Reactions of a Queer Professor to the Magneto-Style of Social Justice

(Let me start by saying that the views in this article are mine alone, and shouldn’t be read as representative of Queereka’s)

This article has been a half-baked labor of anger and love since Friday, when #fuckcispeople exploded across the internet. From this explosion came a set of conversations about transgender oppression, cisgender privilege, rights to critique others’ emotional reactions, and the X-Men. While I was passionate about the first two conversations, it was the latter conversations which entranced and challenged me the most. And in reaction to these challenges, I processed, I wrote, I read, I processed, I read more. I spent inordinate amounts of time on the couch scanning twitter, surrounded by dirty dishes. I considered the fact that this behavior might prevent me from getting tenure, felt guilty, and read more tweets. I considered whether my collective identities, both marginalized and privileged, gave me the authority to speak candidly.

The answer I landed on, for right now, is: yes, speak. What started with a twitter hashtag from the trans community turned into a bigger exploration of semantics and modes of change within broader social justice movements. Dissecting these movements, and the in-group fighting over approach and tone, drives me to join the conversation.

I feel like this is the part of most articles where I would drop my cred as a scholar, activist, and overall super-queer. But I don’t really want to justify why I can speak to this topic. It seems beside the point. I will leave it at this: social justice work is what consumes me, fuels me. It is literally all I do every day.

* * *

If I could synthesize my years of doctoral training into five words, they would read as such: Accurately Say What You Mean (ASWYM). I wish that made a catchier acronym, but much like academia itself, it’s jumbled and hard to decipher.

As a young theory slinging, Butler-loving, angry activist, I was initially resistant to the common tropes of scholarly writing and presentation. For example, as a real scientist, you can never give anecdotal evidence, make generalizations without citations, or be absolutist in your statements. You can never prove something is true with a study (or even 500 studies). You can only reject the null hypothesis – a garbled way of saying “Hey it looks like this thing we are testing triggered an outcome! Maybe? There are still more confounds we have to control for in future studies!” You have to be cautious and not presumptive.

And for the type of work I was doing, and still do, this cautiousness was even more dire. Any psychology study that the media picks up about sexual minority and trans people runs a huge risk of being blown out of context. (Anyone remember that study by Lisa Diamond on the fluidity of women’s sexuality that the media twisted to use as evidence that sexual orientation can be changed?) So as a scholar, you better provide all the context and leave no room for misinterpretation.

With this education came the weight of a great responsibility. I was literally producing knowledge. I sure as shit had to be accurate in saying what I meant. After all, people were going to rely on my statistics, my conclusions, and my methods to tell a story about marginalized people.

Enter qualifying words like some, many, a few, often.

Exit words like all, or any phrase that triggers this idea.

So, not all bisexual participants in my sample experienced anti-bisexual discrimination, most (78%) did.

Initially, this practice was aggravating. I felt like it made my findings lose their punch. After all, who wants to read about the experiences of “some women” – people want statements to have universality! But then, with time and labor, it became obvious: the world is nuanced. We have language to capture nuance. We should use that language!

My queer theory roots stuck with me throughout and beyond graduate school. Clearly, in the most Foucauldian sense, language has power. It can oppress, it can control; sentence construction has meaning, tone shapes interpretation, interpretation shapes the production and passing of knowledge. In short: semantics matter. They matter a fuck-ton. And anyone who dismisses arguments on the basis of “oh it’s just semantics” clearly does not understand the power of language.

* * *

Fast forward to Friday. I’m half working and half messing around online when I start digging deeper into the #fuckcispeople twitter trend. My reaction is immediately split. The cautious activist academic in me thinks: “Shit, this hashtag is going to be totally misconstrued” whereas the latent radical thinks “Hell yeah! Push back against oppressors!”

And, unsurprisingly, there was a lot of backlash to the hashtag, and a lot of backlash to the backlash. I felt like I was watching a car crash slowly and I finally, deeply, understood the meaning of “Something is Wrong on the Internet!” It felt like everything I said came out wrong, or that I was on the wrong side, or that my carefully crafted 140 character arguments – that at the time felt very rational! – were being spoken in Elvish.

