Let’s begin with a story. Back in my early 20s, when blogging was still a more sincere and optimistic endeavour for a lot of us, I first published a post negotiating my lack of inner gender identity by outlining the three domains where our related terminology seemed to sit: natal sex (male/female), external performance (being “read” as man/woman/other by outsiders), and inner identity (how we recognize ourselves). Simply put: I had a biological sex, I was read as having [X] gender by outsiders depending on how I presented, but… for the life of me I did not feel anything gendered within my sensee of self.
And lo, in the wake of that post, I had my first experience with particularly ugly strains of both trans activist and radical feminist. Emphasis, of course, on “strains”, because a huge part of today’s essay is going to be about resisting the dismissal of whole ideological spectrums on account of their most strident and provocative formations.
For clarity, then:
I’m talking the kind of trans activist who would declare that my uterus was a privilege, and that if I’d ever suffered in society for having this machinery, that was my personal damage to deal with but it didn’t make me any less privileged over those who wanted a uterus but didn’t have one. (An astonishing statement because most feminized persons know full well that every stereotype and socioeconomic consequence stemming from our perceived unfitness to do [X] has a huge historical and contemporary resonance with the belief that childbearing is our central purpose: that this machinery is us.)
And I’m talking the kind of rad-fem who would agree with me that gender involves imposed roles (girls wear this, like that, do this) based on presumptions about biological sex… but who somehow always ended up in a line of argument about how one sex (male) was the “bad” sex, such that a penis was an intrinsically violent piece of machinery that needed to be kept away from female machinery (my first experience with the “all sex is rape” crowd, too!)… even though gender was purportedly just a series of roles, and the whole point of their rad-feminism was to dismantle its deterministic social outcomes?
And a little more background context:
Now, back then, online debate still made my hands shake–particularly when I received personal attacks. I hadn’t yet learned that the rhetoric folks use online is detached from the socio-empathetic consequences we (usually, hopefully!) get for bad behaviour in person, and as such often appeared far more threatening than it had any right to be. (I also hadn’t learned to look to the helpers, Mr. Rogers style–but oh my, you folks here on Patheos have been wonderful: thank you for ever-so-much-more-often seeking respectful forms of dissent!)
I’d also been negotiating some striking discourse in undergrad about how the “race to the bottom” plays out in political science. There, we were exploring the claim that those most marginalized by real-world systems were the best people to comment on it. I could tell that my professor was sorely hoping we’d come to cynical conclusions about all marginalization discourse (my PSCI professors were almost all right-leaning, whatever the purported “liberal bias” in post-secondary institutions on whole), but to his credit he was very good at celebrating well-structured dissent–the way any university class should be, within safe and respectful parameters for all–so productive conversation ensued.
Of Wolves and Their Hen-Houses
We discussed, in part, the veracity of such a claim: Did the most marginalized know more, or was it more accurate to say that they knew more about certain aspects of a given system that are often overlooked in its overall assessment? Were we not entertaining a new variety of “Noble Savage”/”blind-people-have-spooky-sixth-senses”/magical-human stereotype by suggesting otherwise?
Around that time, too, Tim Geithner was selected by Barack Obama to repair the financial-crisis damage done by the Tim Geithners of the financial world… and I remember that being a particularly chewy point in the PSCI world. After all, who better but a wolf to point out all the weaknesses in a hen-house’s defenses? What would a more effective power-sharing arrangement look like, between wolves and hens seeking to create a safer world within a system that still intrinsically favours wolves?
And we discussed the rhetorical consequences of this “race to the bottom”: namely, the (perceived) frantic rush for everyone to claim to a more marginalized identity, once discursive power seemed to be attached to such things. We talked about the dangers of people who can use the right language, adopt the right terminology, but still advance the same destructive positions from within that rhetoric. What system of nuanced philosophical conversation could ever protect us from those wolves in sheep’s clothing?
We discussed, in other words, whether the most “extreme” current discourse had even come close to side-stepping the desire to leverage knowledge for power over others.
And some ten years later, we’ve got a “crisis of truth” in our infotainment machine that suggests… no.
The answer, still, is no.
So do we have any options here at all?
Identifying the Power-Seeking Tricks of the Trade
I think a lot about those early brushes with very ugly strains of trans activism and radical feminism, as I witness that particular debate continue a decade on. Now radical feminists who zero in on gender/sex discourse as it relates to trans issues have an inner identity (gender-critical feminists) and an externally imposed identity (trans-exclusive radical feminists, TERFs) that some of them wear proudly and others regard as nothing more than a dismissive slur, meant to shut down discourse at the door. (Of course!, other feminist subgroups will point out: One’s right to debate ends when what you want to debate is another’s right to exist!) And you still get some particularly creepy comments from certain trans activists around questions of sexual orientation, as if any human being “owes” their sexual availability to anyone else.
