tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
So far, the responses to my article "Killing the Messenger at Mozilla" on Model View Culture have been almost completely positive. (That's almost a bit disappointing, because if no one gets shirty about it, then I worry that I haven't done my job.)

But there's one response that may superficially seem compelling. I thought about addressing it in the article, but ended up leaving it out for space reasons and because I felt like I, and others, had talked about it over and over, and that at this point, if someone is still using this argument, they are simply not listening. I'm an eternal optimist, though, so I want to summarize my thoughts on it one more time. The tl;dr version is that concern over "forcing the resignations of CEOs over political donations" is a red herring. The concern is not really about political donations, but about forcing the resignations of CEOs over the kinds of political donations that white heterosexual cis men tend to make -- thus, the concern is really about excluding people in that narrow social clique of folks who have always taken for granted that they will be included in any space they want to be in.

Who pays for free speech?

A representative example of the argument is:

"...but I remain unconvinced that we really want to force the resignations of CEOs over political donations." -- Jason Pontin

(I'm picking this tweet for concreteness, not out of a desire to portray Pontin's specific comment as uniquely heinous.)

It makes me viscerally angry that this is still a tenable response to critiquing putting bigots in charge of public interest organizations. I think it makes me so angry because it's so disingenuous. Literally nobody believes that there is never an occasion when a CEO could make a political donation that is incompatible with the mission of their company or organization. The debate is about which donations are acceptable, and it frustrates me to no end that folks make such an absolutist, obviously shallow argument to avoid confronting the real issue.

The hidden assumption is that public spaces belong to heterosexual men. Everyone else dwells in public spaces at the pleasure of heterosexual men. Therefore, to exclude a heterosexual man from such a space -- especially from a leadership position! -- requires far more basis than excluding anybody else.

I want to be absolutely clear that I don't think this response is quite the same response as the even shallower (but still popular) "Everybody has the right to do and say whatever they want and keep their jobs, because free speech." This response has been addressed exhaustively (see Valerie Aurora's "What Free Speech Really Means" for just one example), far beyond what the time and effort it deserves.

The question "do we really want to drive someone out because of a different opinion?" is different because rather than appealing to shady constructions of individual rights, it raises a question about the public good. Latent in the question is the liberal (with a small 'l') notion that diversity of ideas is always a good thing. Subscribers to this, the liberal viewpoint, say that if we merely include people with a variety of ideas and opinions in our community, the best outcome will naturally happen rather than if we made any intentional effort to actually make a variety of people feel safe in that community.

Donations, by the way, are definitely speech. A political donation is political speech, and as such, is necessarily public. Don't trust me on that one -- just ask the Supreme Court. Donating money is absolutely a form of speech, and as such, should be assessed in the same way as other kinds of public speech would be.

But what about the "public" part? There is a very good reason why political donations are public. It's not, as some have suggested, a procedural accident that means Eich's donation record should be politely ignored. The privilege of privately donating money to influence the political process and thereby affect the public is inseparable from corruption. Put another way, if you are going to interfere with my life, you don't get to keep your own identity a secret from me while doing so -- if you want privacy, you always have the option of not interfering with my life. Given that I can't opt out of a law preventing me from marrying, it's only fair that the people who underwrote that law can't opt out of me knowing who they are.

While it's a bit more sophisticated than "but free speech?", "do we really want to drive someone out because of a different opinion?" is still the wrong question. I think a better question is, "Is a man who paid money to run advertisements insinuating that dozens of his employees rape children, not because they have actually done so but because they have queer relationships with adults, someone who is well-equipped to carry out the mission of his company?" Details matter.

Not only is it the wrong question, it implies a false equivalence. The subtext here (made much more explicit by various voices online) is that anti-queer bullying -- including bullying backed up with the full power of the state, such as the ultimately-unsuccessful effort to make Proposition 8 law in California -- is exactly the same thing as fighting back against that bullying. "You're just as bad as they are!", say these voices, shaming queer folks with the suggestion that we deserve no empathy, compassion or tolerance because our defiance of oppression makes us exactly like our oppressors.

Not only is it the wrong question, it's misleading, and it's hard to believe that it's not deliberately misleading. While Pontin's question explicitly refers only to donations rather than opinions or beliefs, it's hard to understand it except via an appeal to (once again) the liberal notion of diversity of ideas and tolerance for all ideas (including ideas that would, if broadly adopted, destroy liberalism). Without some belief in the inherent value of diversity of opinion, it would be hard to understand why someone shouldn't be held to account for their political donations. The statement "but I remain unconvinced that we really want to force the resignations of CEOs over their actions" would plainly be absurd. And there is no special reason to grant immunity to the act of paying other people to do things, other than (perhaps) desire to give rich people an additional way to do wrong without accountability. If there was, contract killing would be less harshly punished than any other form of murder. We're talking about actions, not ideas.

People keep talking about how Brendan Eich shouldn't have been held accountable for his views about "homosexuals", or his views about "traditional marriage", in one breath, and in the next breath about how his donation doesn't reveal anything about his views about "homosexuals" or marriage. You can't have it both ways. In point of fact, I agree with Eich's defenders about one thing: we don't know anything about Eich's views on queer people, marriage, or anything else pertaining to Proposition 8. We only know about his actions, which can and should be judged in their own right. If the conversation we're having was about Eich's "private" beliefs, we wouldn't be having it, because we wouldn't know anything about those beliefs! That's the definition of "private", after all.

If we take it as a given that the conversation is about actions rather than beliefs, the question remains of how to evaluate Eich's actions. Here are some concrete effects that the campaign for Proposition 8 had:

  • It caused more people to think that queer people are more likely to abuse children than heterosexuals are (actually, the opposite is true), and/or strengthened their existing misconceptions to that effect.
  • It provided further moral legitimacy to those who terrorize queer youth (and queer adults) with physical and verbal violence.
  • It contributed to the levels of fear and stress experienced by queer people, especially young queer people. The copious deleterious physical and emotional effects of chronic stress are well-documented.
  • It incited kids and teenagers to bully their peers whose parents are queer.

Here are some concrete effects that the campaign did not have:

  • It did not strengthen marriages between heterosexual men and heterosexual women. (As far as I know, the divorce rates are still where they were before.)
  • It did not result in the passage of the legislation it purported to pass.

The second point is worth dwelling on. Proposition 8 proposed an unconstitutional law. There was nothing particularly subtle about this. In his Perry v. Brown decision, Judge Vaughn Walker noted the absolute vacuity of all the arguments that were presented in favor of the proposition's constitutionality. If the case was Prop. 8 supporters' best effort to show that the state of California had a compelling interest in regulating intimate relationships, they failed spectacularly. It's hard to imagine that they didn't see that coming. I'm sure many people who voted for and financially supported Prop. 8 believed it would be feasible to make it the law of the land, but I think the folks who campaigned hardest for it were probably bright enough to realize it was doomed. It's hard to imagine that in their minds, the expected value of sneaking an unconstitutional law through the legislative process exceeded the expected value of conducting a smear campaign against members of gender, romantic, and sexual minorities.

It frustrates me that the folks saying things like what Pontin said refuse to own up to what the vague language of "political donations" actually refers to here: violence. This is not hyperbole -- according to the World Health Organization, violence is

"the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation." -- WHO Violence Prevention Alliance

As per the WHO's typology of violence, political donations like the ones made in support of Prop. 8 fall under the category of "collective violence": "violence committed by larger groups of individuals and can be subdivided into social, political and economic violence."

Let's try rephrasing that comment yet again:

"...but I remain unconvinced that we really want to force the resignations of CEOs over violence."

I'm not going to say that no one would sincerely make this statement -- after all, many people leapt to the defense of Scott Kveton, who was (at most) obliged to take a leap of absence. But it's harder to defend than the initial formulation. If you want to argue about whether or not it's really violence to fund a propaganda campaign aimed at encouraging scapegoating of a vulnerable minority group, I guess you can. It would at least beat disingenuously claiming that everybody should find any political activity their supervisor undertakes to be acceptable.

I do think it's difficult for some people to understand the difference between "differences of opinion" and violence aimed at a vulnerable minority group. If you have ever been in a vulnerable minority group, you know the difference. I've been over this before in "A Problem With Equality".

