* people, the movement toward trans* human rights is undergoing a generational metamorphosis.

Part of that metamorphosis is in the language used to communicate “trans-ness,” if you will.
This is seen in the many diverse and sometimes seemingly-chaotic genders that are being investigated and embraced as peoples’ terms of self-identification.  Although many of the newly-embraced genders are relatively beyond my own experience (I’m personally comfortable in a gender binary, while still recognizing the problematic social constructions with that), there are almost always very deep and specific reasons those gender terms have been embraced.  I’ve learned to respect and support (while not trying to speak for, except when there is no one present to do so) gender diversity that is outside my limited range of experience.

I raise this as a point of language because before a movement can fully coalesce, the language it uses to communicate itself needs to be rethought.  Until trans* people had a language to communicate their own experiences, they had to cope — often with a lot of frustration and awkwardness — with the language that was imposed upon them.  In my lifetime, trans* women and trans-feminine persons were conflated with gay men (particularly effeminate ones); trans* men and trans-masculine persons were conflated with lesbians (particularly “butch” dykes); trans* people were defined and categorized by medical practitioners who constructed stigmatizing models of mental illness to explain them; pornography and second-wave feminists alike defined trans* women as “she-males” (usually with the implication that ‘she’s really male’); social conservatives wielded terms like “crossdresser” and “transvestite” to reduce peoples’ entire experience to a clothing fetish… and even those terms were imperfect and evolved unexpectedly.  For example, in the 1990s, a lot of trans* women actually did refer to themselves as “crossdressers” and used that as a label to rally under — it was the limitation of the language people had available to them at the time.

It wasn’t until trans* people were able to assert their right to define themselves and determine for themselves what their words meant that the old stigmas could be shed and better-fitting terms and their definitions could be settled upon.  Some of that is still taking place, and it may seem strange at times — but it is a necessary process (I, for one, welcome and embrace it — as long as no one tries to redefine my own self and experiences, in the process).  Even now, there are still disagreements about using words like “transgender” as umbrella terms (which I why I personally prefer “trans*” — it provides a much more open-ended acknowledgement of the diverse range of experiences being discussed).

But some of the earlier problematic use of language still remains in the things that were written about us — both by cis* (non-trans*) people, and by we trans* “dinosaurs.”

I won’t go into too much depth about the particulars of the song “Walk on the Wild Side,” since a lot of that is public record.  Reed wrote the song as an intended tribute to some of the trans* folks he knew as a part of Andy Warhol’s clique at The Factory, particularly Holly Woodlawn and Candy Darling.  It’s also probably historically relevant that Reed had a lengthy and enigmatic relationship with a trans* woman (who has unfortunately faded into obscurity), which had a profound effect on him.This doesn’t change the fact, of course, that the song has some lyrics that now tread into potentially misgendering and transphobic tropes (“… Plucked her eyebrows on the way / shaved her legs and then he was a she….”) The content hasn’t changed — but the context given those lyrics certainly has.  And even if there is a consensus right now it that the University of Guelph Central Student Association is on the wrong side of the issue referring to the song as transphobic, the evolution of trans* activism and the lesson of histories of other social movements tell me that the student union’s statement is more in line with where that activism is headed.

This is true of a great many things that used to be a part of what used to be the trans* subculture.  Some of the things that we consider offensive now were embraceable or rallying anthems even ten or fifteen years ago, if only by the virtue that trans* people were so stigmatized and made to hide that anything that acknowledged our existence in even a mildly sympathetic way felt like progress.

Today, the film To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar is likely to bring up heated discussions about the differences between drag queens and trans* women — if not angry division about whether drag is a kind of trans* “blackface.” In 1995, it was a celebration of a culture that was often one of the few safe-havens and opportunities to come out of the closet that trans* women had (although how welcoming the drag community was varied by region), even if it meant being willing to be a bit of a self-caricature.

