Let’s begin with a story. Years back, I read an article arguing that people who only identified themselves as “white” were actively participating in the exoticization of “other” ethnicities, and that “white” people should be much more upfront about their range of ethnic backgrounds to help diminish the racialized hierarchy (white and “other”) in our society.
Interesting thought! And so, I started making more of a concerted effort to identify myself as settler-stock Canadian, from English, French, Irish, and Scottish ancestry going back many generations.
Then I read another commentary, which accused “white” people of trying to hide from the problems of whiteness by invoking other heritage-ethnicities instead of just naming themselves as “white”.
At that point, a few things occurred to me. I love the Aesop’s fable involving a man, a boy, and a donkey headed to market, in which the man and the boy keep changing the way they go to market (one riding, the other riding, both riding) based on other people’s judgments, until at last they make so ridiculous a choice that the donkey panics atop a bridge and falls to its death.
Some read that fable the same way some people would read the two incidents I’ve just described: as evidence that listening to other people’s opinions on how to act in a more ethical manner is foolish. Many folks go so far, even, as to label whole bodies of better-world discourse “incoherent” simply because they contain so many supposed contradictions and inconsistencies on a user-by-user basis.
But there is at least one correct way to go to market, and similarly, there is at least one correct way to try to reduce harm in the world.
In the above example, for instance, both comments can work together; it can be simultaneously true that we need to acknowledge our range of ethnicities across the board, rather than allow certain groups to be seen as “ethnic” while others are not, and we need to do this without forgetting the role of “whiteness”, as an overarching set of assumptions that benefit certain people to the exclusion (and peril) of others.
This is why I use the glib phrase “Another White Atheist in Colombia” as the name of this column. Anyone who’s read my essays here knows full well that being humanist is far more important to me than being “atheist”; and likewise, being “white” — that is, being someone who benefits from the veil of whiteness in Anglo-Western society — is a factual identity that doesn’t convey everything vital on the topic.
The trouble is that even many well-intentioned people could easily be frustrated by the sheer messiness of any given discourse, and decide that the whole discourse is useless if it cannot be coherently defended by everyone who subscribes to it.
Ergo, the accusations of “incoherent leftist politics”. Ergo the insistence that social-justice discourse in particular, because it involves so much internal debate and disagreement over language and methodology (i.e. “in-fighting”), cannot possibly be a useful way of “going to market”.
What can we learn, instead, from embracing the complexity of active sociopolitical debate?
Making Concessions: What the “Other” Side Sees
There are, I should note, two very important reasons that many people lean into the notion that leftism’s “in-fighting” is incoherent chaos. One has to do with how a “strident” tone, in conjunction with less-than-precise terminology, can appear to people outside the discourse. “Sure, believe whatever you like,” the argument goes, “but do you have to be so loud about it? Do you have to pathologize people who believe differently? Do I have to parrot an expression I think is inaccurate just because it’s the most popular of the day?”
What many folks would rather see is a world in which people can hold opposing points of view to their heart’s content — but without lecturing or judging others for thinking differently, and without expecting them to bite their tongues when it comes to pedantic matters like the structure of a given slogan. At worst, this is because they don’t actually want to be troubled by differing perspectives, especially ones that add greater moral complexity to everyday life. At best, it’s because they’re worried about incurring real-world socioeconomic consequences, if they can’t “keep up” with the vocabulary of the day. (This leads to that fear of “cancel culture” I discussed here in the summer.)
Unfortunately, what such folks are asking of others is that they give up all strength of conviction: a tall order when one’s convictions involve, say, belief in the injustice of the carceral state, or of the crisis of human dignity that specific demographics are enduring under the law; or in the urgency of doing more to prevent/mitigate environmental disaster. We need people to be strong in their points of view, and willing to act upon those convictions in the world. We can’t expect everyone to go around being soft-spoken about wrongdoing, as they see it.
The second reason is even more generous: exasperation, wrought of helplessness to do more in the face of contradictory recommendations like the ones I mentioned at the outset. Many folks who critique leftist discourse as “incoherent” are in fact quite sympathetic to the need to build a better world. They just can’t figure out how all these messy proposals and counterproposals are doing anything but muddying the water. Does everything need a “hot take” and an equally hot counter-take? Is there nothing that can be celebrated as a good, effective way to build a better world without becoming susceptible to some other armchair-theorist’s “spin” as Actually The Worst Thing Ever?
So, I understand that there are very good reasons for discourse-fatigue, and distrust of so wild a playing-field in general.
But here’s what I think we’re doing wrong, when that’s all we allow ourselves to see in the mess of humanity’s conversations with itself.
The Forest for the Trees
Simply put, when we demand perfect coherence and consistency across all members of a given moment, we end up prioritizing the ability to converse at a highly academic level over the pursuit of greater understanding and democratic collaboration across all sections of society. We also fall prey to the idea that language only ever serves a single purpose, the rigid exchange of coherent semiotic signifieds, instead of the wide range of performative functions that communication reinforces.
For example, a common expression used right now in many parts of the left-leaning social justice community is “trans women are women”.
This is an odd phrase for me, on the surface, because I don’t believe that “woman” is a coherent category. I’m nonbinary; I don’t see myself as having an inner gender identity, so I’m left with sex-based anatomy and how I’m gendered by society, via the assumptions set upon me based on the roles/aptitudes/behaviours that my anatomy supposedly (literally) engenders. “Woman” — or “mujer”, as I am routinely called here in Colombia — is a term that only ever feels like an externalized imposition of values that vary depending on the individual using the term. When I hear it, most of my mental energy is then taken up by trying to understand what that other person means when they use that term. What expectations have they just set upon me?
