Sunday, June 14, 2020

On Trans Shitposting and Cancel Culture: Applying ContraPoints to J.K. Rowling

I was going to just ignore all this, but it came up in a discussion on my social media feed, so here's the thing:

Free speech is absolutely vital in a democracy, especially the freedom to question and criticize elites: people who craft the laws or, maybe more importantly, who provoke the dominant belief system through their pronounced effect on the zeitgeist. You know, like J.K. Rowling.

There is some concern that Rowling has been unfairly dismissed by the dreaded cancel culture since her most recent explanation of her position on the transgender population is very articulate, as if being articulate makes for a solid argument. This illuminates a serious problem in our society: many people don't know how to recognize and counter a bad argument. We're running on the notion that, if it feels like it makes sense, then it must. Nope.

Last January, YouTuber Natalie Wynn was also denigrated online. In a feature length video, she explains cancel culture as, "online shaming, vilifying or ostracizing prominent members of a community". It's a vigilante strategy to topple people in power who can't be held to account in any other way, which can morph into an absolute reign of terror against the person instead of their argument. It's "character assassination disguised by the rhetoric of honest conflict." The collective has terrifying powers that they don't realize as individuals. And we all know what comes with great power.

It doesn't further society when the goal is no longer to reach a better understanding between people, but to destroy people. Instead, we need to take the most charitable understanding of Rowling's claims and scrutinize them for weak reasoning:

Rowling: "Last December I tweeted my support for Maya Forstater, a tax specialist who'd lost her job for what were deemed 'transphobic' tweets."

Like Rowling, Wynn was outcast by association. They both supported someone else deemed offensive. It's a problem when we're forced to take sides on issues to the point of choosing between friends, as if we can't associate with people if we have a conflict. Some think that if we don't burn our Harry Potter books, that it somehow makes us transphobic, but that attitude doesn't get us anywhere useful. Each of us is greater than the sum of our worst tweets, and sometimes part of that support or connection with an offending party can be an ongoing but careful questioning of some of their beliefs.

This is an addendum to James Baldwin's Robert Jones Jr. famous words: "We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist." We can't just agree to have different opinions when one person's views erase others as valuable human beings. But it can be beneficial to try to learn the story of people who have problematic views instead of ostracizing them. As Wynn explains, sometimes they just need a nonjudgmental space to learn and think. We can criticize the ideas but leave the person intact. At this point, I'm sympathetic to Rowling. But then she goes on!

Rowling: "A lot of people in positions of power really need to grow a pair (which is doubtless literally possible, according to the kind of people who argue that clownfish prove humans aren't a dimorphic species)."

This line appears to suggest that it's ridiculous to recognize the fluidity of gender, as it can only be done if we make a false equivalence with a very distantly related species. This is just a show of plain ignorance. A top ranked scientific journal, Nature, explains
"The research and medical community now sees sex as more complex than male and female. . . . The idea that science can make definitive conclusions about a person's sex or gender is fundamentally flawed. . . . Political attempts to pigeonhole people have nothing to do with science and everything to do with stripping away rights and recognition from those whose identity does not correspond with outdated ideas of sex and gender." 
One study found "brain structure and activity patterns in adolescent transgender individuals more closely resembles that typical of their desired gender." And then there's the three-year-old Facebook post from biology teacher, Grace Ann, who mentions clownfish before explaining humans:
"You can be male because you were born female, but you have 5-alphareductase deficiency and so you grew a penis at age 12. You can be female because you have an X and a Y chromosome but you are insensitive to androgens, and so you have a female body. You can be female because you have an X and a Y chromosome but your Y is missing the SRY gene, and so you have a female body. You can be male because you have two X chromosomes, but one of your X's HAS an SRY gene, and so you have a male body. You can be male because you have two X chromosomes- but also a Y. You can be female because you have only one X chromosome at all. And you can be male because you have two X chromosomes, but your heart and brain are male. And vice - effing - versa. Don't use science to justify your bigotry. The world is way too weird for that shit."
Rowling leaves the humour aside as she lists more specific concerns:

Rowling: "I also fund medical research into MS, a disease that behaves very differently in men and women. . . . [trans activism] is pushing to erode the legal definition of sex and replace it with gender."