In 1987, Aerosmith’s “Dude (Looks Like A Lady)” was sometimes taken as an affirmation, despite its misgendering — and in a twisted way, this may even have been in part due to the uncomfortably sexualized form of acceptance implied in the repeated refrain to “do me.”

In 1992, it was hard to know how to feel about the treatment of the character of Dil in The Crying Game, given Jody’s obvious love for her and the well-developed and nuanced relationship that she forms with Fergus… yet that is starkly contrasted with the jarring pivot of the movie, which has the latter vomiting upon the discovery of her trans* status.  Today, the movie is seen as the progenitor of the “vomit shot,” a recurring trope in an enormous amount of offensive material that portrays sex with trans* women as sickening.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch had a cult following that still largely adheres to the play and film, despite the fact that both [spoiler alert if it’s needed] end with the protagonist’s detransition — though to be fair, Hedwig has a second trans* character who doesn’t, so the decision is fairly painted as an individual one, rather than a morality tale that should apply to everybody.

Probably most notoriously, The Rocky Horror Picture Show periodically inflames division for centering around a character who was recently described as a “cannibalistic-murderer-mad-scientist obsessed with constructing the perfect Adonis to submit to Frank’s erotic pleasures,” while the original film (and theatre participation that went with it) is also paradoxically fondly remembered as peoples’ first opportunity to present themselves in public as their identified gender, and for its affirming themes like “Don’t Dream It, Be It.” Of all historic trans-related media, RHPS probably has the most chequered baggage, and isn’t helped any by being written by someone who somehow found a way to be both gender diverse and transphobic simultaneously.  In 2017, RHPS might be slightly rehabilitated by its campy intent and a remake starring Laverne Cox (which sadly makes it one of the few films about trans* people that the media industry saw fit to cast an actual trans* woman in), but I suspect that the future will not be as kind.

We’re even seeing this in the Twin Peaks reboot:

“When Denise first appeared on the ABC series in 1990, she was a trailblazer. Then (and today), trans people were practically nonexistent on network television. So to see a trans character like Denise who was smart, capable, and more than one-dimensional was a breakthrough moment for representation.

“… Jenny Boylan, a trans activist and cochair of the GLAAD board of directors, posted on social media that the scene “made me squirm.”

“25 years later the David Duchovny trans character in #twinpeaks ep 4 lands really differently, made me squirm. I’m not your dancing dwarf,” Boylan posted on Twitter…”

From perhaps 2006 to 2010 (my approximation, anyway), there has been a shift in language, and this has brought about a parallel shift in thinking. With the aftertaste of 2005’s Transamerica and the newfound ability of trans* people to tell their own narratives and define their meaning, it became no longer enough that a work of film, music or art simply be sympathetic for it to become anthemic or a point of communal pride. Since then, the language — and the context and depth of understanding that goes along with it — has been changing.
Inevitably, that means that some of the things we remember fondly do go the way of the “dinosaur,” fortunate or unfortunate as that may be.
(This post also appears at rabble.ca)

Free speech, and the cruel shackles of empathy and mutual respect

jordanpeterson2

In Canada, we tend to value freedom of speech very highly, and it’s often said that the best way to counter objectionable speech is with more speech.

That’s the first thought that crosses my mind in the case of U of T professor Jordan Peterson, who declares in a series of YouTube videos that he will not honour trans* peoples’ chosen pronouns, and opposes trans* human rights protections, all in the name of combating “political correctness.”

Of course, that would be an ideal world. In the real world, it’s still not that unusual for discussion of trans* issues to devolve into a “balanced” debate between pro- and anti-trans* academics over whether they exist at all, without any annoying context like actual trans* people being present to discuss their lived experience of, well, existing.  In the real world, there are real problems about who gets to speak, and how widely they can be heard… and the marginalized are often not given much voice to matters that affect — and are specifically about — them. In fact, the established and prolific voices in today’s media are more often quick to reject attempts to “inflict” change, or energetically create a lopsided portrait.

