05 April 2012

RADSCUM: Radical Feminism, Transphobia, & Questions of Fact

(trigger warning: transphobia is discussed)

I've considered myself a radical for a long time.  Fuck the system, break shit, destroy the kyriarchy! Ya know, the usual anti-establishment and anti-oppression stuff.  My friend Kyle used to jokingly (?) call me a "warrior against normalcy."  & probably for good reason, since anything that even hints at normalizing discourse gives me a wicked case of the creeps. I've also always considered myself a feminist.  & when I say "always," I mean, I cannot recall any point in my life in which I didn't claim that label explicitly (I had a way cool mom, y'all). So radical feminism makes perfect sense for me, yeah?  That's what I thought, too.

Now, to be clear, I call out bigotry & hate when I see it (lost four Facebook friends in a day last week over arguments concerning Trayvon Martin), but I do NOT go seeking bigotry out.  I'm too busy survivin' in the misogynist, queer-phobic, biracial-erasin', ableist kyriarchy we got goin' on.  But sometimes, y'all, all too often, in fact, bigotry finds you.

It all started when I joined a Facebook group called "We Blamed the Patriarchy" - an offshoot of Twisty's notorious blog "I Blame the Patriarchy."  I can totally get down with blaming the patriarchy; that system hasn't done good for anyone in, like, ever.  It's been particularly bad for people who aren't white, Christian, able-bodied, heterosexual, cisgendered, rich, stereotypically-masculine men.  Which is actually a really fucking small group of people, if you think about it.  For me, feminism is about smashing patriarchy, but in the meantime, the blaming is real important (& also cathartic).

Anyway, someone on the page posted about the glitterbombing of Germaine Greer, which RadFemWorldNews characterized as a "violent attack" by "gender extremists."  (BTW, I sort of like, that. "Gender extremists," that is.  I wanna be one of those when I grow up).  Now, if you didn't know, Greer has done some great shit for feminism; she also, unfortunately, referred to transwomen as "ghastly parodies" & participated in a pretty awful witch hunt in which she outed several postop transsexual women.  So I sorta get why trans-activists would be pissed off, & want to call attention to that.  Now, I'm not going to get into a debate here about whether or not glitterbombing is violent (it both is & isn't; it's complicated & context-specific).  The thing I want to note is that the thread turned into trans-bash 2012. Quickly.  Despite what Twisty had to say on the matter back in 2011.

Frankly, I was downright shocked.  & ya know, more than a little dismayed. But I soon discovered something even more upsetting to me: this is a thing.  there are whole blogs out there dedicated to talking about how horrible transpeople are - & they claim to be written from a feminist perspective.  dirtyboi67 even goes so far as to post pictures & links to youtube channels of young (often minors) transmen, with accompanied commentary about how they are mutilating their bodies from internalized misogyny.  Often, transpeople and allies, including anyone who uses postmodern &/or queer theory, is painted as delusional or insane (both of which are ableist when used in the context of dismissal or insult). some of these women even go so far as to say that referring to someone as cisgendered is anti-woman hate speech. They refer to transactivists as "jacktivists" & "genderschmears."

Now, okay, here's the deal: this shit is complicated.  & it should be talked out.  Yes, the "cotton ceiling" thing is a way problematic use of language.  Yes, there have been some transfolk who have done some oppressive shit.  Just like there are feminists (especially white feminists) who have done some oppressive shit.  & ya know, anyone who is human who has lived in the kyriarchy.  

But what so saddens me is that the argument, really, is at a stand still.  While the material realities of our oppressions continue to make just living in the world a struggle, we're deadlocked. It's not even productive, at this point; it's stagnant.

Let's step back a little.  When I teach my Speech Communication 101 students about persuasion, the first thing we do is talk bout the three different kinds of persuasive claims one can make:
  • fact - having to do with existence, scope, or inherent qualities/definition of a thing
  • value - having to do with right or wrong, bad or good, ethical or inethical
  • policy - what we should do about it
Importantly, you can't move forward in an argument about policy if you don't establish an agreement about values, & you can't move forward in an argument about values unless you first agree on some facts.  Now when I say "facts" here, I don't mean objective Truth.  I mean truth(s).  But until you agree on some of that stuff, arguing value or policy aren't going to do you much good, because you're not even having the same conversation.  This is, for instance, why the abortion debate is so hard; until there is consensus about whether or not a fetus is a person (it's not), we won't be able to agree about whether abortion is moral or immoral (hint: morally neutral), & therefore how the law should reflect that (affordable & accessible is how).

