Monthly Archives: December 2014

You’re not being tone policed, you’re just an a**hole

I spoke in a recent blog about how activism has become a competitive pursuit – for many internet activists there is a lack of interest in building relationships – challenging is a sport, a form of one-upmanship intended for the onlookers to rate the exchange rather than for the participants to meaningfully explore their own positions. It is about haves and have nots, about winning – a model where somebody needs to be laying in the dust while onlookers cheer and clap.

Some try to justify their behaviour by saying people only learn through force – but my experience of human beings does not bear this out. I believe, as social creatures, that everything we learn and every time we change this happens in the context of relationship. Collaboration comes naturally to most of us if the conditions are right, and we are at our best when we bring people along with us. I’d go further and say the “people only listen when you assert your power” is no different from the “spare the rod, spoil the child” idea that has ruined so many childhoods, or the patriarchal “power and control” model that characterises many abusive relationships. Both of these are evidence of a lack of relationship skills.

People can be horrible sometimes, but they also can be kind. Creating an environment where patience and empathy flourish is not just some “hippy shit” that will never work, it’s one vital aspect of building a movement – not the only one, perhaps, but still important. The emphasis on force within activism is a very competitive, dominating model that also privileges what are traditionally seen as more “masculine” behaviours over more “feminine” ones.

When you try and invite people in a closed activist space to be kind, to be gentle and friendly with each other, a whole bunch of well-rehearsed activists’ hands shoot up: “Er, I know this one! It’s tone policing!” That’s an important idea that has been appropriated to mean “I have carte blanche to be shitty with you if I can claim my cause is morally superior”. The important concept of tone policing now gets misused, or at least over-used – as long as folks think they have right on their side, they are allowed to be as verbally violent as they like. It’s that sense of entitlement that concerns me, because a sense of entitlement can so often lead to an abusive act.

Don’t we all think we’re right more often than is actually true? Don’t we all focus on our own disprivileges and remain a little too oblivious to other people’s? Aren’t we, essentially, subjective and fallible? So much of the violence done in this world occurs under the guise of “but I’m the real victim here”. Does the world really need any more of that? Couldn’t we just, perhaps, try not to destroy other people through our interactions with them, just in case there’s the slightest chance we haven’t got all the information, just in case our judgement isn’t as perfect as we like to think it is?

Because although it is true that “polite and civil” can often be code for “oppressive” this does not necessarily mean that disproportionate verbal violence is always legitimate in any situation, and sadly this is the way the “tone” argument is heading.

This is not about tone policing

Two different things have got muddled lately, so let’s untangle them. What I am talking about here is not the unquestionable right, for instance, of the black people of Ferguson to be angry and violent, in reaction to a clear and prolonged and deadly abuse of structural power. I am not asking the people of Ferguson to be “polite and civil” or to hug a policeman. I would not in any way condemn the black people of USA if they rose up and started a revolution, quite frankly, because for them to have any respect for law or civil obedience would seem nonsensical to me. Rioting and outraged violence is entirely proportionate to the issues people are facing. So sure, I am very tired of white people calling for calm. I’m not calling for calm.

But this blog isn’t about Ferguson. It’s about activists, between ourselves, on and off the internet, and how disproportionately and clumsily we often behave. I’m wondering if we can stop treating this like mortal combat, and centreing our own disadvantages to the degree we ignore other’s vulnerabilities. Our assumptions, our lack of awareness of other’s difference, our disproportionate responses, our personalisations, our lack of management of our own feelings, our lack of generosity and tolerance for people’s mistakes, all make for great sport but a harsh social environment. And of course that harshness replicates and perpetuates itself. Note I’m including myself in this, because once a culture becomes established, it influences everyone; I know I’m not immune.

Sometimes, we need to learn the difference between being tone policed and just being an asshole and getting called for it. And yes, there are asshole cis feminists, asshole trans folks, and every other flavour of asshole out there making activism a misery.

Leaving the bear pit

Words slung carelessly at each other can be violent and oppressive – not just to the recipients, but to some onlookers too, until the atmosphere becomes so toxic that those of us who are sensitive cannot breathe in it and we start to entertain serious thoughts of giving up activism, leaving the internet and instead making the world a better place through basket-weaving.

This has become an access issue – only those with robust mental health and low sensitivity or trauma that’s so entrenched they’ve dissociated from it, need apply.

My Facebook feed has become a bear pit, where people who could be working together are constantly jumping down each other’s throats. Please note: this kind of crass telling off is not the same as challenging – challenging is good, but doing it in a way that the person can hear, rather than in a way designed to put a person down and make them feel so small they instinctively want to fight their way back up, well that’s a skill – one I strive for, but admit I don’t always manage. I understand that it’s not always easily done, but let’s not pretend because it’s difficult that it isn’t valuable.

We need to work on our abilities to be together across difference, not just our ability to create more and more fractures.

Let’s also not pretend in this emerging dialogue about the necessity of force in activism that war is the only route to change and love solves nothing. Mars should not always be given priority over Venus. Let’s bring a little love back to activism this yuletide.

Yes, Deliberate Misgendering is Transphobia

“Is deliberate misgendering transphobic?”

This very debate is happening in spaces trans people are often not safe to access, because of, well, because of misgendering. Allies who jump in and assert that misgendering is transphobic get told they cannot speak for trans people, and often it’s hard for us to find our own voice in such environments. So, I decided to do a quick poll to check out what my community actually think of this, and surprise surprise, the vast majority of trans people who responded (94%) believed deliberate misgendering really is transphobic.