Speech is not a truly universal and equitable thing in the first place. Rather, it is something that is dependent upon access to favourable platforms, and is usually pre-emptively muddied by characteristic value judgments made about the speaker’s class, gender, race, etc.

Nevertheless, we strive for it as best we can. And in doing so, we arrive at the next irony: the very act of protesting ignorance with speech becomes itself heralded as evidence of censorship — as if the only way one’s speech can be truly free is for everyone else to remain silent.

The outcry and protest of ignorance [edit: example removed, was based on bad information – M] is speech, too — that of the protestors.  But in a disparate society, privileged speech is defended, while protest of it is often minimized, marginalized and dismissed as rowdiness, whinging, totalitarianism (!), censorship, and noise.  It becomes: “a little free speech for me, and a little shut-up-and-take-it for you.”

But let me back up for a moment.

Jordan Peterson is a University of Toronto (UofT) psychology professor who began his rants — especially about, but not limited to, trans* people and a “radical leftist ideology” — in late September, saying from the beginning that he felt he could face consequences, and even feared government or university reprisal because of existing human rights and hate speech laws.  He told Postmedia:

“I think (Bill C-16) risks criminalizing discussion about aspects of human sexual behaviour and identity that we need to discuss,” said Peterson, explaining that there are layers to C-16 — the biology of sex, gender identity and gender expression, for example — that could cause problems down the road.

One of his top stated concerns has been with the inclusion of trans* people in existing hate crimes legislation. The thing that people forget about this when it pertains to speech, though, is that the law has already been tested and shown to apply only exceedingly sparingly. If Bill Whatcott’s homemade but mass-distributed “anal warts” flyers equating LGBTQ people with pedophiles, and lyrical invitations to “kill the homosexual” skirt the edges of hate speech — some permissible and some not — then Peterson probably has nothing to worry about. Speech can indeed be hateful, and yet still not be legally actionable as hate speech.

But given that he seems only (or at least primarily) worried about human rights and hate crimes legislation when it pertains to LGBTQ people, one has to wonder if the concerns are cover for fears about the growing acceptance of trans* people in society.  He stated from the beginning that he will not use non-binary pronouns for other people, even if they request that.  He also said in his first video that he is “scared by the people behind the doctrines,” and attributes them to a radical Marxist ideology (reminiscent of the “cultural Marxism” panic making the rounds among social conservatives). He even compares the latter to Naziism, because of what he considers “murderous” and “Marxist” policies around the world.

Peterson frames his views in an academic and perhaps libertarian perspective, rather than a religious perspective, but he has been enjoying the support of religious conservatives.  This is probably because his views are quite compatible with the right-wing narrative that accepting and acknowledging trans* people as they need to live is (as enunciated regularly at LSN) a “disservice” and “false compassion because it’s not true.”

Peterson’s remedy to all of this dreaded political correctness — and what he calls upon listeners to help him with — is to propagate a “No PC” sticker campaign across the campus, and beyond.

The response to his videos has been mixed, with fierce supporters and opponents.  It has reportedly spawned threats, and affected some students’ class attendance.  In recent days, personal information about trans* students was circulated in far right subreddits, and protesters were nearly overwhelmed by an angry mob that allegedly included neo-Nazis.  This puts the University of Toronto in a quandary, as calls for reprisal — including possibly firing Peterson — have arisen.

From my perspective, reprisals like firing are not really a preferable end goal. We do value freedom of speech in Canada, after all — especially in academic settings — so there is that kernel of validity, even if Peterson’s speech is disrespectful or hateful. He’s entitled to his opinion, and also to be a jerk about it, on his own time.  Restrictions on freedom of speech are too often used to oppress minorities rather than people of privilege, anyway — much like the “homosexual propaganda” ban in Russia, which conservatives are still trying to figure out how to lobby for in North America.  It’s that extra step that Peterson wants to take it with students and colleagues which makes the question particularly difficult.

When I say this, though, it’s also partly because I’m an avid reader of social conservative media, and understand the undercurrent of persecution narrative activism. It’s why I can recognize what likely motivates someone who — without anyone ever asking him to respect trans* people in the first place — took it upon himself to loudly and energetically pursue free speech martyrdom anyway.

