Hi! Time for a welcome post!
My usual blog is at fugitivus.wordpress.com. Arvan asked if I might like to cross-post here. That is awfully intimidating to somebody whose blog only had three readers a month or so ago. So I decided to go for a diary first, to see if I can hack it. The post below references the middle of a conversation happening on my blog. Specifically, when discussing rape, I used the word "vagina" and was called out for excluding trans women (it makes more sense in the context of the original post). The discussion was mostly an interesting, informative one, but it did attract some trolls and not-meaning-to-be-but-definitely-trolls to my blog. This is my response to the whole thing.
I've been putting off this post for a while. After the reaction to my exclusive language in this post, I realized I was trying to process multiple things at once. It's like getting into a heated argument about Russian history, when you completely agree, and what you're actually upset about is 1) the other person's tone, 2) your shitty day at work, and 3) the last fight you had with this person about Russian history. So there you are, communicating all these three points to them, except using another language, the language of “I agree with you about Russian history,” which is not a language made to express the nuanced feelings of, “You sound awfully snide to me, and it reminds me of the report my boss made me process today.”
So. I had some things I wanted to say about that post, and I just barely managed to restrain myself from using the language of “Trans stuff” and/or “Feminist blogging stuff” to express “I feel socially anxious and these fucking trolls aren't helping.” I knew I had to work out the social anxiety piece before I could address, in any coherent way, any of my thoughts about the trans stuff or the blogging stuff. Which is why the personal life blarghing before this. I'm glad I not only took the time to work that stuff through, but also decided to post about it, because it gave me a springboard for some of the stuff I want to address.
I know I've told this story before, but I love it, so I'm telling it again. In my first African-American Studies class, my professor started out with this:
“Imagine that racism is the water. The pond. It's where we all live. We are all fish swimming in the water. So there's really no point, is there, in accusing another fish, 'You're wet.'”
He gave this little speech because, like me, most of the students were in that class because it was a required ethnic studies. It was likely going to be their first exposure to difficult, uncompromising discussions about race. But there wasn't going to be any “discussion” if none of us talked, which none of us would if we were living in a state of perpetual social anxiety about being called racist. That's not to say we weren't likely going to say some racist shit, and that we shouldn't have discussions about how what we just said was racist. But he wanted us all to start with the assumption and understanding that we were all racist. We all had some stupid, ugly shit in our head. We were all likely to say some stupid, ugly shit out loud. And that's what had to happen in order to get that shit out of our head, to work on it, expose it, dissect it. We all had to feel that we were in a safe space where our ideas and assumptions could be attacked, but not our integrity and worth as people.
This is a fine line to be riding. It's not appropriate everywhere, though classrooms and other spaces meant for education are a good place for it, I think. But it easily slides over into less helpful territory, such as: I demand you educate me, I absolve myself of all responsibility for my beliefs (Society Made Me This Way!), or You are required to attend to my journey to understand and accept you, and no, I don't want to hear about how much that hurts you, this isn't about you.
I don't mean to say it's up to any given individual to hold another individual's hand, to prioritize their development above yours, even and especially when their development involves evolving to the place where they view you as a human being. But I do mean to say that in this big toxic pond of oppression and inequality that we all live in, everybody needs a safe space to recover, because everybody is breathing in the sickness. The oppressed need a safe space where they can let loose all the negativity and anger and hatred that has built up about the privileged, without having to hear the privileged blather about how they're not really like that, and anyway have you thought about how hard it is for them? The privileged need a safe space where they can express their confusion and curiosity and ignorance and guilt and fear about the oppressed, without having to hear the oppressed tell them how hurtful, wrong, and unwell they are. And everybody needs to work to find those places at appropriate times, which is an ultimately rare event, because these are not objective issues that are routinely discussed in a robot-like fashion. These are issues that strike to the deepest core of all people, and so the amount of appropriate, thoughtful, and considerate work that gets done often seems more like an accident in the morass of emotional, frightened, angry, insensitive lashing out and withdrawing away.
