Tuesday, April 29, 2014

On People, Polarization, Panopticons, and #ComplexFeelingsAboutActivism

[note added January, 2017: This essay now appears as a chapter in my third book Outspoken: A Decade of Transgender Activism and Trans Feminism]

I suppose that this is the third installment of a blog-post trilogy that I have unexpectedly written, and which (in different ways) touch on overlapping subjects and sentiments. For those interested, here is the first post and here is the second post...

Over the last month or two, I have had numerous conversations amongst trans woman friends, and quite a few inquiries from other trans-identified and trans-aware folks, about the rather high profile “kerfuffle” (as the excellent Roz Kaveney referred to it in a recent tweet) that has taken place within trans female/feminine spectrum circles recently. I rather vaguely allude to the situation in my recent blogpost a few thoughts on drag, trans women, and subversivism. Other folks have written about it, but my personal favorite synopsis thus far is Jen Richards's recent piece. As with any kerfuffle, I wouldn't be surprised if the principal actors at the center of this story disagree with certain aspects of this particular review. But Richards explores many of the issues regarding community, difference, and consensus (or the lack thereof) that have been on my mind lately. The thing that I appreciate most about the piece is that Richards puts herself into the shoes of others, not to be presumptive or to replace their viewpoints with her own, but rather to try to understand where they are coming from. It was a refreshing change of pace from the this-camp-is-evil/oppressive/censoring/humorless/hurtful versus this-camp-is-righteous/oppressed/human/less-pretentious/more-like-you-dear-readers dichotomy that has formed the backbone of most descriptions of this kerfuffle thus far.

The strategy of putting oneself into other people's shoes (in a hopefully understanding rather than presumptive way) is one of my personal foremost tenets of writing and activism. I may not always do it successfully. But I try really hard to understand what people on the “other side” of a debate or dispute believe, why they believe it, what life circumstances led them to gravitate toward that perspective rather than others. Even if you strongly disagree with their views, it may help you find new and more productive ways to challenge their reasoning, or to re-frame your argument in ways that resonate with them a bit more. Even if you remain in disagreement, at the very least, it allows you to see your opponent as a living breathing person rather than as an abomination or an evil oppressor.

The thing is, seeing things from other people’s perspectives can often make being an activist rather dicey and difficult to navigate.

For instance, with regards to this recent kerfuffle: I understand why RuPaul (who has been using the “T-word,” as drag performers historically have, long before many of us became involved in trans and queer communities) would be reluctant to give up that self-identity label, even if I find several aspects of his TV show to be problematic and consider his response to recent controversies to be rather flippant. I understand why trans folks who were never a part of the historical period that gave rise to RuPaul would be appalled by his continuing use of the “T-word.” I understand why trans women (whether it be Parker Molloy, Calpernia Addams, or others) might have differing opinions about RuPaul, or drag, or Jared Leto, even if I don’t necessarily agree with them on that particular issue(s). I understand why both Molloy and Addams probably felt misunderstood and invalidated by what the other was saying about them, even if I disagree with some of the things each of them said. I understand why Andrea James would want to support her friend Addams (who she probably felt was being unfairly characterized), even if I disagree with much of what she said in her “take down” piece of Molloy. I understand why people started hashtagging #istandwithparker, and why Zinnia Jones started the petition, and why many trans women signed it, even though I felt that some of the arguments being made by folks in that camp were virtually identical to the ones Addams and James were making: both sides were supposedly “conservative” and “assimilationist” and “homophobic/heteronormative” and “abusing their public platforms” and “on the wrong side of history.”

The whole thing reminded me of that scene from the movie V for Vendetta with the dominoes: one thing causing another to happen, each person unknowingly playing a small role in what was becoming a far bigger story. The end result, of course, was entrenched polarization within the community. And as it was all unfolding, I felt like all I could do was watch. Because I knew that if I tried to intervene or add my voice in any way, I would simply get sucked up into the story.