But when most people use this slogan, especially on social media or in protest contexts, they’re really saying something else:
“I accept other people’s articulated truths as part of our collective truth. (And you should, too!)”
And… that’s it!
Personally, I use “trans rights are human rights” because it doesn’t leave me mentioning the bewildering categories of “woman” and “man” at all — but I’d also never be such an incredible ass as to respond to someone telling me they are a woman with “Well, what is a woman, really?” Because that’s not the function of language we’re sharing in that moment; one person has simply told me who they are, and all that’s needed is the affirmation, “Your truth is safe with me. I accept your truth in our collective truth.”
In general, too, quibbling over other people having a different sense of such terms is not only counterproductive, but also incredibly classist, because it requires other people to have the same background in linguistics/semiotics, and to “get on my level” by reading all the same theorists who have informed my views on gender. And for what? Everyone else should have to go through all of my educational building blocks… just to be able to participate in advancing the idea that we should accept someone else’s articulated sense of self?
How utterly narcissistic.
No, if we’re to engage more of the world in meaningful debate, we absolutely cannot expect that everyone go through the same body of readings and educational exposures before serious discourse can ensue. Instead, we have to relax our fixation on surface-level rhetoric and pay closer attention to the underlying purpose that it serves — because the underlying purpose is far more important.
Ironically, though, many on the “other” side are also strident in tone because of their different educational experiences. Many, for instance, see biology as everything, and socialized gender as having nothing to do with what is invoked when we use the term “woman” in discourse. As such, when a perfectly useful substitute emerges, like “people with uteruses” — which is now commonly used when advocating for everyone with specific anatomical features and related healthcare needs — they cannot stand it. The very idea that we can easily advocate for womb-holders without needing to invoke a term that has a complex history of social expectations laid upon presumed anatomy… is out of their grasp, because they cannot see any difference between signifier and signified. If we’re not literally advocating for “women”, the argument seems to go, then there is no possible way that we can be fighting oppressions based on, say, uterine and mammarian anatomy and physiology.
Which in turn is complicated by how some who support trans rights (human rights!) also get their linguistics mucked up, by then seeking the elimination of “male” and “female” as anatomical terms entirely. (In the human realm, at least, which is why I doubt that this will stick: biology finds these terms exceptionally useful for other-animal studies, so you’d really need to wipe sex-based terminology from the entire animal kingdom for longterm coherence on this accord.)
This is a reactionary manoeuvre, though. It’s been invoked by people who desire dignity, protection, and safety for trans persons, and who are sick and tired of seeing biology so often weaponized against the social legitimacy of trans identities. If the working definition of “male” anatomy changes to mean any anatomy possessed by a person who identifies as a man, then… problem solved, right? No more room for linguistic contention in lieu of full acceptance of other people’s inner truths? And all the haters will just go away?
This is as messy, mind you, as the issues that arise when trans activism makes the same mistake queer activism did in the 90s and 00s, by trying to fixate on biological “proofs” of identity. It shouldn’t matter whether you were “born this way” or not — not to the cause of seeking equal dignity under the law! But that activist tactic is similarly reactionary: just as queer persons (like myself) were vilified as “not safe” for other feminized persons to be around, so too do trans persons now suffer the most horrific campaigns in which, say, singular cases of carceral state abuse and failures of oversight are wielded as “proof” of a whole demographic’s danger to others.
(There has also been some excellent analysis as of late regarding why the UK in particular has become so rampantly transphobic in the midst of its far more pressing problems of socioeconomic precarity — but that’s a whole other can of worms.)
No wonder leftist discourse can seem pretty exhausting, then: It’s an active conversation, which means it’s always growing and negotiating in response to what’s come before. And this means that, in process, any given snapshot of what a community is saying and doing might not always seem logically or linguistically sound.
But that doesn’t mean it’s not working.
Incoherent, or Transitory?
At the heart of racialized and gendered social-justice discourse is a desire to address the brokenness of our current world, to create a world of better justices for all. We have so very many different ways of going about that work of building a better world, but the wide variation in approaches, and related vocabulary, arises from the fact that we all inhabit distinct subject-positions. We’ve all seen the world from different perspectives, and we’ve all engaged in discourses to date that have differently shaped our sense of what matters most within them.
To some people, adopting the most popular slogans of the moment will always be among the most important ways of showing support, because they recognize (on at least some level) that the slogan is less important than the movement that it stands for. Saying the words, even if one quibbles with their value (e.g. the recent push-back against “Defund the Police”), is simply a way of showing one’s support for the cause.
To others, “the principle of the thing” will always matter more, and they will not tolerate an activist discourse that does not have surface-level linguistic coherence at all times. This is a position that can only arise from a place of societal comfort, though; and so, if one is going to take it, one needs to recognize that they have the means to choose whether or not to be involved in something that is life-or-death for others.
As for me… well, you’ve already seen two workarounds I use to navigate both my instincts for linguistic pedantry and my focus on justice — and there are plenty of others, because that’s the way genuine discussion works: Ideas are raised, ideas are contested, and new syntheses emerge.
Maybe in a few years, then, when phrases like “people with uteruses” and “people with penises” are in even more widespread use for public-health materials and related activism, we’ll look back with bewilderment at a time when people really thought the most important pathway to better dignity and justice lay in haggling over to what extent the terms “woman” and “man” are biologically versus socially constructed.
But also, quite likely, we’ll have found new words to war over instead, new ways to differentiate between those seeking dignity for all, and those who have established very clear tribalist preferences with respect to whose dignity matters most.
So it goes, when you have 7.8 billion human beings to try to bring into the conversation.
Let’s not pathologize, then, the essential work of humanism: “incoherence”, “dissent”, and even “in-fighting” in better-world-building discourse are only to be expected, the more inclusive that same discourse grows.