Additionally, the privileged have very few role models. A basic feature of oppression is physical and cultural segregation. The privileged do not live or closely interact with the oppressed, or if they do, they have the privileges of defining the temporal, physical, and emotional boundaries of that “closeness”; i.e. “Our maid is just like one of the family! Why, no, we don't let her eat with us at the table. Why, yes, I do cry on her shoulder, but no, I don't know the names of her children.” The privileged live in a cultural environment that does not routinely depict the oppressed in any realistic or three-dimensional way. The oppressed are identified by their features of oppression: their subservience, their poverty, their uncanny ability to be the victims of violence more frequently.
What all this means is that the privileged are rarely in social situations in which they are required to voice their innermost feelings concerning the oppressed in any way that disturbs them, and they are even less likely to be in a social situation in which another individual does not share their opinions and is willing to disclose and discuss this.
I was thinking about my tremendous social anxiety. So much of it seems to be built on the fact that I don't have a realistic perception of mistakes and consequences. Growing up in abuse has taught me that mistakes are met with erratic, unpredictable, traumatic, unforgivable, and grossly disproportionate consequences. I've learned how to endure those consequences, and I've learned how to withdraw completely from social contact in order to avoid those consequences. I never learned a middle ground. I never learned that, 90% of the time, the worst that happens is your companion rolls their eyes at you, and you feel kind of dumb for a while. Even if I can intellectually understand that's what happens, my brain still hasn't created a synaptic pathway to process that. All social missteps immediately travel upon the more well-worn and familiar synaptic pathway of, “YOU FUCKED UP AND NOBODY WILL EVER LOVE YOU.”
I think the privileged experience something similar when it comes to discussing anything about the oppressed. Privileged people don't usually grow up with role models who help walk them through these difficult situations, who teach them that the worst consequences for saying something shitty are feeling embarrassed, guilty, angry, and afraid, and that these feelings will pass and become easier with time. I think for most privileged people, their first experiences with discussing the oppressed are ultimately traumatic and unprepared. Either another embarrassed privileged person shushes them with shame and nonsensical or non-viable explanations -- “We don't see race in this household” “But his skin is brown!” “Don't say that out loud!” -- or a rightfully angered oppressed person (who a person of privilege already has little experience understanding or interacting with) makes them feel as if they are a wrong, stupid, bad person for daring to speak out loud the stuff that “everybody knows.” Privileged people end up taking responsibility for their own segregation, taking action to segregate themselves further, because the perceived (erratic, unpredictable, traumatic, unforgivable, and grossly disproportionate) consequences for making a mistake are too high to risk. It takes a pretty big leap of faith, a lot of dedication, and quite possibly a mentor, to convince privileged people that there is a way to discuss oppression without being made to feel like the worst human beings on the face of the earth.
There's a flip side to that as well. A small story:
I talk REALLY loud. It's just a feature of my voice. I do not need microphones in auditoriums; my voice is literally booming. When I become anxious, my voice gets louder. Way too loud. Embarrassing to myself, obnoxious to others.
My dad and Flint picked on me mercilessly about this. My dad would demand that I speak quieter, which of course made me anxious, which made me louder. He would get angrier, because I was “intentionally disobeying” or “intentionally provoking” or “expressing how little you love me.” He'd threaten to go have me tested for deafness or retardation, and if I didn't test positive for either, he'd put me in a psyche ward for my psychotic failure to obey. Did I learn how to moderate my voice? No. I just learned how to stop talking entirely.
Flint was appropriately horrified at these stories (please note that all abusers are awfully horrified about the actions of some other abuser, who they are not like at all no sir), but then offered to “help” me. If I ever spoke loudly around him, no matter if we were with friends or in front of his family, he would make me stop and repeat myself, over and over, quieter and quieter, until I reached a volume that suited him. When I told him how humiliating that was, he said I needed that humiliation to motivate me. Who would I rather be humiliated in front of – him, or an employer at a job interview, who wouldn't hire me because I yelled like a child? Because, Harriet, nobody is going to hire you like this. Nobody's even going to want to talk to you.