That said, there are some "facts" some radfems espouse that make it impossible to engage in actual, productive debate.

1. Biology is fact/Gender is bad &/or made up.
Biology is a social construct.  Now, before you rush down to the comments section to freak out on me about how it's not made up, hear me out.  First of all, just to start with, while there may or may not be an objective reality "out there," we can only get to it through our means of understanding.  Biology, as a science, is just one such means of understanding.  It has been well-documented that not only are scientific models masculinist, but all the fields of science tend to be men-dominated.  That is, the entire field of biology has historically been a patriarchal model.  The categorization and disciplining of bodies based on their genitalia (although categorization seems to be a human need), is historical fact, and one that biology has only sought to reinforce.  It is what has allowed the regulation of family planning, and justified the dehumanization of people with vaginas.  It was biology that said that women are weaker, more emotional, and inherently nurturing-gathering types; it was biology that allowed for the stereotyping of gender roles. Not to mention, you can't know every person's biological reality just by looking; it's not possible unless you wanna get real invasive with every person you meet.

Categorizing and regulating people based on their genitalia or secondary-sex characteristics is the work of the patriarchy.

Gender, on the other hand, is how we as a culture & individuals make sense of our experiences of living in /as bodies.  On its own, it isn't inherently bad.  Forced, coerced, or normalizing gender roles are bad. Gender binaries are bad.  Gender stereotypes are bad.  Assumptions that one's gender must inherently match that assigned at birth is bad.  But gender as a concept allows us to describe and understand our own & other's experiences & expression in the world.  It's a tool, one that can be used for good or ill, like any other.

This does NOT mean that there aren't material realities, or that these material realities don't differently effect bodies, because they do.  & uterus-bearing people should be able to freely discuss these realities, because discussing them undermines the patriarchy's devaluing of people with vaginas.  But it DOES mean that we need to be attentive to differences in material experience, & careful to mind the gap between the patriarchy's categorizations of bodies & our power to categorize our own.

The patriarchy benefits when you take away people's ability to describe their own experiences.

2. All transpeople have one monolithic theory of trans-being that they all agree on.
Much of the radfem stuff I've read on the issue seems to think that all transwomen are lesbo-phobe rapists & all transmen are self-hating, privilege-grabbing misogynists.  & of course, there doesn't seem to be much talk of two spirit, bigender, nongender, agender, genderqueer, or third gender people at all.

This is, quite plainly, not the big picture.  Some transfolk, unfortunately, do believe in the gender binary.  Many do not.  Some transfolk see transitioning as an act with an end goal; many do not.  Some transfolk value passing; many do not.  Some transfolk really enjoy stereotypically masculine or feminine attire; many do not.  Some transfolk desire to be in & would benefit from women-only spaces; many do not.  Some transfolk elect to have surgery to change their genital configuration; many do not.  Some transfolk elect to take hormones; many do not.

& oh, hey, some transfolk are racist; some are sexist; some are ableist; some are just total assholes.  But ya know what?  So are some feminists. & bigotry of any kind should be called out. Period. Doesn't matter who you are.

"Transgender" is actually a pretty big term that gets used to describe a variety of different kinds of people; it is by no means a monolithic category.

At the end of the day, we're all just making the decisions that help us best survive in the patriarchy.  Sadly, for many transpeople, this means that they feel a very real need to pass, whether they want to or not - because, remember, the patriarchy disciplines people for not conforming to biological categories. (& by discipline, I of course mean bullying, harassing, beating, raping, & murdering).

3. Accusations of transphobia are silencing techniques &/or emotional-manipulation.
Okay, so this one makes me sigh really hard. 

Naming bigotry when it happens is important; it's how we start to undermine & rupture the subtle ways that oppression gets enacted in both micro- & macro-aggression.  Naming sexism & misogyny has been a really important tool for feminists, just like naming racism has been important for anti-racist activists.  Asking transpeople not to name transphobia when they see it is analogous to when men ask women not to call them sexists because it makes them uncomfortable, or when white people tell black people, "Talking about race makes me uncomfortable!"  You're uncomfortable?  Good.  You have been comfortable in your privilege & assumptions for too long.  

As for the emotional manipulation bit, I can't even believe I have to speak to this. One way that white-hetero-dudebros end discussions about how their actions are oppressive is by accusing women or people of color of being over emotional.  Because, in Western patriarchy, logic is diametrically opposed to emotion, & thus, someone being upset or hurt or scared or angry immediately means they aren't logical.  & if they aren't logical, then they don't matter.  Because, duh, (white hetero) men are logical. (That was sarcasm, btw).