What if I want something that hasn't got spam in it?

As I also wrote about in "A Problem With Equality", some points of view have the effect of dominating discourse and making it hard or impossible for other points of view to flourish.

An analogy is weeding a garden: even people who love plants need to get rid of plants that use a disproportionate share of space. While there's nothing wrong with letting your front yard grow wild (so long as you aren't subject to an HOA's rules, anyway), you will probably have fewer different species of plants as a result than you would if you pulled weeds and made a deliberate effort to plant many different kinds of flowers. Likewise, people responsible for parks and open spaces make an effort to reduce or eliminate the share of resources taken up by invasive species. This isn't because they want less diversity of plant species -- it's because they want more diversity of plant species.

Ideas are like that too. If you believe that all opinions are worth listening to, I suggest that you try turning off your email program's spam filter for a week and see if you can still conduct your professional and personal life. In truth, no one believes that all opinions are equally desirable. If this was really a widely accepted truth, your city or town hall would be covered in Lyndon LaRouche flyers, you wouldn't be able to attend a conferences without someone standing up during the question and answer period to talk about chemtrails, and you would say "yes" whenever a street canvasser asks whether you have a moment to spare for the environment. The world would be a very different place. It's not just that everyone has their own set of preferences for which opinions they listen to, tolerate, or detest. It's also that everybody recognizes that the presence of some kinds of speech makes the metaphorical garden of ideas less diverse, not more, just as invasive plants make literal gardens less diverse. It's why we have spam filters, the do-not-call list, and "No Soliciting" signs. If we didn't have these things, we wouldn't have any time to develop our own ideas -- we'd be too busy listening to people trying to sell us something.

Given that the supposed goal of anti-queer activism is to make everybody heterosexual, I think the analogy with invasive species is apt. At least Scotch broom doesn't try to turn other plants into Scotch broom besides just taking away their room to grow! Really, though, I think most anti-queer activists probably know that other people's sexuality is non-negotiable, and merely seek to make queer people's lives as difficult as possible.

It's hard to grow and thrive when people around you are telling you that you should change fundamental aspects of your self or that you don't belong in your community because of those fundamental traits. It's especially difficult when those people are your managers or the heads of your company. Given the choice, you might just choose to go to a company where your managers and executives won't say those things. If they're not telling you those things directly, merely making it a matter of public record that they want your life to be harder than it is, that's not necessarily any easier to tolerate. Even if bigotry-underwriting CEOs are always nice to you to your face, never treat you in a way that's obviously unfair, their presence corrodes your ability to trust the fairness of your organization's decision-making processes. In an environment of fairness, you can be sure that if your manager criticizes your performance, it's because they think you need to work on improving something. When your leaders' support for bigotry is on the public record, it's impossible to be free from the nagging question of whether it's really about your work, or the fact that somebody up there wishes you didn't exist.

Different goals, not different tactics

Returning to Pontin's words, "...we really want to..." raises the question of who "we" are and what we want. Perhaps he and I just want different things.

I want to encourage diversity of opinion, and tactically, I would advise anyone else who wants the same thing to make a specific effort to include points of view that usually get marginalized. The points of view that enjoy majority endorsement will take care of themselves. Of course, other people might not want what I want. But I don't think it's so controversial that all other things being equal, a public organization should strive to encourage diversity of opinion within their ranks -- indeed, this is exactly what many of Eich's defenders have said.

So if we assume for the sake of argument that we all want to encourage diversity of opinion, how are we to go about doing so -- concretely, in the organizations where we work or volunteer? One approach is the laissez-faire method: just let it all hang out. But if you've ever attended a meeting without a moderator, you know that approach doesn't work. The people who can yell the loudest will get heard, leaving everybody else to fight just to get a word in.

Another approach is to maintain a social contract that explicitly calls out inclusion. It's best when such a contract is explicit rather than implicit, because it's not fair to expect people to follow rules they don't know about. I think this is a better approach than the laissez-faire approach, because having explicit policies makes it possible for everyone to be heard, not just those who can yell the loudest and longest. Part of such a social contract can be the expectation that people will refrain from public speech that has a chilling effect on the free speech of others -- particularly on the speech of those who are most vulnerable to oppression, since protecting the free speech of people who are politically powerful is superfluous. Sometimes these contracts are called codes of conduct.

Another thing that's very frustrating about the "do we really want to drive out a person for? ..." approach is that it mistakes a difference of opinion about goals for a difference of opinion about tactics. I don't think someone asking this question has the same goals as I do. I can only conclude that they have the goal of making corporations safe places for people who have any opinions that a white heterosexual man would be likely to have, while I have the goal of making them safe places for everybody who is willing to work respectfully with others. It's easy for other heterosexual men to defend Eich because they can imagine themselves being in his shoes, but can't imagine what it's like to be a queer person in a heterosexual world. I realize that it's easier for someone who looks a lot like Eich to imagine no longer being welcome in their job because the world has made progress that they haven't caught up with than it is for them to imagine dealing with the daily microaggressions that come with being part of a minority group. But it's still frustrating for me that they refuse to even try to take another point of view, given how much time I have to spend taking their point of view just so I can survive.

False equivalences

"It's important to be able to work with people who you disagree with." I can't count the number of times this has been said about the Eich crisis, and it's closely related to the idea that we don't really want to force the resignations of CEOs over political donations. It's smarmy, condescending, and erases power imbalances.

It is condescending to tell me I need to be able to work with people I disagree with when if I refused to work with people I disagree with, I would immediately be unemployed and, shortly afterward, bankrupt. Working with people we disagree with is a necessary survival skill for those of us whose basic humanity is still up for debate. Not only do we have to work with people we disagree with -- we have to work with people who disagree with us about whether we're people, about whether we're capable of telling the truth about our own subjective experiences. The smarmy folks talking down to us about how we need to be able to tolerate differences will never have to experience that.

It also erases power imbalances to implore us to "work with people [we] disagree with" -- the recasting of structural violence as "disagreement" implies falsely that a queer person who says "no, really, I'm telling the truth when I say I love my partner just as much as you love your spouse" to a heterosexual person has equal power -- is accorded as much respect and credence -- as a heterosexual person who says "gay people's relationships are just about sex, not love". There is a difference between supervising employees who vote Democratic when you vote Republican, and having a boss who (or knowing that someone at the top of your reporting chain) has taken specific action to take away your civil rights.

It is not just outright speech or actions towards the goal of eliminating queer people that hurts us (and when I say "us", I mean everybody, because an environment that tolerates eliminating a group of people because of a non-negotiable trait diminishes everybody's dignity). For many of us, it's insulting as heck when people claim to agree with us, but nonetheless go to the mat for the conviction that whether or not queer people are people should be subject to debate, should be hashed out in the free marketplace if ideas. It is hurtful when someone who claims to be my ally is more interested in fostering open dialogue about the pros and cons of accepting that I'm human than they are in showing solidarity with me.

To say that 'queers are subhuman' is a valuable perspective that improves a community is, itself, an act of rhetorical violence against queer people.

Ethical Culture Fit?

The last reason why I think it's disingenuous to treat "forcing someone to resign over political donations" as an outrage is that in Silicon Valley, people literally get fired (and I mean fired, not voluntarily resigning in order to cease hurting your organization, despite being implored by the organization's other leaders to stay on) -- or constructively dismissed, or rejected for jobs -- for having "different views" ALL THE TIME. This phenomenon is usually called "culture fit". In principle, there's nothing wrong with it, except that a very narrow culture tends to dominate and it's hard for the majority who don't fit with that culture to be in tech.

But if there's nothing wrong with "culture fit" hiring, there's certainly nothing wrong with a person recognizing that his views make him a poor fit with a culture that has changed while he has not, and voluntarily exiting. While I don't think that's exactly what happened with Eich leaving Mozilla, in principle, if an organization has a culture that supports queer people's freedom to be who they are, there is nothing wrong with declining to select leaders who oppose that freedom. At least, if you think there is something wrong with it, you should probably also criticize companies where if you aren't a bearded white guy who wears T-shirts and jeans and likes to drink with your colleagues after work, you will be ostracized to the point where it hurts your performance.