This is a slippery slope fallacy, suggesting that if we acknowledge individuals as their expressed identity it will lead to the dissolution of the biological ends of the continuum. That's right up there with the concern that if we allow same sex marriage, soon people will want to marry their cat or a pair of shoes. She needn't worry about medical records. People who have transitioned can still confidentially let medical staff know about their background and any meds they're taking, just like anyone else does when they visit a doctor.

Rowling: "Some say they decided to transition after realising they were same-sex attracted, and that transitioning was partly driven by homophobia, either in society or in their families. . . . I'm also aware through extensive research that studies have consistently shown that between 60-90% of gender dysphoric teens will grow out of their dysphoria."

There is a bit of validity to this concern. I always preferred all things boy-related and had a buzz cut to add to that leaning. But I also had parents who advocated a "march to your own drummer" stance. So I never questioned that there was anything wrong with me, and it didn't provoke a concern with my body, even though it soon became apparent that there was something very narrow-minded about many other people in my grade school (students and adults alike). But it's possible, and concerning, that there are some kids who might feel they don't fit with their gender from birth because they have interests that run counter to gender stereotypes. If dad can't understand why his son loves playing with dolls, then that "trans" label and subsequent change might seem to settle things, except that it addresses the wrong end of the problem!

There is also validity to the worry that it feels necessary to self-censor this view. It takes a bit of courage to concede, and the fact that I'm wary about showing any agreement with Rowling means that this cancel culture is effective.

Would there be fewer people who come out as trans if there weren't still such a clear stereotype of masculine and feminine norms? Possibly. However, it's not up to the masses or lawmakers to figure this out for specific individuals.

And, despite her "extensive research," there is some question around the validity of those detransitioning studies:
"The methodology of those studies is very flawed, because they didn't study gender identity. . . . Those desistors were, a good majority of them, simply proto-gay boys whose parents were upset because they were boys wearing dresses. . . . The researchers defined anyone who did not return to their clinic as desisting. . . . You can't just assume somebody is in a category because you don't see them anymore." 
Overall, though, this concern about potential regret just means that families should be encouraged to talk to a specialist and do some research before beginning transitioning, which already happens!! Even if we regret a decision, it's not to say the decision about our body shouldn't be entirely ours to make regardless. Some women regret having an abortion, but we still need abortion to be a decision made entirely by the women considering the procedure, even for young teens.

Rowling: "Moreover, the 'inclusive' language that calls female people 'menstruators'. . . strikes many women as dehumanising and demeaning."

Rowling misses the point entirely by suggesting 'female people' are referred to by this one aspect of themselves. It's a specific term that intentionally excludes many 'female people' who don't menstruate for a variety of reasons, and it includes the trans men who do have periods. It's not a demeaning term; it's just a more specific term sometimes used when being specific is appropriate, like in celebration of World Menstruation Day.

Rowling: "I've read all the arguments about femaleness not residing in the sexed body, and the assertions that biological women don't have common experiences, and I find them, too, deeply misogynistic. . . . One of the objectives of denying the importance of sex is to erode what some seem to see as the cruelly segregationist idea of women having their own biological realities--just as threatening--unifying realities that make them a cohesive political class."

Rowling seems to be stuck in a false dichotomy: either we promote women or we promote trans rights, but, for some reason, she can't see the ability to do both. I haven't heard of the idea that we need to deny the effect of sex on the body, and the fact that many people go to great lengths because they want to embody the sex that they experience because, for some, they recognize that experience as fundamentally different, seems to suggest the antithesis of Rowling's claim.

As a cancer survivor who, with no regard for my personal identity, lost all female gonads, breasts, and hormones in an afternoon, I haven't found it to be nearly as different as I expected. Because I still look female enough, I am treated as female, which does significantly affect how I feel about myself.

But the assumption that, because I'm female, then I have similar experiences or feelings as all females everywhere, might help Rowling feel more connected, but it just doesn't make sense. That's four billion people being lumped together. Some things are similar and some things aren't, just like any other group affiliation. Not all women have the same lived experience, but enough do that we can regale each other with stories of childbirth (which leaves out the childfree by choice and by misfortune), or complain about menstruation (which leaves out women who don't menstruate), or express frustration with our partners (which leaves out single women), or shop for bras (which leaves out the unharnessed). There are far, far too many differences from one woman to another to ever really talk about one shared lived experience, but we can still find some commonalities among any small group of human beings.