My #fuckcispeople opinions were initially rooted in these thoughts, in this order:

  1. Oh great! What an interesting, in-your-face, use of social networking. I’d much rather people be tweeting for social justice than tweeting pictures of burritos with instagram vignette filtering.
  2. Wow, this is very powerful. People are showing a lot of pain to the public. Sharing stories builds community and releasing anger is cathartic. Though probably beside the point, cis people with thick skin are going to learn a lot from these tweets.
  3. Holy crap, this hashtag is actually trending! A lot!
  4. But, but …but it has “fuck” in it. Crap, that means the mainstream media is probably going to ignore it. How could reporters even begin to talk about it on the news? “Transgender people on the internet share their anger with the twittersphere through a new hashtag with the f-word in it, addressed at everyone in the world who is not transgender. Now, to the 5pm traffic report!” – hm, that sounds pretty stupid when I say it out loud.
  5. Oh, and double-crap. This hashtag uses the term “cis” – no one outside of the queer community knows what cis means. (Seriously, this fact always surprises me. But I have taught LGBTQ Psychology classes in three different states for undergraduate and graduate students and only about 2-3 people out of classes of 50+ ever know.)
  6. Wait, trans folks are using this hashtag to express their anger at cis-driven oppression and cis-privilege, but because of its phrasing, it’s going to be misinterpreted to mean trans people hate all cis people. The community doesn’t need more bad press. What about a more “intentional” (I can’t turn off the academic!) hashtag like #fuckcisprivilege? Afterall, ASWYM, right?
  7. Ack! And another sinking feeling related to point #6: cis people who know what cis means prior to seeing the hashtag are likely already allies (or at least knowledgeable of trans issues), which means the hashtag gave a virtual middle finger to the only cis people on twitter who are likely to be helpful in the movement. People who don’t know what cis means and are probably people more likely to aggress/oppress (for the most part) and therefore are not exposed to these powerful tweets.

Of course, because, as an academic I can’t seem to control my need to edit (and honestly, I worried the hashtag was going to bring more hatred to the community (yes, I read this, thanks) — I started pushing another “more accurate” hashtag, #fuckcisprivilege. This was met with waves of – how dare you silence/filter/judge our anger, stop trying to protect those ignorant cis peoples’ feelz, stop tone policing, and my absolute favorite, implications that I am a “semantic squabbler” via links to a poorly written article by Laurie Penny (more on this later).

See, the thing is, I don’t want anyone to filter anger. But, I do worry about the ramifications of outbursts of anger from marginalized groups, especially when these outburst are directed (largely and unintentionally, see point #7) at allies or people who could become allies if they weren’t put on the defensive. To date, there is a lot of psychology research demonstrating that people shut down when they feel attacked. They can’t learn or grow in that state. So actually, no, I don’t care about protecting feelz (sic) of cis people, I care about gaining ground and momentum through effective education. I don’t think we need to foster an etiquette of politeness; be angry, be loud, but accurately say what you mean and target the right oppressors. I have little issue with correctly insulting oppressors, but like others have already said, we need allies. There are days when, as a queer woman, I am so angry with straight “allies” that I want to tell them all to fuck off. But I don’t, only because anger that is misdirected can actually be harmful to causes. And yes, thanks, I’ve also already read this, too.

Now, of course not all anger has to be “productive” or part of an organized movement. Anger for anger’s sake is valid. But the point that I think a lot of people didn’t want to acknowledge in the #fuckcispeople explosion is that when you have masses of people chanting the same thing loudly and angrily in a public space (like, um, Twitter) it is no longer just “venting” or “cathartic” – it becomes a rally. #Fuckcispeople became a war cry across the internet. War cries aren’t just “letting off steam” or “sharing emotion within your community” they have a purpose, they have a direction. So when you have a few hundred trans people from across the globe repeating #fuckcispeople across a public space, it’s a political movement. And, I would argue, that anger in a movement should strive to be productive – because, why the hell not?! You have the attention and focus, make use of it for greater good.

* * *

Now, returning to the topic of tone-policing and semantic squabbling. In a recent article on men and sexism, British journalist Laurie Penny wrote:

These days, before we talk about misogyny, women are increasingly being asked to modify our language so we don’t hurt men’s feelings. Don’t say, “Men oppress women” – that’s sexism, as bad as any sexism women ever have to handle, possibly worse. Instead, say, “Some men oppress women.” Whatever you do, don’t generalise. That’s something men do. Not all men – just somemen.


This type of semantic squabbling is a very effective way of getting women to shut up. After all, most of us grew up learning that being a good girl was all about putting other people’s feelings ahead of our own. We aren’t supposed to say what we think if there’s a chance it might upset somebody else or, worse, make them angry. So we stifle our speech with apologies, caveats and soothing sounds. We reassure our friends and loved ones that ‘you’re not one of those men who hate women.’

