This is going to be a confused mess. I’ve not actually had an uninterrupted night’s sleep — even by my own standards where “a night’s sleep” means five hours if I’m lucky — in eleven days, so I’m in a weird fugue state at the moment where I’m seeing patterns in everything but can’t tell if I’m making sense or not.
So at the moment I’m reading Andrew Rilstone’s book One Hundred and Forty Characters in Search of an Argument*, and the first essay in it is one about the concept of privilege, and how in most political arguments there is a side that is the oppressed, and a side that is the oppressor, and how it is often the case for those like him (or indeed like me) who are people with a great deal of privilege and have a tendency towards logical, analytical, thought, there is a tendency to try to take the oppressor’s arguments seriously, to steelman them, to see if they have a point, and that this tendency often lends unintended support to people who are causing harm.
And I also thought about point three in my post about trans people:
No, you don’t need to play devil’s advocate about this. While the precise boundaries of gender definition may be of great academic interest to you, arguing that trans people aren’t “really” who they say they are leads to greater prejudice against them. Given the horrific rates of attempted suicide among trans people, and how much lower those rates are when the people in question are in a supportive environment, maybe you could just shut up about your thought experiments for a while?
Which could very easily be generalised to an attack on the very idea of political debate.
As an example, take the current case of funding being withdrawn from some cancer drugs, because while they apparently have some effect, they are having far, far less effect for their cost than other interventions for other illnesses.
Now, that’s the sort of thing about which a debate *needs* to be had — given there is a finite amount of money that can be spent on healthcare, at what point do we say “I’m sorry, but even though this would give you an extra two months of rather painful life, for the same money we can give twenty patients with heart disease each an extra ten years of pain-free existence”? There are, in fact, metrics for this which are fairly successful, and the problem currently is that the Conservatives promised to make an exception of them for cancer, then found out very quickly that that exception caused a massive spending increase without a concomitant benefit in lives saved, and are trying desperately to roll back from their original position.
But I can very easily imagine a cancer sufferer saying “Yes, well, it’s all very well you talking about that as an intellectual exercise, but in the real world, I actually have actual cancer, and those two months are two months of *my life*. How can you even discuss this?”
(In fact, that pretty much is the argument that I’ve seen various Labour-affiliated politicians making).
Now, the thing is, I think the first statement is pretty much self-evidently true. If arguing about trans people’s ontological status has the very real effect of leading to a situation where some people die and a lot more are made more miserable than they otherwise would be, it behooves any half-decent human being who has an argument to shut up, even if it’s a really good argument, at least in their opinion. The benefit they get from making the argument is FAR outweighed by the harm they’re doing. [NB, I am not arguing that they should be *banned* from saying those things. I’m saying they shouldn’t do it. Far too many people on the Internet conflate “I disapprove strongly of this” with “I think this thing should be prevented by force”]
I also think, though, that we *have* to have arguments of the second type, and I don’t think anyone seriously disagrees — arguments where we have to balance competing needs and harms, and have to do so rationally.
I think EVERYONE, in fact, agrees that there are times when arguments need to be made, even when someone will lose out by those arguments (as a reductio ad absurdum, were there to be a pill that, were you to take it, would provide 100% perfect protection against cancer forever, but only if you never ate chocolate again, I think that we’d all agree that that should be publicised even if it meant financial ruin for Ian Cadbury and Ian Mars).
I think we all (except for a very small minority of psychopaths) also agree that there are times when one should not make an argument, even if one believes it to be true, because the harm it does far outdoes the good that making the argument can do. Very few people think that you should go up to someone at their grandmother’s funeral and say “Your grandmother is now suffering infinite torments, from which she will never be spared for all eternity”, even if you really, sincerely, think that Raven-Taylorite Exclusive Brethren will go to hell forever because only Needed Truth Open Brethren follow the true teachings of the Bible.
But it occurs to me that the most damaging, the most extreme, Internet arguments — at least, those between people of actual good faith, as opposed to out-and-out bigots, trolls, fascists and others who actually want other people to suffer — all tend to be arguments about *which of these categories a particular subject should be put in*.
At one end one has the LessWrong/Slate Star Codex/Richard Dawkins type people, who say “But WHAT IF people committing honour killings are really doing the world a favour by enforcing the patriarchy, because WHAT IF men really just ARE better than women? I’m not saying they are, but can’t we ask the question”? [NB, as far as I know none of those people has made that argument, but as a style of argument it is all too familiar, even among otherwise decent, intelligent, people]. At the other, Tumblr Social Justice types.
Temperamentally, I’m far closer to the former group than the latter (I don’t really do taking offence at ideas, and can gladly play with the most revolting thoughts while treating them as hypotheticals), but on most actual cases, I tend to side with the Social Justice people, because “this is hurting me and I’d like the pain to stop” is, most of the time, a more compelling argument than anything else.
But it just occurred to me that I’d never thought of it before in precisely these terms — as an argument about which category various topics should go into. And I think that maybe people on either side of the arguments aren’t thinking about it in those terms either — one group instead thinking “why are those people keeping doing this when I’ve said it’s hurtful?” while the other is thinking “why are those people trying to stop my freedom of speech?”
I’d always previously thought of it as an argument between totally incompatible types of people — Social Justice versus Internet Libertarian — but perhaps the whole argument about privilege, trigger warnings, free speech, and a whole bunch of other subjects that I won’t bring up because even mentioning some of them could set off another of these arguments… perhaps most of the arguments we’ve been having in the twenty years or so since the Internet became a mass medium and people of differing views became more exposed to each other are not arguments between fundamentally incompatible types of people, but “just” symptoms of a meta-argument about framing. If so, that gives me a little more hope than I previously had that eventually people might stop just being horrible to each other.