Furthermore, when it comes to being a cohesive political class, I will fight to make sure all women have reproductive freedoms and access to education. Wherever people are preventing rights and freedoms based on any random feature, we can get together to fight. I also support BLM and Indigenous rights even though I'm not part of their "political class." We don't have to have a similar body from birth to get on board with civil rights!

Rowling: "I want trans women to be safe. At the same time, I do not want to make natal girls and women less safe. When you throw open the doors of bathrooms and changing rooms to any man who believes or feels he's a woman--and, as I've said, gender confirmation certificates may now be granted without any need for surgery or hormones--then you open the door to any and all men who wish to come inside. . . . I was finding it hard to contain my anger and disappointment about the way I believe my government is playing fast and loose with womens and girls' safety. . . . offering cover to predators."

Oh my goodness.

What's with people's weird fixation on what goes on when a trans woman goes to the bathroom?? I don't have stats, but I imagine trans men and women are harassed in bathrooms far more often than women are being sexually assaulted, very specifically, by men posing as trans women as a newfangled sneaky way of getting access. And if she really wants trans women to use the men's bathroom, does that mean she wants trans men in the women's bathroom??

If we want to make sure all women are safe, then it makes more sense to work to increase the consequences around sexual harassment, abuse, and assault instead of focusing on the very rare possibility of a man disguising himself as a trans woman for the sole purpose of attacking women in bathrooms. It's like suggesting we have to eradicate bushes because a rapist might use one to hide behind. It will do nothing to reduce the incidents of sexual assault and, at the same time, it makes life increasingly difficult for trans women. It's a lose-lose proposition.

Rowling: "All I'm asking--all I want--is for similar empathy, similar understanding, to be extended to the millions of women whose sole crime is wanting their concerns to be heard without receiving threats and abuse."

Threats and abuse, definitely. We've got to get better at talking with each other. Sometimes a takedown is necessary, and "abuse" is a slippery term that, to some people, sometimes just means "anything that offends me." Some of the claims Rowling makes need to be corrected, and some of that correction might feel uncomfortable. But death threats and attacks on her as a person or even on her writing are above and beyond any reasonable takedown of her argument.

But the rest of her final words are a problem. Imagine if she had been talking about the concerns she has with rights around a specific race or religion. Asking to be heard, in that framing, is offensive. It's suggesting, All I'm asking is for you to see how problematic trans rights are!! And that's a problem.

Beyond the main concerns, she details the horrors of having lived through an abusive relationship, which I am empathetic to, but it's an odd appeal to pity within the context of her argument. And, throughout the piece, she mentions her view being most popular and having lots of followers and agreement on her side, using an appeal to consensus that typically serves to further the dominant class at the expense of minorities. I hope she's wrong on this point, that she's not in the majority on this one. But if she is, then she's still wrong.

ETA: This excellent article by Jonathon Cook explaining the varied motivations for that letter in Harpers, signed by Rowling and a host of others, which later made some uncomfortable with the company they were keeping!


Anonymous said...

One of the hardest parts about being a caring adult, is knowing when to step in and help people who have serious problems.

It's interesting how both you and Rowling ignore the troubling currents of homophobia that underpin so much of the radical trans agenda, and perhaps more weirdly - as one of you is an author, and the other a teacher - how neither of you address society's need for logical language.

Why exactly can't trans people be trans - isn't that why the T is in LGBT ?

Marie Snyder said...

Sorry - your comment was stuck in my spam folder for a while.

I address the homophobia in the section with this line, "If dad can't understand why his son loves playing with dolls, then that "trans" label and subsequent change might seem to settle things, except that it addresses the wrong end of the problem!" Absolutely it's a problem if people transition just to try to normalize their preferences in the face of homophobic parents or society at large.

As for language, I refer to people however they prefer. So if someone identifies as a trans woman, I'll use that terminology. But if they much prefer to be referred to as a woman, then I go with that. In my personal experience with people I've met who are trans, they tend to prefer to be called male or female, to identify with the gender that's representative of themselves than with the transition itself. But, of course, that's not everybody's experience. It's very much a case-by-case basis.