The near-universal acceptance of "culture fit" as a valid gatekeeping mechanism makes it clear that "no one should be pushed out for their opinions", or whatever, is disingenuous. They're not objecting to people getting pushed out for their opinions. They're objecting to people like themselves getting pushed out for their opinions, or perhaps to people getting pushed out for opinions they can imagine themselves holding. More so, they're protesting the fact that they no longer have exclusive control of the discourse -- that somebody other than themselves is now involved in deciding which opinions are acceptable. Most of the time, when you see someone calling for tolerance or acceptance who already enjoys a great deal of tolerance and acceptance, what they're really asking you to do is tolerate their domination of you.

Postscript

Some of the same people who wrung their hands about "people being driven out for having different opinions" when Eich resigned are approaching maximum beardhurt because Steve Klabnik is both a contract technical writer for Mozilla, and a critic of capitalism. To which I say: good.
tim: A person with multicolored hair holding a sign that says "Binaries Are For Computers" with rainbow-colored letters (binaries)
I'm happy to announce that my first article in Model View Culture, "Gendered Language: Feature or Bug in Software Documentation?", is live.

Excerpt:
Defenders of the status quo in both libuv and Ubuntu seem to be saying, “This is trivial, I don’t care, why are you wasting my time.” But the amount of time and energy that many people invested in defending the status quo communicates a different, implicit message. The majority of the “it’s trivial” commenters in these issues are men. Is controlling the conversation a way in which men perform their gender? No one ever seems to say that men’s desire to protect the status quo is “trivial” or unworthy of attention - triviality only gets used to characterize challenges to the status quo. Perhaps this asymmetry is the crux of the problem: men cannot bear to be told by women that they, themselves - their masculinity represented through gendered pronouns - are trivial.
tim: text: "I'm not offended, I'm defiant" (defiant)
I've got a new post on geekfeminism.org today about the tone argument and how it gets used to stop women from occupying positions of power.

Coincidentally, today I ran into a passage from Jonathan Kozol's book The Night Is Dark and I Am Far from Home that I'd saved somewhere that says a lot of the same things; no doubt, the ideas in it incubated in my head for five years, then came out in another form. I'm just going to copy and paste all of it because it's that good. Emphasis added.


Thoreau wrote in 1854: "I fear chiefly lest my expression may not be _extra-vagant_ enough. ... I desire to speak somewhere _without_ bounds." In terms of syntax, style, and word-preference, the message of the public school is the exact reverse. Children come to realize, early in their school careers, the terrible danger to their own success in statements that give voice to strong intensities or to extravagant convictions. Instead, they are instructed, in a number of clear ways, not only not to speak but also not to think or feel or weep or walk beyond the clearest bounds laid out by public school. They learn whole sequences of moral obviation. They learn to abhor and to distrust what is known as "unconstructive" criticism. They learn to be suspicious of "extreme" opinion, most of all if it is stated with "extreme emotion." They learn to round off honest judgments, based upon conviction, to consensus-viewpoints, based solely on convenience, and to call the final product "reason." Above all, they learn how to tone down, cushion and absorb each serious form of realistic confrontation.

Anger between two parties, conflict starting up between two sides, is not accepted as the honest manifestation of irreconcilable interests (power and its victim; exploitation and its cause; victimization and the one who has the spoils) but solely as a consequence of poor communication, bad static on the inter-urban network, poor telephone connections between Roxbury and Evanston, or Harlem and Seattle. Nobody _really_ disagrees with someone else once he explains himself with proper care. Confrontation, in the lexicon of public school, is a perceptual mistake. It is the consequence of poorly chosen words or of inadequate reception: "We have to learn not just to talk, but also how to listen, how to understand ..." The message here is that, if we once learn to listen well, we will not hear things we do not like. To hear things that we do not like is not to hear correctly. (The teacher tells us that we need more exercise on "listening skills.")

The level of speech which is accepted, offered and purveyed within the public schools is the level appropriate to that person who has no reason to be angry, or no mandate to be brave. The implication is conveyed to kids that almost anything they ever say, or hope to say, will, by the odds, be "somewhat stronger," "somewhat less temperate," than the limits of the truth require; that there will be, in every case, a heightened likelihood of untruth in a statement that appears to carry strong conviction, _more_ truth in a statement that appears to carry _less_ investment of belief. Conviction in itself, as children come to understand, is the real enemy; but it is the presentation, not the content, which is held up to attack.

"Linda," says the teacher, in the classic formula of admonition, "isn't that a bit strong?" The teacher seldom comes right out and says the sort of thing that might be true, or at least half-true: "Look, we're going to have a much less complicated day if you can learn to cut into your sense of conscience and integrity a bit."

Instead he asks the children, "Aren't we overstating?"

As the first assertion is restated to conform to satisfactory limits of conviction, the viewpoint it conveys begins to seem "more true," and finally wins the badge of mild approval: "That sounds more sensible ...." In practice, as there comes to be less to believe, it comes to seem more readily believable. It is rare indeed, during twelve years of school and four of college, that pupils get back papers from their teachers with the comment, "Be more angry! Go further! You have stated this with too much caution!" Emphasis is all the other way.

Equally distrusted is unique opinion which has not been rounded off to fit the class consensus. "Okay ... David's said the Negro people have been fighting for their rights ... and Susan says that we need law and order ... Well, there might be truth in _both_ of their positions ... Let's see if we couldn't find a _third_ position ... " It is not argued in a candid manner by the teacher that the third position may well prove to be _convenient_; rather, there is the implication that the third position will be more "true" than either of the two extremes, that truth dwells somehow closer to the middle.

[...]

It is an easy step from this to the convenient view that all extremes of action end up in the same place, that radical change must bring inevitable repression. The phrase "EXTREMISTS AT BOTH ENDS" is, for this reason, a manipulative phrase. Its function is to tell us: (a) There is, in every case, a "greater truth" residing some place in the middle; (b) There _is_, in every case, a "middle situation" --- one which is not artificial, or dishonest, or contrived.

-- Jonathan Kozol, _The Night Is Dark and I Am Far from Home_. Continuum (New York), 1975.

tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Over on Twitter, I wrote: 'Cis people have sexes, trans people have "gender identities"! Men are from Mars, women are from Venus!'

And a friend who is cis asked, in response, 'Suggestions for (gently?) correcting cis people who're under the impression that "gender identity" is what trans people prefer?'

One thing that I, and many other trans people say, is that if you're cis, and care about trans people, you should call out cissexism when you hear it: for example, if someone in your presence uses the t----- word (and is not a CAMAB trans person), or makes a joke whose humor is contingent on it being ridiculous or pathetic for CAMAB people to wear or do anything coded as feminine, you should inform them of your displeasure. There is no need to do so diplomatically or politely unless you think that is the most effective way to send a message to the offender, and anyone else present, that this behavior isn't acceptable. Rules don't have to be polite -- stop signs don't say "stop, please". As an ally to trans people, you assert a boundary when you say "it's not okay for you to use slurs around me." And there is no need to be particularly nice in stating that boundary.

To me, though, use of the term "gender identity" -- which is, in my opinion, almost always part of a stealth tactic to invalidate trans people's self-affirmed sexes and elevate cis people's identities to the status of "biological" -- falls into a different category from slurs and hateful jokes. First and foremost, some trans people do prefer the "gender identity" terminology; some trans people do say things like "my biological sex is female, but my gender identity is male". It makes me cringe to hear that, and when I feel like I can, I'll try to let people know that there are other ways of talking about our lives that are more honest and accurate.

But it's not a cis person's place to have that conversation with a trans person, and likewise, it's also not a cis person's place to claim they know what set of terminology is right for all trans people.

Here's what I suggest you do instead if you want to call out terms like "gender identity", and you're either cis, or being seen as cis: shift the focus to cisness, instead of transness. For example, you could ask: "Do you have a gender? Or do you have a gender identity? Do you feel you know what your sex is? If so, how would you feel if someone else told you they know what your sex is, and the sex you know you are is just a 'gender identity'?"

