Jul 16, 2020

Some sort-of answers to a difficult question

I've been really sad and depressed about social media and online discourse recently. It has felt increasingly as if in the winner-takes-all attention economy of Twitter, any attempt to think or talk in anything but the argot of the dunk and the pile-on is just pointless: dissipated into the void, unremarked. It's like yelling into the abyss, except the abyss turns around and calls you a bigot.

But this afternoon something happened which made me remember what Twitter has going for it, and why however miserable it becomes I'm probably stuck there until it eventually collapses under the weight of its own financially non-viable business model: I saw a tweet that made me think. Like, really think. To where I wasn't satisfied with just reaching for the stock response to This Kind Of Tweet (of which there is a vast and ominously prescriptive lexicon by now), but kept thinking well, it's this - but also it's partly that, and then of course there's the other... And I'm grateful for the opportunity to think like that, because it's released something which either the pandemic or the political situation or both have had bunged up inside me like a bad case of constipation.

Anyway. Here is the tweet with the question that made me think, and below are what I think are possible answers to the question:

A sort-of answer No. 1:

It's about epistemological safety: it is comparatively easy to find out how an individual person wishes to be spoken about – you just have to ask them. Regardless of their pronoun preferences, the speaker can feel safe that they are not offending them by using those. Whereas with large groups, or entire populations, like women, the answer is basically unknowable. You can’t ask all women whether or not they find the term ‘cis’ offensive – for one thing most of them would probably respond with a confused ‘huh?’, but for another, there is a lot of very serious disagreement among women on this topic. So anyone claiming to know for sure whether women as a whole find the term welcome or alienating is going to pretty quickly get themselves into hot water, and find themselves having to discuss instead the substantive issue of gender identity, whether it is universal, how it operates, what obligations it places upon us etc. That is not comfortable ground for the sort of person who by using preferred pronouns and deploying the term ‘cis’ are essentially signalling their complete allegiance to one side of that debate (or, to use the language current in those political milieus, is in fact claiming that there can be no debate to begin with).

A sort-of answer No. 2:

It's because of sexism: most of the people who are called cis and most of the people who strongly object to being so called are women. As I have written before, the issue of naming and categorising women is not a mere formality but a profound, foundational element of the patriarchal construction of women as lacking autonomous subjectivity. Where I think we get a good example that it’s not really about the ‘what’ (pronouns, ‘cis’), but about the ‘who’, is the very common occurrence of gender nonconforming women, especially lesbians, having either male or plural pronouns applied to them, regardless of how they say they prefer to be spoken about. In fact I know of anecdotal cases within my acquaintance of lesbians being berated for strongly asserting their preference to being seen and referred to as women. Partly this is because the assertion of this kind of preference by a female person is seen as threatening to the patriarchal assumptions underlying most political interactions even inside feminism, but partly it’s also about the next point, which is:

A sort-of answer No. 3:

It's an expression of people's prior ideological commitments: people who use this sort of language are adherents of a pretty comprehensive ideological view. It encompasses a really broad spectrum of ideas and beliefs people have about themselves, and when spelled out is actually pretty worrying in its presumptions. This ideology, which I haven’t seen described in anything but quite derisive ways that don’t take it seriously, actually has really noble aims: it’s about equality, justice, restitution, respect. And they’re all aims that liberalism, on the surface shares, and Marxism at least respects as existing alongside the class struggle, but which both ideologies have just completely failed to deliver. So it’s actually not unreasonable to look at the mess that was the 20th century and think: “you know what, this is not primarily about liberty and not primarily about the economy. We get the bad  outcomes of liberty only for some, and of an economy that only delivers results for a minority of people, all in spite of the ambitions of liberalism and Marxism. And it makes sense to attribute those failures and those perverse outcomes to something that’s really inherent to people, something deep in human nature that just exists and the only way of getting better outcomes is to grapple with those deep things and get them out into the open”. 

I’m not unsympathetic to these impulses, but there is a runaway element to the investigation which I think is not being grappled with. We are piling up identities, everyone fragmenting into further and further pieces of what constitutes their real self, like Voldemort creating horcruxes: I am a woman, and I feel my Jewishness in a way that’s quite salient to me, but these days I’m supposed to also think of myself as cis, and as white, and as an immigrant, and as heterosexual, and as employed, and as childless (or child free, depending who you listen to – and if you think the cis wars are gruesome, you haven’t seen anything), and as having a class (probably middle), and as Israeli or British or Russian depending on which part the person prodding for an answer is most curious about, and as a Karen, and frankly I don’t even know what else but I am not in control of the list and therefore no longer in control of my sense of self. And again, I’m someone who, as a feminist, a believer in the political salience of sex, is quite sympathetic to the political aims of the ideology that got us to this dead end. 

Or maybe the correct metaphor is not a dead end or a dead drop, but a vast river delta: a diffuse and shifting vastness of rivulets, pools and sandbanks that dissipates almost imperceptibly into the sea without there being a clear sense of arrival, of completion. That political wetland isn’t just ineffectual, it’s also really scary to a lot of people who refuse to subscribe to the ideology and therefore its aims for that reason. And the people who do subscribe to us get very angry, because if you don’t agree with them then surely you must be against justice, against diversity, against wellbeing and flourishing and acceptance for all. Which is why they insist that when you refuse to use one of the linguistic tokens of the broader ideology, that must make you a bad and bigoted person, where when they themselves use those linguistic tokens overzealously or wantonly or against people’s stated wishes, then that’s probably mostly OK, because they are doing it out of good motives, and their ultimate intentions are positive.


So I think if you sat down and really talked honestly and with complete empathy and authenticity to people, these are the kinds of things you would come up with. I think only the middle one - unacknowledged sexism - is completely bad. Both the standpoint theory claim of believing people about their own experiences and the identitiarian progressivism claim of solving political conflicts by bottoming out on who people really are come from a completely good place that I respect. 

But I still fucking hate being called 'cis'.