I don’t want to get into this, and am really peeved that this fight over Ophelia Benson has become an issue, so let’s start off gently. Here are some kittens playing in boxes.
How is this relevant, you might wonder. Look, kittens get to choose what box they want to hop into! Wouldn’t it be annoying, though, if there were a referee in the frame, declaring that half the boxes belong to one category, and half to another? That box is a boy box, while that other box is a girl box, and then the referee blows a whistle when a kitten tries to hop from a box of one kind to a box of a different label. And the assignment of labels to boxes is silly: some boxes have invisible “Y”s on them, making them boy boxes, or some boxes are floppier than others making them girl boxes, or we’re going to decide that girl boxes have to be pretty and boy boxes have to be tough and girl boxes have to be one shape and boy boxes have to be a different shape.
I don’t give a damn. Let the kittens chose which box they want to be in, and just accept it — be happy for the kitten who gets to chose. Anybody who tries to impose their arbitrary, outsider distinctions on the kittens is harshing the mellow, and anybody who tries to force a kitten into a different box is just plain wrong, and certainly does not belong at Freethoughtblogs.
This is a network that happily embraces the social justice cause. We select our bloggers from people who are clearly on that side of the cultural divide, and we’re going to kick out anyone who opposes equality for all (we’ve done it once before, and we can do it again). If you do not respect people’s choices, if you try to impose negative views on people’s identities, if you will not tolerate other people’s autonomy, if you think your arbitrary definitions of the ‘right’ sexual orientation, ‘right’ skin color, ‘right’ class, ‘right’ social behavior allow you to judge others, than nope, you really don’t belong here.
On the other hand, this is a freethought network. If you look at that set of boxes and question why society is labeling one set one way and another set a different way, that is appropriate and reasonable. Questioning assumptions and criticizing labels is a good thing; we should be wondering why anyone would even want to dictate the identities of others, and it’s worthwhile to try and puzzle out what criteria others are using to make that decision.
And thus we come to the recent strange contretemps over Ophelia’s blog posts. I think she’s clearly in the freethought category: she asks why culture makes certain identities more acceptable than others. She writes about Caitlyn Jenner, and wonders about this curious phenomenon of the media embracing the ‘glamorous femme’ identity in a way that they wouldn’t if Jenner identified as a woman while not bothering with the appearance Vanity Fair would like. That is not denying Jenner’s choices; it’s trying to tease apart cultural biases.
A couple of problems immediately arise, though. One is dismissable: Ophelia is obstreperous and does not respond with a politic attitude towards questions. She is in a hard and spiky-edged box. But that is her choice, too, and if this blog network started evicting everyone who is impolitic we’d all have to go away, starting with me. Fortunately, we don’t have a niceness rule at FtB.
The second problem, though, is one I’m wrestling with right now. I’m a cis male: I don’t get to tell people with a different perspective how they should feel about Ophelia’s comments. If you’re mad or hurt by them, I’m not going to tell you you shouldn’t feel that way. I can’t. All I know is that I’m treading in a mine field, and I can screw up, and I have to listen when someone tells me not to step there, and that goes for Ophelia, too. It’s also the case that if we choose to stroll in that minefield, we don’t get to demand that others give us step-by-step navigation instructions — it’s on us if we step wrongly and blow ourselves up.
Why else would you think I’ve been really reluctant to speak out on this?
But here’s the bottom line: Ophelia has not been trying to deny anyone their choices; she has not been trying to impose her labels on others. She did take a stroll on the minefield, and it went ka-boom, and she’s going to have to own that. She’s still a member in good standing of a network dedicated to diversity and social justice, and I’m going to oppose any attempt to drive her off. I do wish she could try to reconcile with others, but as a fellow stubborn, assertive person I’m the last one who should push for that.
I am also not happy with the people who have scribbled the label “TERF” on a box and are trying to force her into it, despite her resistance, her clear denial that she supports the rejection of the status of women to trans women, and the lack of any evidence that she in any way does not respect the self-identity of any trans individuals. It’s a campaign built on innuendo and uncharitable interpretations and the assumption that questioning gender roles in society must be an attack on the rights of transgender people.
This whole ugly episode began with the claim that where there’s smoke, there’s fire — which I consider an admission that there is no direct support for the claim at all. I’d also point out that sometimes those signals you’re trying to read are there because someone is trying very hard to blow smoke up your ass. Until there is real concrete evidence that someone is trying to undermine the respect due to an oppressed group, I would hope the members of this community could try a little harder to be more charitable to each other.