I told myself I wouldn’t write this. I told myself this was a conversation that, quite frankly, no one outside the transgender and especially transfeminine community has any business in having. I told myself that indulging this topic at all is dangerous in a world where the idea that men and trans women have anything socially in common gets people killed. Yet here we are.
Humanism is shorthand. It’s a start, a summary, and a statement. In a world of ideologies that refuse to recognize my humanity or that assert that it has no value, it is a bold and clear assertion:
I matter, because I am a person.
Sociological concepts are controversial in the skeptic/atheist community. Many of its members don’t think of sociology as a “real” science, or otherwise dismiss the claims such a peculiar field makes as not holding up to the scrutiny expected in biology, geology, or physics. Criticisms of important sociological concepts like privilege tend to rely either on argument from personal incredulity or on hazy readings of introductory philosophy texts.
The funny thing is, philosobros who think they can undo sociological privilege with binary logic or harsh skepticism about the motives of other humans have only a few pages to flip before their own sources turn against them. Equally basic philosophical concepts and discussions underpin major sociological findings, and remind us to be aware of the limits of our own knowledge in other ways.
I’d like to share an anecdote from a Dungeons and Dragons game I ran a few years ago.
The group of player-character adventurers was attending an aristocrat’s ball. Their goal was to ingratiate themselves with the rich dilettante hosting the ball, to gain passage on his flying whale-cum-airship to their next destination.
The six adventurers were well-placed to gain the aristocrat’s favor, having rescued one of his associates in a previous quest and having spent some of their loot on making sure they didn’t look out of place in the airship hangar full of old money. The party was a motley bunch at best—a well-spoken robot psychic, a clumsy dragonborn warrior, a bloodthirsty wood elf archer, a pompous high elf mage, a grim minotaur soldier, and a quietly regal shaman from a race of shapechangers with ties to rats and ravens—but they gave it the good D&D try.
And the moment the shapechanger tried to speak to that nobleman, he glared in the direction of the two elves and the robot and barked, “Control your livestock!” The rest of the brief conversation transpired between the three “civilized”-looking characters and the nobleman, with the more “monstrous” dragonborn, shapechanger, and minotaur cowed and silent.
The players controlling those characters were, then, too taken aback by the force of the rebuke their characters received to contest it, either in-game or out-of-game. They simply accepted that they would be excluded from this particular plot point, and dallied with their smartphones until they would again have a meaningful way to contribute to their party’s benefit. But what if they hadn’t been?
The aristocrat’s racism was not something I’d thought about in advance. It came unbidden in a moment’s improvisation, perhaps as a not-entirely-conscious effort to keep from having to juggle six conversations at once. It wasn’t presaged with prior information about his behavior, it wasn’t an established feature of the region’s culture (which none of the PCs were from), and it wasn’t something the characters had encountered before. Just spontaneous, unexpected bigotry cutting those players out of part of the adventure, to no discernible benefit to them or to the plot, with no obvious means of escape and the promise of ruining the negotiations and wrecking everyone else’s fun if their characters protested.
Did I mention that all three of those players were at least one letter of QUILTBAG?
[TW: Bouillabaisse of racist, sexist, and similar language.]
I hate the word “hate.”
It’s one of those words that’s easy to use and hard to use well. Isn’t it obvious that Focus on the Family hates gay people? Isn’t it obvious that David Barton hates atheists? Isn’t it obvious that libertarians hate…anyone who’s ever asked them for anything?
But, that’s not how any of those people tell it. What every one of those groups writes about their enemies is far more substantial than any mere “We hate.” They enumerate an endless series of grievances as the basis for their assertions that gay people and atheists and the poor deserve whatever punitive oppressions they are advocating. Moreover, they all assert that some beneficial end would be achieved by acting against those groups.
And it’s often just as convincing to argue that, within that delusional framework, every one of those people thinks they’re saving the world. For if it actually were true that ending marriage discrimination might prod the omnibenevolent Alpha and Omega to explode some tectonic rifts on American soil, the case might hypothetically be made that continuing to obstruct equal rights was a matter of public safety. Even such stereotypically hateful figures as Adolf Hitler are on record insisting that their actions served a greater good.