Molloy and I follow each other on Twitter (as activists sometimes do). A couple weeks ago, I was tweeting about baseball (as I sometimes do), and she and a few other folks chimed in, and we had a harmless conversation about how bad our favorite teams have historically been. As this was happening, it suddenly struck me that others might perceive the exchange as being a tacit endorsement: that I must be on “her side” of the debate, even though we were merely discussing baseball. It made me extremely self-conscious. A few days later, in an online piece about the kerfuffle, it was mentioned that Molloy liked sports, and I wondered if the writer knew this because they had seen our Twitter exchange. After all, social media (especially in activist circles) is one giant panopticon: We are all watching one another all of the time.

Last week, on my Twitter notifications, I saw that James tweeted something about buying my book Excluded. Often, when people tweet something about liking my books, or buying my books, I will re-tweet them (as you do), but I knew that if I did that in this case, I would become part of the story: I would be perceived as “siding” with James. And since that is the unpopular side of the debate (at least within trans women’s circles), the ramifications could be dire. Perhaps my name might even be added to the petition against James and Addams: I would become one of the older elitist white trans women with a platform who are oppressing the younger generation of elitist white trans women with a platform.

People who are unfamiliar with this situation might expect that I am wildly exaggerating here, but I don’t believe that I am. A few weeks back, on the Internets, I saw one trans activist seemingly calling out another trans activist for the fact that they follow musician Amanda Palmer on Twitter. Why, pray tell? Well, from what I could gather, it seems that Palmer positively mentioned James’s article somewhere on the social medias. I would imagine that Palmer has no idea who James is, nor understands any of the details of this kerfuffle. I would imagine that Palmer simply liked the fact that James critiqued (to put it politely) “hashtag actvism.” I would imagine that someone with as high of a public profile as Palmer has probably felt unfairly attacked on social media before, and perhaps this is why she liked James’s piece. I don’t know, this is admittedly all just speculation on my part. The main point is that Palmer (probably unknowingly) “took a side” in the kerfuffle. And now, every trans activist who owns a Dresden Dolls album or enjoys Neil Gaiman novels is potentially suspect.

I abhor this “picking a side” mentality, where if you have ever enjoyed a RuPaul performance, or think Jared Leto is a good actor, or if you want to nominate Jayne County for this year’s Godwin’s Law award, then others will automatically assume that you belong to a particular camp, and that you must hold certain views that are commonly associated with that camp. I don’t like being constantly placed into situations where I have to be either for or against Molloy, Addams, or James, and if I choose the “wrong side,” then I will be ostracized. I think that all three women have done some positive things for our community, while at the same time, all three have said or done things at times that I disagree with. Frankly, there are *no* trans women who I agree with 100% of the time on all matters, so I resent feeling forced into “take sides” with some trans women against other trans women, as that denies the complexity of people and situations.  

I have complicated thoughts and feelings about many people and many things. So I resent how kerfuffles amongst activists (and there have been too many to count) always seems to result in polarization and over-simplified, cut-and-dried positions.

I believe that putting myself into other people’s shoes to trying to understand where they are coming from is a crucial part of my activism. So I resent how polarized activist positions attempt to coerce me into *not* identifying with, nor relating to, nor trying to better understand, certain people.

I resent how polarized activist positions try to compel me to see people as monsters and demons rather than as complex and fallible human beings.

As I alluded to above, this kerfuffle has touched on what has become a hot topic of late in activist circles (not to mention the media at large), namely, “hashtag activism.” Many people have critiqued the phenomenon (including James), and I think many of those arguments are quite silly. Basically, it’s just another way of getting one’s opinions out there, no different really than starting a petition, or writing a blog or Facebook post that you hope others will share. While I am not against the phenomenon, I almost never participate in hashtag campaigns when they do occur. I hadn’t really thought much about why that is until the recent #istandwithparker campaign. In that case, it became clear to me that I felt like I was being compelled to “take a side” in a debate that I felt ambivalently about. Not every hashtag campaign falls into the category of being for or against people, but a lot of them do. Even when campaigns don’t explicitly mention people, they are still often *about* people: If you’re involved in that particular activist circle, then you know who wrote the blogpost or article or tweet that made another activist you know upset and which led them to start the hashtag campaign. Like I said, social media-based activism is a panopticon—we are all watching one another. We see who is tweeting with the hashtag and who is not, and sometimes (albeit not always) these tweets express allegiances to people and against other people. We watch our Twitter feeds—or in other cases, we notice who signed which petition, or who commented on which blogpost—and we start imagining people as being on one side or another.  

