Over the years I’ve become used to (and associated with) a certain style of pugilistic political argument. That style is fine by me, and I think indicative of a healthy political culture. For as much as people complain about hyperpartisanship and “the state of the discourse today,” there’s no halcyon past where everyone was civil to each other (whatever that means), and anyway political debates about the fight for justice and equality are naturally and necessarily passionate. Making the world more just and equal, after all, is the most important human project. So, I’m happy to received intemperate criticism and to deal it out when necessary.
However, there is one type of engagement that I have grown more and more tired of, and have now adopted a policy of zero policy towards: people lying about what I believe. You are allowed to say “what you believe is dumb, wrong, evil, etc.” You are not allowed to say “you believe X” when in fact I don’t believe X. If you say it in a way that seems motivated by genuine misunderstanding, I’ll correct you. If you continue to say that I believe something I don’t believe, then I end all communication permanently. If you say something that’s particularly inflammatory that I don’t believe and haven’t said, I’ll just cut off contact immediately. If you’re on Twitter, I’ll block you, if you’re on Facebook, I’ll unfriend you, if you’re in my blog comments, I’ll ban you. Life’s too short. Those kinds of engagement never go anywhere productive at all. Because the one and only way for people to access each other’s political beliefs is for one person to say “I believe X and not Y,” and for the other people to believe him or her, a political conversation that is premised on ignoring such statements is in fact an anti-conversation. Nothing can rescue or redeem it. So, zero tolerance.
For example. There is this guy, Noah Berlatsky. He is one of these writers that has made a living being a professional The Only Righteous White Man Alive. Much of what he publishes amounts to an attempt to represent himself as a beacon of political morals shining out from a fallen gender and race. In order to play that game, though, you have to constantly be identifying others who share that identity in order to assert your superior morality. So Berlatsky is one of those critics of mine who reads my work with manic attentiveness, poring over my tweets, looking for something to seize on for one of his goodness performances. It seems exhausting, but I guess it’s a living.
Anyway, today Berlatsky just straight lied about what I believe, taking a tweet — a form of communication permanently hampered by a very limited character count — and baldly misrepresenting what it said. I have noticed, recently, that a lot of people have expressed support for trans rights in a way that actually ends up as a kind of gender conservatism. They insist that trans people just are a particular gender, that they were born that way, and that this is biologically prescribed, unchanging, and out of their hands. It’s another example, in other words, of trying to argue for rights through a “they can’t help it, so we might as well let them do it” philosophy. It’s conservative, in that it robs from individuals the right to self-define, and it’s all part of really noxious, destructive historical tendencies, echoing the tradition of eugenics. I heard someone on a local radio show asking about a potential future where we have a medical test for the “trans brain.” I don’t know what kind of vision that is — handing gender identity over to doctors rather than to individuals, the potential of someone being denied the right to the gender identity they choose because they failed some test — but it is not a vision of justice, equality, or progress.
Some people never waver from their preferred gender identity. Which is fine. Some people continue to explore their shifting gender identification over a lifetime. This is also fine, but it is directly rejected by strict gender binarism. I know someone who was female identifying for most of her life, then transitioned to a male identifying. She began hormone therapy. Then, over time, she transition back to female identifying. I have no idea how common that is. But it’s real, a real, human condition. Rigid gender binarism and aggressive “born this way” rhetoric erases such conditions. So I reject them. You’re free to disagree. But you are not allowed, as Berlatsky did, to say that I “blame the gender binary on trans people,” a ludicrous claim that I reject utterly, or to call me a Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist, as Berlatsky’s fellow Professional Righteous Dude Arthur Chu did. (One of Berlatsky’s constant tactics is to chum the waters by lying about what someone else said, throwing it on Twitter, and trusting that no one will actually check if it’s true or not.) That’s just lies. That’s all they are.
The essential thing to understand about guys like Berlatsky and Chu is that it’s all performance, no practice. They aren’t engaged in political action; they’re engaged in political posturing. And they do it professionally. In a very direct and uncomplicated way, they’ve monetized a certain kind of affected progressive posturing, totally dividing those beliefs from actual political sincerity and turning them into just another profit center.
Now: how do you know I’m not a TERF, and that I don’t blame trans people for the perpetuation of the gender binary? Because I’m right here telling you that I’m not a TERF and that I don’t blame trans people for the perpetuation of the gender binary. On literally every issue that define TERFs — you know, the actual positions that make up a political tendency — I disagree with them. I don’t think trans women should be excluded from women’s bathrooms. I don’t think genitals determine gender. I don’t think trans women should be prevented from being active feminist leaders. I don’t think you need to have been born with a vagina to know what it means to be a woman and suffer from sexism. I believe none of those things. And I am the only arbiter of what I believe.
Of all of the ways in which our political conversation is broken, all of the endless petty erosions to the basic ability to meaningfully discuss politics in any constructive way at all, I think this tendecy is the worst. It is the single most undermining, destructive way to behave. “I want you to be saying this thing that I think is wrong so that I can get mad at you for being wrong about it and get others to condemn you.” That’s where political progress goes to die, and I have no more patience for it. Sorry. I’m too damn old.