Both Flint and my dad rationalized their abuse with the excuse that they were “helping” me. My dad was helping me learn how to obey rules, and Flint was helping me learn how to act like a grown-up. But really, what they were interested in was controlling my behavior for their own sense of power. When I told my bear the story of Flint and my voice, he remarked bitterly that Flint must've gotten a hard-on every time. That's a pretty succinct way of putting it. If you have power over how somebody speaks, whether they speak, what they are allowed to speak about, that's pretty excessive.
I was thinking about this, and thinking about discussions about oppression that go bad. It was hard not to see the parallels. If a person can be made to feel completely awful, like they are the worst and dumbest person alive, like they do not even know how to speak like a grown-up, the person who can make them feel that way has got to have a lot of power. The person who can dictate the ability of another person to speak out loud is a person exercising an excessive amount of control.
There are conversations about oppression that are meant to inform, share, and educate. There are consequences to mistakes in these discussions. A privileged person saying the wrong thing is likely to feel awfully shitty, and an oppressed person (or privileged person trying to identify with the oppressed viewpoint) may realize that they don't want to be having this discussion, that they have made the wrong choice between an attempt to change the world and their ever-diminishing internal resources. Those are mistakes without disproportionate consequences. They can be fixed. They can be gotten over.
Then there are conversations about oppression that are meant to shut everybody up. Conversations that aren't meant to establish the value of an idea, but the value of the person espousing the idea. And, by the same token, conversations that are meant to establish one idea as the “right” idea, and the person espousing the idea as the “right” one. And all those opposed are automatically wrong, and ought to shut up or repeat the “right” view over and over until the “right” person feels they've stated it correctly.
Since my blog has gotten popular, I've discovered this fascinating new thing. It's like ye old forms of battle: if you defeat the leader, you are the new leader. You acquire all goods the leader once had. You acquire all status, without having to actually work for it. Since the leader is the best of all the people, by transitive property, you are better than all the people, without having to fight them.
Before my blog was popular, nobody was coming here to argue with me. Granted, that's also because very few people were reading my blog at all. More people is going to equal more viewpoints, and I know that. But there have been a few comments (and more that I deleted outright) where I suspect the commenter is not coming here to discuss, dissect, educate, inform. I suspect they are coming here to say, “Gotcha!” Since I'm now (somehow) considered An Authority On Stuff, if somebody can come and defeat me in battle, they will now acquire the title of Authority Stuff Lady. They do not have to have a blog and work on posts, or engage in thoughtful and difficult discussions; they just have to find one thing I (possibly did or did not) say or do wrong, point it out, and then acquire my goods with a big fat smirk.
Please note, I am talking about very few commenters here, and you can probably guess who they are (if I let them comment at all). I am not saying that everybody who has ever disagreed with me on my blog is a smarmy little fuck. I think it's pretty obvious who the smarmy little fucks are, and it's not the people who are all like, “Hey! Point of interest, but I can't say I agree with how you said X. Have you considered Y?” It is the people who are all like, “Hey! You forgot to say Y. You are wrong. Wrong and ugly and cowardly because you will not admit that I am right.”
I guess I don't have much of a resolution to that. I guess I just wanted to say, I see what you did there, and yor doin' it wrong. Conversations about oppression are hard enough; “gotchas!” don't help anybody except yourself.
What I Did Wrong
I don't think I did something wrong or inappropriate by using the word vagina in that post. As I tried (somewhat clumsily) in this post to elaborate, I can only speak from my perspective. All these posts are from my perspective. And my perspective is cis.
