Today’s Column is written by: ANNABELLE LAROUSSE
You Can’t Get There from Here:
As we go through life, we learn little lessons here and there. That is to say, hopefully we do. It would be a sad state of affairs if we went out of this life as ignorant as when we came into it. But those lessons we do learn, often we learn them in unexpected circumstances. Life has a way of placing us in rather odd classrooms at times.
I’d say that one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned came in a completely unexpected (and almost literal) classroom—from the study of Latin that I embarked on. I got into the language because I’ve always had an interest in history and there were some people I wanted to read in their own words. Those who know foreign languages know the huge difference that exists between the original and a translation. Those who abhor foreign languages may not realize that there are other things that can be learned from them apart from a given language itself.
One thing that can be gained from a study of languages is some understanding of how the human brain works. This is what I got from Latin. Those who’ve done Latin will know what a bizarre language it is from our English-speaking point of view. It takes a special effort to get anywhere with it.
One experience that I had over and over and over was trying to figure out a sentence in Latin and failing to do so. At such times I’d turn to a translation (I always have one on hand to fall back on when I need it), and when I saw what the sentence meant, I’d get quite exasperated with myself. I knew all the basic Latin I needed to know in order to figure the sentence out. So why did I fail?
Eventually I realized what was happening: it is quite possible to think that you’re thinking when you’re not really. You’re actually operating in cruise control, so that when you need to move up a gear, you fail to do so. Having failed to do so so many times I came to understand the reason for that failure: our brains do not have an automatic mechanism that will move them up a gear when they need to. The brain may realize, “I’m in difficulties here. I need to work harder.” But then it doesn’t actually do that, even though it may tell itself that it is.
When I say “brain” here, I’m talking about the faculty of intelligence, the native wit we have that allows us to understand things. It is that faculty that often fails us because intelligence, no matter how much a given individual has of it, has its limits. Understanding often comes to us via another faculty, one that provisionally I’m calling “insight”. Often enough we simply “see” the answer to a problem. Brute force won’t get us there. We have to take another route.
It is insight that often solves a translator’s problems. It happens all the time that you get stuck. You understand perfectly well the text before you. But how to put it in proper, smooth English, as opposed to “translationese”, a crude, clumsy, more or less word-for-word rendering of the original?
When I get stuck in this fashion, it’s often been my procedure to get up from the desk, walk away, look out the window—get my mind off the text. It’s the words themselves that are getting in my way. I need to clear my mind of them and let it digest the meaning, the concepts behind those words. Once I do that, the English comes to me.
This is why we English-speakers speak English so well. Our minds are full of thoughts and concepts. English is our way of expressing them. And given that we don’t have any outside interference (from foreign words, e.g.), we spontaneously express those thoughts in the language we grew up with. So when you’re translating, clear the mind of that outside interference. Focus on the meaning of the text alone. Then you can express yourself in English the way you always do.
Insight is a different faculty from intelligence. It’s a different method for understanding things. But insight cannot arise from nothing. It doesn’t work in a vacuum. It must have a platform to start from—and it is intelligence that can provide that platform. E.g., no amount of insight is going to help you figure out a sentence in Latin if you’ve never done a single lesson in Latin to begin with.
Another example: some years back I had a medical problem that a lot of doctors simply failed to deal with. When I realized that I wasn’t going to get any help from them, I began digging into a lot of stuff online. There were many possible answers that I rejected fairly quickly since they didn’t seem likely to me, given the way I felt.
Then one day a tiny little thing occurred that immediately made me wonder: could that have something to do with it? Now I’d already done a bit of research in that area, and so I started doing more. I didn’t find a whole lot in that particular area, but what I did find led me to believe that that could be the source of my problems. And the solution would actually be quite simple and straightforward. So that’s what I tried.
It was some months before I was really feeling well again, but that bit of insight had provided me with the answer. But that bit of insight had sprung from the previous research I’d done. Before I did any research at all, I hadn’t a clue what could be wrong. Once I did the research, then I had something to work with, and insight came to my rescue.
Now at this point, some of you may be wondering, what exactly has all this got to do with transgender issues? This: I myself try to understand the thinking of our enemies, the theory (perhaps a foolish one) being, that if we can understand their thinking, we can correct it. Over the last few days I’ve encountered two of our staunch opponents—one of them an incredibly nasty person (and who I suspect is also something of an airhead), the other not so nasty in manner, though equally so in effect.
Some of our opponents (though not all of them) try to figure us out, and they fail miserably. One reason is that at the end of the day they don’t really want to understand us. They merely want to condemn us. So they don’t go after true understanding. Whatever their reasons, they can come up with the nastiest and most outlandish theories about us. E.g., transgenderism is an expression of self-hatred. I suppose the idea is that I hate myself so much that I’d like to be completely different from what I am. So, hey, I know! I’ll be a woman!