Even using the terms "cis" or "cissexual" bothers some people because they would just rather be called "normal"; if "cis" and trans" are adjectives of equal status, neither one marked as the "default" state, then it's almost as if being cis isn't any better than being trans. By getting cis people to understand that they are cis, that the way they relate to their body and to the labels they were coercively assigned at birth are not universal but are simply their subjective experiences (no better or more real than anyone else's subjective experiences), you can encourage other people cis people to step off the pedestal, and relate to trans people as equals rather than superiors. If you can name yourself as "cis", that's one step towards realizing that trans people are not flawed versions of yourself, but rather, people who are different from yourself, just as you are different from us.

In my opinion, "gender identity" serves a similar function to language that marks "trans" but leaves cisness unmarked. The language of "biological sex", being "born a man" or "born a woman" (which sounds painful for the individual giving birth), "chromosomes", and so on, all sound scientific, but in this case they're serving a decidedly political function: to lend legitimacy to the idea that people whose sex is different from the sex they were coercively assigned at birth do not exist. "Gender identity" makes us second-class and tells us we have to be second-class for science (and few things are considered more shameful among the middle class than rejecting science, or rejecting anything that can be framed as "science").

But not all trans people agree with me. So rather than trying to summarize what all trans people prefer (an exercise that's likely not to end well, any more than you could summarize what all cis people prefer), maybe focus on questions, instead of answers. "What do you mean by that?" can take you a long way. I think that's especially true when unpacking much of the language used to describe sex and gender, whose function is to subordinate some people politically and raise the status of others, rather than to describe reality.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
"So, it's meme time. Describe-what-you-do-using-the-most-common-thousand-words-in-American-school-fiction time." [personal profile] pseudomonas pointed out that the corpus used here is a bit weird, but constraints are fun, so I'm going to roll with it anyway.

People tell computers to do things by writing words. To make it easier, they come up with different "word sets" for the computer. There are word-sets that are built into computers, which we say are "low". And there are word-sets that people use to tell the computer what to do, which we say are "high". I work on one of the high word-sets.

One of the things that happens when people tell computers what to do is that people can get confused. Then, the computer does the wrong thing. When that happens, cars might not want to stop, or an up-goer could burst into fire. To make people less confused, a high word-set can have "types". A typed word-set doesn't let you put one sort of thing where a different sort of thing is supposed to go. We say a typed word-set is "safe" if someone showed that if your words use types the right way, then your words will do the thing they stand for and the computer won't get stuck trying to do it.

When people tell computers what to do, they usually want the computer to do it quickly. Some of the high word-sets are safe, but not so good for making computers go fast, because the words in them are very different from the low word-set that the computer uses. Other word-sets are very close to the low word-set, but they make it easier to get confused when you're writing words. The word-set I work on makes it easy to tell the computer to do things quickly, and also easy to be less confused while using it.

Finally, a computer you buy now is usually made of lots of little computers. It's hard to think about what all of the little computers should do at the same time, because you only have one brain to think with. One way to think about telling all the little computers to do is to stop them from sharing memory with each other. Instead, you can make them talk to each other by sending notes to each other. The word-set I work on lets you use this "note-passing" way of getting all the computers to do work at the same time.

How do we turn the words we write into things a computer can actually do? The answer is that we write more words to tell the computer how to turn words from our high word-set into words from the computer's low word-sets. Those words we write help the computer turn a few big words into a lot of small words. I work on one of those "computer-help things" for our high word-set. I fix parts of it where people got confused before, and sometimes I help change it to handle new and different words.


I'll just make one observation here: "computer" is in the corpus, but "language" isn't.
tim: Mike Slackernerny thinking "Scientific progress never smelled better" (science)
When asking people -- especially geeks -- to use less ableist language, "intelligent" tends to be a sticking point. It's one thing to accept that r----- and even i---- are words that stigmatize people with intellectual disabilities when used as insults, much as calling an ugly sweater "gay" stigmatizes queer people. But geek culture is centered around the valorization of intelligence. It seems even harder to stop using "intelligent" as a compliment than it is to use "stupid" as an insult (and let me be clear that I'm still working on doing both in my vocabulary).

Here are some words that you could use to describe a person, instead of "intelligent":
  • curious
  • hardworking
  • well-read
  • knowledgeable
  • thoughtful
  • open-minded
  • creative
  • attentive to detail
  • analytical
  • careful
  • collaborative
  • empathetic
  • articulate
  • good at listening
Of course, these words don't all mean the same thing, but any or all of them might be intended when you call someone "intelligent". This should be a sign that "intelligent" is a vague word. So why not use a more precise one?

One thing these words have in common is that unlike "intelligent", they don't suggest an innate quality that a person is born with that can never be added to or subtracted from. A person who is not well-read (for example, a baby) can become well-read, given enough time. A person who isn't curious at one time in their life might be more curious at another time. Ableism might seem like an issue that only affects some people. Personally, I don't think it is (when we deny one person dignity and respect, we deny it to everyone). But even if you do, you might still agree that all of us can develop our potential more easily if we think of skills as something that can be acquired through work and practice, both individually and as part of a group, as opposed to something you're born with.

Popular culture seems to like the "innate intelligence" idea, as evinced by movies such as "Good Will Hunting". In that movie, a guy who's had no social interaction with a mathematical community bursts into a university and dazzles everyone with his innate brilliance at math, which he presumably was born with (for the most part) and put the finishing touches on by studying alone. The media seem to be full of stories about a bright young person being discovered, a passive process that -- for the bright young person -- seems to involve nothing except sitting there glowing.

I don't mean to say that there is no innate component to intelligence. Since the study of human intelligence has so often been used to prop up existing social power structures by claiming a connection between level of power and intelligence level, it's hard to say how much of intelligence is innate. In a way, it doesn't matter, since the only thing you have control over as a person is how much effort you put in to gain knowledge, practice your listening skills, train yourself to pay attention to detail, nurture your curiosity, and so on.

I've actually seen it suggested that if we stopped associating "intelligence" with virtue and stopped using "stupid" as an insult, then people with talent would have no incentive to develop that talent. Apparently, nobody would self-actualize if the reward for being really great at playing piano, doing biochemistry, or developing philosophical arguments wasn't feeling like you were better than other people? This is an untestable hypothesis, but anyway, I don't believe it. We're talking about whether or not to use the language of "intelligence" and "stupidity" as tools to induce shame and guilt. I don't believe that anyone has ever been shamed and guilted into being a brilliant achiever. I do think that plenty of people have been shamed and guilted into not trying to improve their skills. I see an analogy here with weight-shaming: just as you can't hate yourself healthy, you can't shame yourself smart.

If you still think that dispensing with "intelligent" as a compliment would make it harder to communicate, I can't argue with you beyond what I've already said. But I think it would make it easier.

ETA: This reply from James Sheldon is interesting.
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
Emphasis added.
What astonished me was that no one had asked the churches if they wanted to be stared at like living museums. I wondered what would happen if a group of blue-jeaned blacks were to walk uninvited into a synagogue on Passover or St. Anthony's of Padua during high mass---just to peer, not pray. My feeling is that such activity would be seen as disrespectful, at the very least. Yet the aspect of disrespect, intrusion, seemed irrelevant to this well-educated, affable group of people. They deflected my observation with comments like "We just want to look," "No one will mind," and "There's no harm intended." As well-intentioned as they were, I was left with the impression that no one existed for them who could not be governed by their intentions. While acknowledging the lack of apparent malice in this behavior, I can't help thinking that it is a liability as much as a luxury to live without interaction. To live so completely impervious to one's impact on others is a fragile privilege, which over time relies not simply on the willingness but on the inability of others---in this case blacks---to make their displeasure heard.
-- Patricia Williams, The Alchemy of Race and Rights

And that's why whenever someone tells you that you can't feel bad about the way in which they've hurt you, because "they would never hurt you intentionally", that is not a gesture of friendship or, in fact, of any kind of relationship other than one based on fundamentally unfair power dynamics. They are saying "You are governed by my intentions, merely because I have the power to coerce you into being so governed." They are committing an act of discursive violence.
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
When I read essays like this one, it makes me want to give up on software, give up on academia, and spend the rest of my life communicating these concepts. And acting on them.