So why do we call them hateful?
It’s because we need to believe that we’re better than them. It’s because we need to believe that there’s some special quality about them—their seething pathological hatred—that makes everything about them grotesque and untouchable. It’s because we need to believe that people like that are rendered so alien, so “hateful,” that they hold no examples that the rest of us might need to notice. It’s because far too many of us want to believe that the absence of hate means that nothing we do is harmful.
It’s because far too many of us want, when we’re called on something we’ve said that’s sexist or anti-trans, to be able to say “But I’m not a sexist!” or “But I didn’t mean to be offensive!” or “You should know me better than to think I’m anti-trans!” and have that be the end of it.
But that’s not how it works.
Oppressing other people is more than actively, consciously, “hatefully” advocating against them. It’s more than intentionally wielding their identifiers as insults. It’s even more than consciously holding bigoted opinions like “East Asian people are poor drivers.” It’s about a climate of oppression. It’s about societies that hold as implicit, subconscious givens that this or that group is abnormal, other, lesser, and treat them accordingly, often without even realizing it.
And every time we use “cunt” as an insult, or make a “dumb Polack” joke, or regard people with dwarfism as a novelty, we contribute to that climate. Sexist, racist, anti-gay, anti-trans, ableist, and similar othering language is as surely harmful as a physical blow, and every instance thereof is a reinforcement of the targeted group’s outsider status. For how good would you feel if a salient attribute of yours was so universally regarded as negative that other people could be insulted by being likened to or associated with it?
Here’s the thing, though:
The harm of racist, sexist, and other oppressive language and similar behavior has nothing to do with “hate” and everything to do with results. That harm manifests every time someone’s joking remark about “girls not being good at math” undermines a promising woman’s confidence in herself. That harm manifests every time some boss’s flippant comment about “spics” reminds his Guatemalan accountant of how his entire ethnic group is a designated political scapegoat for half of the United States. That harm manifests every time a “midget tossing” novelty sign prods some bar patrons to ruin a little person’s evening for shits and giggles. That harm manifests every time teenagers use “gay” as a synonym for “worthy of derision” and their closeted friend is reminded of why she doesn’t come out. That harm is there regardless of whether anyone meant it to be.
The damage that oppressive language and similar behavior does has absolutely nothing to do with whether the person using it is “hateful.” Whether someone’s excuse for calling women “cunts” is “Women should be second-class citizens and I’m putting them in their place” or “I’m from Europe and ‘cunt’ is practically a punctuation mark for me,” they’re still reinforcing the idea that it’s bad to be associated with vulvas. Even though they may not believe any such thing. The harm that is bound up in words like “cunt” and “wop” and “midget” and “retard” is not magically repelled by the self-proclaimed beneficence of the person using them.
But some people would like us to think it is. A disturbing subset of humanity seems to be convinced that the harm done by these words is somehow purely contingent on whether the person issuing forth a nonstop stream of hurtful language thinks of themselves as “a sexist” or “a racist” or “an absolute spherical bastard.” Worse, they seem to think that anyone who experiences the hurt that is bound up in these words without such a hateful caricature being nearby is “oversensitive,” “hysterical,” “overreacting,” or “not giving the other person the benefit of the doubt.” As though whether it fucking hurts that your identifier is the go-to slur for something inane and uninteresting somehow depended on whether or not someone was pointing that slur at you. As though whether the person stabbing you meant to hit your aorta changes whether you’re going to need some paramedics.
As though whether someone “meant well” is relevant to an assessment of how much harm they did.
But it’s not.
The harm is NOT a property of “hateful” people, or of “oversensitive” victims. The harm is a dictionary fact enmeshed in our society.
And it is our duty to not harm each other.
Not to insist, while we’re stabbing someone in the psyche, that it’s their fault it hurts, for not thinking well enough of the person currently stabbing them to realize they’re not “bad people.”
They’re not “bad people,” you see, so it’s okay that they insist on doing harm.
But after a while, it becomes really, pointlessly hard to tell apart someone who’s doing harm because they want to do harm, and someone who’s doing harm because they can’t be bothered not to and how dare you ask them.