Lately we’ve been seeing a lot of assertions that lefties who support trans* advocacy are engaged in some outrageous, anti-free speech labeling of persons and actions as cissexist or transphobic. The argument goes something like this,
It has become impossible in some quarters to have an honest conversation about what is, and is not, a reasonable demand because anyone who questions any demand is simply branded as a transphobic bigot.
This was Thirdmill’s articulation, but Holms also comes to mind as someone who has articulated something similar, though admittedly I don’t have a link to hand. Others may also have made similar arguments. I wouldn’t be surprised, for instance, if colinday or starfleetdude had articulated the sentiment, “Mere fair-minded criticism of trans* people or trans* advocacy can’t happen because extremists then call you bigoted.” Nor is expression of this sentiment somehow unique to FtB1. Indeed, though I didn’t follow the RR-sparked implosion of the ACA over the last few months, I understood (please correct me if I’m wrong) that the apology to RR was at least in significant part motivated by a similar view, i.e. that it is wrong to assert that something or someone is cissexist or transphobic because it shuts down discussions by attributing over-the-top evil intent where it may not exist, and the risk of perhaps sometimes getting this wrong far outweighs any potential benefit of identifying cissexist things and people as cissexist.
And yet, while a great many people on the left seem happy to argue that the left is full of careless zealots to quick to assert that cissexism is happening and who must be shut down lest they cause damage to society though some nebulous means (possibly related to “shutting down debate” and/or deep-chilled fruit), a precisely analogous argument is made by Stephen Miller on Fox News Sunday … and then used as comedy fodder for Stephen Colbert (ETA: my URL at a specific timestamp isn’t recognized by WordPress. You can skip ahead to 3:30 to see the relevant section with Stephen Miller):
One wonders if all the people who assert that we must not accuse others of cissexism are equally supportive of the assertion that we must not accuse Trump and others in his administration of racism. In neither case is telepathy available to us. Yet in one instance there is sufficient agreement that the underlying argument is laughable enough to be used on a mainstream late-night show, confident that such argument will be commonly understood to be baseless. In another, we all – frankly including me – give the argument far more deference than it deserves.
I think this is explainable as empirical fact – people have had more chances to be exposed to anti-racism work and come to agree on the different forms of racism which have been commonly expressed in the USA. People have had much less exposure to anti-cissexism work, and have not come to agree on the different forms of cissexism which have been commonly expressed in the USA.
But what this reveals is that most people don’t have any good understanding of what defines oppression or even what makes it wrong. The people (whomever they are) who laugh at Stephen Miller but agree with Thirdmill don’t have any ability to independently analyze situations, acts, behaviors, or people and articulate why we should or shouldn’t regard them as racist. They might be able to articulate whether some situation or act or behavior or person should or shouldn’t be labeled racist, but in articulating why they have no transferable skill in identifying racism. Rather, racism consists of those acts which have been historically considered racism, and trans oppression and/or cissexism consists of those acts which have been historically considered trans oppression and/or cissexism.
Since there exists no long history of popularly communicating which conditions, situations, acts, behaviors or people are (or were) cissexist, there simply is no set of “historically cissexist” conditions, situations, acts, behaviors or people. As a result, even though anti-trans persons rely on the same argument to (attempt to) shut down the identification of things and people as cissexist, the argument does not immediately appear to be as laughable as that of Stephen Miller’s that one cannot or should not be allowed to identify things and people as racist.
The difference here is that we assume that people know what is racist, but we don’t assume that people know what is cissexist. What this distinction ignores is that even if we don’t know, we may be able to figure out what is cissexist and what is not. The argument that Thirdmill makes only has any validity at all if we can’t accurately identify things and people as cissexist. The argument gains sympathy because many people are able to agree, “Yes, I don’t know what is cissexist,” and thus the possibility of “knowing” cissexism by obvious reference to a class of previous identifications that the relevant group can all agree were accurately identified appears to be a possibility we can dismiss. If the same people that dismiss knowing also do not have the analytic tools to determine for themselves through an investigatory process what is and isn’t cissexist, then on its face it appears that it is impossible to label something cissexist other than by personally biased guess.
When we analyze the arguments of Trumps supporters (including but not limited to both Trump himself, as shown all over Twitter and back, and Stephen Miller, as shown in the video above) we find exactly the same assertion: people labeling Trump or his statements or his policies racist are engaged in biased guesswork without ever truly knowing whether Trump or his statements are indeed racist.
While we can use this to criticize anyone who accepts the anti-trans* defense while rejecting the directly analogous defenses of Trump, as activists this should also concern us: People are wandering around without any way of determining what is or isn’t oppression, what is or isn’t just, save only by comparing the qualities of the thing or person under examination against the qualities of a rote-memorized list of bad things.