And personally, I see no value in giving it to him. Peterson’s actions — whether deliberately or by coincidence — are destined to place him in a growing collection of social conservatives who self-immolate for a few moments of anti-LGBTQ fame. It’s become trendy to seek a place on the Kim Davis speaking circuit, alongside Fundie cake bakers, and the twice-suspended Alabama Chief Justice who tried to singlehandedly overturn marriage equality in the United States.  Free speech martyrdom is also Ezra Levant’s entire schtick (which he’s still trying to parlay into a media network), so it also has just as valid and active a presence in Canada outside of overtly religious circles.  Whining that someone’s “special right” to dignity and equality is trampling your perfectly ordinary right to discriminate seems to make you a far right folk hero, these days. One of the end objectives of this, of course, is to insert a special religious exemption in human rights laws, so that people can practice their faith by refusing to sell to, hire, or otherwise co-exist with heathens (I might have got the precise wording wrong on this, because I don’t remember the particular scripture where Jesus commanded his followers to willfully disrespect and refuse to do business with sinners — I keep getting hung up on the “love one another” and “give unto Caesar” parts, for some reason).

Anyway, free speech martyrdom will allow Peterson to play hero… or at least until some other dupe comes along. After all, the whole value of the Kim Davises and Melissa Kleins to conservative activists only lasts as long as they’re useful to the two legal groups (Alliance Defending Freedom and Liberty Counsel) trying to etch anti-LGBTQ discrimination into American law, plus the allied think tanks, religious organizations and media outlets that are parasitically fundraising off both their successes and their failures. The Kleins, for example, recently closed their bakery, ruined because they thought that refusing to do business with a lesbian couple was a noble idea — and now they’re almost forgotten, except by the vaguely-phrased legend of the cake bakers. In that circuit, the fate of someone like Jordan Peterson is irrelevant.  The point of beatifying the speech martyrs is to entice more dupes into creating more situations that help build a narrative which frames LGBTQ peoples’ rights to live, work and do business as automatically and inherently persecuting to people of faith… something that Peterson’s firing would fit into just as beautifully as any technical victory he might (though it’s a longshot) find some way to score.

Either way, giving Peterson the glory he seems to seek really only feeds an ongoing anti-LGBTQ political tactic — even if deceptive — and gives it power.

Yet, there does have to be some form of limit. There’s no denying the destructive effect of cumulative aggressions and microaggressions. It’s one thing to be told by someone that they think you’re deluded and that they refuse to respect you. It’s quite another to be told that in billionuplicate, at every turn, by several people you don’t know (and even worse: some you do), without you ever having done anything to warrant the hostility. If you pay attention to news related to trans* people, you know that stories of suicides due to bullying and harassment arrive on a weekly basis… and that’s only the reported instances.

Because as valid as the need to protect free speech is, it is also very often weaponized, and used to gaslight entire communities that just want to be able to participate in society and be accorded the same dignity and respect as anyone else. It’s used to minimize them, tell them they ask too much, and shame them into going away — back into their closets would be just fine, for example. Remember what I said about free speech in the real world being often a one-sided or lopsided thing.

But where to draw the line on hateful speech is almost impossible to determine. It’s easy to limit speech in cases of libel and direct harassment or incitement. Cumulative hatefulness, though, is difficult to realistically pin on an individual, especially given that an individual doesn’t always intend the hostile fallout generated by their supporters or the like-minded. I don’t know that it can be done legislatively, except in extreme and / or intended instances.

What has to happen is a mass awakening, and a mass rejection of ignorance — and unfortunately, the pace of that kind of change is glacial. Of course, mass backlash will still be framed as persecution and censorship, but it will be better recognized widely as a reasoned response to bigotry.  And that takes time and awareness… and continual revisitation.