This article, and quote in particular, was flung at me in an “Ah-ha! Gotcha!” moment when someone accused me of employing semantic squabbling and tone policing in response to the #fuckcispeople explosion when I advocated for #fuckcisprivilege instead. But truthfully, this quote just made me sad. Why have we reached a point in social justice movements where it is totally ok to make sloppy claims about privileged members of society? Guess what, there actually are some men, mystical as they may be, who are not sexist. There actually are some straight people who aren’t heterosexist. They may benefit from the privilege of being in the majority, but they are on our side. There are “somemen” who spearhead gender equality movements.  Why is it stifling our speech to avoid pissing on these “somemen” or “somepeople” and, more importantly, why would we ever promote a lack of caveats in our language?

Life is about caveats, exceptions, atypicalities. For a journalist, like Laurie Penny of all people, to argue that it’s a good thing to shirk the word “some” when describing the traits of an entire gender or group of people, is enraging. Saying some and using caveats is not about “being nice” or “soothing” or “a good girl” – it’s about being fucking accurate. Especially, especially when you are a public figure. As a public figure or a leader of a social justice movement, you have an ethical obligation to ASWYM.

Why be accurate? Well, as marginalized people, we regularly get chewed up and spit out for any error, any misstep, any false information we may provide in pursuit of our causes. It is hard enough to fight for our causes already. Don’t make it harder for all of us by flinging generalizations and inaccuracies about the people in power, especially allies in power. As far as I’m aware, less empowered groups flinging hate back at dominant groups has never done a lot of good.

* * *

And, this is where the Magneto versus Professor X approach to social justice comes in. Ignoring for a second the fact that Magneto regularly kills humans and wants to crush them for their hatred of mutants, rather than learning to coexist… ahem. The metaphor has been used to elucidate two approaches to activism — Magneto: being nice doesn’t pay, don’t bother, smash oppressors or Professor X: the people in power sometimes suck, but we need each other, so we need to fight strongly but patiently for equality and assimilation.

In the midst of the #fuckcispeople storm, a few people started trying to promote a Magneto approach to social justice, claiming that playing along, being political, and being nice was too slow. While personally, I believe that both approaches are important, it is completely false to claim that a Magneto approach has ever been more efficacious in widespread social changes. Some people cited that MLK was actually “really angry!!” in some of his speeches and therefore he was also like Magneto rather than just Professor X. But, dear god, are we really going there? Of course leaders of social justice movements, even the ones that are extremely pacifist and assimilationist are angry. Guess who else is probably really angry? Ellen DeGeneres. But, whose approach sparked more long lasting political change in the civil rights movement? The Black Panthers or MLK’s affirming, open, and challenging but peaceful approach? How did ACT UP and TAG take on big pharmaceuticals? Did they bomb the FDA or did they protest with rational, yet loud, arguments? Sure, the violence of the Stonewall Riots caused a smack of attention toward LGBTQ issues in the late 1960s, but when did gay rights actually start to gain traction? Oh right, in the past decade when user-friendly images of gay and lesbian characters started permeating mainstream television shows.

I am not saying that we should all stop our enraged fights and strap straight and cisgender people to chairs so they can watch emotional episodes of Glee, but what I am saying is that everything I know about queer history repeatedly demonstrates that this approach would be more efficacious than angry tweets or blog posts.

For the record, this does not make me happy. I’d much rather that a white-washed, vanilla, and safe queer rights movement not represent me. Knowing that I have to be smart and politically savvy in order to effectively gain my basic human rights as a queer person is heartbreaking. I am fully a Professor X, but I wish I didn’t have to be. And if calls for accuracy, levelheadedness, and room for nuance in social justice discourse is going to be haphazardly labeled as tone policing or trying to silence the oppressed, I’m not sure how to respond to that. The –isms are a common enemy, and differences in practice and implementation aside, Magnetos and Professor Xs need each other. And we need allies.

* * *

Once something is a movement, like it or not, you have to start to think about what the larger public will take from it. What they will hold and disseminate. So, to reiterate, from a Professor X prospective:

  • Lots of people chanting the same thing angrily in a public space is a rally.
  • The point of a rally is not to be cathartic — it is to create change.
  • This is a good thing. Change is what you want.
  • But if you are rallying or trying to make change in a public forum, that means you are engaged in politics. And, as such, you are a movement.
  • Being a movement means to be effective you have to start thinking politically.
  • Pissing off everyone around you is (typically) not good politics. Expressing blind rage is not good politics. Letting unbridled sadness flow is not good politics. Women making sweeping generalizations about all men (50% of the population, and most people in power) being sexist monsters is not good politics. Transgender people making sweeping generalizations about all cisgender people (99% of the population, almost everyone in power) being oppressors is not good politics. In general, alienating allies and potential allies is not good politics.
  • Use good politics.

