Tag Archives: Activism

No, AFAB privilege is not a thing

I’ve been pretty loud about the relative privilege of trans men, but lately I’ve been hearing this term “AFAB privilege”, which frankly irks me as a feminist. So I wanted to explore the complicated relationship AFAB trans folks have with male privilege and feminism, and debunk some lazy tropes.

Edit to add – just to be clear, although today I am looking at how misogyny affects AFAB folks, I am not turning my back on my overall mission to highlight transmisogyny and the overwhelming inequalities trans women, and particularly trans women of colour, experience. I still think male privilege, and trans male privilege, are real things. But there are some complications . . .

There is no symmetry in our experiences

There is a bogus idea of symmetry that comes from our traditional, binary view of gender and what Julia Serano calls “oppositional sexism””. If trans women are so doubly disprivileged by their gender and their transness, in the form of their unique experience of transmisogyny, then surely trans men must be equivalently advantaged? But it doesn’t work like that.

In reality, our experiences are completely asymmetric; when they live as themselves, trans women rapidly lose any male passing privilege they had (I don’t think we can call it male privilege because they’re not men), as they become visible as trans women.

We do not gain male privilege with anything like the same rapidity.

Prior to transition, trans women often have the experience of being treated Ben Barres, a trans man and scientist, head shot, wearing checked shirtas not being “real” or “proper” boys and men. This is one of the many reasons I dispute the idea that trans women are raised with straightforward male privilege. But we are also a long way off society treating trans men as “real” and “proper” men either, so the male privilege of trans men can be as complicated and conditional as for pre-transition trans women. Trans men such as Ben Barres (pictured left) have reported huge gains when their trans status is not known about, but this again becomes a passing privilege, contingent on our truth being silenced.

Many of us always had some masculine privilege, though. I gained from having a strong inner voice that could dismiss any negative societal messages about girls and women as not applying to me. It’s also much safer and more socially acceptable to be gender non-conforming in the direction of maleness or masculinity than in the opposite direction.

I take issue with the idea that I was “socialised female”. I was socialised tomboy, and that was unlike the experiences of my cisgender peers in both good and bad ways – male privilege, trans disprivilege both playing a part. And importantly, though often forgotten, cis privilege is not a “lesser” privilege to male privilege; the impact of being trans as a child undermined me more substantially than my masculinity advantaged me.

All trans people have experienced misogyny or misplaced misogyny

I’ve fought, and will continue to fight, for the inclusion of trans women in feminist spaces, and I acknowledge “male of centre” folks like myself are sometimes included in women’s spaces where trans women would not be welcomed. That sucks, and needs to be challenged. But I don’t think a full reversal of this is any more of an ideal, where we go back to the bad old days where any hint of masculinity renders someone’s presence within feminism suspect.

It isn’t a zero sum game, and I realise that many people fighting for trans women’s inclusion, myself included, have at times erased trans men’s need for inclusion in feminism. The way forward has to be more nuanced than a full reversal of the second wave status quo. We need to develop an understanding of how misogyny, and misplaced misogyny in the case of trans men who are 100% binary identified, impacts each of us differently, and a continually self-reflective view of how much our voices need to weigh in on each issue.

Labelling non-binary folks according to their birth assignment is oppressive

The terms AFAB/AMAB are as difficult to avoid sometimes as MtF/FtM, but they’re just as problematic. In another triumph of “biology is destiny”, the non-binary world is being categorised not according to the genders people are, but according to their birth assignments.

“AFAB privilege” is often lazy code for masculine privilege, but once that false connection is made we’re once again mired in the binary. There are plenty of ways in which an AFAB person can be trans without any sense of maleness or masculinity at all, because there are not only two genders. Equally, an AMAB person might not have a shred of femininity. At the same time, we might struggle to communicate our complex genders through the limited language of the gendered clothing currently available to us.

