Empathy is at the core of justice. Without an ability to place oneself in another’s situation, it would be hard for us to criminalize many activities that we now do. Pyramid schemes, for example. The create the appearance of opportunity and the appearance of voluntary participation in the enterprise in pursuit of opportunity. But the opportunity is not, in fact, present. A justice without empathy would lead us to tolerate pyramid schemes (far more than we do). It is this exact sort of justice without empathy, without the ability of the men responsible for enforcing law and creating justice to imagine themselves in the situation of the victim, that is responsible for millennia of rape going unpunished and often unrecognized. Indeed it is only as women have taken a greater and greater role in enforcing law and creating justice that these rapes become cognizable by a system of justice, punishable by a system of laws.
Empathy is both necessary and good.
Understanding, however, is not necessary and it is too often not even good.
As a transsexual woman, I do not need to be understood by you. I do not want to be understood by you. And many years ago it became clear to me that the efforts of cis people to understand the trans* aspects of my experience have been harmful, not helpful.
The single most important and relevant example is etiology: how did you come to know that you are trans?
There are narratives that I can articulate. I can speak of a moment which still has importance to me in looking back on my childhood. As a second grader during school recess I was playing 4-square, a game a bit like tennis with no net and a 10″ diameter soft red ball batted back and forth between participants using hands instead of rackets. Some other second graders asked if they could play next. This wasn’t uncommon, usually there was a line to let a new participant in as soon as a current player was judged “out”, though there hadn’t yet been one for this game on this day. One of the people with whom I was playing jeered at the newcomers saying that they wouldn’t be allowed to play because they were girls. I found myself confused, wondering why they let me play.
And it’s hard to articulate this fully, because it’s not as if I wasn’t fully aware at age 7 that people considered me a boy, but I nonetheless felt certain, deeply, viscerally certain, that if there was something about girls that made them unfit play partners, then surely I must be an unfit play partner as well. I protested. I was shouted down. I left the game. The sexists recruited another boy and went back to 4-square.
Now do you understand how I knew I was trans? No?
The truth is no matter what characteristics I list or narratives I tell, nothing will ever fully explain transness. I’m sure that there are some men out there who at a young age similarly felt more closely identified with girls experiencing misogyny than some boys perpetuating it. And yet, Ta Da! They still grew up to understand themselves as men.
You can’t binary this in any If (x) => Trans way.
There is no percent of the time that one violates gender norms that makes one transgender or transsexual or nonbinary. You can’t math this.
None of the individual characteristics are decisive. You can’t plot this.
Even the gestalt is not decisive. You can’t compare me to archetypal transness and Jung your way to understanding.
And yet cis people will continue to ask, but how do I know what this is? How do I know what real, authentic trans* experience is? How do I know who is the really real trans* person and who is just velveteen and sawdust?
The person who feels as if they are trying to help and yet insists on understanding is ultimately asserting an entitlement to the most inexplicably personal details of trans* lives as a condition of trans* equality. Yet how can it be equal unless public respect for your rights was equally conditional on an equivalent invasion?
Nevertheless, when we’re asked over and over, we try desperately to provide you with understanding. We try over and over. And, being human, eventually each of us will settle on a formulation that seems to work for that individual – no more intimacy of disclosure than we can stand, no less information than is necessary to get you cis* folks to stop asking questions.
But the truth is that none of us fully understand the etiology of trans* identity and there is no way to articulate the boundaries of trans* experience except to say that it is the sum of all the experiences of all the trans* people that have ever lived without including any of the experiences of any of the cis people who have ever lived.
But how do we know which experiences those are? cis people will persist, unaware just exactly how much they sound like three year old children. Which brings us full circle.
One terrible result of this endless circle is that trans* people must live unjustified lives. We can’t ever point to the mole on our backs, the one near the bottom of the left kidney that every trans* person has and say, There! That mole there! That’s what makes me trans*. There is no mole. There is no universal signifier. We cannot prove to you that you have used the wrong pronoun, the wrong name. We cannot prove to you that we deserve medical care or education. We cannot prove to you that when we enter the public restroom, we really are there to do the normal things one does in a public restroom, like cry one’s eyes out in place where our harassers can’t see how badly they’ve gotten to us.
And yet cis people will nonetheless insist on justification. Here enters the trapped in the wrong body trope. I can tell you how ill at ease I’ve felt with my body, but what I’ve experienced has never been as simple as something that could be fixed with a brain swap with an AFAB trans person. This is the explanation that the cis community insisted upon hearing before allowing trans* persons access to certain medical care, certain document changes. This explanation was the price of uncertain dignity.
