Redundant posts are redundant
Except when they aren’t.
Here your gender-workshop-taskmistress Crip Dyke encourages you to revisit the douchegabbery of the Minnesota Child Protection League. PZ did an excellent job of illuminating just that in “Two steps forward, one step back” in December of last year, and the discussion on that thread when it was current included a great many useful comments.
I want, however, not to merely rehash criticisms of MCPL (criticisms well-deserved and well-made the first time around) but to use that example to talk a bit about what “centering” and “marginalized” really mean. In the post on the need for transfeminist critiques of other feminisms, I focussed on Katha Pollit and identified places where, quite frankly, I think she employed some bad thinking to construct some bad feminism. I suggested that marginalization had something to do with this bad thinking on Pollit’s part. Here you can learn more about exactly what marginalization has to do with it …and the extent of my criticism of Pollit, rather than merely Pollit’s column.
I didn’t pick Pollit because her work is low hanging fruit. She has written excellently on many topics. She clearly has the writing chops to be clear about the distinctions between political theorizing and political rhetoric. Yet the only reasonable inference is that she was, in fact, talking about rhetoric when she was using the phrase “political analysis”. She also has the analytical skills to make the distinction between gendered terms like the French pronouns ils and elles, and gender neutral words like people. Yet here, too, she fell down.
So what is the problem with this Katha Pollit person anyway? The problem is the same as one in our community: the inability to think like you’re not.
To refresh: the Minnesota Child Protection League ran a Star-Tribune ad with large bold print declaring:
A male wants to shower beside your 14-year-old daughter. Are YOU ok with that?
Deconstruction – picking apart a piece of writing to discover its assumptions and possibly one’s own, opening up the possibility of interpreting the writing very differently by reading it with different assumptions in mind – is a time-tested strategy from back before it was called deconstruction. In “Two steps forward…” PZ used his own experience to deconstruct the MCPL ad:
It’s all in the innuendo. Make it sound like a threat — “A male” — and obscure reality as much as you can. The most likely fact of the matter is that a shy person with possible gender dysphoria who has been terrifed for most of her time at school is being forced by school policy to take her clothes off in public and shower with a whole bunch of other people. If my past experience as a 14 year old boy is any measure, she’s going to avoid meeting anyone’s eyes and is going to want to get the experience over as quickly as possible.
Instead of reading concern for children, PZ points out the ad is filled with assumptions, MCPL assumptions, that make the ad’s text clearly readable as intentionally inspiring fear in parents. PZ uses only his own experience, knowledge he already has (no research required), and a little exercise placing himself at the center of MCPL’s little psychodrama. This is, of course, all that’s needed to discredit MCPL as any sort of “protection” league (save the “Mafia protection” sense}.
But this isn’t nothing. Projecting the self into a new context in which it is necessary to reevaluate how the familiar might change is a skill sadly beyond too many of us, too often. Pharyngula seems to have a disproportionately good number of folk, however, who are skilled at this.
Just listing a few people beyond PZ who used personal experiences and a bit of empathic projection to construct their comments, we get Azhael, burgundy, illdoittomorrow, toska and rq. Beatrice and Tony! were particularly explicit and skilled. Many others, I’m sure, would qualify under less stringent evidence than overtly referencing one’s own experience in trying to explain or understand the experience of another. Don’t think I’m creating an exhaustive list.
We’re a good community on that score, to be sure. But in analyzing this trans*-folk-in-school-sports-and-showers brouhaha, let’s keep our eye on the ball: centering and marginalization. This hard work which our community seems to do better than others is not, in fact, a path to a society without marginalization. It is a good tool for identifying unethical discrimination, but it is not a tool which actually centers the marginalized. This tool, as good as it is, as useful as it is, as underused as it is, would remain – even if we taught it as a required skill in public schools and it became a tool well used and used well – a tool which bumps aside the marginalized to conceptually put the already-centered in their place.
With this tool, you are still thinking as you. To center the marginalized, you have to think as if you are not doing the thinking. Step into another’s shoes? Okay, but the marginalized don’t need more people wearing out their soles. Instead, what if we invited the marginalized to occupy our shoes for a bit? Instead of projecting the self into an unfamiliar context, what about projecting the other into our familiar context?
When I look at the MCPL text
A male wants to shower beside your 14-year-old daughter. Are YOU ok with that?
what do I see? I see the implication that male children of MCPL bigots really, really want to shower with my trans* daughter. And why would that be, I wonder? Too obviously, a trans* parent reading that ad might reflect back on experiences of school-sponsored terrorism*1 and think that MCPL wants to overturn the inclusive policy so that their male children may delight in abusing trans* kids as a way to gain all the vast benefits of bullying others.
It’s a horrible vision, I admit. And it’s unlikely that the MCPL has very many members who are consciously and gleefully anticipating the bullying and abuse of MtF trans* folk in public school locker rooms. The key here isn’t so much whether MCPL consciously endorses such bullying as it is learning how to interpret the ad not by projecting yourself out, but by letting the outside in.
IF we interpret this text in a way consistent with being a trans* parent and having a trans* child, then MCPL’s writing is horribly ineffective. The interpretation that most obviously comes to mind has ethically monstrous implications for MCPL. Thus, in a society that centered trans perspectives rather than marginalized them, MCPL could not have seriously considered such an ad. They may or may not be monstrously unethical (feel free to decide for yourselves), but they certainly don’t want to be perceived as monstrously unethical. That would undermine their effectiveness in their chosen mission.
