It must be said that in the months this post took to write, the moral panic against trans people has accelerated a breakneck pace. Maya Forstater made headlines for arguing she had a right to abuse trans people at her workplace, a paper in Australia published 68 articles rooted in anti-trans conspiracies, half a dozen faceless astroturfing campaigns mysteriously appeared with swanky websites and generous, unsourced financial backers. And, as you guessed, Murphy launched a speaking circuit where she will no doubt repeatedly state how censored she is–a contradiction that she and her fellow travellers will quietly ignore.
Trawl the hashtag #TakeBackTPL (Toronto Public Library) on Twitter, used to track the protest against Murphy’s speaking piece for TPL, and another curious dichotomy will begin to emerge: Meghan Murphy’s supporters will consistently make platitudes about the principle of free speech (whilst remaining vague and unclear as to what, precisely, Murphy’s speech is); and trans people and our supporters will tell you exactly what Meghan Murphy has said, even if we aren’t always clear about why it’s immoral to say it.
Consider the statement, “I’m in pain.” Right now, I am in pain! I’ve been struggling with a flare-up of tennis elbow which may or may not be a chronic condition. At the height of a flare-up, the pain can be quite debilitating. But can I prove it? What happens when you ask me to prove it? What neutral, measurement-based evidence can I provide to support the claim? There exists no tool to stick in my arm and declare “she’s measuring at 4.5 whines out of 10.” I could double over and hold my arm, complain when asked to use it, drop groceries or dishes to make my point–but there is nothing stopping you from replying that it’s all an act.
How do I know it to be true? I feel it. It’s quite intrinsic. I didn’t need to perform pain by dropping dishes or groceries to prove that I felt it to myself–the act of feeling it made it true. But how do you know it’s true? The skeptic could reply, “you’re clearly exaggerating!” and I would have no empirical way to dispute that. Everything I could do to try and reinforce the fact that I am feeling pain in my elbow, from grimacing to crying, can be handwaved away as further play-acting. How do you know it’s true, the same way you know it’s true my pen will drop to the floor when I let go of it?
You don’t. The information is unknowable to you except by the act of my telling you, either in words or body language. In comparison to gravity, the closest you can ever achieve is a sneaking suspicion. I can know it to be true whether I am in pain, and you can know it to be true whether you believe me, but these views cannot be reconciled with observation and experimentation (“BASIC SCIENTIFIC FACT” as the rhetoric goes) to “break the tie.”
That entire process I walked you through is a good analogy for the Meghan Murphy dialogue. I started with a claim about morality, which I will defend in a moment. But the dialogue pivoted without being explicit about it. We switched from a claim about ethics, to a claim about ~epistemology~– or instead of talking about “morally right” and “morally wrong,” we started talking about “factually right” and “factually wrong.” This unspoken gear-change is why so many people don’t “get it” or can’t explain the protest against Meghan Murphy. I’m asking for assistance taking my groceries up the stairs because I can’t bear a load with my fingers, and she’s telling me to prove it, then accusing me of lying when I try to honour such an awkward request. The pain of my tennis elbow is immaterial to someone who has decided it is not true, and they have the option to unilaterally decide it is not true because I am the only one feeling it.
The crux of the matter, then, is the morality of making that unilateral decision, intertwined with the politics of credibility and the meeting point of knowledge and ethics. This is why it is incorrect to describe opposition to Murphy solely in terms of factual disagreement (though she is also factually incorrect at times)–the claim, at least some of the time and in particular in #TakeBackTPL, is that her work is morally objectionable, not merely inaccurate:
“Trans rights are human rights!” Meghan Murphy and attendees leave library to a chorus of boos. pic.twitter.com/2065nXeGZI
— Anthony Oliveira (@meakoopa) October 29, 2019
For the purposes of this article, I’m going to call this manoeuvre (whether done deliberately or negligently) from an ethics claim to a knowledge claim “flattening the stakes” because it misrepresents what is “at stake.” That is, something it is “at stake” because it is in a situation where it might be lost, and this is flattened when we downplay what that is.
I have one last observation to make before I begin in earnest, as I preempt the claim that my transitude taints my impartiality on this issue. As we established in my example, where I am in pain without a definitive event to act as supporting (or disputing) evidence of my claim, we can go around in circles with our competing positions with no clear roadmap towards resolution. This reflects in the type of content that Feminist Current (Murphy’s platform) produces–as of October 30, 2019 its most popular content, as well as over half of the main page, are all material that talks about trans people. 11 of 13 videos on her Youtube channel are about transgender people, and her $850/month Patreon’s only public post is a grievance against Twitter for enforcing its policies against abuse on her handle for harassing transgender users. This is in addition to her paid appearances on her speaking circuits. I couldn’t tell you exactly how much of her monthly revenue is dependent on this conversation continuing, but it’s at least enough to cover my rent. If we’re really going to insist on conflicts of interest precluding someone’s participation in the issue, then Murphy arguably fares worse than I do–her ability to make a living dries up if one decides we’ve heard all we needed to.