See the game getting played here?  No one wins it.

So here's my general rule for this: when someone in an oppressed group of which I am not a part tells me that my actions or words are oppressive, they probably fucking are.  The correct response is to apologize. Sincerely.  & quit being an asshole.

I guess what it boils down to for me is just an overwhelming sadness.  There are way too many things we should be fighting right now - both for & against - to be stuck at an impasse.  But until we sort out our vocabulary, our uses of language, & the facts we are willing to mutually endorse, I don't see us moving on.  & that is really sad.

note: kyle has informed me that when he calls me a warrior against normalcy, that it is not, in fact a joke, but it does make him smile.
edit: i have recently discovered that "heebie jeebies" may be an anti-semitic slur.  i didn't know this, but i sincerely apologize to anyone i may have hurt in my usage.  i have since changed it to simply "the creeps."

22 January 2012

SOPA/PIPA, Megaupload, & the Rhetorical Forum

If you've been following the news lately, checking Facebook, or even just trying to use Wikipedia to finish that first assignment of the semester, it would be hard to miss the recent SOPA Strike, the controversy over PIPA, or the take down of the major file sharing/hosting service Megaupload.  On the 18th, over 9000 (115,000 to be exact) sites "blacked out" in protest of SOPA/PIPA. Participants found among their ranks the likes of Google, Wikipedia, Reddit, Wordpress, and Wired, as well as many personal blogs and webpages - including mine.  The strike seemed to be as successful as could be hoped, with many senators - even those who had co-sponsored the bills to start with - withdrew their support.  Yet just the next day, Megaupload was taken down, their servers and their owners taken in by the Feds, for "conspiracy." Anonymous, of course, retaliated via DDoS attacks (#opMegaupload) that temporarily shut down sites for the FBI, RIAA, MPAA, and others.  

So just what the hell is going on here?  

Well, the short answer is that content-creation industries are trying to end piracy.  To that end, they have a bunch of lobbyists, & a bunch of money to spend, to convince a bunch of old guys who don't even know how the internet works to write bills that would allow them to punish said pirates, & any website they could claim aided in copyright infringement.   Then, ya know, a bunch of people who do understand how the internet works got pissed off & did what they knew how to do: used the internet to make a point.  They did this irrespective of their individual beliefs about the sanctity of copyright.  Then the Feds stuck out their proverbial tongue & flaunted their ability to kill a website at one go.  To which, again, they got a response.

But that's just the short answer.  In order to really understand what happened, really what is happening, we need to understanding what the internet was intended for, what it is, and how it works - not necessarily as a technical achievement (though it is certainly that), but as a discursive achievement. & it's equally important to understand how the enactment of bills is likewise a discursive achievement - that is, incidents like the UK student being extradited over his website or the shutdown of Megaupload do more actual work than the laws in the law books.

First of all, the internet is literally discursive, made up of language.  Or, to be more accurate, several languages, like HTML, PHP, or CSS.  How we interface with the lingual construction that manifests as the internet can be said to be a rhetorical forum.  Thomas Farrell defines the rhetorical forum as "an encounter setting sufficiently durable to serve as a recurring 'gathering place' for discourse . . . the forum provides a space for multiple expressed positions to encounter one another" (88).  Importantly, the rhetorical forum must, by definition, emerge when "there is the potential for resistance" (89).  Furthermore, the forum can only exist as "a web of interrelationships established through the presencing of others" (89).  Farrel writes: "more important, I think, than the actual physical presence of persons in each other's public space is the conscious awareness of each other's presence in the symbolic landscape" (89).

According to Farrell, a forum must have three things:
  • durability and continuity over time
  • accessibility to those who wish to participate, recurrently
  • capacity for the projection and retrieval of messages
The internet seems to fit the bill pretty squarely.  It's a virtual gathering place, or many gathering places, in which social behavior is (re)created, and in which all the things that make up our culture, including our media, is made, remade, exchanged, shared, debated, celebrated, or reprimanded. Specifically, "stable or not, the critical function of the forum is to warrant, frame, and constrain the appearance, shape, and direction of rhetorical practice" especially in regards to "challenging disputes about what constitutes proper authority, integrity, and responsibility" (Farrell 90-91). So then the internet is not just discursive, but also a place where discourse is (re)formed.

And the discursive rules of "proper authority, integrity, and responsibility" in terms of internet behavior are no accident; they did not develop in a vacuum.  