Has it helped? Have cis questions stopped?
No. Of course not. And because some of us had slightly less pressing dysphoria or slightly higher expectations for cis behavior, now the secret is out and people know that many of us who parroted the appropriate lines never experienced the cis-approved narrative. You had an answer to your great questions, How do you identify trans* people? How do you define trans* experience?
For this great and complex problem, cis people had their answer, clear, simple, and wrong.
And maybe a brain swapping transplant in infancy would have prevented me from ever experiencing anything that could be called trans*, but I’ve seen things now. Too many things. I have looked at your stereotypes and your roles. I’ve looked at your identities, your art, your lives. I’ve looked from a point of view that is so far outside your world that even your most alien imaginariums hold no reproductions of what I’ve seen.
You do not understand me. You will not understand me. And I need you to stop trying.
Instead of seeking to understand me as a precursor to supporting trans* advocacy or gender liberation or simply choosing not to freak out at the idea of sharing an office with me, try what I do when I consider abortion rights. I ask myself not, “Do I understand what it feels like to ask a doctor for an abortion?” but simply, “If I were asking for an abortion, how many politicians would I want in the room with me?”
You don’t have to try to understand what I feel as an individual who has experienced violence and abuse in gender segregated bathrooms long before she came to understand herself as trans*, who came out as trans* and had security guards set on her whenever she used a bathroom in Pioneer Place mall, who scared herself silly going into the Men’s bathroom at Powell’s City of Books with two cis women friends in order to vandalize the place with pro-queer stickers printed up by the Lesbian Avengers just before the November 1996 USA elections. The experiences I’ve had in those spaces have been too numerous, too complex, too destabilizing, too affirming, and just too damn weird for them to ever be understood by anyone, even myself.
Instead, just ask, “If I were trying to use a public restroom, how many politicians would I want debating my right to open the door?”
The creation of justice doesn’t require your understanding. It only requires your empathy. To insist on understanding would be to withhold justice indefinitely.
I don’t understand, but there are a lot of things I don’t understand about other people and I don’t see that this should be an exception to my tolerance of difference. I think most people with any level of introspection have something about them that they know or fear others don’t understand, I have two obvious ones, severe chronic pain and severe recurrant depression, both are more common that being trans, so it’s probably easier to find other people who understand to an extent, but I do have empathy with others insistence on an explanation, particularly the chronic pain, because it is exhausting. Even with an answer down pat these days people still do not understand the chronic pain and too many want to suggest something that they are sure will “make me better”. So no I don’t understand, but yes I empathise, especilly with the desire to just be accepted. Sorry, people can be utter shits.
Urgh I also don’t mean to liken my illnesses to your being, so sorry if it reads that way, it was not what I intended..
Andreas Avester says
On an emotional level, I do not understand trans woman or even cis women. Why would anybody want to be feminine? Why would somebody voluntarily use make-up? Personally, I have never wanted these things, thus I cannot imagine how that might feel. Nonetheless, I can rationally accept that other people can have desires that I have never had. I can choose to believe the words of a woman who says that she enjoys being feminine. And I will also support her right to live as she likes.
You know, actually my discomfort could be fixed by swapping brains with an AMAB person. If I had been born with a male body, I would be just a normal guy. Sort of. I strongly suspect that I am also not neurotypical (I have never tried to get an official diagnosis, so I cannot be certain). But being born with a male body would have made my life and experiences much more typical and akin to those of most men.
I guess I am a cis male. I dont understand why I am cis male. I do not understand what makes a person trans or gay or whatever way a person chooses to identify. Its not my job to understand. I just accept what people tell me. I dont tend to judge people for who they are but on what kind of person they are. If youre kind to me, there is no reason for me to treat you otherwise. I am always astounded when people have to judge people for what they are.
I don’t think anyone really understands anyone else. The best we can do is project our understanding of ourselves. For example, I know my experience when someone close to me dies, so I project that experience onto you when someone close to you dies. I then assume I understand your experience. I accept your humanity.
I think people who need to understand someone to accept them are seeing the person as characteristic (black, white, gay, trans, male, female etc.) first and as a person second. Insisting on understanding prior to acceptance is a form of manipulation, and an exertion of power over that individual.
WMDKitty -- Survivor says
I don’t think cis people have ever stopped to think about how they know they’re cisgendered.
Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says
(This times 1 million)^1 billion
Yes. Very true. Which sets up the next part:
exactly right. Especially because the fact that no one can really understand someone else means that insisting upon understanding before acceptance justifies an infinite series of hurdles over which you can force another person to jump while simultaneously justifying never ultimately granting the desired acceptance. The idea that the marginalized have to endlessly justify themselves to their oppressors while the oppressors have no obligations at all is the bullshit dynamic that most solidly entrenches oppression … and insisting upon an impossible standard like “understanding” is one way to achieve that.