Remember that when she (and her supporters) continue to argue on the principle of free speech while being coy on what speech, precisely, they are attempting to make: that I am either lying about my tennis elbow; or that I am merely imagining it.
Dr. Kate Manne proposes in her recent work, Down Girl, that we proceed with our feminist analyses distinguishing between sexism as an ideology (the “law-writing” branch), in which different treatment of men and women is rationalized; and misogyny, a set of tactics women experience (the “law-enforcement” branch), and in which the different treatment of men and women is manifested. To defend this request, Manne demonstrates several advantages in this model by examining an incident where Rush Limbaugh publicly berated then-college-student Sandra Fluke for her 2012 speech to the House of Commons in which she argued that contraception is healthcare, and should be covered by health insurance.
Limbaugh responded to the speech with a litany of vicious insults over three days and–most importantly for Manne’s analysis–nonetheless denied that his actions constituted misogyny because he “didn’t hate women.” Manne calls this “hatred of women” the naive conception of misogyny and points out that the naive conception is toothless for feminist analysis. Because the naive conception asks us to consider the internal psychological state of the accused, and one typically knows one’s internal state better than external observers, all one need do to defeat a charge of misogyny is deny it (“I don’t hate women, I’m just concerned about the family“). When we understand misogyny to be a set of tactics experienced by the target instead, we can litigate Limbaugh’s conduct and conclude his behaviour constituted misogyny without ever having to consult his (unknowable) motives.
For that reason, I am going to accept Manne’s proposal, and build on it. Much of the transphobia I experience can’t be easily separated from the misogyny I experience, and so it seems obvious to me this “law-writing ‘ism‘/law-enforcement ‘miso‘-” framework is fertile ground when considering cissexism and transmisogyny, respectively. Most importantly, it addresses Murphy’s claims about “not having anything against transwomen [sic]” while allowing that her actions could be unethical, much in the same way that Manne’s framework enables her to examine Limbaugh’s conduct independent of his stated motives.
Murphy’s website contains at least seven articles that I could easily locate referencing a conspiracy theory about a workshop on developing positive body image for queer trans women in Women Who Love Women (WLW) spaces. This conspiracy theory is that the workshop promoted the rape of cisgender lesbians because some of them don’t consider transgender women to be viable partners, when in reality, it started with a conversation closer to this:
The stability of gender, the stability (or even validity) of sexual orientations in a world where gender is not a stable, binary, fixed thing. The importance of what a lesbian identity is and means, where it begins and ends. How much of sexuality is fixed and how much is mutable. How much of our attractions, and sexual orientations, are connected to actual bodies and actual pleasure and how much is all just in our heads and how we think of those bodies and pleasures. The presence of trans women as sexual beings poses considerable threats to understandings of gender and sexuality, both of which are things that carry deeply personal significance to everyone, perhaps especially to queer women.
This particular conspiracy theory has significant traction among those who seek to promote a moral panic about trans women. It’s most recent iteration is a Guardian column under Blind Date, in which two lesbians went on a blind date, kissed, and reported that they had a lovely time, but because one of them happened to also be trans, anti-trans campaigner Lara Adams-Miller condemned the publication for “endangering lesbians”:
Adams-Miller argues that the cisgender lesbian in this scenario had her consent violated by being set up on a blind date with a transgender lesbian. But a blind date comes with fairly narrow parameters on what one can expect–that’s the nature of the activity. So from whence does the claim of “violated consent” come, particularly since the date ended favourably?
I think the claims parse as follows, even if they aren’t being explicitly said:
- A person’s sex is assumed by their genitalia.
- It is wrong to show one’s genitalia at the start of a blind date
- We conceal our genitalia under our appearance for this blind date
- One “has a right” to define her sexual orientation as being attracted according to assigned sex at birth
- One would therefore need one’s appearance to convey assigned sex at birth to protect that right
Thus, the conclusion that a trans person has “threatened” one’s definition of one’s rights by “improperly” conveying an appearance that is discordant (by this ideology’s standards) with their sex at birth.
And, of course, if one’s rights are threatened, one is typically sanctioned to “defend” oneself.
Suddenly the psychodrama unfolds. I think this may provide an explanation for why people like Adams-Miller feel morally righteous in comparing a chat over coffee with actual rape: It may be a stretch, it may be grossly reductive and minimizing of assault and coercion, but it’s necessary to defend her definition of her sexual orientation. A definition she feels she is entitled not to merely possess, but to expect from those around her.
We might thus understand transphobia to then be the tactics by which a cissexist backlash spark, due to defiance of that expectation–a moral condemnation, for failing to fulfill a “duty” to signal sex correctly. She is owed a clear answer, and we have chosen not to give her one! In fact the entitlement runs so deep that one could only conceive of a disturbing and cretinous creature who could ever stoop to such a decision:
The only “good” path out that preserves this entitlement to know is a preemptive disclosure. How preemptive? one wonders. Would a neon sign suffice? Perhaps a badge? Or maybe we have gone full circle, from “women shouldn’t have to wear dresses” to “women have to wear dresses”? It’s rarely clear–rarer still that Murphy or her fellow travellers are taken to account for not specifying. Regardless, what was meant to only be implicitly signalled for everyone else is now argued to be an explicit and automatic duty for us. Our privacy, obliterated. A genital exposure, compelled by force or threat thereof. Or: sexual abuse.