I love pretty things that some might consider feminine, but if I wear them, I am more likely to be misgendered. I dress to communicate my gender ambiguity, to balance out my female-[image: Sam Hope, someone who is still clearly AFAB, wearing a suit and tie]appearing face and body – not to express masculinity. And the fact is, no matter how masculine my clothes appear to be, I continue to be treated as and gendered as a woman in most situations, with all the casual misogyny that goes with that. A suit and tie is not magical armour against misogyny, or misplaced misogyny. As the picture, right, taken at a recent wedding, illustrates, it takes a ridiculous amount of overtly masculine dress and hairstyle to make people hesitate in gendering me female, which, to be clear is my only goal in dressing this way. Testosterone will change this for me, and I will accrue male “passing” privilege, but alongside this I envisage a struggle to express my “not-male”ness, in ways that could put me at risk of misogynistic violence.

Visibility is not directly related to privilege

“AFAB non-binaries are too visible” I have lately heard some folks say, citing Ruby Rose and Miley Cyrus, and ignoring the fine and very visible tradition of AMAB folks queering gender and getting famous for it for decades. At the same time I hear equally strenuous arguments dismissing invisibility as a problem when hyper-visibility can have such lethal consequences.

There is nothing beneficial about either invisibility or hyper-visibility, and comparing the two is like comparing bananas to bicycles. They are two very different consequences of oppression and neither of them is a symptom of privilege, even if the consequences of one oppressive tactic is far more dangerous than the other. I’m enjoying this little moment of AFAB non-binary visibility, superficial as it is, but let’s be real, it’s a mere moment amid millennia of silencing.

Misogyny is a continuum

Eddie Izzard and Richard O’Brien both identify as transgender and are both internationally well known and successful. These folks live with primarily, but not ent[Image: Eddie Izzard on the Labour campaign trail with two others. Izzard is wearing make-up and a skirt suit]irely, male identities. I’m sure they’ve both been affected by misogyny. Yet Izzard (pictured left on the Labour campaign trail) is contemplating the possibility of a successful campaign to become the 2020 mayor of London, and O’Brien is returning to the Rocky Horror stage amid noisy adulation. I think the calculation of either of their gender privilege is more complicated than simply AMAB+Trans=All The Bad Things.

Misogyny is a continuum that affects trans people in complicated ways that are more related to our actual genders than to our birth assignments. With the possibility of multiple genders and presentations, and our complicated bodies, there are simply no straightforward ways to do maths that will be infallible in our attempts to play “Top Trumps” with each other over oppression issues.

For nonbinaries like me, and probably for a lot of trans guys, the variable mixture of male privilege and misogyny or misplaced misogyny we experience is difficult to negotiate. I have moments of frustration on the occasions someone tells me I have all the privilege. But I’m aware that trans women are unfairly told they have all the privilege much more often so I try and take it on the chin. And yet, it’s not right for anyone to make such lazy assumptions about any of us.

As a whole trans community we have so much in common in our experiences of misogyny and gendered oppression, our difficult relationships with women’s spaces that have been created for a safety we all might need, our perilous negotiations with the oppressiveness of invisibility and the unsafety of visibility. We need to let go of our unhealthy need to use our birth assignments as a point of reference, and start to explore our current genders and bodies, our losses and gains, in all their complexity.

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Feminist organising across difference

I previously wrote about the need to be together in our differences from a personal perspective, but what I hinted at in that blog piece, I want to make more explicit here, in a call to feminism to stop centreing sameness and commonality in our organising.

I cannot possibly write more eloquently on this subject than Mia McKenzie did in this Black Girl Dangerous article, or punch up more effectively than the #solidarityisforwhitewomen hashtag.

But the purpose of this blog is to build relationship and understanding between cis and trans feminists, and with regard to our particular differences I may have things that need saying.

Organising around “sameness”

In feminist organising, the need to emphasise “sameness” can be destructive, for all the notion of half the world united is deeply appealing. This idea of commonality prevents white women reaching out to their sisters of colour on issues such as FGM on a basis of anything other than shared biology. Differences can be erased in a rather appropriative way – FGM becomes a “shared female experience”. But FGM is not a biological inevitability and it is not something most white women are at risk from.

At worst, white feminists can appropriate the FGM experiences of women of colour to drive forward their own personal transantagonistic agendas, citing biology as some fundamental and unifying standpoint for women in a way that is erasing of their own relative advantages and freedom from such practices.

When commonality and sameness are a focus, instead of being united in our differences as feminists, trans women are witch-hunted into proving their similarities and shared experiences in order to be included. Or worse, their differences are used as reasons to exclude them.