First, let’s be clear what we are talking about.

Deliberate misgendering is when people say that trans women are really men (and vice versa), or use male pronouns or old names to speak to or about them when their actual identity is known.

A good description of its impact can be read here.

As an aside, the dismissal of concerns about transphobia is often accompanied by the privileging of male-stereotypical traits. The trans community are urged to be “less sensitive”, or not to be so “weak and feeble”. This is part of a patriarchal anti-vulnerability narrative that we have all become far too indoctrinated with. If we tend to be emotional, sensitive, easily hurt, or vulnerable, there is, apparently no room for us in an activist sphere that was designed for people with thick skins (ironically, a physical trait that is linked to higher testosterone levels). When we say we are not safe in spaces where we are being continually misgendered, we are mocked and jeered at, or our concerns are simply dismissed.

Let’s face it, all suggestions that the trans community “toughen up” over the issue of misgendering are thinly veiled orders for us to “man up”.

The Poll

I polled 2 non-political Facebook groups for UK trans people. The following table makes it clear what a general transgender population thinks of deliberate misgendering:

Q: Is deliberately misgendering someone transphobia, yes or no? 68 Trans people responded to the poll Yes 94% Not always 6% No 0% Other words used: violent, aggressive, abusive, deliberately hurtful.

The “not always” category belonged to people who could see exceptional circumstances where it wouldn’t be transphobia; for instance where a trans man is called a “girl” in a teasing way, that’s simply sexism, and where friends and family are struggling with the change, it may not always be strictly transphobia at work. Also, when you are misgendering someone at their request and for their safety so as not to out them. However, the overwhelming feeling was clear: Misgendering is transphobia.

Which leads to the other important point made by more than one respondent – that it is not for people outside our community to decide what is and is not oppressive to people within our community, any more than it is for white people to decide what is and is not racist.

One defender of misgendering said it did not bother her so why should it bother trans people? This reminds me of a white teenage girl I once knew who told me there was nothing wrong with the N word; her friends called her it all the time and it did not upset her one little bit!

Misgendering is transphobia, end of story. When you engage in deliberate misgendering, you do so to undermine us; to make our social position less tenable; to cast doubt on our own words and explanations of ourselves; to privilege your explanation and categorisation of us; to expose us as “fraudulent” or “fake”; and frequently to infantilise, mock and belittle us. You also put us at higher risk of violence and lower access to social support and services by calling our identities into question, and this could substantially affect our wellbeing in multiple ways.

Of course misgendering is transphobic. Of course, as Laverne Cox says, it is an act of violence.

The Capitalist Model of Activism and Why it Sucks

The recent flood of white people on my timeline vying for the position of “most intersectional activist of the year”, a competition I have felt myself compelled to join, has woken me up to a lot of uncomfortable realisations. The last thing the world needs is a white person blogging about racism and white supremacy, but I do have one observation that is far more universal, and applies not just to this one thing, but in general to activism today, particularly on the internet:

Activism has become competitive, capitalist, commodified. You can consume it, you can be entertained by it, you can raise your status in it, if you have sufficient education, means and leisure time you can become really good at it, even well known and endorsed for it, and then you get to crap all over the folks at the bottom of the ladder struggling to get on the bottom rung.

Capitalism is all about hierarchy. I reckon most of the bad stuff in the world happens under the influence of the competitive part of our nature – the bit that likes control, competition and dominance, the bit that counts beans and tries to make sure its own pile (or group’s pile) is bigger. We have a collaborative side, too, but it takes a different set of conditions to bring this out in us, conditions not prevalent in our capitalist, kyriarchal culture. Activism as a competitive process is doomed because it just continually re-orders the hierarchy (see Orwell’s Animal Farm, for the definitive satire on this phenomenon) – it will never dismantle it. It’s not designed to dismantle it, just re-allocate resources differently – a scramble for different types of privilege in an alternative structure that has become just as hierarchical.

The activist sphere has become a world where knights roam the landscape impaling as many people as possible on their swords of truth and justice, with onlookers cheering them on while they reach for the popcorn. Everyone has their own crusade, and it is just, and worth hurting people over. It’s an arms race where the weapons are the stacks of social justice pages we create that demonstrate the supremacy of our causes. Ideas triumph through popularity, measured in retweets, likes and shares that are assisted by none-too-socially aware algorithms. Controversy and attack attracts an audience, and so nuance and bridge-building become uneconomic activities.

Let’s not forget in all this that the spreading of fear and stress is in the interests of those who own the internet – because the less happy we are, the better consumers we are. And it’s also in the interests of those who want to rule us, because the more fearful we are, the more easy it is to divide us and control us. Fear is weakening us, impoverishing us, and strengthening the kyriarchs above us and among us.

Yes trans activism, I mean us. Yes feminism, radical and otherwise, I mean us too. Yes anarchism, green politics, left politics, animal rights and all the other groups from the Judean People’s Front to the People’s Front of Judea – I mean all of us. I mean me. I need to do better.

As someone who strives to build bridges, relationships, networks, understanding – love, even, I was seduced by social media to believe this was a perfect environment for this to happen, but now I wonder – is this a social media problem, is it my own deficiency, or is it just people being people? Whatever it is, I think I’m done with this capitalist model of activism; I want to grow something different – who’s with me?