Just so you know.

Tobi Hill-Meyer has proposed what I think is the only really plausible and useful definition of transness which presumes that trans people are as real and authentic as cis, which is: a trans person is someone whose sex/gender is not universally recognised as valid. Other definitions premised on a transition “from” one sex to another unwittingly reify cis sexes as static and homogenous sets of physical and emotional characteristics and behaviours. This premise of binary sexes is both inaccurate – point to almost any characteristic and there’s exceptions which are not considered trans – and arbitrary, repressing the diversity of human sex and gender morphologies, histories and behaviours.

[snip]

What we currently have is an intellectual failure, a failure to truly include the totality of human sex and gender expression in our cultural imaginary, a failure to truly consider trans men as men, trans women as women, and non-binaries as whatever particular sex-gender they live their lives as. There would be no need for “trans” to mark our invalidation then, because we would have already been included in the definitions of “real” from the start. Because we’re not copies.
-- Queen Emily, "When am I trans?
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
We feel that statements such as “We are everywhere” and “Dykes rule!” could evoke an uneasy response in women who are not yet comfortable with Lesbian culture. It seems potentially self-defeating that the first exposure for many incoming students to Wellesley’s Lesbian community occurred in the form of anonymous, ubiquitous graffiti, rather than in the personalized non-threatening atmosphere of a Straight Talks workshop. -- Wellesley News op-ed, 1988

I find this to be a great illustration of the meaning of the terms "tone argument" and "concern trolling". 23 years later, it seems ridiculous to us, the idea that the obvious truth "We are everywhere" could be seen as hostile or alienating, as something that could legitimately strengthen someone's learned homophobia rather than undermining it. When you make a similar suggestion now -- when you tell someone that they're turning off potential allies by being so angry, or that you don't have a problem with someone's way of demanding their rights but someone else might think they're being too (hostile, aggressive, blunt, sexually explicit, bitchy, demanding, strident, selfish, all of the other qualities that privileged people flaunt) -- can you consider how you're going to look 23 years from now, with the benefit of hindsight?
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
According to Chaz Bono, testosterone makes you more interested in gossip and less interested in listening to women talk:
“No, really. There is something in testosterone that makes talking and gossiping really grating. I’ve stopped talking as much. I’ve noticed that Jen can talk endlessly.” He shrugged. “I just kind of zone out.”

“You just don’t care!”

“I just don’t care!” He laughed. “
Now, maybe Chaz was misquoted. (Entirely possible, since the rest of the article is a catalog of almost every misconception about trans people, only some of which the author places in a position where they can even be questioned.) Or maybe he was only joking (and it's okay to say anything, no matter how retrogressive, as long as you call it a joke, right?)

A certain category of trans people, like Chaz Bono in the above quote, or a certain famous trans man author who titled his memoir after the hormone in question, like to grossly oversimplify complex socially and culturally mediated phenomena by attributing them to the action of a single hormone. The latter author even went so far as to claim that taking testosterone gave him an understanding of why cis men commit rape -- funny, I always thought that rape culture had something to do with that, and that that's something that anyone prepared to think critically about people and social structures of domination can understand, without any need for a shot in the ass. Likewise, a certain category of cis people -- those who are attached in a death-grip to that form of gender essentialism which simultaneously claims that gender is unimportant and that it's so incredibly important that you have to force yourself to be the gender you were assigned at birth -- like to claim that because sex hormones don't have any effects on people that can't be explained socially or culturally, that when trans people take hormones and subjectively experience psychological changes, this is solely explained by their expectations that hormones will change their subjective experiences. It's all in their heads, in other words.

It would be victim-blaming to claim a causal relationship between the actions of the first group and the reactions of the second group. It's wrong for any cis person to dismiss a trans person's lived experience because it's ideologically incorrect. When your ideology can't explain someone's reality, the answer isn't to tell the person their experiences aren't real, but rather to revise your ideology.

If a person not of trans experience hears what someone like Chaz Bono says, notices correctly that it's ridiculous, and concludes that it's just as ridiculous to think that trans people's quality of life improves when their brain gets the right mix of hormones, that would reflect on them. Even so, I still want him to stop saying ridiculous things -- because chalking up your character flaws to a hormone trivializes the very real and positive consequences of liberation from being poisoned by one's own body. And because when you claim that testosterone has anything to do with why men rape, or why they don't listen to women, you give men a license to be awful. What else are you going to do? Put anti-androgens in the water?

There's very little difference between the quotation that I started with and chromosomal essentialism. Both are misappropriations of scientific-sounding terminology to erase the social, cultural and political meaning of a given situation. Trans people, though, should know better; they should know that who you are doesn't reduce to a particular hormonal configuration (otherwise, there would be no trans people), and it's merely true that having the right hormonal configuration for your neurology allows you to be more fully who you are. So, trans men of the world, if you want to be a misogynist, can you do that on behalf of yourself and not on behalf of everyone with belly hair? "Lack of respect for women" does not belong next to "hair loss" and "sensitivity to sunlight" on the FDA warning label.
Postscript: Like seemingly every mainstream media article about trans men, or a trans man (there's a difference?) that I've ever read, this one repeats 1970s-era assertions about the quality of genital reconstruction surgery for trans men as if they're reality. There are some serious issues with access to surgery (circularly, rhetoric about how functional the results of genital reconstruction aren't makes it easier for insurers to write off said treatment as "cosmetic"), and some shortcomings, it's true. But I can't help thinking that there's something politically risky about actually admitting reality: that more and more trans men are able to get surgery that gives them adult-sized penises and the capability to get erections, have orgasms, and (not that that's the be-all and end-all) penetrate somebody during sex. It is, I think, scary for some people to throw away the cherished belief that if anyone could get a penis, then everyone would want one. Surprisingly, some people (women) are just happier the other way around. I don't get it either, but it doesn't scare me and I don't feel the need to deny reality as a result.

Post(postscript): Guys of trans history, can you also stop claiming you know what it's like to see the world from "both sides"? You don't know what it's like to be a woman -- you know what it's like to be a man with a testosterone deficiency. You might think the chicks will dig your sensitive shit, but it's really just embarrassing.
tim: Mike Slackernerny thinking "Scientific progress never smelled better" (science)
Hey, guys!

You know the popular figure of speech where you use "person with a Y chromosome" as a synonym for "man", and "person with two X chromosomes" as a synonym for "woman"? Examples of such sentences might include: "Even though I have a Y chromosome, you might be surprised to learn that I think rape is bad," or "As someone with two X chromosomes, I'm here to tell you that I like sex."

Such statements are generally not descriptive, since most people have not been karyotyped. (Though if you have been, then more power to you! At least your remarks are factual.) They are even less likely to be descriptive if you're talking about somebody else. Unless you are a doctor, you probably have not, personally, tested anyone's blood to determine whether they have a matched pair of Xes. Moreover, such figures of speech do not take into account people whose chromosomal types are XO, XXX, XXY, XXXY, or XYY, much less XXes and XYes whose karyotype does not match the anatomical sex that an observer would likely impute to them at birth. Yes, just for the record: people with a Y chromosome have been known to become pregnant and give birth, while (statistically) a few thousand Americans have male genitalia and two X chromosomes apiece.

So what you're really saying when you say "She has two X chromosomes..." is, "I have made the observation that I believe her presentation to be female, and from that -- based on received knowledge -- I've deduced that she has two X chromosomes." You might as well just say that she appears to be presenting as a woman, no?

No -- because the work that your remark is doing is not just to communicate that you believe the target of your attention to be a woman; it's also reinforcing the belief that for each person, there exists a single, objectively measurable sex, which is always male or female, and which may differ from that person's internal sense of who they are. In other words, it's reinforcing the believe that trans people have a "true sex" that's different from the sex they intrinsically know themselves to be, while cis people just are men or women; no need for auxiliary phrases like "identify as".