It’s okay to be different

Let’s get it out there – of course trans women are different from cis women.

And trans women are different from each other. And you know what? cis women are all different from other cis women too. And yet at the same time there are many experiences of oppression that are shared, and they fall under the categories misogyny and sexism; the things feminism is specifically fighting.

Organising across difference rather than sameness changes the way we look at inclusion – people can fit some ways and not others, and that’s okay. We can unite to work together for something collectively beneficial, and still have spaces and conversations we don’t need to be a part of.

In a place where difference is celebrated and accepted, trans women are free to say “I have no need to be in a discussion about menstruation or abortion, but some of my trans AFAB siblings might want in on this” and it would not be a device to exclude them from women’s organising altogether, but simply a conversation they could step out of without feeling that it in any way compromised their position as women.

In a world where it’s okay to have differences, cis women would not use reproductive biology to exclude trans women from such things as discussion and services around sexual and domestic violence, which disproportionately affect trans women.

They would not, for instance, pull that old trick of citing pregnancy risk as the thing that sets apart a cis woman’s experience of rape – a notion that is not only demeaning to trans women’s experiences of rape, but also erasing of the experiences of infertile, post-menopausal or pre-pubescent cis female victims.

Is our movement mature enough for nuance?

There are aspects of sexism and misogyny that affect trans women, some that affect non-binary folks and sometimes trans men too. Because binaries and either/ors are generally an illusion, it is possible to build a stronger movement when we do away with arbitrary and simplistic sorting processes in feminist organising. We are fully able to have intelligent, here and now discussions – just who is affected by this issue in front of us right now? Who needs in on the conversation? How can we make sure they’re considered and included? How can we ensure our non-erasure of their differences?

Feminism has an important choice, and it is at the heart of the movement towards pro-intersectional feminism – do we homogenise, and then attempt to draw clear and arbitrary lines as to where that homogenity ends, or do we do the hard work of recognising that every different conversation we have in feminism will hold a different balance of power – who is most vulnerable in this regard, who needs to be held and centred, who can be overlooked, who holds the aces – this is a constantly shifting and nuanced story.

10 steps towards a new, radical transfeminism

Not all trans people are feminists, just as not all women are feminists. Trans people, much like everyone else, have a wide variety of beliefs about gender, ranging from radically feminist to deeply conservative. The theories we use should rightly be discussed, questioned and put through a rigorous feminist critique.

But what is not in error is the underlying fact of our experience and existence: we are real. This means that equally, feminists are ethically obliged to take the genuine nature of, and oppression of, trans people into account in their theories.

The win-win result of this act of mutual respect – of trans people wholeheartedly supporting feminism, and feminists wholeheartedly supporting trans people, is better, more developed, more nuanced thinking about gender and sex, and smarter activism.

And it really is not that difficult to do. Here are a few suggested ways forward for those of us who are more radically inclined.

[image: a person with a beard, wearing a dress, carrying a sign that says "fuck gender roles"]

1. Let go of simplistic, clumsy either/or theories about nature/nurture

Hopefully, we are all now way beyond a child’s colouring-in picture of the gender argument; the idea that “if gender is not 100% socially constructed, then it must be 100% biological” (or vice versa) lags behind the important trend within the scientific community to favour neuroconstructivism – the idea that nature and nurture interact with each other in complex and at times unpredictable ways; “nature v nurture” arguments are fundamentally out of date.

2. Understand that assigning sex is an aspect of gender oppression

It is absurd to believe that picking a baby up, looking at its genitalia, and then assigning it a legal and social status, and a set of pronouns to be used for life, is a biological process. When we say “sex” is socially constructed this is what we mean; the process of sex assignment is a human-made process not a biological one – we made up the words man and woman and sex, we invented birth certificates, we manufactured the need for signs on toilet doors – none of these things is biological.

Many believe this artificial, dividing, classification system was designed to manufacture a subservient class (women) and that it oppresses trans and intersex people in the process. In other words, sex assignment is an aspect of gender oppression.

3. Acknowledge we are not “opposites”

Men and women are not fundamentally different from one another – they do not have essentially different abilities and traits. Gender differences, including traits such as male violence and female passivity, are largely if not entirely socially constructed. Most importantly, social conditioning around gender is not uniform – we cannot predict the behavioural/sociological outcomes for any individual human, despite society’s efforts to condition us.

