Saturday, August 16, 2014

Weaponised language

I am glad that Caroline Criado-Perez replied to my last post. It was one of the few moments of civility in an otherwise ghastly, though sadly routine week in the narrative of Trans versus Radical Feminist debate.

What Caroline did in that post, and what I am hoping to continue here, is to demonstrate a few things.

Principally, that it is possible for people with different perspectives to engage in debate. That even though there are elements of that debate which include themes around which consensus may be difficult, perhaps seem impossible, this does not preclude the possibility of respectful listening and discussion. Some of the poison can be drawn and simply hearing another does not mean abandoning your principles or your beliefs. Not facing the hardest questions up front does not mean that they can never be faced (a basic principle of any negotiation is to create that which can be built on, and to move forward step by step from there). Even though there are some who open their mouths with words that they know will send the 'other side' running from the room in hurt (a kind of 'first strike doctrine'), it is possible to start the conversation from other places and then see where the path started there might lead.

Caroline and I are both women. I hope she believes that. Let's start there. Our experiences are in some ways quite different. But in other ways probably very similar. Though I do not know her - in a sense I address this to all women reading this - I can already say that we share a lot in our femaleness.

The exchanges between us have started with the language of this shared experience, rather than by tearing the scabs off unhealed wounds and thrashing around in the resultant fountain of blood. Unlike some other exchanges, elsewhere. Especially the ones going on inside 140 characters.

Which isn't to say that wounds do not need healing, nor that we should avoid the hard questions. The reverse. We have to engage with them. We have to go - step by step - to where the pain is. I have been told by some that what I am doing here is futile. That the deep-set hate of some Radical Feminists, for people like me, especially the 'Trans Exclusionary' wing, is baked in. Like the words through a stick of rock. I have seen this in action myself of course (and will say now that I have no interest in debating with anyone who enters this discussion tooled up with a package of 'first strike' weapons designed to reduce my sense of self to ashes before I have a chance to even respond).

We do have to deal with the pain being caused to people by the opinions being expressed, because actions are caused by the voicing of these opinions. 

For me, on my side of this debate, this is not an academic nor simply theoretical issue. I have been told this week (by an established radical feminist writer) that my lived experience is not valid as it conflicts with a conceptual framework that she prefers. This has in fact been going on for a long time - some years ago, journalist Julie Bindel published a piece that literally caused me to hyperventilate with shock and pain. I remember the physical feeling of sick panic one Saturday morning. I won't link to it - it doesn't need further exposure and it has been widely dissected since. I was married and in the final - literally desperate - throes of trying to hold together a life which I had constructed, believing it to be my best and only hope of happiness. An existence I had erected to try and make what I felt to be a ghastly knowledge about myself go away. I was doing this for the sake of my spouse and my children, but also for myself because I was terribly terribly frightened of what would become of me if I did address this need. I was - very classically - abused, and in a state of deep oppression. Bindel's piece, full of hate and ridicule came at a time when I knew I was running out of options. Suicide was certainly one. It turned the dial up on that abuse significantly (and it wasn't her only foray into this by any means). It moved me closer to death. Talk about oppression.

I have of course known trans people who have committed suicide  - full of despair, using an inner vocabulary to themselves taken from the world around them - especially from the media. I have heard those hate words too - said to me, over and over. The speaker of them gained authority (and, worst of all, legitimacy even to me, in my abused state) by knowing that the words they were using were appearing in print.

The climate in Britain has, thank God, started to improve. But we still face challenges and insult of course, as Julie Burchill's vile piece last year shows (still proudly hosted by Toby Young on the Telegraph's site). And then of course, there's stuff like this and this and other pieces I could find but won't (but would have if I was still a confused and closseted woman feeling desperate and trying to find out what the world had in store for me).

Beyond this, around the world, laws are passed because positions expressed in these views are taken to be valid and within some sort of morally legitimate debate - even if they question our very identity or (at worst) right to stay alive. In parts of the United States a conflation of fundamentalist Christian and Radical Feminism has even emerged to try and drive the (sometimes still fairly non existent) rights of trans people backwards in various state legislatures, with some success.