Because this is what my reflection on Laurie Penny’s article and #fuckcispeople made me realize: I am an activist. That’s what I do. But I want to be an effective activist. And just because I am thinking about politics does not mean I am not outraged. I am always outraged, but I want to channel my outrage effectively and get things done. As nice as it would be to scream my impotent rage across the internet, I want a better world, and so I am going to fight with tactics which make that world happen.

To quote Barney Frank, “I believe very strongly people on the left are too prone to do things that are emotionally satisfying and not politically useful.” I realize that Frank took this view way too far. He took years to come out as gay, and even longer to come out as atheist. Hiding who you are and being polite is not what I’m pushing. What I am asking is: can we collectively strive toward an anger that is also expressed politically, accurately, and intentionally?

Previous post

AI: Being Out in a New Place

Next post

When Kinksters Don't Want to Risk ANYTHING

Melanie Elyse Brewster

Melanie Elyse Brewster

Melanie Elyse Brewster is an assistant professor of psychology and education in New York City who would describe herself as a new atheist and queer. Her research focuses on identity intersectionality and experiences of marginalization. Her book on "coming out" as atheist will be released next summer. Until then, for inappropriate jokes, feminist rants, and inane musings, you can follow her on twitter @melysebrewster


  1. August 20, 2013 at 4:35 pm —

    Of course. But until things shift, or we force them to shift, I’m here.

  2. August 20, 2013 at 6:07 pm —

    Enter Laurelai!

  3. August 20, 2013 at 7:59 pm —

    I find myself disagreeing in both directions, oddly enough. Well, life is complicated,

    First of all, releasing anger isn’t typically cathartic. In fact, it often has the opposite effect, particularly if you cause harm to something or someone in the process of releasing your anger. People have a mental need to justify their actions, and if, for instance, they lash out at transphobic cis people but hurt some cis allies in the process, they’ll tend to convince themselves that perhaps those allies must have deserved it somehow. Otherwise, they’d have to admit that they’d done harm, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to think of someone else as bad than it is to think of oneself as bad (the latter is virtually impossible). See the experiments of Bushman et al. 2002 and 2005, to name just a couple examples in the literature.

    That being said, however, I agree with Laurelai’s point above that this can have the effect of shifting the Overton Window. Anger, and even violent reactions, can help social movements in other ways. MLK was popular in part because he presented a more peaceful alternative to the Black Panthers. When the alternative is a possible violent revolution, negotiation looks like a much better deal than it does when you can get away with doing nothing. It’s the classic Good Cop/Bad Cop routine – people will cooperate with the Good Cop so they don’t have to deal with the Bad Cop. Of course, here I’m drifting into the question of whether violence is ever ethically accepted in pursuit of social justice, which is another can of worms, so for the time being, let’s limit the discussion to anger.

    However… I’m not sure that will work as well in the case of trans* rights. The problem is numbers. While women are ~50% of the population, African Americans ~5-30% (depending on the region), gays ~10%, trans* people represent only around 1% of the population. Add into that the fact that a good number of trans* people still either remain closeted or pass reasonably well (and thus become invisible), and trans* anger seems a lot less threatening to the majority, and so less useful at playing Bad Cop. I don’t think it’s useless, but it’s not going to help as much as with other movements. On the other hand, the more social justice movements there are that pay dividends, the more open the public is hopefully going to become to future movements, so in that sense it might even be easier. And on the other other hand (also known as a foot), driving away allies is a valid worry, especially if expressing anger at them drives a wedge between you and allies. On the other foot, trans* people have damn good reasons for being angry, and I’m not going to begrudge them the right to express it.

    Being out of hands and feet here, I should probably stop.

    • August 21, 2013 at 1:07 am —

      I suspect that the percentage of the population matters less than the identifiability of the group in question, by which I mean that if there were one (or a few) specific person’s (people’s) face(s) which could be associated in the public mind with trans* anger and the possibility of violence against the oppressors, then I think that this would effectively allow this one (or a few) person (people) to function as a Bad Cop, regardless of the actual demographics. That is to say, I suspect that the lack of fear of trans* backlash has more to do with there being no specific identifiable iconic proponent(s) of it.

      • August 21, 2013 at 4:28 am —

        That could be. I thought about going on a tangent about fear of Muslims, which is disproportionate to their demographics due to a fear of terrorism, but I figured that would lead too far into the question of violence to advance the cause, so I avoided that tangent. There are certainly a number of angry trans* people, as this hashtag illustrates, but none yet have the visibility that, say, Malcolm X did. Perhaps if even one got to that point it could serve the role… but I still suspect it would necessitate more people becoming aware of trans* people in their personal lives before they feel the need to change. Visibility has done a lot to help the gay rights cause, but it’s a lot trickier to pull off with trans* rights.