There are no behavioural traits that belong exclusively to men and are not found in women, or vice versa, whether socially indoctrinated or biologically innate. Human beings simply cannot be sifted neatly into two clear, non-overlapping categories based on any gender-related difference.

4. Affirm we are not our reproductive systems

Owning a particular reproductive system has a material affect on our lives, this needs to be acknowledged. But of course even here there is variation – intersex people explode the idea of a binary, but also fertility, potency, hormone levels and other attributes connected to reproduction will vary from person to person and also change through our lives.

Even if there was a binary, (and there isn’t), our reproductive differences are not substantial enough to warrant segregation. Assigning a legal/social status to someone based on their (assumed) reproductive capabilities is as arbitrary as assigning a status based on skin, hair or eye colour. And it is oppressive.

Our physical bodies may influence us, but they do not, or at least should not, define our identity.

5. Understand gender segregation is a tool of the patriarchy

Segregation is a manipulation founded in a patriarchal agenda – separating women from men “for their own good” serves to reinforce male dominance by making women afraid of men and less able or inclined to participate in mixed spaces. Male violence towards women is the engine that drives this segregation.

Separate spaces are an important temporary refuge in the world as it is, but their existence does nothing to help change things, and they may even reinforce the status quo. Such is the dilemma of people trying to find respite from oppression, but also wanting to end the oppression. Sometimes there are trade-offs between our current safety and our future ideals. There are no easy solutions.

6. Accept the radical challenge of risking our comfort zones to bring about change

The ultimate challenge for us as feminists is to end the vast inequality and false segregation between women and men and come to a place where we are understood as similar and equal and human. At the same time by necessity we have to speak up about our current differences in circumstance.

This is a somewhat paradoxical position that leads to a lot of conflict in terms of where we place the emphasis in our individual activism. It takes courage to build the bridges that will in the end unite us and erase the false divisions, but the fear-focussed, safety-focussed activism many of us retreat into is an understandable response to the levels of cis male violence and hierarchical oppression.

7. Challenge the bias towards masculinity

Equality needs to be won by acknowledging the boundary between the sexes is permeable in both directions. This means we have to learn to value those things we have relegated to the class “feminine” and not see maleness as neutral, or default, or privilege behaviours traditionally seen as masculine like strength, drive and invulnerability.

8. Break the foundations of gender oppression, not just the facade

The gender class system was based on reproductive biology but many other human traits and dichotomies have been projected onto a manufactured gender divide – e.g. dominance/submission, reason/emotion, strength/weakness, power/vulnerability, hard/soft, predator/prey. This is a natural consequence of falsely polarising human experiences, and similar processes happen when we polarise in other ways. It would be impossible to abolish “gender” as a social construct without abolishing the process of sex assignment that acts as a foundation to gender, with its false polarisation.

9. Recognise the colonialist roots of our gender discussions

A problem with the notion of gender abolition is that it would be colonialist to further abolish or erase non-western cultural experiences of gender such as Two-spirit and Hijras, which have already experienced erasure from colonialism. Abolishing sex assignment, however, would mean ending something that is imposed on vulnerable individuals (children) without their consent. Abolishing sex assignment at birth would not prevent people from freely choosing a sexed or gendered identity for themselves, but it would materially undermine those polarising assumptions of difference.

10. Allow all people bodily autonomy and the freedom to not be legally segregated against their wishes

Trans identities are valid with or without medical treatment, our identities should not be medicalised but we should be entitled to medical treatment if we require it. Such treatment should neither legitimise nor deligitimise us.

How we legally classify human beings is a human-fabricated choice and one that can be altered as we learn more about ourselves. If someone insists that we must choose to continue ignoring trans and intersex people when we classify people in this constructed language of sex difference, they are acting oppressively towards a minority for whom the created system simply does not work.

 

At the heart of these steps is the abolition of assigning people to a segregated sex class without their consent. Could the abolition of sex assignment and sex segregation lead to the equality and liberation of all women, trans people and intersex people? Almost certainly. However, it would be naive to think we can achieve this easily. In the mean time, any attempts to subvert or alter that classifying system and demonstrate its weakness and permeability are of course acts of feminism as well as acts of individual survival.