A wonderful sentiment.
Be a little bit careful, Andreas. I don’t use makeup – or at least I hardly ever do. I can go multiple years in a row without doing so and have done. But more literally, being “feminine” is not the same as being a woman.
Even if I cannot precisely articulate why understanding myself as a woman alleviates distress and makes it vastly easier to participate in society (even WITH trans oppression, so that’s saying something!), I can make a very clear statement that it’s not because I want to be feminine. Before I came out I wore dresses rarely. After I came out I wore dresses rarely. Before I came out, I rarely used make up. After I came out I used makeup even less. Before I came out I hated gardening, liked cooking, and didn’t really like washing dishes. After I came out, same thing. Before I came out I loved spending time with children, reading them books, cuddling them, seeing them achieve their many firsts, after I came out … same thing.
I didn’t come out so I could be more feminine. I came out as a woman because that was the only sane way for me to be.
This was great, and perfectly dovetailed with what I was saying. I never heard you compare being trans to your disease, I heard you comparing the feeling you get when people push you for information to help them “understand” rather than simply accepting your experience with the feeling I get when people push me for information to help them understand rather than simply accepting my experience.
Your comment was fine. Don’t worry.
OOF … I’ve never thought of it like this, but it is exactly right.
Andreas Avester says
You are correct, that was poor phrasing. I didn’t try to imply that women should behave in any specific ways.
I meant those as examples for desires that I have never had, which makes it harder for me to imagine how somebody else might want those things. Contrast that with, for example, me being able to empathize more with butch lesbians who want to wear male clothes, because that is something I also have wanted (even if for different reasons).
Do they even want to, CD?
The entire establishment, especially in the UK, outright lies about who and what we are and has built an entire edifice of pseudoscience to justify how much they hate us.
it’s really hard to want to be alive in a world that wants us, wants me, dead so very very much.
Brony, Social Justice Cenobite says
I think of one of my political dispositions as trying to create places where trans people can figure out what they choose to figure out. It seems compatible with this at first glance but I will try to keep it in mind in case some patterns take time to be noticable.
I think I may have to disagree at least partially if I understand(oops) what you say correctly. Understanding is rarely if ever complete and total (it is not a binary), and some degree of understanding – even imagined, though that is dangerous – is necessary for empathy to set in, and also for acceptance to actually mean anything.
I feel empathy for a cat, even though my understanding is minimal. I try to accept her, but that only works as long as I have some understanding of her motives, and thus I am very familiar with situations where I would like to help out, and she quite obviously wishes me to, but me not understanding her wishes — and her not understanding my communication needs – keeps me from being able to do so. Similarly, in – say – an SF story, an alien that is both alien enough and not explained enough that I cannot understand them even partially, will receive no empathy from me.
So some degree of understanding is IMHO necessary for empathy to function, and acceptance to actually mean anything. On the other hand, perfect understanding is neither possible nor necessary. However, imperfect understanding will lead to situations where empathy will mislead and acceptance not work. And that goes for any relation, independent of trans being involved.
Oh, and it is my bone-deep understanding that outside of math and physics, binary is rarely the correct answer – most anything is on some kind of spectrum.
Finally coming back to trans, if I didn’t understand even partially (and I believe I do understand at least somewhat), then I’d be at a loss as to what would actually help – and I also think that misunderstanding is at least a big part of shitty stuff like the bathroom bills (in this case, believing that trans people are essentially just making up what they claim). Not that that lack of understanding isn’t at least partially intentional, and thus it is questionable if explaining would help in this particular case. However, better understanding, however arrived at, would – I believe – still help (by making people no longer accept the ideas that lead to those bills). Just, how to get there from here seems a difficult problem.
The author seems not to understand him/her/it-self.
The author conflates justice with empathy.
There are 3 players in the Justice Game: the accused, the accuser, the mediator (judge, jury, lawyers).
Should empathy be for the accused?
Should empathy be for the accuser?
Should empathy, not the objective application of the law, be the driving force of the mediator?
The answer to the above 3 questions is: NO.
According to professional ethics, a lawyer, a judge should recuse themselves if he/she/it has some connection to either the accused, the accuser, or both. The same in the medical profession.
Why recusal in such cases? Answer: empathy which causes abuses in the justice and medical systems.
Empathy with understanding = non-foolishness.
Empathy without understanding = foolishness.