Trying, Failing, Trying Again
It’s been a long day, and a difficult one, full of productive conversations and difficult reckonings. I’m not sure I have any answers, either to my own questions or those of others, but I do have some thoughts.
It wasn’t until the publication of what is now being referred to as That Letter that I saw a full list of signatories, and reading over it was a roller-coaster of an experience. On the one hand, there are some people I greatly admire on that list, whose writing first helped me understand the potential of the written word, and of my place in the world. On the other hand, there are people whose names made me blanch. Why had some people most recently known for their avowal of transphobic positions joined their names to what had been, to my eyes, a statement about the importance of disagreement and debate in political and educational spheres?
True to form, I was naïve, leaving me disappointed both in myself and in the missed opportunity for good this could have been. Someone on Twitter rightly, I think, diagnosed That Letter as a Rorschach test, one generic enough that everyone who signed it probably thought it stood for whatever most mattered to them. (Some would take this as a virtue, a site of common cause; others would take this as vagueness, as a symptom of weak thought.) My reason for signing was a real concern about the state of political discourse today, especially as it affects what happens in the classroom. It’s not concern for the careers of celebrities, or for the rights of hateful people to target individuals, that made me sign. It’s because of the students of all backgrounds and opinions who fall quiet in class and stop joining conversations, of students dropping out and transferring because their peers don’t just disagree with them on intellectual or political or affective points: they target them. It’s because of administrative emails sent out in recent weeks that create hierarchies of disciplines and methodologies, messages making it clear to students that some disciplines are worth study, and others are not.
For me, the statement was about the importance of everyone having a voice and being able to use it to exchange ideas, both in the classroom and in the wider world. I asked one of the authors about the timing, about the necessity of such a statement, and both by their argument and by my personal experience found myself agreeing that yes, this needed to happen now. When I asked to know who the other signatories were, the names I was shown were those of people of color from all over the political spectrum, and not those of people who have taken gender-critical or trans-exclusionary positions. Should I have asked to see more names? Possibly — some would say absolutely — though that would seem incommensurate with my agreement with the statement itself. In what seems to have been a failure of imagination, a trans-exclusionary attitude didn’t even strike me as a possible interpretation of the text, let alone a likely one.
Inevitably, a belief in and commitment to the importance of people having voices means that sometimes they will say awful things, sometimes by those of whom you expected more, at other times by people whose opinions are utterly unsurprising. When I was younger, when it was a current political issue, I was always surprised by arguments that homosexuality or queerness were unnatural, were abominations to be corrected. Claims that marriage could only take place between men and women struck me as being as ignorant as claims about the unnaturalness of interracial marriage made earlier in the twentieth and previous centuries. But — and again, I stress that it seems I am a naïve person — I never felt threatened by those opinions. They were so strange, so twisted, that it seemed to me that the obvious truth — that gays and bisexuals and queers existed, and that marriage was as natural a kind of union for us as any other person, deserving of the same protections — would inevitably win, and that any poorly reasoned attacks on our humanity and our rights would inevitably be exposed and accepted for what they were. I existed, therefore they were wrong.
Understanding these opinions in that way meant that I never felt threatened by those words; at the same time — and this was not something I realized when I was younger, but have come to realize — those words and positions could be kindling to violent actors, people for whom speech was not enough, and who tried to scrub our very physical presence from the world. Standing up to violent, physical aggression and abuse was not hard for me in those moments, because challenges like that usually make me want to fight, not to run; it was less easy, I understand now, for people who didn’t have big cities to go home to, communities to fall back on, people who didn’t present in a gender-conforming way.
But would I, on those grounds, deny the rights of people to state their opinions, as long as those opinions don’t target individuals by name? Whom should we hold responsible for what thoughts, and through how many interpretive removes? My inclination is to say that open debate is vitally important to an open society, even as I argue with myself that even one life lost is too many, that we must protect and stand for those crushed by institutions and individuals, whose voices have been robbed from them. My inclination is here to use a standard more rigorous than that set by the First Amendment, to say that opinions that deny people’s personhood based on an identity are no opinions at all.
This inclination is because I believe words have consequences: I’m an English professor, and know that words make our world as much as they reflect it. They matter, materially, substantially. I spent last week drafting an essay on the importance of the idea of the common and the individual, and strategies to foster the former in public discourse while simultaneously engaging and valuing the latter. This morning, reading Osita Nwanevu’s timely essay in The New Republic, I found him stressing the same idea under the wonderfully apt label of “associative freedom,” offering it as a rebuttal to what he has diagnosed as the illiberality of most critics of identity politics. He is right that we must turn to the common, to what we share, to make political change, and also right that political debate tends at its core to be about opposing interests rather than only opposing ideas.
Is it possible to value the open exchange of ideas and think that ideas should be evaluated on their own merits, while at the same time feeling disappointed that people you don’t respect, or like, or endorse, value those same principles for different reasons? I would like to think that the answer to that question is Yes; it’s how I’m feeling today, though I don’t know that it’s a coherent feeling. I also know that others would disagree with me here, viewing those different reasons as cause for a reevaluation of the original idea. I’m not sure I can agree with that position, but am trying to think about it, considering its logical extensions both good and bad.
Trans women are women, women who deserve the same safety and respect as all other women, as all other people. Whether cis or trans, no one ever deserves to be misgendered. Trans youth deserve to be protected, and all trans people deserve the right to quality medical care provided with the same respect and dignity as anyone else. The right to life of trans people, as trans people, should be no topic for debate. Is that a coherent position for me to take, given my own indifference to hearing people debate my existence? Probably not, but I also try to value and believe what people tell me is true about their own experience.
I know these thoughts won’t be enough for some people. For others, they’ll be too much. For the rest, they’ll be incoherent. I do still think it’s important to guard against institutional intolerance and protect open inquiry. (And yes, I do know where and when speech is constitutionally protected, what the boundaries of those protections are, and the important difference between free speech and academic freedom.) What can I do ethically, and not hypocritically, to use my voice for good without disavowing what I believe about open speech and its importance? I can keep listening, keep speaking, and insist that I keep engaging critically and honestly with good-faith challenges to important and difficult ideas.