Ever since this particular ideology -- that of biological essentialism -- was established (which actually wasn't all that long ago -- modern medical technology caused more pressure to "correct" intersex people's bodies in order that they might not live to contradict the ideology of objectively measurable, binary sex), cis people have had a number of privileges. For one, a cis person has the privilege of killing their sexual partner if the partner is trans and the cis person claims their partner failed to reveal their "true sex", so-called. For another, people who run health insurance companies can save money by denying trans people health care and claiming that having developed with anatomy that doesn't match your internal mental map of your body is a lifestyle choice. There are a variety of other ways in which people whose lives conform to an essentialist worldview can dominate those who don't, as I've written about before.

It's not like people ever got together to invent essentialism and decided to promulgate it by, in a centralized, coordinated fashions, encouraging people to say things like "My ovaries hurt today! I wish I had a Y chromosome." Broad social patterns can arise from local phenomena, like one person finding a particular turn of phrase useful and repeating it. And every time someone says something like, "Of course I love porn -- I have a Y chromosome," that reproduces essentialism one more time and gives it additional power. Language matters; how people think affects what people do. From essentialism, violence against trans people follows. If not for the belief that there is some innate, measurable, immutable characteristic about each person -- instantly observable by everyone (if you're cis) and everyone but yourself (if you're trans) -- that determines their sex, the trans panic defense wouldn't exist. We would have to accept that it's coercive to tell your child that they're a boy or a girl before they're old enough to tell you. We might even have to start asking everyone we meet what their preferred pronoun is -- or start using gender-neutral pronouns. (I like "they"/"them"/"their".)

You might argue that the number of women who don't have two X chromosomes, and the number of men who don't have a Y chromosome, is small. So small that there's no need for you to revise your language on account of such a small group. In reality, the size of a given minority group in question is nearly irrelevant when we're talking about language that erases that group. You know how it was once acceptable to use "he" as a generic pronoun, because the argument went that it was understood that "he" referred to both men and women -- even though you'd never say "If a person is pregnant, then he should take folic acid?" Now, of course, such language is only acceptable if you're George F. Will: most of us understand that when you use "he" this way, you send a covert (or not-so-covert, anymore) message that the default sort of human is a man, and womanhood is defined as a variation on a basic, default, masculine template. Likewise, when you ignore trans and intersex "exceptions", you send a covert message that trans and intersex people aren't really people, that they're "mistakes" or "deviations" -- irregular goods by-products of the manufacture of normal (cissexual) humans.

Thus, casual throwing about, by non-life-scientists, of "chromosome" talk doesn't lend a scientific veneer to any conversation -- quite the opposite. It says that you're a person to whom personal opinions about how the world should be -- namely, the value judgment that non-binary-sexed humans are mistakes -- are more important than observing the world as it is. The belief that an intersex person is a mistake -- is less of a typical, exemplary human than a cis, non-intersex person is -- will eventually, no doubt, be seen the same way we now view the researcher who wrote a 1981 paper on the (quote) "Abnormal Sexual Behavior" of female long-eared hedgehogs. We now see that a scientist who classifies the behavior they observe (whether it's lesbian hedgehogs or Friday night in the Castro) as "abnormal" is one who cannot be objective, as they have allowed their particular culture's norms to blind them to universal truth. Someday, the day will come when we look at the sorting of cissexuals into the "normal" bin, and transsexuals and intersex people into the "deviations" bin, as just as ideologically driven as slut-shaming a hedgehog. And that day can't come soon enough. When that day comes, we will no longer identify ourselves and each other by a biological marker that means little more to most of us than a reification of purely social conventions. Just as those of us who think women get to be human too try to avoid addressing a group that isn't entirely male as "You guys!", those of us who think that we get to be human whether or not we were born cissexual try not to repurpose perfectly good scientific terms to do political work that we don't even endorse. No, I'm not reaching when I make this comparison. In both cases ("you guys!" and "has two X chromosomes"), the usage of language is predicated on the assumption that there's a particular subset of humans (women, in the first case; trans women and some intersex people, in the second) that just isn't worth mentioning.

If you find all of these sentiments to be politically correct fascism, then you're not in the audience for this essay; I'm only addressing people who want to be respectful, more than that, express what they mean without causing genuine harm (as opposed to offense). I'm not telling you what to say -- I'm only offering food for thought for those who do care about how what they say affects other people's lives. If you do feel like all of this is politically correct pedantry or like you're being told what to do, stop reading now!

The rest of us want to stop using language that erases people, language that renders groups of people invisible. We can disagree with each other, can fight for what we think is right, but outright denying that a person or a whole group doesn't exist is worse than meanness. Being oppressed is worse than having somebody be rude or mean to you. So I hope that when you learn that words you've been using, with no intent to offend, have the effect of reinforcing social structures that make people invisible, you'll stop.
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
A bit far afield from the subject of the previous post, but here are some more reasons why you might want to think about teaching yourself to talk about cis people and trans people rather than people who are biologically some gender or the other:

  • Because of the popular belief that trans women aren't "biologically female", many US states will deny such a person the right to correct her birth certificate to reflect her gender. (Same for trans men.) While cis people always have the right to have government-issued documentation that reflects their social gender, trans people are frequently denied that right. The justification for this inequality is that government-issued documentation reflects one's "biological gender". Being denied the right to carry documentation that doesn't reflect the gender one socially presents as -- again, a right that cis people never have to think twice about -- renders one vulnerable to rape and other physical assault.

  • Because of the popular belief that trans men aren't "biologically male", a trans man's health insurance company can deny him medically necessary care for no reason other than the concept that such care is intended to change one's sex or gender. (Same for trans women.) Even though the American Medical Association's stance is that treatment that brings one's physical characteristics into line with one's biological (neurological) sex is medically necessary, the non-evidence-based notion that transitioning is a matter of "changing sex" or "changing gender" provides a political foundation for the systematic denial of health care to some people. For many trans people, said health care is a matter of life and death; one recent study showed that 41% of trans people attempt suicide at some point in their life.

  • The notion that it's possible to "discover" that a trans woman is "biologically male" is the foundation for the trans-panic defense, which means that a cis man can murder a trans woman with no legal consequences if he has sex with her while fully aware of her trans status and later regrets it. Similar reasoning is used to legally deny trans people such luxuries as the right to use a public bathroom.


So usage of terms like "biologically male" and "biologically female" is not harmless imprecision, and calling it out is not mere PC policing. Language is the primary tool used to reinforce the culture of oppression of those who can't or won't live with their arbitrarily assigned gender, so the language you choose to use affects whether you participate in reinforcing a certain culture of violence, or in actively resisting it. Of course, the consequences of that oppression are all too real.
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
"In the descriptive tradition of the social sciences, past participles are used as simple adjectives and their dynamic nature as verb forms is overlooked. The poor are often described as 'deprived' or 'impoverished,' as if these words connoted inherent characteristics like 'tall' or 'redheaded.' In reality, to say that a group of persons is 'deprived' or 'impoverished' is to say that they have been deprived. Then, changing voice, we can say that someone has deprived them, someone has impoverished them. Only after that dynamic process has occurred does anyone benefit from a declaration, with a scientific imprimatur, that the resulting state of affairs is permanent and unchangeable. It is not the lack of elegant models that leads to policy decisions that further deprive the deprived. Such consequences are usually quite obvious---at least to those about to be deprived. A policy choice is an act of will and intention. We must once in a while admit that the poor have been impoverished intentionally."

-- William Ryan, Equality
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
I wanted to make this a new post rather than responding to a bunch of comments and not having it seen by anyone else. The point of the last poll was not to suggest that anyone is doin it wrong (linguistically), but to ask: why is it that a term that clearly denotes a group of masculine individuals ("guys") can also be "gender-neutral", whereas no term that clearly denotes a group of feminine individuals ("women", "girls", "ladies", &c.) can also be "gender-neutral"?

Why does it work this way? In my mind, one reason is because suggesting that someone is feminine is insulting (certainly if they're a person who would prefer to be perceived as masculine, and sometimes even if not), while people, on the whole, are expected to take a judgment of masculinity as a compliment. Compare calling a woman "manly" -- connoting courage and assertiveness -- with calling a man "girly" or "ladylike". Yes, the first can occasionally be an insult (as Janet Reno or Ann Coulter could probably tell you), but I can't think of a situation outside specifically queer spaces where the latter would ever be expected to be received warmly.