Whatever an individual’s particular error, the mistake they have in common is a procedural one: they believe that they can just sit back and think about things and they’ll be able to figure us out. The saying, “You can’t get there from here,” is apt in this case. There is no road from Cisgender City to Transgender Town. You can only come in by helicopter. They think they can arrive at an understanding of these matters through brute force alone—i.e., by applying their intelligence to them. In fact, if cisgender people want to understand transgender, insight is required.
As I’ve suggested, insight isn’t something you can force. You have to be open to it. You have to let it happen. You can create circumstances in which it is more likely to happen—when you build a platform for it. But it will never happen if you haven’t built a platform that it can work from, and our opponents have no such platform.
They think they can come at it from a cisgender angle. They seem to think that they can use their imaginations and they’ll get there. The problem is that their imaginations are cisgender. Transgender is so far outside their experience that their imaginations have nothing to work with. At the end of the day they can only imagine that we transgender people are somehow, at bottom, just like them. So they imagine a transgender version of a cisgender person, which is why they get things ludicrously wrong.
If a cisgender person wants to understand transgender people, they must have a platform for insight to work from. And where do they get that platform? I don’t really know. As a transgender person, I’m not sure what to say. But perhaps Alice Munro offers an answer in one of her short stories.
The story involved a teenage girl who was a free spirit. While all her girlfriends were dreaming about the men they would marry and the homes they would build, she was having none of it. She was a bit of a lost soul, not exactly sure how she wanted to go about life, but she knew she wanted/needed something besides that. Then one day, while looking through a magazine for teenage girls, she came across an article entitled, “Is It Your Problem You’re Trying to Be a Boy?”
Immediately the girl was highly indignant. True, it might well have been to her advantage to be a boy, given the type of person she was and given that men had more freedom and opportunity in those days, but even recognizing those facts, she said, “It never occurred to me to want to be a boy.” And note: the article didn’t ask if she was trying to be like a boy. It suggested that she might be trying to be a boy. That is a profound and significant difference.
As a transgender person, this is my view of the situation: the author, a cisgender woman, was describing the experience of a young cisgender woman. And what she says is, “It never occurred to me to want to be a boy.” That is, her gender identity is female. And her gender identity is such a deep, fundamental part of her, that it’s simply a given in her life. It never occurs to her to question it. Munro, I would say, had got a glimpse (however vague) of her gender identity, and she had instinctively understood, “This is me. And I cannot be otherwise.”
And so if cisgender people are looking for a platform from which their insight can work, perhaps they’ll find it within themselves. If you can gain an understanding of “what it really means to be me,” then you might get a glimpse of “what it really means to be someone else.” Then perhaps you’ll have something to work with.
Lest any cisgender person thinks that I’m patronizing cisgender people here, let me point out that it works both ways. I don’t think we transpeople have any better an instinctive understanding of what it is to be cisgender than cispeople have of what it means to be us. One time, on a transgender forum, someone started a thread entitled, “I Wonder What It’s Like to Be Cisgender.” It was a short thread because nobody could think of anything to say, apart from, “It must make life a lot easier.”
I myself find cisgender men baffling. I have no instinctive understanding of what they are. I don’t know how many times in my life I’ve had the experience of walking by a fashion shop and seeing a nice dress in the window and thinking, “Mmm. I wonder what I’d look like in that.” Back in the old days, that reaction would have been followed by feelings of shame, knowing as I did how horrified or contemptuous others would have been if they’d known what I was thinking.
I was supposed to be thinking (if I was thinking anything at all), “I wonder how my wife/girlfriend would look in that.” But given, as I said, that I have no instinctive understanding of cisgender men, neither do I have any instinctive understanding of why they wouldn’t wonder what they would look like in a particular dress. The fact that they have no interest whatsoever in dresses is a bit of a mystery to me.
However, I do have something to work with. I understand the concept of gender identity, and I understand that not everybody’s is the same as mine. This one isn’t actually very hard, is it? Cisgender men, like me, have a gender identity. Theirs is just different from mine, that’s all. Yet this simple little bit of understanding seems to be an insuperable obstacle for our opponents.
Suppose I went around telling men everywhere, “Oh, come, come, admit it. Deep down inside you know you’d enjoy looking pretty in a pretty dress.” I wouldn’t exactly make myself popular among the male species, would I? Yet this is the level of stupidity we get from our opponents, even though they don’t realize it.
Or suppose I came up with a theory as to why cisgender men say they don’t want to look pretty in a pretty dress. It’s because they hate women. They don’t want to look anything like women because they hate them so much. I have a sneaking suspicion that cisgender men would reject that theory. But this is the sort of theory that our opponents formulate in regard to us, and they expect to be taken seriously. And they can actually get quite patronizing and dismissive towards us because they’re so sure they’re right and we just don’t want to admit it. They’re so sure they understand us better than we do ourselves.
I wish they’d take up Latin. For one thing it would give them plenty to do and they’d stop worrying about us. But if they understood some things about how we human beings understand things, then maybe they’d see the need to take a different approach to transgender issues.