Taking a deep breath and stepping up once again

After a long time of feeling beaten, I’ve been inspired by the film Selma not to be daunted by the much more minor danger I have put myself in as someone who defends trans people’s civil rights.

First of all, the film has taught me I am unlikely to be shot or physically beaten, that things are not as bad for me as they are for many people of colour, and I remind myself every day of the enormous privilege I have in this world.

But I have been endangered in other ways. The gaslighting from people who seek to invalidate trans identities is a heavy burden. The foundation of all trans oppression is that because ours is an unusual, minority experience, therefore we are wrong, delusional, and politically undermining of the majority position and values others cling to. The burden trans people carry is delegitimisation and social exclusion, which is no small burden. Social support has time and time again been proven to protect people’s mental health and wellbeing, and to render them less exposed to societal violence and abuse. Trans people are expected to go without such support.

Some months ago I stopped blogging, closed my facebook page, removed myself from all feminist and trans activist spaces, and severely curtailed my social interactions in order to protect myself from the mental violence of these campaigns. I had been targeted individually, and unfairly, and became quickly aware that being out as a trans person put me outside the “circle of care” for some people, and gave them a sense of entitlement to speak about me in ways that to me and those close to me seemed extreme and outrageous. Online, I have fared even worse when I have been mistaken for a trans woman, so I hold an awareness that I still have relative privilege. This is what has kept me wanting to stand up and use that privilege to challenge the oppression of trans people, and trans women in particular.

To be clear, these campaigners exist all over the world, and I oppose all of them. That some of them live in my home town and are a little closer to home adds to my discomfort, but everyone who knows me knows I have stood up against trans exclusion and delegitimisation for years and long before I was aware of the particular individuals who are most involved locally with such campaigning.

I know I have acted with integrity, but I have been outspoken, and it is unsurprising that I’ve been targeted and attacked by people who want to silence me, and that the positive, bridge-building work I’ve been doing has been undermined. When I saw what happened at Selma – the violence people were prepared to use to maintain their dominance, I felt at once enormously privileged by comparison and at the same time a sense of resonance – I know I have been experiencing another kind of oppression, and those close to me know this too, and understand its profound impact on me and on my partner.

By choosing to stand up for my own and others rights, particularly those of trans women, I have put myself in the firing line, but I am not the one pulling the trigger. Activists always get a bad reputation in contrast to those members of minority groups who keep heads down and “know their place” – feminists are seen as oppressive, full of hatred and anger towards men, black activists are seen as violent and dangerous. Trans activists are treated no differently by those who wish to stop us having civil rights and who wish, let’s be honest, that the rights we have in the UK, such as the Gender Recognition Act, and our protections under the Equality Act, would be revoked and that we would not be recognised as a legitimate minority group with a legitimate experience of oppression.

Often my friends as much as my enemies urge me to “pipe down” because they don’t want to see me hurt, and they know in their bones that people who are vulnerable and stand up for themselves do, always, get hurt. And so I have, in fact it has nearly broken me at times.

But I will keep working towards change – I have done some good, and I will not be intimidated and silenced by the way I, other trans folk, and people who have offered me allyship have been targeted. I have always strived to work with integrity, and in a non-violent way that builds bridges and brings people together, but there are some positions I will not build a bridge to because that would require the reversal of rights I already have as a trans person, and give credence to the outrageous claim that giving me rights erodes somebody else’s.

If anyone believes any of the rather extreme things said about me or many other trans activists, I urge them to check the evidence and in my case I also urge them to challenge me directly and have a conversation with me about their concerns, because I am not in a position to do anyone any harm. There are bad apples in every movement. I am confident that despite my lack of charm I am not one of them.

There is currently said to be a trans “tipping point”; we are finally achieving a modicum of acceptance and recognition, but the gaining of rights is always accompanied by a backlash from those who either fear the pendulum will “swing too far” or believe that those asking for rights were never oppressed in the first place, and therefore their protection will afford them unacceptable privileges.

