I recently watched an episode of ContraPoints by Natalie Wynn about J. K. Rowling. A friend of mine recommended this YouTube channel and I thought I’d check it out. Since I don’t normally watch these types of commentaries, it is somewhat of a compliment that I actually watched the full 1 ½ hours of it. I still think it’s a little long, but there was good commentary up to the end. Some comedic segments helped. It’s very well done.
If you don’t know, Rowling, (the author of the Harry Potter series) has come under attack for her transphobic stance. (I’ve seen all the movies, but I gave up after three or four of the books because I got tired of the teenage angst.) I’ve been vaguely aware of the controversy but hadn’t looked into it in detail and it seemed a good option to evaluate ContraPoints. Wynn goes into pretty deep detail – including presenting a lot of specific tweets and comments by Rowling and discusses how they are transphobic. Wynn does her best to give Rowling the benefit of a doubt, but the evidence is pretty damning that Rowling is spouting trans-exclusionary radical feminist (TERF) rhetoric.
Along the way, Wynn discusses more general aspects of bigotry, hate, and trauma. This is what elevates this commentary to something quite a bit more than an attack on Rowling. In fact, it’s hard to call it an attack so much as a dissection of Rowling’s comments and their implications.
One of the things I struggle with is remembering that much bigotry is a consequence of fear and isn’t necessarily an expression of hate. People don’t like change and when change challenges or disrupts a person’s view of themselves or their place in society, they often react in fear – striking out at what they perceive to be the threat.
Wynn points out that there is direct and indirect bigotry. Direct bigotry is blatant, almost frothing at the mouth, expression of prejudice. Indirect bigotry is much subtler. People that engage in it often think of themselves as the victim and often do not think of themselves as bigots. Rowling fits into the indirect category.
Another aspect of bigotry that Wynn emphasizes is that bigotry, in and of itself, might not be harmful. It is when bigotry crosses the line to engage in active – often legal – forms of repression that it becomes harmful. Examples in the trans world include bathroom laws, rules regarding trans athletes, and teenage access to puberty blockers (I’m sure there’s more). This is consistent with my definitions of bias and prejudice. People have many biases obtained various ways and some biases, such as food preferences, are not harmful. But when someone has it pointed out that a bias is harmful and still defends the bias, then it is prejudice. Rowling has amply been shown the harm of her bias.
Wynn goes into these issues quite a bit, and I recommend watching the episode. But there is one specific thing she brings up that I wanted to talk about. Wynn isn’t really in favor of using the phrase “transwomen are women.” She offers the retro phrase “trans-liberation now.” What this accomplishes is to change the conversation. How much time is wasted on trying to define what a woman is – on defining gender? Does it really matter? Isn’t the real issue that people – including trans people – want equality? People don’t want to be discriminated against just because of who they are or how they live their lives. I think there is good precedence for changing the dialog this way. Gay rights, especially gay marriage, seemed to make much more progress when the discussion was about being able to love whoever you love more than it did when there was a constant debate about whether or not being gay is a choice (which it isn’t).
Another aspect of the phrase “transwomen are women” that Wynn brings up is that it ignores transmen and she talks about how transmen are treated differently than transwomen.
This change of focus is similar to what I talk about in my post Proper Pronunciation and Suicide Prevention. The post ultimately talks about pronouns. People have names they prefer to be called. Isn’t it just polite to call them by their preferred names – or their preferred pronoun? Why does there have to be an explanation for either.
Are there other forms of bigotry where the focus of the dialog can be changed? A major focus of mine is atheism so I think about how to change the dialog away from the god question. (It’s much easier to hide your atheism than many other targets of prejudice, but religious privilege is legion and being an atheist can lead to loss of friends, family, jobs, and life.) The term “atheist” is an in-your-face word to a lot of people and can easily end a discussion. I sometimes use “skeptic” or “secular” instead because of this (and I generally introduce myself as a mathematician first). But another approach I take is to point out the distinction between “anti-theist” and “anti-theism”. There are plenty of good theists, but I have an epistemological objection to basing decisions on imaginary friends. This helps at least a little because it changes the discussion from “Is there a god?” to “How do you make decisions?” It also moves away from discussing individuals to discussing concepts. But ultimately the question of what role the imaginary friend plays in your life comes into play. So I’m not sure how far this approach can go in this context.
Another prejudice I’ve been looking at is polyamory. One of the main objections to polyamory is the possibility for multiple sexual partners. So I think emphasizing love – the “amory” – can be very helpful. Why can’t someone love more than one person at a time? Isn’t it possible to love more than one child? Can a single person provide for all the needs of another person? Isn’t having more than one person that loves you a good thing?
Whenever discussing a controversial topic, it is easy to get sidetracked down a rabbit hole. Identifying and maintaining focus on the real issue is critical.
A final comment: When I started writing this blog I started to introduce Wynn as a transwoman. Perhaps this is relevant from the point of view that she is a member of the group she is discussing. But it really struck me that I wouldn’t ever consider introducing someone as cis. So why would it be important to introduce someone as trans? More generally, when is it appropriate to mention someone’s race, gender, ethnicity, or sexual orientation? If it isn’t relevant to the conversation, what purpose does it serve? Again, would you do so for a cis white straight man?
(The cover image is from royalty free istockphoto.com.)