(Advance apology and trigger warning: I'm going to be using some very offensive language in this post. Unfortunately I think it's necessary.)
Every now and then, they did some things that bothered us. The worst were a series of really cheap, unnecessary transphobic slurs. Tranny jokes, to be triggeringly precise. In case someone doesn't know, "tranny" is to transgender what "nigger" is to African-American. It is a word that is not okay, to put it mildly. As I've made clear on this blog about a million times, I fully support free speech. In fact, one of the main reasons I have blogs in the first place is because I'm deeply concerned with the status of free speech in the ex-Soviet-satellite shithole I live in. However, I believe that a part of free speech is the freedom to hold people accountable for what they say. It's become a standard idiot gambit to start screaming FREE SPEECH at anyone who disapproves of something another person says, as if freedom of speech was freedom from critique or disagreement. It isn't.
Especially because the truth is that words matter. The society we live in is constantly being created and re-created by the people who live in it. Especially attitudes - racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia - exist in speech. People will make racist or homophobic jokes, use sexist and transphobic slurs, and act outraged if they're called out on it. This is what's called hipster racism: the idea that because I say I'm not racist, therefore nothing I say can be racist.
Tvtropes.org calls this "Hitler Ate Sugar": the notion that bad things are bad because bad people do them. Taken to its logical extreme, it's to say that genocide is wrong because the Nazis committed it, when the reverse is true: the Nazis were evil because of what they did, not the other way around. The logic of "Hitler ate sugar" is the logic of hipster racism, and it's amazingly common. Here in this country, I know people who will go berserk if anyone calls people who say and write blatantly racist things racist, because we don't know if they're really racists or not.
Newsflash: people who say, write and do racist things are racists. That's the definition of a racist. It is beyond pointless to debate what a person "really thinks", for two reasons. First of all, without telepathy or mind-reading technology, we can't know. More importantly: it doesn't matter what you think. It only matters what you do.
Our thoughts and attitudes have no impact on the world whatsoever. The only things that affect mutually observable reality are the ways in which we express them. If you're a warm, fuzzy, wonderful person who loves everyone in the whole wide world, and you express yourself with racial slurs, guess what? You're a racist. The only impact you're making on the world around you is a racist one. The same goes if you personally believe that all people are equal, no matter what their color, ethnicity or any other attribute, but the only contribution you make to the discussion is to defend racism. The only ideology you're propagating is racism. That makes you a racist. It doesn't matter what you think. It only matters what you do.
If you secretly hate black people and think they're subhuman animals, but spend your life fighting racism and advocating equal rights and treatment for all, you will have made the world a better place. If you passionately believe that all people are equal, but spend your life defending racists and making excuses for them, telling racist jokes and generally propagating racist attitudes, you will have made the world a worse place. What you do is all that matters. There is no god or other divine referee who will judge you for what you "really" thought, and reward honesty and punish hypocrisy. In a sense, all you are as a person is your impact on the world around you.
The words you use are a big part of that impact, if not the biggest. The slurs you use and the jokes you tell all propagate attitudes. Each of us, in their own personal dreamworld, likes to imagine that they're aloof from society and are commenting on it from a distance. You're not. Everything you say and do builds the society you live in, and what you choose to do or say is your vote on what kind of society you want to live in. The cheap tranny joke is a vote for transphobia. The racial slur is a vote for continuing racism. These are decisions each of us is making every day, and they are what our culture is.
It's very common for white, straight, cis-gendered people to disagree strongly with this. Recently Chloë Sevigny was called out for using the word "tranny" to refer to a transgender character she played. Her response:
Reee-donkulous. You can't say anything anymore.
No, you can. That's what's called freedom of speech. What's being criticized is how you're using that freedom. By calling transgender people "trannies" and dismissing complaints about it as "reee-donkulous", you're using your influence as a public figure to say that mocking transgender people is okay, and if they complain about it, it's okay to laugh at them.
This is not you having a positive effect on the world around you.