    • August 21, 2013 at 1:22 am —

      Just a quick corrective here, gays and lesbians do not represent 10% of the population, but more like 2-4% (depending on the survey). Not that much higher than trans.

      • August 21, 2013 at 4:23 am —

        It depends a whole lot on the survey, including exactly what question is asked and where you ask people. I ballparked 10% given my gut feeling that the “identification” numbers are lower than the “actual” numbers… but of course, then that leads to what exactly we should describe as the “actual” numbers. Anyone exclusively attracted to the same* sex? Anyone who’ll admit they’re exclusively attracted to the same sex? Anyone who has at least some attraction to the same sex?

        *And we can add in the question of whether or not to count people who don’t identify as male or female but still experience attraction to some others, as well.

        But looking through what data there is, I’ll admit you’re right. A number closer to 5% is probably more accurate, depending on what exactly we’re counting. I shouldn’t be gut-overestimating here.

  4. August 21, 2013 at 1:00 am —

    First, let me just say:
    “In short: semantics matter. They matter a fuck-ton. And anyone who dismisses arguments on the basis of “oh it’s just semantics” clearly does not understand the power of language.”
    Yes. This.
    I have been trying to convince people of the usefulness of discussing semantics, especially in emotionally charged discussions, for years. I say that not specifically for this conversation and topic, but for all of them; the more emotional people are getting, the more important it is to make sure that everybody is actually speaking the same language, since misunderstandings in highly emotional situations are one way that generations-long feuds are started. Anger is easily justified in our world, and sometimes it can be helpful to just scream with rage, but if you are trying to communicate a message – any message, whether within a group or between groups – then semantics is a necessary (if secondary) topic of discussion. It is also worth noting that even if you are not trying to communicate a message, you can (and will) still be misinterpreted. (Just something else to take into account in the subconscious cost-benefit analysis that goes into deciding how to express an emotion.)

  5. August 21, 2013 at 2:39 am —

    thank you for this article. i can sign it full-hearted.
    you found a way to put down in words what i couldn’t.
    best wishes

  6. August 23, 2013 at 8:09 pm —

    Saying some and using caveats is not about “being nice” or “soothing” or “a good girl” – it’s about being fucking accurate. Especially, especially when you are a public figure. As a public figure or a leader of a social justice movement, you have an ethical obligation to ASWYM.

    Why be accurate? Well, as marginalized people, we regularly get chewed up and spit out for any error, any misstep, any false information we may provide in pursuit of our causes. It is hard enough to fight for our causes already.

    Yes. This. And it is particularly galling when efforts to call out misinformation, flawed arguments, or unhelpful generalities are dismissed as “silencing,” considering it often comes from the same people who make fun of “freeze peach.”

    • August 23, 2013 at 8:11 pm —

      Ack I see blockquotes are still broken in Firefox (but not Chrome). For the record I quoted:

      “Saying some and using caveats is not about “being nice” or “soothing” or “a good girl” – it’s about being fucking accurate. Especially, especially when you are a public figure. As a public figure or a leader of a social justice movement, you have an ethical obligation to ASWYM.

      Why be accurate? Well, as marginalized people, we regularly get chewed up and spit out for any error, any misstep, any false information we may provide in pursuit of our causes. It is hard enough to fight for our causes already.”

  7. August 23, 2013 at 9:59 pm —

    I, obviously, couldn’t agree more. I feel like marginalized communities often set up implicit rules in which members aren’t allowed to critique each other, even if that criticism is constructive. All the anger is turned against the oppressor, but that leaves no room for editing or improving arguments against the oppressor.

    My main experience with a similar phenomenon was within queer and feminist arts communities in my prior life as a gallery director. Feminist and LGBTQ artists were so worried about being nice and supporting each other, that they wouldn’t call each other out if/when they made a crap piece of art. But the thing is: THAT APPROACH ISN’T HELPFUL, because soon the whole damn community is filled with friends making bad, touchy feely art that no one but their family members will bother to view. The community collapses in its own flaccid, and immature pieces. /end rant.

    Also, I hadn’t heard of freeze peach before, but kind of love all the blog posts around it. Oh, the internet 🙂

    • August 24, 2013 at 1:49 am —

      This can be a real problem in the arts, not least because it then partially justifies the claims of people who say that queer etc. artists have their own shows/performances/programmes because they can’t hack it in the big leagues. Which of course isn’t the original problem but a secondary one.

Leave a reply