And if there is no clear legislative solution, then there’s not a lot of guidance outside the court system, either. So I understand the position this puts the University of Toronto (and potentially the Ontario Human Rights Commission, if it came to that) in… particularly with the issue of pronouns.

The thing to keep in mind about pronouns is that deliberately misgendering someone is itself an act of hostility — an act of asserting that you know better than someone else who they are, what they need and what their life experiences mean. It’s putting your inconvenience of having to adapt ahead of the reality of their entire lives. It’s not just about invalidating one’s choice of pronoun — it’s about claiming the right to authoritatively invalidate everything that they know about themself(/ves)*.

[* And if you paused for less than five seconds to look at that, understood it — however awkward that pronoun might have looked — shrugged and moved on, then congratulations: you’re far better able to cope with gender neutral and / or singular “they” pronouns than a UofT prof!]

Allowing Peterson to speak his opinions about “gender ideology” is one thing. Having him publicly vow to deliberately antagonize and disrespect students and other faculty members is quite another.  And as the increasing tensions and threats over the course of his campaign have shown, sustained, hateful free speech can have serious consequences.

So what is to be done?  The best scenario would be if Peterson would recognize where he has stepped beyond speech into deliberate antagonism and borderline incitement, maybe apologize, or at least leave things be, but that’s obviously not going to happen.  Probably, the only result that both he and trans* advocates and supporters will be satisfied with is some form of free speech martyrdom, in the form of firing or some lesser kind of censure.

And this will inevitably once more feed the conservative persecution complex, and the dreams of a Trump-like saviour to free them — in the words of the inimitable Samantha Bee — “from that prison, and the cruel shackles of empathy and mutual respect.”

(Crossposted to rabble.ca)

Paths of Pain, and the Ownership of Language.

Marc Maron recently ran a follow-up interview with fellow comedian Todd Glass, who had come out as gay on Marc’s podcast, WTF.  Marc’s podcast has often been strikingly introspective, and a moment came up that epitomized this. Glass started talking about language, the way that words can be weaponized, and the way he’s experienced this since coming out as gay:

(at 20:12) GLASS: But for me, I want to keep evolving.  I don’t want to be the type of person who drops one word out of my act and then the other word and then goes ‘oh my god, when’s it gonna stop? I’m done evolving!’  Don’t f***ing brag about that…  ‘Cause… you know, the reason those words — I realize it with the word ‘gay’ — the reason people think it’s not bad is they don’t see the path of pain where it leads back to…

That sticks out in my mind as important, as it speaks almost directly to the controversy that happened when Marc interviewed RuPaul Charles in the previous podcast, as part of RuPaul’s ongoing string of controversies over language:

(at 1:16:41) RUPAUL: No no no, it’s not the transsexual community who’s saying that. These are fringe people who are looking for storylines to strengthen their identity as victims. That is what we’re dealing with.  It’s not the trans community, because most people who are trans have been through hell and high water and they know — they’ve looked behind the curtain at Oz and went, ‘Oh, this is all a f***ing joke.  But, some people haven’t, and they’ve used their victimhood to create a situation…  If your idea of happiness has to do with someone else changing what they say, what they do, you are in for a f***ing hard-ass road.  Because the ego would have you think…  that is a trap that the ego will have you… it gets you every time…  My 32-year career speaks for itself.  I dance to a different drummer.  I believe that everybody, you can be whatever the hell you wanna be. I ain’t stopping you.  But don’t you dare tell me what I can do or say. It’s just words.  Yeah, words [mocking] ‘you… your words hurt me…’ You know what? Bitch, you need to get stronger.  You really do, because you know what, if you’re upset by something I said, you have bigger problems than you think.  I’m telling you this….

The sad thing about that is, earlier in the interview, RuPaul had some interesting but challenging things to say about building social movements around identity and about deconstructing “the matrix” of social illusions that people have.  While I don’t really agree with him on all points, it does provoke some thought and provide some insight about where he’s coming from.  “Identity” is a vague enough concept that it deserves to be questioned and picked apart from time to time, and that’s what RuPaul does.