And another reason is that, as Douglas Hofstadter wasn't the only one to write about but was one of the most succinct ones to write about, people who speak my language unconsciously call on the idea of the default version of a human being as male, and women as departures from or variations on that authoritative template.

So, I can't think of reasons to treat "guys" as gender-neutral and "women" (and its variants) as gendered that aren't predicated on misogyny. Can you? And if not, I think we ought to retire such idioms, as language is one of the ways in which we all participate in reinforcing and reproducing some varieties of oppression and in resisting others. Yes, it can be awkward to find other ways to communicate. The nature of oppression is that it makes itself seem comfortable and familiar, and resistance seem awkward and disruptive. But awkwardness in the name of liberty is no vice, and it comes with the bonus of getting to think consciously about how you want to use words to relate to other people, rather than allowing yourself to be told what to find natural or comfortable.
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
Friends, suppose you are a cissexual man. If you are one, this should be easy enough. If you aren't one, this should also be easy, as the use of most socially-sanctioned narratives in any culture you're likely to originate from is predicated on the appropriation of a distinctly male, assigned-male-at-birth persona.

Now suppose that I were to kick you in the balls repeatedly. I have reason to believe you would likely find that painful. But I can make it up to you! How about once you're recovered, you go ahead and kick me in the balls repeatedly? Go on, imagine it. Okay? Well, that didn't feel like much at all. I'm clearly impervious to being kicked in the balls, and that's clearly a reflection of my superior strength of character.

The only problem is that this is an unfair comparison, since my balls are made of silicone and kicking them would only serve to further cushion the blow that my already much-less-sensitive crotchal accoutrements would otherwise absorb. I'm not better than you because I'm less sensitive to a swift kick in the crotch -- I just don't have testicles, a lack that is hardly on my list of personal accomplishments and is in fact something I would change if I had any idea how.

Cis people often call trans people "oversensitive" or "easily offended" because they react to certain kinds of verbal attacks differently than a cis person would to the same comment. Of course, the person making such an attack does not always mean it to come off as aggressive, but since meaning is determined by the recipient of a message and not the sender, these comments are attacks nonetheless. For example, a cis person might call a trans person "oversensitive" because she reacts badly to being addressed with the wrong pronoun, and a cis person would just laugh or shrug it off. Or a cis person might say a trans person is "easily offended" and should "know what I mean" when he says "born female" to mean "assigned male at birth": when they say such a person is easily offended, they mean they react to such a comment more strongly than they would expect a cis person to react. Cis people stack the deck (they take advantage of their socially sanctioned privilege to define what a "normal" level of sensitivity is) and then complain when trans people won't play.

Like a swift kick to the crotchal region, verbal attacks are received differently depending on what, inside the recipient's body, takes the blow. A pair of testicles that you can't even see (when your victim has pants on) make the difference between a few moments of discomfort and a thoroughly ruined day. A collection of emotional baggage that you can't even see, comprising memories of, and learned reactions to, transphobic violence -- the kind of violence that hides behind words and makes its victim do all the dirty work -- makes the difference between a dickish comment that's laughed off and a dickish comment that ruins someone's trust in you and jeopardizes a relationship.

If I were to request adulation for what I characterized as thick skin developed through my own efforts, but is really a matter of (a certain kind of) luck, you'd rightly suggest I was disingenuous. So why is it a mark of good character to be "thick-skinned" and "not easily offended" when that really amounts to having had the good luck not to grow some brain structures that -- like your testicles, if applicable -- you don't think about all the time, but that make it difficult for you to regain your composure when someone stomps all over them? Why it's considered a virtue to not be "sensitive" -- that is, to be indifferent to other people's emotional states and responses -- and to be "thick-skinned" -- that is, to not care about your relationships with other people -- is another question as well. Why is "you're just being oversensitive" an all-purpose silencer, while "you're not being sensitive enough" gets you laughed at and called a castrating PC cunt (and then accused of oversensitivity when you don't like being reduced to the genitalia you're presumed to have)? But even if we take it as a given that apathy is a virtue, are virtues that accrue by accident of birth really so praiseworthy?

When you say that a trans person (or, you know, any person whose life is different from your own) is "oversensitive" because you are incapable of imagining their response to anything from a misplaced pronoun to a "Saturday Night Live" sketch dedicated to mocking and denying the humanity of a group of people to which they belong, you are really saying that it's easy to maintain a serene state of indifference to everything other than yourself. Easy when the rest of the world is indifferent to you, too -- and, just as easy when the rest of the world would prefer to see you dead.

You're saying that if it's harder for you to do something that's inherently more difficult than it is for someone else to do something easier, then the problem is that you're not trying hard enough.

And really, that takes balls.

Bad Science

Sep. 1st, 2010 10:57 pm
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
I am a man in a man's body. Whose body would I be in if not my own?

Whenever I say something like this, someone always seems to ask whether there's a particular incident that it's about. The answer right now, like usual, is no. I don't know about anybody else, but I don't generally experience oppression in the form of a specific person directly informing me that they are about to begin oppressing me, so would I please fasten my seatbelt and put my tray table upright. No, it's more like little reminders dropped in passing that I'm not welcome in a particular situation or that I'm not as much of a person as the next guy.

Like tonight. I was leaving an ostensibly trans/genderqueer/gender-variant-person-friendly
event when I noticed copies of an article sitting around about "genderqueer etiquette". I'd like to draw your attention in particular to this passage:


In the age of girls’ nights out, bachelor parties, women-only Sacred Goddess gatherings and men-only nights at the hot tubs, genderqueers are often playing the "Am I welcome?" game. It can be a difficult thing for any event organizer to figure out. If it’s a "safe space for women," will some participants consider ladies with dicks a threat? If it’s a "gay dudes only" night, will a guy packing a silicone cock ruin the mood?

Whatever you decide, be abundantly clear in your invitations. It’s okay to say that something is "for female-bodied people only." If your event is open to a broader crowd, it’s useful to say something like "This event is open to all self-identified men" so non-male-bodied men know they’re welcome.


While the author of this article IDs as genderqueer, I, as a binary-identified trans person, still feel completely confident in responding: Allies, ur doin it wrong. I'm addressing trans people and their would-be allies in what follows; if you're about to tell me that I shouldn't police your language and you'll use whatever words you want to use so don't be so nit-picky, you shouldn't bother, because I'm not talking to you. I am talking to people who are interested in speaking accurately and in making it clear, through the language they use, that they accept trans people as equals.

That said, let's deconstruct some parts of the above passage. The author assumes that it's a given that it's okay to hold events that exclude people based on... well, based on what, exactly? Before we can critique that assumption, we have to know what it really means to limit an event to "female-bodied" or to "male-bodied" people.

I would presumably be welcome at an event listed as being for "female-bodied people" (why? I'll get to that), but I suspect that any ladies attending such an event would look funny at a bearded interloper who sings in the bass section, and I wouldn't feel welcome in such a forum anyway. (For similar reasons, I don't go to events billed as being for "women and trans people", which usually means "cis women and trans men".) I'm pointing this out not to belabor the obvious, but to further complicate the meaning of a phrase like "female-bodied people".

What about an event for "male-bodied people"? There are fewer of those (why?), but if someone were to tell me I was not welcome somewhere because they believed I was "female-bodied", I wish they would do me the courtesy of telling me what they really mean by that and exactly which body part they presume I have that menaces them so. I don't know why somebody would segregate an event based on body parts that aren't visible in most social contexts -- and, depending how you interpret "male-bodied people" and "female-bodied people", possibly based on body parts that aren't visible unless you have a scalpel or a microscope -- anyway.

But I'm being deliberately coy, because in general people organizing events for "male-bodied people" or "female-bodied people" are organizing events for "female-bodied people" and wish to exclude trans women. So, again, I ask -- not just in the context of event planning, but in the context of people earnestly trying to describe what it is that makes trans men different from -- y'know -- regular men -- what does "female-bodied" mean?

When somebody is trying to differentiate a trans man from a man who was assigned male at birth (we call the latter a "cis man"), and they call the trans man "female-bodied", what do they mean?

Do they mean that he has breasts? Well, many cis men have breasts (or perhaps all of them do, depending on whether you're talking about breasts per se or just breasts of a certain size), and many trans men don't.

