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:
- 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.
- 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.
- Holy crap, this hashtag is actually trending! A lot!
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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?
- 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?