(NB: Sometimes people ask me if being queer/bisexual isn’t confusing, what with male and female bodies existing along a fairly divergent spectrum, but I honestly find it’s far less confusing to say that I love who I love, bits secondary, than this current political quagmire of “I love women by which I mean I love people with vulvas and tits who identify as women” which has many lesbians being castigated for “transmisogyny”, and now has both groups, for different reasons of varying coherence, terrified of being attacked in LGBTQ+ spaces. Can… can we all just get to that happy-go-lucky love-the-person-first utopia on the other side of all this terminology? I promise, it is way simpler just to say “I love/am-attracted-to that specific human being!”)
But more than anything, I think about myself: about how quickly human beings forge alliances for and against different positions based on emotions, including fears of lost hierarchical standing. I think about how differently I could have reacted to that first encounter, and what trajectory my discourse might have taken in its wake.
I think about how easy it is for human beings to latch onto the worst formations of other positions, or to zero in on the worst advocates for other positions–especially when those advocates are going for the jugular. How easy it is to dismiss other people’s concerns and whole spectrums of dissenting belief, simply by pointing to one particularly nasty or ill-informed representative of that point of view (especially online, where socio-empathetic checks-and-balances are rare), and latching onto them. Fixating on how incoherent [X] belief is because of specific flaws/oversimplifications and their messengers.
Academic / In-group Bias
And this is especially easy, I find, for folks like myself: folks, that is, with significant training in academese–whether within academic walls or in activist groups that lean heavily on theoretical discourse to enact specific praxis.
Which seems odd, doesn’t it? Because you’d kinda think that anyone with a classic humanities education should be better inured against this proclivity; we should know that it is our duty as critical thinkers a) to present opposing points of view in their strongest formulations, eschewing straw-men or lump-sum interpretations of other schools of thought; and b) only do battle with those strongest formulations, and not the low-hanging fruit of someone’s tumblr/Twitter screencap…
But no, we’re not much better fortified… because at the same time that this truth-seeking rhetoric was advanced in school content, it was also contradicted in the form of our learning entirely. We’re well-trained in theoretical knowledge, sure… but we’re also well trained–possibly the best trained–in how knowledge can be wielded to exert power.
Heck, it’s right there in post-secondary institutional structures (outside some formulations of indigenous and peace studies, which have different structures for grading performance and sharing knowledge with peers). You’ve got the teacher as the one with the power; who usually stands and delivers and determines the fitness of others’ remarks and educational products based on their ability to adapt/conform to class requirements. And you’ve got the administrator establishing rigid parameters (primarily formed by financial interests) to which the teacher–even one who perhaps longs to structure their class differently–must conform to stay in the system at all.
And it’s similarly present in political organizations, establishment or otherwise. If establishment, there are formal processes and by-the-book language that one must learn to wield power within the system. If outsider/informal-activist, charismatic leadership is enforced by those seeking their own power in the process, and everyone shares a distinct, if ever-evolving in-group vocabulary to clarify/police roles and aims to this end.
Now, is this so different from other aspects of society? No, of course not. Churches have hierarchies. Governments have hierarchies. Craft circles have hierarchies. Children’s play groups have hierarchies.
But the part that I suspect especially ires the average witness to ever so much ideological debate about issues with tremendously pressing policy consequences… is that many of the people who employ this form of academese in politics and activism, this Game of Owns in which one seemingly evergreen objective is catching others out on philosophical or semantic inconsistencies, do not identify as what they’re doing as power-seeking.
They’re just innocently, disembodied-ly pursuing “the truth”.
And whatever could be nobler and purer than that?
Can We Reframe Our Stakes? Are We Brave Enough?
“Power-seeking” is such a dirty phrase that few would baldly own up to it, so we often find clever workarounds. A political group might say that they’re just trying to keep the other guy from getting power, that’s all. We’re “dismantling” power, and if it just ends up in our hands after all is said and done, well! That’s just the cyclicality of politics for you! (See: the Canadian PM, Justin Trudeau, elected on a landslide on the back of electoral reform in 2015… only to decide that since the country had elected him, it didn’t need that electoral reform after all. Typical behaviour once anyone gains a majority.)
There are, however, different ways to think about power–even if, right now, our media circus (both mainstream and via informal online discourse) is thriving on its central conflation of “power” with “the power to oppress.” As long as that’s the dominant understanding of “power”, though, you bet your bippy we’re going to have people railing against whoever currently “holds” power, simply for the fact that they do.
Which is unfortunate (to say the least), because a great many groups struggling valiantly against oppressive aspects of our flawed overarching culture also have incredibly vital causes in mind. Whether in a back alley or a police holding cell, a mine or a classroom, in a domestic relationship or when drinking from a tap, they’re trying not to see more of their people die. They’re seeking basic human dignity, the right to live without fear, the right to work, the right to pursue happiness.
And, sure, maybe these groups have the formal education needed to “play the game” on established institutional terms. Or maybe not, and they therefore have to create and assert the validity of a new vocabulary simply to be heard on terms that the dominant institutions of our culture are more likely to accept.
But either way, the hen-house we’re all fighting to improve upon remains part of a system that intrinsically favours wolves.
As such, what we need is a radicalism that… I’m not even sure we’re ready for.
I know, though, that it starts with recognizing how much power, not truth, is still the guiding driver behind all our best and loftiest attempts at hen-house reform.