Language Progresses, For Better And Worse

Supporters believe they understand the words but often deliberately misuse them for political purposes.
09/06/2017 11:51 am ET Updated Sep 06, 2017

We are living in an era of radical social and political change. Part of that change is the healthy evolution of language, and an associated degeneration of the same language. Examples include the abuse of terms like “anti-Zionist” and “antifascist.” Supporters believe they understand the words but often deliberately misuse them for political purposes, while their adversaries deliberately twist their meanings around to more fully suit their own purposes. While this process is always occurring, it accelerates during times of rapid social change.

There are many battles, including gay men who hate the word “cis,” which I’ve discussed before, but today I will focus on two other examples – “transgender” and “racist.” First, to transgender. The word evolved from transsexual to remove “sex” from the minds of people who heard the word. This was done in the footsteps of the successful replacement of homosexual with gay, as homosexual was a word which implied sexual acts and ignored the humanity of those persons. Both rebrandings were enormously successful.

However, the shift from sex to gender had unintended consequences. It hid the importance of biology from public view, as more people grew to focus only on gender as relating to the psychosocial aspects of sex, manifest in constructs such as gender role and gender expression. What should have been called sexual identity became gender identity.

There are times when this conflation of sex and gender is helpful, for example in courts and legislatures. Other times, however, it complicates matters. One current example in the transmedicine community is the question of how to deal with “detransitioners,” i.e., people who have transitioned and then reverted to the sex assigned to them at birth. There are debates over the definition of detransition – does it apply only to those who completed a medical and social transition, the current consensus, or does it also apply to those whose transition is intermittent, full of fits and starts, two steps forward and maybe three back at times? This debate matters because detransitioners are used as a cudgel by believers in alternative facts to attack the trans community. The fundamental fact is that since trans is a biological phenomenon, a sexual phenomenon, it doesn’t really matter whether one transitions or not to be recognized as trans. You are trans whether or not you ever transition in the first place. Similarly, a detransition has no impact on the underlying biology of the brain. The basic biological reality, one’s brain sex, or gender identity, has not changed. Just one’s gender expression.

Similarly, there has been an ongoing war between certain radical feminists, such as Germaine Greer and Julie Bindel, and the trans community, over the definition of woman. No one has ever agreed upon a definition, so the war is absurd. The TERFs, as they’re known (trans exclusionary radical feminists), believe biology is the only operationally important aspect of being a woman. By biology they mean reproductive organs, and conveniently leave out the brain. They also ignore other types of intersex females, who lack female reproductive organs, such as those with Androgen Insensitivity Syndrome (AIS). I doubt they would ever demand of AIS women that they should identify as male, but they should if they want to be consistent.

Interestingly, there are trans women who concur, as described by Michelle Goldberg is a Slate essay from 18 months ago. They play right into the TERFs’ ideology, and disparage themselves, all because they do not understand the difference between sex and gender. Biologically, based on brain chemistry, they are as female as any cis woman. If they live as women they are women. Experientially, their life experiences are very different. So, what? The inability to recognize the humanity of others has now become a staple of the left as well as the right. What happened to our basic Theory of Mind, where all humans, other than psychopaths, are capable of empathizing with others because they can project themselves into the mind of others?

In a more egregious example of the language wars, based simply on the use of transgender as a noun rather than an adjective, a lesbian politico was excoriated by a trans woman who tweeted –

Trans women are dying because language like “transgenders” dehumanizes us.

We’ve evolved to use transgender and trans only as adjectives, not as nouns, and this has been accepted by style guides. People who actively write about the community have learned to get it right. Others are not there yet. Same as with “transgender” vs. “transgendered” – we do not use the latter anymore, and its use is a sign of being out of touch. But when these words are inadvertently used incorrectly, they are innocuous mistakes, not dehumanizing language, and certainly not the equivalent of violence. That claim, that language is violence, has been increasingly used by certain factions on the left.

Now, to race. The advent of the trump regime as a result of the November coup has exacerbated racial tensions and forced many white Americans to consider race as they never have before. It’s been a very difficult eight months, but there have been some salutary effects, such as this shift in public consciousness, which did not really occur with the election of the first black president. Understandably, many black Americans have seized the opportunity to speak out and highlight the practical realities of racism. Many of those voices are being celebrated. Some elements of the left, however, have gone overboard, treating people who otherwise would be allies with a disdain bordering on contempt. In some circles, white people are expected to toe the party line, with a degree of sycophancy after a suitable re-education, and, if not, exclusion from the community results.

The most recent manifestation occurred with the publication of an essay in the UK relating a story where a model claimed that “all white people are racist.” When you read more deeply, the statement gets walked back to “all white people are racist because they are beneficiaries of structural racism.” The institutions are racist; therefore, all white people are racist. The institutions, however, are not racist. Some of the laws that govern how they are run are clearly racist, and some of the people who run them are as well. Those distinctions are important, because if they’re not made then the only logical solution would be revolution (which for some people is the point).

The incident above happens to bring together these two examples of gender and race. Since Munroe Bergdorf, author of the line “all white people are racist,” is a black trans woman, the company that fired her, L’Oréal, has been accused of being both racist and transphobic. It seems to me they clearly were too sensitive and overreacted, but that, in itself, makes them neither racist nor transphobic.

A similar phenomenon, of using shaming and calling-out culture to demand purity of motives and beliefs for members of the group, is occurring here in the States, where a segment of the progressive community views Chelsea Manning as a hero, and another segment sees her as a traitor. When a neoconservative like Jamie Kirchick calls her out, and chastises the community for idolizing her, he doesn’t get challenged simply on the facts; he also gets branded as transphobic and people who disagree with the author are branded as liars.

With a delusional, pathological liar in charge of the U.S. we can’t afford vicious name calling. One can certainly simplistically state that the American founding documents, the Declaration and Constitution, are both racist and transphobic, both by what they include and also what they exclude. But the brilliance of those documents, and the institutions and rule of law they underpin, is that they evolve, because we evolve and our language evolves along with us. When the racism at the root of this nation was recognized and rejected, in the 1860s, the Constitution began to undergo change, and our society continues to evolve today. The racists and Nazis may be emboldened by this illegitimate president, but by becoming more visible they are now targeted more easily and by more people who reject their beliefs.

Similarly, when sex was added to federal law in the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and then recognized by the Supreme Court to include gender expression in 1989, trans persons weren’t implicitly included. Federal courts in those years stated categorically they were excluded. Today, more than 25 years later, it is increasingly being recognized that, of course, trans persons should be included in the definition of sex. Sex is part of biology and trans persons are simply a type of intersex humans. It’s really not that hard.

With the support for trans persons by commerce as most recently occurred in Texas, and in the military as happened when the trans ban was announced, many more Americans than we imagined understand who trans persons are and stand with us. It is simply not true that “The Purge of Transgender People From American Life Has Just Begun.” It is not September 1, 1939.

The same is true on the racial front as more Americans recognize the racism that still undergirds too much of society. The end of DACA is being viewed similarly, by many on the right as well as the left. It is up to us to reify the values inherent in our founding documents, and make them live today for all who need them.

CONVERSATIONS