Of course, language is also the means that people use to become self-aware, communicate that self to the world, and build common cause… so your mileage on that will vary.

The Spirit of It

Now, I don’t like playing word police.  I’ve done it a few times, and I recognize the importance of words and the evolution of language.  The effect that has on both forming social movements and shoring up one’s sense of self-respect (if not pride) is admittedly significant.  But the bigger issue is often the spirit with which something is said or intended.  So my overall thoughts on language are mixed.

Sometimes we only have the language we’re given.  We’ve only relatively recently coined “cisgender” and “cissexual” (words to mean “not transgender” and “not transsexual,” sort of like “heterosexual” is to “homosexual”) because using “normal” drips with judgment and condemnation, and “genetic” is not scientifically accurate or verifiable.

We still fight over terms like transgender, transsexual, trans* (with or without the asterisk), etc.  Depending on where you are, sometimes you need to be keeping a bloody scorecard.  In one group, people prefer “transgender” because it doesn’t imply that being trans is about sex; another group will prefer “transsexual” because it’s always been the term they knew, or because it is about changing the physical sex, for them; yet another group will totally reject “transsexual” because it was coined by the medical community and they want to reject the mental health stigma or the clinical abuses that people have faced in the years prior.

The words changed over time, too… it wasn’t that long ago that people embraced “tranny,” and sometimes even accepted the word “transvestite,” however inappropriate that might have been — either because they didn’t realize the implications of the word, or because it was the only label available in a drop-down menu, in one of those rare spaces we were welcome, at the time.  Although there’s a relatively consistent aversion to “tranny” and “shemale” now (aside from a few people who still use them to describe themselves), it hasn’t always been that way, and the labels each come with a plethora of nuances, and occasional people who embrace the terms for themselves.

I tend to prefer trans (or trans*), because it’s open-ended.  It’s supposed to be an adjective, not a straitjacket.  Personally, I’d hate to ever find myself parsing a descriptor so narrowly and precisely that it starts to define me, rather than the other way around.  But I really don’t blame people for getting a little peeved about there being a minefield of language.

And if you’re thinking that this kind of fight over language is just particular to trans* people, then keep in mind that decades later, LGBT people still have divisions over whether they want to retake or banish the word “queer.”  Divides exist in other communities, as well, such as the split over the terms “First Nations,” “Native,” “Indigenous,” “Aboriginal,” “Native American,” etc.:

“But lately, I question if we are empowered or disempowered by this term and this assigned title –and if it permeates and weakens our identity.

“Not the term in itself, but by all matters, machinery, and meaning (explicitly and implicitly) implied by the assignment of the title onto us by Canada, the acceptance of it on our part, and all that comes with such uncritical acceptance and internalization…”

…is a passage that almost looks as though it were plucked right out of an article on trans* -related language, doesn’t it?

Words are important to us.  They’re inevitably used to define us, so it’s natural for us to want to be the ones who determine what those words say.  Except that we can’t.  Abolishing a word isn’t going to erase the pain that went with it, nor will it change the attitudes of the people who wield the word as a weapon.

Because there can indeed be a path of pain associated with “tranny.”  When it was the language used whenever a person is attacked, disrespected, disowned, denied services, threatened, refused entry, humiliated, or more, it becomes a foci of microaggression: where any one incident can seem surmountable or even trivial, but when multiplied by thousands, it becomes monumental.  Perhaps RuPaul had the luck or privilege to escape a lot of that (he is, after all, able to take off the wig, makeup and sequins when it gets to be too much), or perhaps he found the rare strength to power through it all without it eroding his spirit — but trans* people at large aren’t always able to do the same.  Words have power.

What we can do in the discussion about language is assert our right to be respected, and to be dignified as the people we say we are. We are only ever entitled to speak for ourselves.  We never were empowered to label everyone who’s trans*.