Do they mean that he can become pregnant and give birth? Well, clearly that ability isn't necessary in order to be "female-bodied" (did your mom become "male-bodied" when she entered menopause?). If we're saying that having that ability is sufficient for being "female-bodied", on the other hand, it's not a case for trans men being "female-bodied", since trans men who have taken testosterone for more than a few years generally aren't fertile (unless they stop taking it).

Do they mean that he has a female brain (that is, a brain that functions best with an estrogen-based hormone balance and that's wired sexually to expect a body with a clitoris, vulva and vagina)? Well, he doesn't have one, because he's a trans man. But if you're the kind of person differentiating bodies into "male" and "female", brains apparently don't count as part of the body. (Cartesian dualism lives!)

Do they mean that he has a vulva? Well, maybe he doesn't, but it's likely that most trans men do, given the inaccessibility and varying quality of genital reconstruction surgery for trans men. So if you really want to organize an "event for people with vulvas", then say that that's what you mean, rather than being coy with terms like "female-bodied".

We could rattle through a long list of other traits of supposedly "female-bodied" people, and generally we can point out that most traits are absent in some trans men and present in some cis men. Chromosomes? Let's talk about XX males, not that you typically know what someone else's karyotype is anyway; what kind of party requires a DNA test for entry? But rather than doing that exercise, let's try a different thought experiment. In the common parlance, is it possible for a "male-bodied" person to become "female-bodied", or vice versa?

Since "female-bodied" and "male-bodied" are so often used as synonyms for a cis woman or trans man (the first) or for a cis man or trans woman (the second), I think the answer is "no". Someone whose externally observable sex characteristics were all indistinguishable from those of a woman who was assigned female at birth would still be deemed "male-bodied" by someone who's apt to use these terms in the first place. And that's why we have to consider the possibility that "female-bodied" and "male-bodied" are terms that describe your body only indirectly (at best), and that really describe the judgment that an observer made about you when you were born.

(To the retort that once female-bodied, always female-bodied because "you can't change your chromosomes", I'd note that you can't change your blood type either; so? Such an argument is based on confusing the common (but inaccurate) logical deduction "A appears female to me, therefore A's karyotype is XX" with a nonexistent inference rule that says "If A's karyotype is XX, then A is a girl or woman." The point is that we attribute gender based on observable characteristics, and the only time non-researchers tend to bring up unobservable characteristics like genes and chromosomes is when they're looking for a post hoc justification of the decision they've already made to deny someone's gender. Saying a trans man is "female-bodied" because he has XX chromosomes -- or because you believe they do, more likely -- is essentially saying "I insist you're not a man because I'm aware that you're trans," since the chromosome test never gets applied to people whose gendered legitimacy hasn't already been questioned. It's just an attempt to clothe subjectivity in a cheap facsimile of scientific objectivity.)

So if you mean to limit your event to "people who were assigned female at birth", then say that. And in any context, when you mean to say that a person was "assigned female at birth", it's best to describe them as just that, not as "female-bodied"; it's primarily a matter of clarity and secondarily a matter of declining to participate in the reproduction of an oppressive discourse.

(Now for extra credit, dear reader, you can deconstruct "biologically male" and "biologically female".)

Going back to the original passage: Being "abundantly clear" about your intentions, as an event organizer, seems hard to argue with. But that's really not good enough, because if you're going to exclude some people, you need a reason. Events that are just for people of color, or just for women (need I remind you that by that I mean self-identified women?), or just for trans people, are justifiable because people in all of the above groups have histories of being shouted down by the majority in a group that includes both majority and minority people. Events that claim to be for women but that exclude trans women -- given that cis women are in a superior political position to trans women -- are harder to justify. "No Irish need apply" is very clear, but these days we can generally see the problem with that.

In short, why are you segregating your event in such a manner at all? Some men have vulvas, some men have penises, some women have vulvas, and some women have penises. Isn't it time -- as a culture -- to get over it?
tim: "System Status: Degraded" (degraded)
It is often said -- for example, by people who think "South Park" is funny -- that racist, misogynistic, homophobic, sizeist, other "-ist" forms of humor are acceptable if "I make fun of everyone".

But when you make fun of everyone, different groups pay different amounts for your negative or stereotyped comments. If I make fun of my female friend when she talks about how she drove half of I-5 at 50mph by saying "you're such a typical female driver", and make fun of my male friend when he talks about his twelve speeding tickets in the past year by saying "you're such a typical male driver", these insults don't have equal weight, because it's worse to be considered a "typical female driver" (cautious, easily intimidated) than a "typical male driver" (bold, daring). If I throw around stereotypes of black people as crack-addicted welfare recipients and stereotypes of white people as uptight and soulless in the same sentence, I'm not "making fun of everybody equally" -- the effect of my remarks on any black people within earshot will be felt far more strongly than the comfortable in-group joking of me teasing other white people.

Saying that "making fun of everyone" is egalitarian is like saying that a flat tax is fair. Tax rates are based on income because $1000 is a different percentage of your livelihood if you make $5000 a year than if you make $500,000 a year. Likewise, what seems to be the same joke costs a group that's already hated and marginalized more than a group whose privileged status is secure.

Offering to include a naked picture of a guy in your next talk doesn't make including a naked picture of a woman in your software talk acceptable; making fun of your own privileged group doesn't buy you the right to reinforce oppressive discourse.

"Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel -- it's vulgar." -- Molly Ivins
tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
[Inspired by a Facebook comment by a friend and a reply he received. The first two lines are paraphrased from that discussion; the rest is my invention]

BOB: "I don't like 'men'/'women' options on medical forms. Can't I just check off the questions that apply to me?"
ALICE: "Let's just have more options. After all, men and women have different health concerns and we can't track that if we don't know what someone's gender is."
BOB: "Just to be clear, when you say that 'men and women have different health concerns', do you mean that there is a set M of health concerns for men, and a set W of health concerns for women, and that men share the concerns in set M, while women share the concerns in W, and the contents of M and W are disjoint?"
ALICE: "Yep!"
BOB: "Well, I'm a guy, but one of my health concerns includes the fact that I need to get regular Pap smears, which I suspect you wouldn't include in set M."
ALICE: "No, I wouldn't include it."
BOB: "So...?"
ALICE: "When I said 'men' and 'women', I really meant regular men and women. Of course, you know what I mean."
BOB: "No, I don't know what you mean. You agree that I'm a man, right?"
ALICE: "Of course!"
BOB: "So when you say that 'men have health concerns that don't include Pap smears', do you mean that since my health concerns do include that, I'm not a man?"
ALICE: "No, of course not. But you know what I mean."
BOB: "Are you saying that I'm a less typical exemplar of the category 'men' than is my friend Ted, who has a prostate and doesn't have a cervix?"
ALICE: "Of course I'm not saying that! That would be wrong."
BOB: "So if I'm just as much of a representative of 'men' as is Ted, why does 'men's health' refer only to Ted's health and not to mine?"
ALICE: "..."
BOB: "I mean, you don't like it when people claim that 'he' is gender-neutral in the sentence 'Everyone must tie his own shoes' while the same people would never write the sentence 'If a person is pregnant, then he should take folic acid,' right?"
ALICE: "..."
Open to: Registered Users, detailed results viewable to: All, participants: 17


This imaginary conversation is about:

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language
12 (70.6%)

politics
11 (64.7%)

semantics (as in, what words mean)
12 (70.6%)

semantics (as in, stuff I don't care about)
0 (0.0%)

decentering the discourse
8 (47.1%)

politically correct fascism
2 (11.8%)

other
6 (35.3%)

none of the above
0 (0.0%)

Where is Carol in all of this?
6 (35.3%)

tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Running your writing through Google Translate when you're learning a language gives you sort of the same instant gratification you get when you compile your code, but it's as if you're using a compiler that always produces an executable, while just suppressing any type errors and emitting something random and mapping nonsensical input to half-formed and dubiously related output.

And no, I'm not saying it's like programming in Lisp.

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tim: Tim with short hair, smiling, wearing a black jacket over a white T-shirt (Default)
Tim Chevalier

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