A mock-up of Vannevar Bush's Memex
The idea of linking ideas together starts, perhaps most notably, with Vannevar Bush in the 1940s.  Inspired by the collaboration of scientists and other academics during WWII, Bush found himself disheartened when the collaboration seemed to fade away once the war was declared over.  His invention, the Memex, was one way he believed we could continue to inspire the innovation that came of academic collaboration.  Utilizing what he called "associative indexing," or what we might call "linking," the Memex was designed to aid scholars in sharing information and content, both original, and found (Bush, "As We May Think").  The idea was, essentially, that if scholars had easy access to all of the information out there, & could organize it in meaningful ways, new discoveries would be born from the networking.

This idea continued through the development of computing more broadly, researchers often "stealing" and improving on each other's ideas.  And when the internet was conceived, for the military and universities, it had two core goals: 1) to allow communications even when one node on a network has been destroyed, and 2) content sharing.  We can see these end goals manifesting in all sorts of ways, including a pretty recent TEDtalk by Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the browser.  Thus, the spirit of our rhetorical forum has been, from the start, the continuation of communication at all costs, and the sharing of information.  Or, in other words, the founders of the internet were pirates (yes, this includes the government).  

But remember, the rhetorical forum is one that is built around tension and resistance.  Even as users enact this historically "proper authority, integrity, and responsibility" in regards to the purpose of the internet, the content-creation industry has been fighting to regulate, control, and flat-out strip our ability to do so.  Remember the "don't copy that floppy" campaign? 

The problem with their attempts is that more & more, consumers are owning tools capable of production.  We must no longer be mere consumers, but instead, we can make new, remake, remix, cut, distribute, comment on, link to, and otherwise interact with the media that make up our culture and cultural artifacts.  And all of their attempts to make us stop haven't really worked - why, just take a look at this remix of "don't copy that floppy!"  

And what about the laws that have been passed in regards to copyright infringement?  Well, frankly, because of the very design of the internet, they're pretty damn hard to enact efficiently.  Hence the spectacle of one or two high profile cases against housewives & 14 yr olds for illegally downloading bad 90s anime & that one Metallica album.  These spectacles, although sometimes they are abiding by the legal letter of the law, do more than simply punish "criminals."  

Instead, things like the take down of Megaupload, or the earlier transformation of Napster into a pay service,  create an ideological reality - they attempt to change what is considered proper rhetorical behavior in the forum.  Actions like these are a rhetorically savvy demonstration to users that perhaps they should reconsider downloading that song for free (it's not like they weren't going to buy the album on iTunes later anyways).  Essentially, users are being trained, through fear tactics, not to share.  & I'm pretty certain that we all learned in kindergarten just how important sharing is.

What this whole mess boils down to is a struggle over who gets to shape "the boundaries of the rhetorical community itself" (Farrell 91).  Who gets to make the rules about what is appropriate behavior in the rhetorical forum?  Who gets to decide what kind of communication is allowed to happen?

Obviously, we all have a vested interest at stake.  Whether you are a content creator, sometimes (understandably) frustrated by people "stealing" your work, or a user who  helps content creators spread & market their work, we are participating in the rhetorical construction of our virtual space.  And so is our government right now, and the lobbyists who put the money in their pockets, and the people who actually make the money off of content (usually not the artists), and, of course, the services that host the content. 

But, really, it's not about the content.  It's about the creation of our culture.  And really? None of this is new.  It's just in a different place, a rhetorical forum that has taken a new shape, found a new home.  A new home that I'm not ready to give up without a fight.  The internet was made for sharing; it is built on the premise that sharing information & content should be a core value, one that will advance our culture and lead to creative, scientific, & social advancement.  Despite the actions right now of those who doth protest too much (I'm looking at you, RIAA & MPAA), I think the Anonymous responses & the SOPA Strike are "evidence that [the internet's] own constructive possibilities are far from over" (Farrell 95).  Don't let them scare you; this is our space, & we will keep it that way.  We are the creators of our culture.

█████████████ ███████████ ███ ████ ███ ████████. ███████████ ████ ████ . █████████████ ██████████ ██ █████████ ██████████ ██. ███████████ ██████ everything ███ █████ is ██ ████ fine ████ ███ █ ██████ trust █████ ███████ ███ your █████ ████ government.

Works cited:
Bush, Vannevar.  "As We May Think."  The New Media Reader. Eds. Noah Wardrip-Fruin and Nick Montfort.  Cambridge: the MIT Press, 2003.  Print.

Farrell, Thomas.  "Practice the Arts of Rhetoric: Tradition and Invention."  Contemporary Rhetorical Theory: A Reader.  New York: The Guilford Press, 1999.  Print.