Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Activism, Language, and Differences of Opinion (a compilation of essays)

Activists of various stripes will often disagree with one another (as well as with the mainstream public) regarding what ideas and strategies are useful and productive, versus which may be self-defeating or destructive. Notably, many of these debates tend to be centered on language—for instance, is the word or phrase in question liberating, or acceptable, or anachronistic, or problematic, or downright derogatory.

While most people who participate in these debates champion a specific cause (e.g., being “for” or “against” a specific activist tactic or terminology), I have become increasingly interested in understanding the underlying standpoints and reasoning that lead people to adopt these disparate positions, and chronicling how rigid one-size-fits-all stances on these matters may erase or exclude the voices of many people who have a stake in the issue.

I have written extensively about this subject in my 2013 book Excluded: Making Feminist and Queer Movements More Inclusive (the linked-to page includes excerpts from the book). Here, I will compile some of my subsequent essays related to this topic (with links when available). They are organized into the following sections:

Debunking the “Political Correctness” Meme. In the mainstream, activists’ concerns and proposed solutions are often dismissed via the pejorative phrase “political correctness.” In these essays, I point out the many problems with this meme, and what gets overlooked when we use it to frame such debates.

Different Vantage Points. These essays analyze the differing underlying backgrounds, beliefs, and rationales that often lead activists to come to very different conclusions regarding whether something (e.g., a word, action, media depiction, or person) constitutes discrimination/marginalization/oppression (or not).

The Activist Language Merry-Go-Round. Activists often make the case that particular terms related to a minority/marginalized group are either “good” or “bad” (the former being championed, the latter dismissed as derogatory). But these sorts of claims are often linguistically naive and potentially exclusionary. However, the most commonplace rebuttals (e.g., counter-claims that slurs are no big deal, or that complaints about slurs constitute “censorship”) are even more linguistically naive and potentially exclusionary. These essays are my attempt to engage in serious yet nuanced discussions about language, and the harm that such words may (or may not) inflict.

Inflexibility and Erasure. When activists do reach varying conclusions regarding language or strategy, opposing sides may accuse the other of “being oppressive” and/or “reinforcing oppression.” These essays highlight examples of this phenomenon, and consider how such accusations often promote exclusion and deny the diversity of the marginalized group in question.

*note*: Many of these essays focus on issues and events within transgender activism. This is not because these debates are more prevalent or pervasive in trans communities (if you examine various past and current activist movements, you will find that they are not). Rather, this simply reflects the fact that transgender issues have been a central (albeit not the only) focus of my own activism. While some of what follows may be transgender-specific, I believe that much of it likely has import for thinking about other forms of activism, and social justice movements more generally.

*also note*: this page will be routinely updated to include new essays as they become available.

Debunking the “Political Correctness” Meme

How to Write a “Political Correctness Run Amok” Article – a satirical piece meant to illustrate the many glaring holes in reasoning displayed by most contemporary mainstream articles and op-eds decrying “political correctness.” (I also wrote this follow up in response to comments & questions that I received regarding this piece.)

Prejudice, “Political Correctness,” and the Normalization of Donald Trump was written in response to the many political center & left pundits who argued that Democrats should abandon "identity politics" and "political correctness" in the wake of the 2016 U.S. election. In the essay, I explain how prejudice actually works, how activists successfully counter it, and why the election of Trump and calls to destroy or abandon "political correctness" pose such a threat to social justice progress that has already been made.

That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore (and it’s not because of “political correctness”) – this piece points out how accusations of  “political correctness” are inherently one-sided and designed to protect the status quo. They also fail to acknowledge that what’s considered to be “status quo” (in this case, with regards to comedy) is always evolving.

Ravishly interview by Noah Berlatsky – this interview occurred in the wake of several high profile articles decrying “political correctness” within liberal and activist settings. In addition to (once again) critiquing that meme, I go on to discuss the very real problems associated with what is often called “call-out culture.” Specifically, I offer my thoughts on why “call outs” occur so frequently within activist settings, and why (even when well-intended) they sometimes result in erasure and exclusion (rather than promoting inclusion).     