I'd be curious to know if Ms. Sevigny thinks it would be "reee-donkulous" if she called some of her African-American colleagues niggers and they took offense.
So when the Gutters busted out a cheap, unnecessary tranny joke, I protested in the comments section. The answers were overwhelmingly from white cis-gendered men, who felt that they must have the right to say whatever they want. Given that I didn't in any way suggest their freedom of speech be curtailed, what this really meant was that they feel they have a right to say whatever they want, consequences be damned, and no-one has the right to call them out on it. That isn't free speech, that's mob rule: you have the right to shout with the mob. The bigotry of the majority gets to speak, and criticism is stifled.
Both amusingly and sadly, a few commentators assumed I must be transgender myself because I was offended by the word "tranny". They advised me to grow a thicker skin and not get insulted so easily.
Full disclosure: I'm a white cis-gendered man. Even with all the empathy I can muster, I cannot imagine how hearing something like that must feel for a trans woman. I belong to the most privileged caste of humanity, and it is simply impossible for me to put myself in the position of someone who spends their life, as the formidable Natalie Reed puts it, being the pejorative. I quote:
We have the inescapable barrage of jokes at the expense of trans women. We have the use of challenges to a man’s gender as the most salient and consistently employed insult. It is effectively impossible for a trans woman to make it through a single day without being confronted with messages telling her she should be ashamed of herself for what she is.
I’ve mentioned before just how bitterly exhausting it is to live in a world where that’s what you hear, constantly, from all sides. That you are the worst thing that could ever happen to someone. That your life is a misery. That your body is a disgusting abomination. That you are brimming over with sin and immorality. That you are an unnatural freak. That your identity is a joke. That your mind is diseased and delusional. That you are unlovable, undesirable, unfuckable, untouchable, that beauty is by definition only attainable through the degree to which you suppress and hide what you are, and that in all likelihood, no one will ever love or want you. That if you have the audacity to pursue love or intimacy or touch, then you are a deceitful liar who deserves whatever violence befalls her. That you are “really” a man, but bereft of everything that makes men “superior”. That nothing awaits you further in life but more pain, more misery, more loneliness, and if you’re lucky, an early death.
I don’t care how much confidence someone has. It is impossible to fight that off forever. We are forever swimming upriver against our culture’s messages about gender, just to maintain the basic level of self-confidence and self-love necessary to survive. It is exhausting. Exhausting in a way I’m not sure anyone who hasn’t lived it can really understand.
I maintain that it's impossible for someone like me to put my privilege aside enough to really understand what that's like. The suicide rate alone speaks for itself. Please, if this topic is in any way new or unfamiliar to you, read that post.
It is unthinkably idiotic to say that this is somehow the result of a person choosing to be offended. The slurs, the insults and the belittling, the delegitimizing, are not just words that you can choose to ignore. Those words create and maintain attitudes, which make up cultures and societies. And they enable violence. In Western societies, barring some truly extreme examples, there is nowhere you can go in the course of your daily life where you will be at extreme risk of violence or death just for being white, cis-gendered, straight and male. There just isn't. For trans women, the opposite is closer to the truth, especially for trans women of color.
That isn't a natural, inescapable state of affairs. None of us have a gene in our body that compels us to insult and assault transgender people. The violence comes about because of attitudes in our society that tell us transgender people are legitimate targets of mockery and violence. That it's okay to call them names and make fun of them just for who they are. That they're not really people, entitled to be treated like equals. And those attitudes come from cheap tranny jokes.
So no, saying "don't be so insulted" really doesn't cut it. At all.
I can't say it was very surprising to get that kind of response. It's called privilege.
Another variant was "this is just humor". Or "this comic is offensive to everyone". The problem with the latter is that not everyone is equal, and there are different ways to be offensive. There's offensive in the sense of outraging commonly held sensibilities, which is something I'd say I've been guilty of quite a few times. That can be a constructive way to be offensive, a way to question beliefs and prejudices. Like this:
(I stole that image because I'm a pirate. Arr!)