So we need ally support now more than ever. We need allies to be strong. We need them to not turn away from what is happening and fill in the blanks in their mind with a story that allows them to do nothing, a story where trans people are responsible for their own misfortune, where the concerns they express are “individual” and “personal” rather than a collective call for human rights and an end to oppression, and a plea to cis people to start noticing and scrutinising the actions and behaviours of those who actively campaign against our rights, acceptance and recognition.

Our rights, let’s be clear, to be recognised as who we say we are, to live in our identities unimpeded, and not to be segregated or subjected to “separate but equal” treatment.

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.

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?

Careless talk costs

The hardest thing to do as a therapist is help people learn that although they are not responsible for the horrors that have befallen them, they are ultimately responsible for themselves and their own behaviour. It is particularly hard to help a traumatised, hypervigilent person to see that they have a choice in how they are acting. I know this only too well, having also been on the other side of the therapeutic relationship; I spent a long time in trauma counselling trying to re-learn trusting, relationship-based interactions with people and unlearn fear-focused, control-based patterns of relating.

I’m sure, if I’m honest, that I still have a lot to learn.

The trouble with the internet, is we can self-publish our own words without any kind of moderating process, meaning highly triggered and triggering responses can go out into the ether unchecked. Careless words leave opponents feeling blamed and shamed and unlikely to listen, more likely to spew back yet more triggered and triggering material. Careless words also tap into the trauma and hypervigilance of like-minded people, fueling their sense of entitlement to their own rage, and often sparking the kind of mindless mob that becomes too much of a blunt weapon to make any kind of breakthrough. It ends up not being about who is right or wrong, who is the most oppressed or entitled to their angry feelings; it becomes about people being in too high a state of fear arousal to really listen to anything at all, rendering the entire interaction utterly pointless other than to provide the fuel for further drama.

I tend to think of anger as a good thing to be in touch with, but I also think it is dangerous for any of us to have a sense of entitlement to our anger – anger is just a feeling; it is information, it is not a right. Feeling angry does not legitimise any ensuing behaviour; the strength of our trauma response does not necessarily hold the triggering person responsible for all our feelings. We are responsible for our feelings, and for our triggers. Other people are only responsible for their own behaviour.

I do not go into situations as a blank slate with no previous baggage, my trauma responses are far more deep rooted than anything that is happening in the here and now, so much as I would love to blame TERFs or MRAs for all my bad days (and they would like to blame me for theirs), this would be rather disingenuous. Even without my trauma history, living life as a gender variant child and adult exerts huge psychological pressure in a world that bullies and excludes us. We are social beings, and if we are different, the social structures supporting us are far less reliable, leaving us vulnerable to victimisation, abuse and trauma, and ultimately to poor mental health.

I am not responsible for the way the world treats a queer kid, but I have to be responsible for the person that I am in this world, and that means owning my fear, lack of trust, hypervigilance and fury at any form of oppression, marginalisation or injustice. My well-examined and thought-through anger is a splendid tool in my activism, but only when I am fully self-aware. When I screw my anger up and throw it without any pause or self-reflection, which I do more often than I would like, I add to the burden of aggression, tension, drama and even abuse that exists in this world. I fuel the fear. I know that so much of my activism has gone astray because I just didn’t have a proper hold of myself, and that all those misfires are wasted energy that undermines where I and others are trying to get to.

None of us is completely insignificant, especially those of us with a voice on the internet. Feeling entitled to our rage can be dangerous, and feeling completely powerless even more so, especially if it gives us permission to “let rip” at our opponents, or allies who have got it wrong. Others pile in, and soon we have that old fashioned angry mob with the cyber equivalent of waving pitchforks. Mobs have power, even mobs of relatively powerless individuals. I have seen lesbian mobs, feminist mobs, trans mobs, TERF mobs, and every other kind of mob you can think of. The mob always looks much friendlier when it isn’t after you, but from an outsider perspective all mobs are as ugly as each other.

I am trying to learn to ask questions before I speak out, collectively or unilaterally: When we’re organising for our rights, are we leaving time and space for each of us to reflect on our own behaviour? Do we think about the power we have or the power our actions might manifest? Are we whipping others up with triggering stories that override their ability to reflect? I keep trying to be non-violent in my approach to activism, not just because I’m a dreamy hippy, but because non-violent communication builds bridges and creates change.

Trouble is, when I’m full of fear I knock down as many bridges as I build.