Different Vantage Points

Cissexism and Cis Privilege Revisited – Part 2: Reconciling Disparate Uses of the Cis/Trans Distinction – this piece compares and contrasts two common yet disparate approaches to activism: “decentering the binary” and “reverse discourses.” While both approaches may be useful in challenging marginalization, the reverse discourse strategy is far more inflexible and exclusionary—in fact, I contend that most legitimate complaints about activist language and stances are actually critiques of the reverse discourse approach.

Cissexism and Cis Privilege Revisited - Part 1: Who Exactly Does “Cis” Refer To? – this essay discusses the different (and sometimes conflicting) ways in which activists use the terms "cisgender" & "transgender," and offers a new "three-tiered" model that accommodates many people's experiences with gender-non-conformity and social legitimacy better than a cis/trans dichotomy.

Considering Trans and Queer Appropriation – members of the same marginalized/minority group may differ in whether they believe that a certain word or action (when expressed by the dominant majority) is “appropriative” or constitutes “appropriation.” In this essay, I examine the differing backgrounds and beliefs that likely lead these individuals to reach such different conclusions in this regard.

A Personal History of the “T-word” (and some more general reflections on language and activism) – many arguments within activism center on language: Is a particular term deemed appropriate or offensive? Is it better to reclaim or eliminate potentially offensive words? Who gets to make these determinations? In this essay, I focus on one specific controversial term (i.e., the word “tranny”) and describe the myriad stances and arguments that have been made both for and against this word over the years.

The Activist Language Merry-Go-Round

I spend the second half of the aforementioned “T-word” article (in the section entitled “Words don’t kill people, people kill words”) describing (what I call) the “Activist Language Merry-Go-Round,” wherein members of a marginalized/minority group will engage in countless rounds of critiquing existing terms and proposing new ones (which will then subsequently come under scrutiny themselves). While all participants in these debates may have the best of intentions (i.e., challenging the marginalization the group faces), there are often unintended negative consequences, which I outline in great detail.

On the “activist language merry-go-round,” Stephen Pinker’s “euphemism treadmill,” and “political correctness” more generally – people in the mainstream (e.g., Pinker) will sometimes complain about the Activist Language Merry-Go-Round, dismissing it as “pointless,” or as an expression of “political correctness” or “censorship.” In this essay, I compare and contrast my critique of the Activist Language Merry-Go-Round with such mainstream accounts.

Regarding Trans* and Transgenderism – this essay describes two recent cases of trans-related terms (i.e., the ones explicitly mentioned in the title) that have gotten caught up in the Activist Language Merry-Go-Round. In addition to the specifics of these cases, I discuss the two primary strategies that activists use to destroy terms they dislike: word-sabotage and word-elimination.

Bisexuality and Binaries Revisited – while this piece predates my articulation of the Activist Language Merry-Go-Round, it provides and excellent case study of how word-elimination campaigns (in this case, targeting the word “bisexual”) sometimes foster exclusion and ultimately undermine other marginalized groups.

Inflexibility and Erasure

On People, Polarization, Panopticons, and #ComplexFeelingsAboutActivism – this piece grapples with how differences of opinion within a marginalized group (in this case, trans people) sometimes leads to community schisms, where each side views the other as “oppressive,” and where individuals who lie outside of said debate may remain silent for fear of being viewed as siding with one camp or the other.

A Few Thoughts on Drag, Trans Women, and Subversivism – this is an earlier response to the same community events and dynamics that I discuss in the previously mentioned essay. However, this piece is particularly concerned with the deployment of subversivism/the “reinforcing” trope—that is, when activists make claims that certain expressions or ways of being are inherently conservative and assimilationist, and therefore “reinforce” the oppression the group faces.

Regarding “Generation Wars”: some reflections upon reading the recent Jack Halberstam essay – quite often, what seems radical or liberatory to one generation of activists may seem conservative or repressive to another (and vice versa). This is partly my response to a few specific points made in the cited essay, but it was primarily intended to point out how activist strategies that seem logical and sound in one time period or setting may not be readily obvious nor applicable in another.


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