That wasn't something that needed much elaborating when this was the functional equivalent of a livejournal with three visitors a day. It's not that anymore. Now it's a blog that is apparently meaning some things to some people, which thrusts me into a spokesperson role that I was not prepared for, and still am not. It requires much more thoughtfulness and consideration in what I share, which wasn't ever the purpose of this blog, though it's a purpose I think I'm willing to give a go.
One of the things I realized I needed to make clearer was my position on speaking from outside of my perspective. I am not trans. I don't know any (out) trans people. I have a vague knowledge of trans stuff (is there a better phrase for trans stuff?) from the couple of units I got in college. That maybe puts me a step above Joe Schmoe, but not much farther. Trans stuff is something I am always feeling I ought to learn more about, but it falls under that large umbrella of the five million other people, cultures, ideas, histories that I am always feeling I should learn more about. In the meantime, until I have made an effort to acquire more knowledge and familiarity, I feel that talking about trans issues is really arrogant and privileged of me. I don't know shit about what it's like to be trans. I'm sure there are many similarities that I could identify with. I'm sure there are just as many things I will never fully get with my current life experience. Because of that, I'm not willing to modify my posts to be “inclusive,” because I don't feel they really will be. To me, “inclusive” requires “informed.” I can change my pronouns, but that's just window dressing; it doesn't mean I'm actually saying anything that pertains to trans.
Talking about the post in question, do rapists targeting trans women target them under the impression that they are cis, and thus have vaginas? Probably some do. Do rapists who target trans women target them because they identify them as trans? Probably some do. What happens when a rapist discovers their trans victim doesn't have a vagina, or has a vagina they didn't expect? What happens if a rapist doesn't discover anything? That's something I know nothing about. I can guess, but it would only be a guess, a guess from a very high peak of privilege. I don't want to write about the experiences of trans women. I am going to get it woefully wrong, and I don't want to take the words out of the mouths of trans women.
So, I don't think I did anything wrong using the word “vagina” in that post.
My big privileged misstep was in not realizing, not identifying, not even consciously noticing, that I was only talking about cis women. In my mind, writing that post, trans women didn't exist. It wasn't that I thought of them, decided I couldn't adequately write about their experiences, and made a conscious choice to focus on cis women. They just didn't exist. That's a blind spot, and blind spots, as always, exist only within privilege.
A few years ago, my bear announced to me that he was no longer comfortable with the word 'bitch,” not in any context. I didn't have a problem with the word. I was pretty much on the, “Oh, that's totally been reclaimed,” boat. But, out of respect for my bear, I made an effort to stop using it.
I never realized how many people, things, and attitudes I described as “bitch” until I had to make a conscious effort to use another word. I never realized how many people, things, and attitudes I described as “obnoxious and female at the same fucking time” until I realized there really wasn't any other word for what I was trying to say. I didn't just mean “whining” or “shitty mean lady” or "wimpy boy"; I wanted to describe these things in a special, specific way that had an extra punch of ugly. Accurately describing these things didn't do my anger justice, which made me realize that "bitch" did. It has been ridiculously difficult to stop using the word “bitch,” and ridiculously apparent how often it's used by other people and media outlets, which has made me re-examine just how “reclaimed” or inoffensive it really is.
Something similar happened here. Once it was pointed out that I had, completely unconsciously, erased the existence of trans people, I started to notice just how often I do that. I started to notice just how many of my posts are exclusively about cis women, yet were written with no thought to that exclusivity. Again, I don't think there's anything wrong with me writing exclusively about cis women, but if I had identified that these posts were cis-exclusive, or at least knew that in my own head, even if I forgot to announce it, this wouldn't be something I have to admit is a mistake, an oppressive misstep. But neither of those conditions were true. I didn't identify the posts as cis-exclusive, because I didn't even remember that trans people existed in any way, shape, or form that required me to consider them.
So, my apologies. Thanks for pointing it out, and thanks for bearing with me as I sort it out. I am still opposed to editing my past posts, because I do not like erasing my mistakes. But I will certainly make a better effort in the future to recognize my exclusivity, and own it, and announce it.