When Your Words Are Weapons

Credit: Pixabay
As writers, we do not ever speak only for ourselves because our words do not ever only impact us.

I found myself embroiled in low-key local controversy this weekend for critiquing, in a Facebook post on my own page, an article published in a local paper. The piece, which covers a real and important issue on gender identity (specifically, about people who transition to one gender and then transition back to the gender they were assigned at birth) was written in a way that many in the transgender community felt showed little concern for how the piece would be used by transmisogynists and anti-trans bigots to further delegitimize trans identity.

People who transition to one gender and then back to the gender they were assigned at birth are real people with real stories that deserve to be heard. They face struggles that only they can speak to. When those stories are told by people (most often cis people) without knowledge or sensitivity for issues within the trans community, those stories are used by those who wish to discredit transgender identities.

When the stories of people who have detransitioned are framed, distorted, or oversimplified in a way that aids anti-trans bigots in their insistence that the gender identities of trans people are not actually valid—that they are just confused cis people—it can harm both trans and detrans people. There are so few pieces in mainstream media responsibly reporting on transgender experiences, and far fewer focusing on detransgender experiences — which amplifies the impact that such pieces can have when they are not written with care. When your work on detransgender experience is shared widely by people in the radfem community who spend most of their time misgendering trans people and calling trans identity “female genocide,” it’s highly likely that your work missed a few marks.

As a Facebook friend of mine who has detransitioned said to me: “I still identify as trans and have only gotten love from my fellow trans people over my status. This article is divisive and B.S.”

My critique was not about the subject matter itself, but about the lack of care shown—by both the writer and the publication in which the article was published—for trying to limit the amount of harm a piece about one marginalized community (the detrans community) could harm another marginalized community (the trans community).

The point was made even more pressing as here, in Washington State, we have anti-trans bigots working overtime to pass the horrific anti-trans bill I-1552, which would have a life-threatening impact on the trans community.

A few red flags I noted in my critique were the author’s cisgender identity and lack of personal experience to be able to navigate the complex issues of transgender identity and detrans identity; the concerns voiced by the transgender community before the piece even came out, which were apparently ignored; the timing of the piece given the pending legislation; and the writer’s citing the work of a researcher widely considered by the transgender community to be transphobic. The focus of my critique was though, by and large, focused on the publisher who I felt had a history of ignoring concerns from marginalized communities about various pieces, running said pieces without care, and then offering up a “counterpoint” piece later to attempt to make amends over a piece that they knew would do harm from the beginning.

As a writer and a member of the founding team of a publisher—the one where you’re reading these words—committed not only to good, honest writing and journalism, but also committed to celebrating and amplifying the voices of marginalized communities, the responsibility for what we publish is something I take very seriously.

While the response to my critique was met with claims of “bullying,” “silencing,” and defenses that good journalism just reports a story and is not responsible for the pain it causes, the original piece was—and still is—being shared and lauded far and wide by well-known trans-exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs) and anti-transgender bigots. Just like members of the transgender community had feared.

The responsibility for what we publish is something I take very seriously.

But this situation is in no way unique to one community or one article. As a black woman, I’m consistently erased, stereotyped, demonized, and marginalized by bigots who use the words of others as weapons. Every asshole on Twitter who thinks that black lives don’t actually matter has a link to send me about black-on-black crime. Every pearl-clutching white person who doesn’t want to look critically at the current state of race relations in America has an article to send me about how “it’s not race, it’s class” or how white men are really the marginalized members of society.

I’ve seen think pieces with little more thought than “how completely can I play devil’s advocate here on this issue that is affecting the lives of people who are not me.” I’ve seen decisions on how to represent marginalized populations that only further marginalize the most vulnerable of those marginalized populations. I’ve seen attempts at solidarity that in the end only appropriate, exploit, and decenter the very population that the writer meant to show solidarity with. My friends and colleagues in other marginalized populations often find themselves similarly treated by the work of outsiders and allies.

When these pieces are critiqued by a community that now has at least some power on social media to speak out, it is often met by cries of censorship and “PC madness.” Good intentions are held above impact. We are made to feel ungrateful for the attempt made to write about us at all. We are told that we are going to be the death of journalism. And we are told time and time again that a journalist only has a responsibility to the truth — what is done with that “truth” is not their problem.

But as a black woman I call bullshit. And as a writer, I call extra bullshit. Words matter. If they didn’t matter, we wouldn’t be in this profession. Our platform is an immense privilege that far too few people (especially marginalized people) have access to. We do not ever speak only for ourselves because our words do not ever only impact us.

We are made to feel ungrateful for the attempt made to write about us at all.

There is no way to be an impartial writer and a responsible writer at the same time. Absolutely nothing we do is without bias. From the moment we decide what subjects to cover over others, we are showing bias. If you say you are unbiased, you are lying, and that’s not a very good start down the road of journalistic integrity. Therefore, with every choice we make, we have responsibility to be fully aware of the choices we are making and the impact that those choices may have on the community at large — especially when our work may impact marginalized communities with limited ability to mitigate the damage that our work may cause.

When you decide to write about marginalized communities you are responsible for what you know, what you don’t know, what you say, what you don’t say, and most importantly — how your words will be used to help or harm. Sometimes a writer will do as much due diligence as possible and still will fuck up and wind up providing the perfect weapon to those who wish to do harm. Even then, the writer should be held accountable for their part in that. We are never blameless for the words we write.

I am not writing this because I think that people should stop writing about marginalized populations or should stop covering issues that impact groups outside of their own. The truth is that we all need to be speaking about issues which affect marginalized communities and amplifying the voices of those within those communities who are likely speaking out far more eloquently than we are. But we absolutely must take the responsibility for our words seriously.

If we do not know enough about the community we are writing about to do so responsibly and respectfully, we need to learn more or not write it at all, or we are not being responsible. If we are speaking for, instead of with, marginalized communities, we are not being responsible. If our voice—from outside the community—is the only voice representing the community, we are not being responsible. If we are made aware of how our words might impact marginalized communities and we disregard those concerns, we are not being responsible. If we know that there is a risk that our words will harm, and yet we are unwilling to own that harm when it occurs, we are not being responsible. If, despite our best efforts to avoid harm, our words still do harm to marginalized communities and we do nothing to mitigate that harm, we are not being responsible.

“Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.”

Whenever I see a writer defending a problematic piece that is harming a community by claiming that it is nothing more than an exercise of free speech or “unbiased journalism,” I think of NRA members defending gun manufacturers. Words are powerful. Words can be love and comfort — and words can be weapons. And while a writer may not be the person who picks up that weapon and fires it at a marginalized community, if we make a weapon that fits the hand of the assailant perfectly and fires a hell of a lot of bullets — we will have some blood on our hands that we can’t simply wash away.

If we are speaking for, instead of with, marginalized communities, we are not being responsible.

As writers we need to respect the power of our words and respect the communities we write about. It is the only ethical and responsible way to engage the immense power and privilege of our platforms. Own your words, own your work, and do better.

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