Curiously enough, this is exactly what we need to explain another trend amongst defenders of cissexism, sexism, and racism: that anti-oppression activists engage in group think, memorizing lists of taboos and then reflexively rejecting what is on that list2. They have more reason to believe this than we in the anti-oppression community commonly acknowledge, since so many people do in fact appear to do this. Ironically, however, those people who do use these lists of taboos don’t have access to such lists until others go through the analytical work necessary to identify previously unidentified instantiations of oppression. It is the anti-oppression community itself, then, that must be using taboo lists least and original, thoughtful analysis most. Otherwise such lists would never come to be, anti-oppression activists wouldn’t be engaging in the behavior necessary to create such lists (by definition in this hypothetical case) and no one else is motivated to do the work to create such lists (otherwise they would be opposed to oppression and actively doing anti-oppression work … which would put them in the group of anti-oppression activists).
It can be disheartening to hear these ignorant assertions over and over, that we are reflexively engaging in behaviors contrary to justice, when ultimately this is a form of projection. As disheartening as it is, however, we must reenergize each other, because the very form of their argument shows that we have done too little fundamental ethical education in our communities. As demeaning as it may be to have to justify our existences as people of color, as people with mental illness, as Palestinians, as muslims, as jews, as Deaf, as immigrants, as women, as wheelchair-users, as queers, as trans* people, or as pedantic law-nerds, some of us must engage in this justification for the millions of people who engage in the only form of anti-oppression thinking they know.
So let’s encourage each other. And feel no guilt if you’re not one who can stomach the work of public justification, even when you’re someone who knows how to reason on topics of oppression for yourself. If you engage in that justification, take a bit of care to make sure that the topic, its context, and the format of your justification don’t legitimize dehumanization in the course of legitimizing thinking about oppression rather than rote recall of taboos. But so long as you check in and do not believe you’re legitimizing dehumanization, the be proud that you’re doing necessary work.
And everyone, for all our sakes, please help make ethics education more accessible in your communities, and if possible, mandatory in your schools.
1: Consider this quote from a Medium article that I discussed recently:
We don’t accept that a philosophical view is unacceptable, let alone ‘phobic’ of some group, simply because it advocates for something that some members of that group don’t want, or that makes them feel uncomfortable or even highly distressed. We understand transphobia to be, not just the exhibition of upsetting disagreement with some trans people, but rather an attitude of disgust, fear, or revulsion towards trans people because they are trans people. Since, after much reflection, we are confident that our views are not motivated by any such attitude, we don’t accept that our views are ‘transphobic’.
While it’s not entirely clear what is meant by “unacceptable”, it is clear that the writing, through use of the phrase “let alone”, categorizes all “phobic” views as unacceptable. If we give unacceptable its plain meaning, however, that would mean the initial independent clause of the sentence is precisely synonymous with
We don’t accept that a philosophical view is not allowed to be expressed
where the mechanism by which such expression is “not allowed” is not specified. If this is the accurate interpretation of the sentence, then these Medium authors are likewise making the same argument as Miller and Thirdmill. In their case, however, it’s much more damaging to their credibility that they define transphobia in a way that makes the existence of actual oppression irrelevant and the existence of subjective “disgust, fear, or revulsion” definitionally mandatory. Again, if this were the meaning given to transphobia, then nothing short of the capacity for involuntary telepathic invasion would be sufficient to prove transphobia’s existence.
While for a number of reasons, including some that should be obvious from this statement and my analysis of it, I prefer to distinguish racism from racial prejudice and similarly sexism from misogyny and cissexism from anti-trans bias, it’s quite clear that in everyday use transphobia is intended by its speakers and writers sometimes to mean a form of oppression (cissexism) sometimes to mean subjective bias (disgust, fear, or revulsion, yes, but also subjective hatred which the authors curiously left out), and sometimes to mean both. Assuming that their critics (as, after all, they insist that their responding to others’ criticisms of themselves, their views, and their arguments) only ever mean subjective bias, the most easily dismissed claim, and never consider even the possibility that critics might intend a meaning which is at least as common as subjective anti-trans bias, would seem problematic when performed by anyone. Performing such an act of assumption as a professional philosopher should be even more damaging to such a person’s credibility.
2: Obviously examples related to cissexism and racism are contained in this post. For a Freuding endless procession of examples related to sexism, visit wehuntedthemammoth.com and spend a bit of time reading the comments. Sometimes those arguments are even covered in David Futrelle’s posts.