RuPaul, of course, is speaking for himself, and that’s cool.  The whole word debate arises because he is speaking for himself, but trans* people — and just about everyone else, for that matter — assume that he’s labeling trans* people.  If there were a way to achieve clarity on this, it wouldn’t matter what terminology he embraces and throws around.

But where RuPaul Charles derails is not from pointing out the inevitable failure of communal self-identification (because we are not some homogenous collective Borg hive — I get that), but by invalidating those who are targeted by said language, and validating the ways the words are used to target them.  “Grow up, get a spine” is not helpful, and minimizes another’s pain.  While we’re busy trying to turn that “victimhood” into empowerment, RuPaul is there to act like there wouldn’t be any pain at all, if we only had more spine.  That’s not helpful, and it’s quite inelegant, at that.

The language debate became an argument over the willingness to respect.  Does one surrender the use of the word out of a willingness to listen to what someone has to say about who they are, what they need and what their life experiences mean… or do they instead extend a big middle finger to them and declare that they know better, and that (whether anyone likes it or not) they’re appointing yourself the arbiter of another person’s reality?

Not One-Sided

But that respect goes both ways.

Something that always bothered me about this discussion was that often it became an angry shouting match about who trans* people are not.  Most often, this has to do with people distancing themselves from drag queens.  Now, I’ll admit, it’s difficult to change the impression that the public has, when society routinely conflates trans* with drag.  Virtually every newspaper story you see on trans* issues is illustrated with a photo of drag queens in a Pride parade (okay to be fair, some are finally starting to know the difference).

Drag isn’t the same thing as trans*, although some trans* people find that a safe space to explore and / or come out, so there can be some overlap.  Trans* is different — not better, but different.  Clarity would be nice.  But what happens is that instead of calling for clarity, people slip into the same bigoted stereotypes and assumptions about others that they don’t want applied to themselves.  Denigrating someone else in order to elevate oneself is very low.

The new argument is that “drag is trans* blackface.”  But drag was never meant to lampoon trans* people — it lampoons gender itself, both masculinity and femininity simultaneously.  It’s quite likely that it’s becoming an art that’s past its time, because of the effect it has on intersecting groups and issues (i.e. that regardless of the original intent, in current context, trans* people are lampooned by circumstance), and the buttons that it now pushes.  But I’m not going to start that discussion here, nor will I malign the integrity and motives of the people who engage in drag… some of whom set out to challenge gender as much as anyone who is genderqueer, but simply took a different avenue and during a different time.  It’s a conversation that’s looming, but not one that trans* people can have arbitrarily and unilaterally — at least not if you believe in decolonizing activism.

There’s another group of people that are often taken issue with, in the discussion about the word “tranny.”

While composing this article, I ended up getting into a heated exchange in probably the worst venue to have an intelligent conversation — Facebook.  One follower had been pushing me to write on the subject, and decided to elaborate on why they felt words like “tranny” are offensive: she associated the word with the porn industry and prostitution, and didn’t like the implication of being associated with such people… “sleazy,” “freakish” and “deluded” (because apparently, doing sex work means that one must not be really trans*) people.

People like me.

I don’t do sex work now, mind you. I did at two points in my life, though — once when I first left home at 18, and again later when I transitioned and was more or less dropped off the payroll by my employer.  I was outted on this point a couple years ago and haven’t written about it much here — but I’ve been having to discuss it a lot more recently because of legislative issues in Canada. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it, either.

I didn’t use words like “tranny” or “shemale” then, mind you, unless it was part of a date’s fantasy (at which point one inevitably has to put up with it).  And currently, things are fading far enough into the rear-view mirror that it would make as much sense to call me a tranny as it would to call me a soup can.  So I have no vested interest in defending the words themselves.

But the words used are no longer relevant, because the question of intent goes both ways, too.  Because what I was really being told was that my conversant’s pain was from having to be associated with what they felt was a lesser form of person.

Your path of pain does not give you entitlement to create more pain by bulldozing through me.

And from this point forward, I am no longer interested in this argument about language — or at least not until we have a good, solid discussion about intent.  Because while I recognize that there is genuinely a path of pain that some people have regarding the word “tranny,” sometimes it’s really about disdain.