I can get behind ideas like #transphobiasucks and #stopsexism and so forth. But if I know that that hashtag is intended to imply that I am “with this person” and “against that person,” then I generally don’t want any part of it. This is especially true when I know that both parties are activists, or members of the same marginalized group, who simply have differing opinions about some matter.  

That is why I put the hashtag #ComplexFeelingsAboutActivism in the title of this post. I don’t necessarily expect people to use it, and I certainly do not expect it to “trend.” But I do think that it is potentially productive to get the word out that it is OK for us to have complicated or ambivalent feelings about an issue, or about our fellow activists, sometimes. It is OK for us to agree with another activist about some matters but not others. It is OK for us to see both sides of an issue. It is OK for us to be critical of an individual’s actions without tearing them down as people.

As I say in the last chapter of Excluded, we should stop constantly framing activist kerfuffles in terms of “righteous activist”/“evil oppressor” or “infallible activist”/“ignorant oppressor” dichotomies. We are all trying to change the world for the better. We all make mistakes. We all hurt people. We are all still learning. All of us are right some of the time and wrong other times. And in many cases (as much as we may hate to admit it), there simply isn’t a clear right or wrong, just differences in opinion. #ComplexFeelingsAboutActivism

[note: If you appreciate this essay and want to see more like it, please check out my Patreon page]


  1. Let me take up your usage of 'panopticon', which although emphasized in your title only makes a secondary appearance in your analysis.

    Comparing social media to Foucauldian panopticon has been done, as I'm sure you know (Westlake 2008). What tends to get left out, however, is that the panopticon is not about mutual surveillance in and of itself as a collective endeavour. The p. requires a somewhat centralized authority -- or at least a privileged vantage point -- to install the process of surveillance in the first place.

    Likewise, with the trickle-down commentary resulting from the 'kerfuffle', I fear we're losing sight of the initial position of gazing: we're not just "watching each other", but we are watched as we are watching. It's this broader instigation from outside of the trans activist circles that, somehow, keeps being forgotten for the sake of what is quickly being reduced to mere personality conflicts.

    This was, as you know yourself, why Foucault took up knowledge as a genealogical investigation. "Tr*nny" isn't just a single event of a speaker and the feelings associated with the word, but an entire process of imposition from which we inherited the word and perpetuate its genealogy through our careless usage. This isn't take sides: it's trying to think beyond our own cells within the framework of power.

    Thanks for letting me comment,

    1. I think suggesting the Foucaultian analysis of the panopticon "requires a somewhat centralized authority -- or at least a privileged vantage point -- to install the process of surveillance in the first place" is to exactly miss/do the opposite of the point Foucault makes...

    2. thank you both for the comments. yes, panopticons are designed for centralized observance, but Foucault was concerned with how we are all being watched & judged constantly, and how such forms of power are productive (i.e., we do it to each other) rather than repressive (i.e., top-down). that's what I was trying to address - this constant self/community-policing. & yes, there are outside forces applying pressure - e.g., from gay, mainstream, and/or straight forces who have their own stake in words & identities).

      also, admittedly & retrospectively, briefly alluding to a Foucauldian concept while addressing general audiences might not have the best strategy here. I thought that those who were familiar with his work would get the reference while other folks would understand my simple description of the problem (i.e., we are all being watched all the time, & the affect it has on us). An understanding of Foucault is not a prerequisite to understanding this problem - I just wanted to explicitly say that.

  2. well, the panopticon definitely is repressive because it is built with utilitarian purposes to control conduct of prisoners