Narratives of hate are exported too. Some Southern Baptist preachers (for whom trans people are simply a particularly unbiblical version of homosexuality) have demonstrated this in their 'Kill the gays' agenda in Sub Saharan Africa - bankrolling lethal homophobia in Uganda, Nigeria and elsewhere. I met a trans woman from Uganda last year at a conference - she has to move every three days from safe house to safe house, lest the mob find her. She can't even get on a bus.

The Radical Feminist discourse is not, of course, the chief reason why people are being murdered in Africa and in the UK I can get on a bus without fear for my safety*, thank God. But my point is that words travel...have actual effect on the world, and can kill people. These words - of individual rights, of gender theory, these claims and counter claims around authenticity - might first appear in the setting of academic 'debate' or sociological discourse but they get picked up and percolate through the culture.  Its not long before they are in the hands of people with the power do real hurt.

The narrative that questions my right to even exist in the only way that makes sense to me, treating me like some negotiable concept rather than as a flesh and blood human being, is never far from the surface - even in this country. We saw this again last week when the BBC's 'Newsnight' tried to frame the recent emergence of Kellie Maloney as a transgender woman by creating a debate in which there was every chance that some fundamental, hard won but fragile social rights (possibly including the use of public lavatories appropriate to their gender) could have spewed out on to the table again. (We don't know whether they would have, because two of the three trans participants booked saw this coming and pulled out of the debate. But given the list of people the BBC initially contacted to put up 'against' those two trans guests (there still has to be an 'against' - that's a key part of the problem), the broadcaster's exploitative intention was pretty clear, to me. Nor was the response by the Editor of Newsnight anything other than disingenuous).

It's all about words then. We can be destroyed by them. Or start something with them. One word that has been at the heart of recent debate - and this recent exchange online - is the word 'cisgender' (or 'cis'). In Caroline's post, she says this:

"I had felt that cis could be a useful term if it meant nothing more than that my body was one I felt I could live with. But I have seen that that is not how it is used – I have seen many ways in which it is used that mean that I have to say I am privileged for being allowed from birth to be socialised as a woman – and there is not a day that goes by that I do not experience a reminder of just how shit it is to be born into the class woman. So I can’t accept that."
Caroline, I do not share your view that feeling that your body is one you could live with" actually gives you nothing, in relation to me. We both live in a world that is constructed around that idea of congruence, as if nothing else could even be possible - or even (in the West at least) conceptualised. That has an effect on the erased minority who do not feel that congruence. And it puts us in different power relationships with respect to that world. But I am not trying to insult you by claiming this.

For me, this is no way conflicts with your assertion that to be a woman - cisgender, transgender, whatever term we use, or none - places us both at a disadvantaged position in a wider setting though - the unfair patriarchal society in which men own the power and women work for them. But there is a web of factors in play - I feel I could also easily get into intersectionality issues too. I can speculate and accept that I have social privilege in a different context for example as an able bodied person versus someone with disabilities.I don't feel insulted by that. I can also accept that I have privilege as a white trans woman versus a trans woman of colour who is loaded with society's racial prejudice as well as its views about femaleness as well as its prejudice against people who have lived transgender lives.

As for where it nets out...my socialisation of several decades, my trans experience, my innate femaleness, your (by my definition) cisgender experience, your femaleness...the venn diagram of understanding of ourselves they create, I cannot speculate. But for me socio-cultural positioning cannot be a simple matter of a meta view which characterises everything within only the class definition of gender. Oppression is more complex than that. And so is gender, which for me cannot simply a class-defined term and an outcome of social conditioning. If it was, the David Reimer story would have been very different. If it was, the children who resist implacable attempts to socialise them one way or another would learn to live with the gender role the world gives them. If it was, I would never have felt as I did.

I do share your view that cisgender must never be used as a term of abuse.  Cisgender is becoming 'weaponised', as I saw one blogger put it, with hurting trans people presumably to the fore in doing so as they lash out against the oppression they have felt. Sadly, it's starting be used as racists use skin colour. It goes without saying that I don't support that use of cisgender at all. 

For me it's use should be only, as you put it, to characterise a relationship between self and body with which one can cope. That's all its for.

So maybe we agree on that? I hope that we can go from there.

* Sunday August 17th - having written this, I today come across news from a trans woman yesterday abused and insulted on a bus in the Midlands, whilst other passengers sat there and looked on. She writes of her distress and of how she felt more isolated and vulnerable in 30 minutes on that bus than she has done in the last 11 years. Words matter. 

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