(Crossposted to The Bilerico Project)

CBC: Should we use gender-neutral pronouns instead of ‘he’ and ‘she’?

CBC is asking the question, “Should we use gender-neutral pronouns instead of ‘he’ and ‘she’?”  Citing Sweden’s addition of a gender-neutral pronoun to the National Encyclopedia and a news story last year about a Toronto couple who wished to raise their child genderless until the child decides, and asks:

Do you think language should be gender-neutral? Why or why not? Or, is this going to far in the quest for equality between genders? Does changing the language make a difference?

Hm.

Speaking for myself, I’m not terribly oppressed by “she.”  The only times I was ever close to being oppressed by “she” was before my transition, when people would use it to mock me, and try to undermine the masculinity that I tried to put on in order to avoid drawing attention to myself (obviously unsuccessfully).

But I’ve also known several people who do experience oppression by being forced into “he” or “she” or thrown into some worse (“it?!?“) box when the first two don’t adequately fit.  I know some who use zie and hir, and a couple who prefer a singular they.  That’s cool.  I sometimes have a problem with remembering, but otherwise, I do my best to respect that.  There’s a level of experience there that is beyond mine, and I recognize that I have privilege here, so I can afford to cede to and honor someone else’s wishes on this.

The question goes a little deeper, though.  Are “he” and “she” part of a larger colonial hegemony that divides men and women in a most fundamental level of language in ways that we don’t recognize because we’re so used to thinking about them as “normal?”  That’s a profound question, and I really don’t know the answer to it at this moment.  It’s worth thinking about, and digging deeper.

For the moment, I’d be glad to see a widely-accepted gender-neutral pronoun in use, provided it doesn’t get forced on anybody.  I’m still comfortable with “she” and probably wouldn’t use a gender-neutral alternative, unless that hegemonic question led to some unexpected epiphany.  But I’m glad to see some recognition building that pronouns can oppress and do oppress at times… and questioning ways to change that.

The Death of the “Transgender” Umbrella

(Part of a three-part series:
Part 1: The Death of the Transgender Umbrella
Part 2: Why The Umbrella Failed
Part 3: Decolonizing Trans as Allies)

If you’ve traveled anywhere among trans or LGBT blogs in the past year or three, you’ve inevitably come across an ongoing battle over labels, and particularly “transgender” as an umbrella term.  It seems to be a conflict without end, without middle ground and without compromise.  And yet for discourse on human rights and enfranchisement for transsexual and transgender people to move forward at all, at some point that discussion needs to have some sort of resolution, and some thorough dissection of the argument will need to take place.  Could an alliance-based approach be a solution?  Or more accurately, could enough people on both sides of the argument be willing (that is, to not see their position as immovable) to seek an alliance-based approach for it to make a positive difference in the discourse?

I don’t know.  But something that has become clear to me over the past while is that the language is changing.  And I don’t have to like it, but I have to understand what that means.

I only speak for myself.  In the end, it’s all I really can do anyway.  I don’t speak for any trans-related community, don’t speak for The Bilerico Project or any of its other contributors, don’t speak for any other place I’ve posted or published writing, don’t speak for Alberta trans people — just me.

I say that because the international trans community is in a state of flux.  As the community defines itself, we’re discovering just how diverse “trans” really is, and just how inadequate any one single definition is when it tries to cover everyone.  A result of this is that in 2011, while the mainstream world is just starting to twig on to trans anything, trans and LGBT forums are finding nearly every conversation on trans issues, trans rights, gender studies and identity disintegrating into a debate about “transgender,” its use as an umbrella term, and whether there should even be an umbrella at all.  It’s reached the point that it’s stalemated any and every other discussion.  And ultimately, I realize that nothing some writer and blogger from Southern Alberta says is going to change that, but I can make my own declaration on the matter.  And in that, I speak for myself.

Because our language for trans issues is changing. Continue reading