By trying to understand what MCPL wants to say, we cede social ground to them. Moreover, this is how marginalization works. Too many of the people centered by society are unable or unwilling to do the work to understand the marginalized. Marginalized people who eventually are heard by society, then, must therefore adopt the language of the centered. This is why you hear transsexual men saying that they are “males” – reconflating sex and gender – instead of merely “men” (mutatis mutandis women/females), when the conflation of sex and gender is a huge source of the misunderstandings that necessitate the assertion of our identities in the first place. Trans* people reject the language of cis-centered society only to the extent necessary for them to be able to express what they must express that cannot be expressed in cis-centered language.
Language that actually centers trans* people would be very different, and would have a dramatic effect on the manner in which MCPL and groups like it communicate. In a world that doesn’t share MCPL’s cissexist assumptions – that, say, the reader’s daughter is female, or, more generally, that it isn’t the reader’s daughter that will have to shift bathrooms under a reverted policy – MCPL would have to actually spell out its own assumptions. While we can identify MCPL’s assumptions with a only a bit of work, and while doing so does pull the hood off MCPL’s writers (or put it on, as you prefer), in a society that centers trans* perspectives, that wouldn’t be necessary. MCPL would not be able to rely on the silent implications that we here identify …and thus it wouldn’t require a Pharyngula-level commentariat to reveal the prejudice and hatred inherent in such ads.
As good as we can sometimes be as individuals at thinking about trans perspectives, we still aren’t very good at thinking from trans perspectives. (Frankly, I include myself in this and most if not all other trans* folk, specifically because of the centering dynamics I discussed above.)
It will not be any easier, of course, for anyone else reading Pharyngula to center marginalized trans* perspectives than it is for me to center, say, the experiences of a Black, gay man in Florida.*2 And fuck is that hard for me. This doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be criticized for bad thinking when I inappropriately apply my experience to the perspective of another. It is, after all, quite possible and quite useful to appropriately apply one’s experience to the perspective of another. Applying experience isn’t the problem here. I criticized Pollit not for the crime of failing to center trans* perspectives. I criticized bad thinking. It just so happens that centering trans* perspectives would have enabled Pollit to avoid the mistakes I criticized. But to be absolutely clear, this is no negative criticism of Pollit: I am as human as the rest and constantly centering myself. The lesson here isn’t to avoid criticism (giving or receiving) when failure to understand the marginalized leads us astray. The lesson here is one of humility and compassion: projecting the self into the other rather than letting the other into the self is a mere half-failing compared to failing to empathize at all. Moreover, it’s a common failing. You do it. I do it.
Centering marginalized perspectives is hard to do or it would be much more widespread. But it’s not impossible, and it’s not as hard as it first might seem. By definition it is not possible to think the thoughts of another. But we can think like someone else. And we can definitely identify the cars in a thought train that are decidedly different from those that normally carry us to our conclusions. You won’t know exactly when you’ve thought just like someone else, but you can know when you aren’t thinking like yourself. And you can get closer and closer to the ability to think like you’re not by paying attention to the words of others and noting when someone presents something that you are certain simply would not have occurred to you. File that away. Use it later: not merely any conclusion, but do your best to understand how differences in people lead to different conclusions and use someone else’s manner of arriving at the conclusion.
In the end it doesn’t matter terribly if I perfectly simulate the thinking of Maxine Hong Kingston or Mitsue Yamada or George Takei. The Asian-American experience is vast and diverse: they can’t simulate the thinking of one another. But the work we do to displace the center, rather than (for us) merely empathize with the marginalized or (for MCPL) re-inscribe the center, has huge payoffs that we can rarely glimpse. This is true not merely for the marginalized, but for all of society. Forcing MCPL to be upfront about their bigotry because they can’t leave it unstated while trusting others to hear their dogwhistle creates a new environment. In that new environment, MCPL can’t escape accountability through coded, vague language. What benefits would come from a world where every sexist joker had to spell out the stereotype on which they wanted to play? Could such a person ever get a laugh again?
But yes, for the marginalized, the stakes might be even higher. I would consider this a small hurdle for convincing others to take on this effort of thinking like you’re not. But nearly all of us live with some parts of our lives inexplicable to others, a part that is often inexplicable even to ourselves as we can’t articulate the justification for our assumptions here or there. We must, inevitably, trust ourselves that we had good reason to be thinking as we did when the men among us became homemakers or the deconverted among us left religion or the art history majors among us chose to major in art-fucking-history.
In a society that fights marginalization, we not only open the door of silence which MCPL must have shut to be effective. We throw open more and more of those sound-proof spaces within ourselves that make our lives lonelier, our societies poorer.
As hard as that is to do, I find the cacophonic joy that results when these sound-proof spaces are thrown open to the world is more than worth the effort.
*1 …to use the phrase of Bill Watterson
*2 …who, um, tends bar. I say randomly.
To the extent that this leads to an exercise, it is open ended. Try to remember this part:
[Pay] attention to the words of others and [note] when someone presents something that you are certain simply would not have occurred to you. File that away. Use it later: not merely any conclusion, but do your best to understand how differences in people lead to different conclusions and use someone else’s manner of arriving at the conclusion.
For previous gender workshop entries, see here.