That’s what is at stake.
Of course, this is all rather easily remedied, isn’t it? Instead of simply assuming that one has the right to make assumptions about people’s bodies based on their appearances, we could always put it out of mind in most contexts and use our words to ask in the rest. But then, if we did that, we wouldn’t have the torque to call trans women rapists for having a friendly chat over espresso.
Thus we have captured part of what is at stake–namely, my moral character, implicitly condemned for choosing not to honour cissexist entitlement; from there, all manner of injustice visited upon me becomes palatable as “just desserts.”
However, that can hardly be the end of the picture. On this blog and on most of my social media I freely admit that I am trans, and yet the venom spat in my direction hardly subsides because of it. If the concern is that I am a “deceiver” because I haven’t answered a question someone can’t be bothered to ask, why would I still face hostility when nonetheless conceding a frankly unreasonable demand? Dr. Talia Bettcher is the earliest example I’ve found of someone articulating this double-bind in these terms, but even if a trans person manages to manoeuvre around being wrongly accused of “lying,” they often do so by landing instead in a person’s conception of “make-believer.” Like the kind children engage in.
This perhaps requires less depth. If you have written someone off as so painfully naive they can’t even be rightly called adults, then you have categorically dismissed their perspective. But it would explain why people would respond to my arguments with facile platitudes about human genetics (“but chromosomes!“) despite having applied human genetics in my own education. It’s an imperial attitude, and also an unassailable one–any objection is written off as being a consequence of the naivete: (all emphasis added)
Surely many feminists like myself, who have chosen to speak out publicly about their concerns with regard to gender identity have experienced similar punishment. We are all aware that what we are saying is not hateful, but is perfectly reasonable. Indeed, our views on biological sex are based in science and treated as basic fact by the vast majority of the population. Our analysis of sexist gender stereotypes is (or should be, in any case) supported by most feminists, liberals, and leftists. Our concerns about male predators having access to spaces wherein women and girls are vulnerable are shared by many across the political spectrum. Most sane people understand why women and men should compete separately in sport competitions. Yet, we have been positioned as persona non grata. We have been blacklisted. We are said to be on par with Hitler.
I find it curious that the anti-trans moral panic found so many stars in academia, when manoeuvring the rhetorical territory of the discussion such that your opponent can only be correct if they are deluded is supposed to be a violation of academic norms.
In other words, what is said about you is taken at face value, and what you actually say, write, argue, or believe is not investigated. Whether or not your ideas are good or bad is never really assessed, because those who have determined your ideas to be bad have not actually, seriously engaged with your ideas. Indeed, I’ve always felt quite certain that if any of those protesting outside of my events actually came inside and listened, they would find themselves agreeing with much of what I say. Or, at very least, would find themselves incapable of accusing me, with any integrity, of saying anything “hateful” or “bigoted.”
And, more recently:
I struggle to see why I would want to have a dialogue like this. A dialogue involves curiosity, perspective-seeking. It asks questions. It reflects words back to the speaker like a ball in a tennis match–it seeks to first understand before it responds. What does Murphy do here? Preempt trans people as insane, incapable of understanding basic fact, stupid, and dishonest. How could I argue in such an environment? I am not being invited to speak. I am being told my tennis elbow is nothing but play-acting. To debate this is to suffer it.
“Trans rights are human rights!” Meghan Murphy and attendees leave library to a chorus of boos. pic.twitter.com/2065nXeGZI
— Anthony Oliveira (@meakoopa) October 29, 2019
If that’s what you want to argue, then argue it. But don’t whine to me when people talk about the consequences of doing so.
I will close with one final observation. Many feminists who find themselves overly preoccupied with trans women are speaking from a place of genuine pain, and are telling the truth when they say the real motivator behind their actions is that they seek the safety of cisgender women. Most of this post still applies to them. They feel they are entitled to know the birth sex of every person they see because they typically believe, genuinely, that there is a fundamental hazard to women located in male bodies, which they see trans women as still possessing. But I do not think that because someone is sincerely afraid they are absolved of acting ethically in the face of that fear. The feminists who educated me showed me that the movement’s successes are built in solidarity and not fear. As a trans woman who has faced all the same violence and more, I still believe that.
Edit Jan 5, 2020: I had meant to elaborate more on Manne’s naive conception of misogyny and propose an analogue, a “naive conception of transphobia,”–which would also be understood as “hatred of trans people” and suffer from the same problems. In brief, I think transphobia is better explained as moral condemnation for failing to provide an entitlement (similar to Manne’s description of misogyny), only in this case the “duty” described is to provide a visual appearance concordant with one’s birth sex.