Ideally, this kind of offensiveness can be a form of Schumpeterian creative destruction, sweeping out old bullshit. That's very positive. But then there's the other kind of offensive, which doesn't question anything and isn't positive, but reinforces and perpetuates negative stereotypes. That's the tranny joke, the racial slur, the homophobia.
So I can't accept the idea that being offensive is a good thing in itself. Is whatever you're doing or saying offensive in a constructive, positive way? Or is it just hateful?
The reason this matters is the reason a joke in a webcomic matters. On first glance, I'm sure this will sound ridiculous, but comedians and webcomic writers have a lot of power in society. Think about it this way: they define what we laugh at. How big an influence do you think people like Penn Jillette and George Carlin have had on attitudes to religion simply by making it look ridiculous? They're telling us it's okay to laugh at Christianity. I don't think many people of my age group realize what a huge thing that is, let alone younger folks.
Similarly, what a transphobic joke in Gutters is telling us is that it's okay to laugh at transgender people. What Chloë Sevigny is telling us is that it's okay to laugh at anyone who complains about that.
And that's not okay.
So it was a little depressing to run into a blank wall of cis privilege, but not in any way unexpected. I left it at that, feeling that at least I'd spoken up and said something. That's pretty much all I can do. Besides, though you might not know it, I really, really hate arguing on the Internet.
Maybe the most ludicrous and the most depressing thing about it was the immediate assumption that if I care about the way a minority is treated, I must belong to it myself. What a horrible way to think.
The subject came up again last week, and someone mentioned Gutters writer Mr. Sohmer's own webcomic, Least I Could Do. I hadn't read it before, but now that it came up, I checked it out.
It's awful. There's just no better word for it. The comic is a hideously misogynist and disgusting ego trip where the writer's thinly disguised alter ego has tons of sex, mistreats women - especially the ones he sleeps with - and insults his friends, and somehow everyone thinks he's awesome. None of it is very funny; the idea doesn't seem to be that it's funny, but rather that it's a wish-fulfillment ego trip. The protagonist is a colossal dickhead and gets to mistreat everyone he's in contact with, and despite this has friends and gets laid. So it's basically wish-fulfillment for male chauvinist assholes.
That's just terrible. You're projecting the attitude that using, objectifying and mistreating women is a funny, desirable lifestyle? What kind of attitudes are you propagating? In the terms I used earlier, what kind if society are you creating? A terrible one.
That is not him having a positive effect on the world around him.
Based on that appalling webcomic, the transphobic jokes in Gutters are hardly an innocent mistake or "just humor". There's a definite attitude here, and it's one I utterly dislike and reject. So I can't in good conscience link to that particular writer's work any more. I don't imagine he'll notice, but that's not really the point. Like I said, words matter: not just words you speak or write, but words that you link to, approve of, silently condone or actively promote.
For more on transphobia, I again heartily recommend Natalie Reed's blog, especially her Beginner's Guide to Trans-Misogyny. There's also a handy glossary.
What I hope you take away from this is that words do matter. Free speech is one of the most important basic human rights, but the story doesn't end there. That right can be used to do great harm, and the solution isn't to restrict speech,but for each and every one of us to hold ourselves accountable for how we use it. When you speak, you don't just communicate; you also create the world that you live in. The kinds of words and expressions you use are the kind of world you create. This is what it means when we say the personal is political. Talking is a political act that creates social reality.
We can actually make the world a better place just by talking about it differently. The knee-jerk cynicism of my generation is, unfortunately, nothing but a massive force of inertia. The choices you make in everyday life matter. You can have a positive effect on the world around you. Eventually, barring the singularity, you will die. As far as I know, that's the end if the story for each of us. When we die, we cease to exist. But we leave a world behind: a culture, a society, attitudes, ways of speaking. We can leave behind a better world than the one we were born into, just by thinking a little about what we say.
I don't think that's too much to ask.