Sunday, 16 February 2014

Context Is(n't) Everything

Just found this in the Draft folder. Many moons out of date, and clearly unfinished, but I actually didn't mind my own voice in it, which is rare enough that I'm going to publish it anyway.

So, that Suzanne Moore, eh? She wrote a little article in the New Statesman, and all hell has broken loose. There are accusations of Islamophobia and language policing, there is sympathy from Caitlin Moran and Frankie Boyle, and there are defensive responses from Moore herself as well as the Julies Burchill and  Bindel (two people that everyone wants on their team). There are also a lot of responses from within the blogosphere; some are thoughtful, and some, like this one, are less so.

I think we can all agree that the attempts by Burchill and Bindel are nothing more than disgusting hate speech doubling down on Moore's own exposed hatred of transsexuality. For me, though, it's the subtler support that is the most upsetting.

I don't want to pick on Stella Duffy, but her argument seems to boil down to her feeling sad that she is now scared to say "trans", even though she ought to be exempt from criticism because 20 years ago she wrote a "lovely, loving, sympathetic trans character". She seems to be proud of the fact that she, a professional LGBT-focussed writer (by which I mean LG-focussed), wrote a trans character twenty years ago. Is this like the I-have-black-friends approach? Or its lesser-know cousin, the my-best-friend-in-nursery-school-was-black? As if the longer-ago something happened, the better your claim to progressiveness is. I see where Duffy's trying to go with this, but really she's just highlighting the vast disconnect between how much insight she has into transgender issues and how much insight she thinks she has. That in itself speaks volumes, and doesn't even take into account the fact that Duffy claims to be "the only person [she] know[s]" who has written such a character. I don't even know where to start with that. Suffice to say, Duffy is not the expert that she thinks she is. And perhaps she ought to hesitate before speaking on trans issues, particularly when "speaking on trans issues" means "coming to the defence of an unapologetic transphobe".

Now, for a more nuanced take on the issue, take a look at Pissers vs Wankers: The state of left-wing feminist debate?. I'm going to throw myself into the quoted circle jerk here, and to hell with the consequences. Here's a quote from glosswitch's worryingly relevant post:

"I wouldn’t have known the word “transsexual” alone could offend. I might have used it – I probably have – in a different context. Now I won’t. But if I were called out on it, I might have thrown a strop."

I think the point about this is that although the word 'transsexual' alone is often used in a purely descriptive (although outdated) manner, one's use of it can be something of a red flag, pointing to worrying attitudes towards trans people (almost always, and not at all coincidentally, trans women).

Partly this is because of the fact that it's outdated: generally, if one has engaged with trans issues at all over the past decade, one knows that the word "transsexual" now has a much more specific meaning and isn't used as a catch-all, having been replaced (ish) by transgender. So I generally assume that if someone uses "transsexual" as a catch-all or a punchline, they haven't bothered to engage with current trans issues and debates, which can be (although isn't always) a red flag.

Secondly, Moore's use of it ("a Brazilian transsexual") is indicative of some nasty attitudes behind the flippancy. For me, using "a transsexual" is unpleasant (like calling people "gays" or "blacks"), and the word "Brazilian" simply reinforces the idea that Moore has only one stock image of transgender people, and it just happens to be the most outdated, racist one of them all (bar perhaps going with the Thai version of the same 'joke').

And the point about context is important. The word "transsexual" is innocently descriptive in certain contexts, and is wildly offensive in others. An article about gender and feminism and the beauty myth and anger is not an innocent context for a throwaway one-liner about "a Brazilian transsexual". 

In my opinion, people's ears pricked up when they caught that usage of a word that isn't always on its own offensive, but can be when used in a certain way. Those of us who have to be alert to transphobia may have picked up on those little signals, and prodded a little, and unhappily discovered the seething pit of anger and disgust and condescension that lies beneath. That, sadly, isn't uncommon. It's like hearing the word "homosexual": inoffensive in itself, but often indicative of offensive attitudes.

Context is everything, but some words create their own context, and use of them can be a handy warning that someone is about to blow your mind with their factually inaccurate, morally indefensible "opnions". They'll probably also be quick to tell you that everyone is entitled to their opinion, and that haven't you heard of free speech?

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