Does any of this make sense, or am I talking complete crap, or is this something that was blatantly obvious to everyone but me because I’m autistic and don’t get social signals the way other people do? I can’t even tell any more, I’m so exhausted. But I’m interested in what people think. But be nice to each other in the comments if you can — I don’t want to cause any more of the type of argument I’m talking about here when I’m not well enough to deal with the stress that would cause.
*Possibly his most Rilstonian book. I know many people who like Rilstone’s writing — they should buy it immediately. But I also know a few people who get angered by Rilstone’s writing, and they would probably find this *far* more angering than, say, his book on Doctor Who.
Over on Patreon, for those wonderful individuals who are clearly the greatest that humanity has to offer, my take on the Mad Hatter’s first TV appearance, and the 60s counterculture.
Meanwhile, for those filthy wretches who don’t even think I deserve paying for typing up some nonsense about old TV shows, an older essay on Mr Freeze’s first appearance is up on Mindless Ones.
And for those of you who think it’s not funny to keep repeating the same joke about how horrible people who don’t give me free money are, and who want to whinge about me repeating that joke, a reminder that this *is* the Batman TV series we’re talking about, and repeating the same jokes over and over and over is part of the point. Next thing someone will be complaining that they don’t understand the rules of Mornington Crescent…
I am a cis man. For those who haven’t come across the term that means, very basically, that when I was born someone said “It’s a boy!”, and I’ve never seen any particular reason to argue with that assessment.
As a cis man, I am fairly clueless when it comes to issues of gender identity, on an almost Peter-from-Fist-of-Fun level (“ladies… they’re the ones with like, eyes, on their chests?”). However, rather amazingly, it seems there are a lot of people with even less Clue than me. The only thing I can think, since there are many, many, explanations of all this stuff online, is that those people are waiting for an explanation from someone “like them”.
Therefore, a guide for the clueless, from the very-slightly-less-clueless. What follows will undoubtedly be full of inaccuracies and wrongness, and will probably make those with actual Clue cringe, and I apologise for that. But the idea here is to hammer some basic points into people who are even wronger than I am, but who are more used to hearing things from straight white cis men than from anyone who isn’t that.
1) Trans men are men. Trans women are women.
2) No, really. I know you’re about to say “but by definition and then go on to talk about genitals or chromosomes. It’s you, not them, who’s using the wrong definition, because when we talk about men or women in normal conversation, we’re not talking about genitals or chromosomes. I have never run a DNA test on any of my friends, and the number of them whose genitals I have personally inspected is very small (and I’m sure the rest are very grateful for that). Nonetheless, I can tell which ones are women, because they’re called things like Jennie or Emily or Debi, and they look like women, and they sometimes say things like “I am a woman”. Similarly, the ones who are men are called things like Dave or James or Richard, and often have beards or male-pattern baldness or say “I am a man”.
If you’re at all honest, you’ll admit that that’s how *you* tell men from women as well. If the chromosome or genital-configuration tests give a different result, so much the worse for those tests.
3) No, you don’t need to play devil’s advocate about this. While the precise boundaries of gender definition may be of great academic interest to you, arguing that trans people aren’t “really” who they say they are leads to greater prejudice against them. Given the horrific rates of attempted suicide among trans people, and how much lower those rates are when the people in question are in a supportive environment, maybe you could just shut up about your thought experiments for a while?
4) Some people are neither men nor women. If you don’t understand that, just take their word for it. They know better than you who they are. This does not, however, negate point 1 above. Trans men are men, trans women are women, non-binary people are non-binary people.
5) No, “cis” isn’t a slur. It just means “not trans”. On the other hand, pretty much any term you’ve ever heard for a trans person, other than “a trans person”, *is* a slur. Generally speaking, if you learned a word from porn, you probably shouldn’t call someone it, unless you’re in the kind of interesting situation that this post does not cover.
6) No, no-one wants to make you feel bad about being cis. Most trans people don’t care about you one way or the other. If you act like an arsehole, though, they probably do want you to feel bad about that.
7) The fact that some prominent feminists say trans women aren’t women doesn’t make it the case. Having a column in the Guardian doesn’t make you the repository of all truth, and just because someone is left-wing doesn’t make them immune from bigotry. Arguments should be examined on their own merits, not on authority, and so saying “but Julie Bindel/Germaine Greer/Cathy Brennan says…” doesn’t make the argument any less fallacious.
8) No, you shouldn’t ask someone if they’ve had surgery. Among the things that most human beings consider the most private are their genitals and their medical history. Asking a question about both at the same time is rude and intrusive.
9) No, you shouldn’t ask what their name used to be, either. For many trans people this can be a very, very sore subject.
10) Most important of all, you should NOT BE LIKE ME, AND NOT LISTEN TO ME. Seriously, did you even read the bit at the beginning about me being clueless? I wrote this out of frustration that I see the same stupid arguments being made over and over again by clueless cis people who are completely unaware of their privilege or of the harm they’re doing, partly because I used to be one of them myself until I got clued in by knowing some actual trans people.
And I do think the half-joking stuff about being a straight cis white male and therefore OK to listen to has something of a point, and that sadly there are people who will read this who wouldn’t read it coming from an actual trans person.
But fundamentally, I don’t have a fucking clue, and neither do you. And the only decent thing to do in those circumstances is shut up, listen to the opinions of people who know what they’re talking about, and not give opinions unless they’re asked for. Advice which I shall now take myself.