The Ministry of Footnotes

My previous article was, in a word, a doozy. It is, if I may be immodest, ambitious and expansive in its arguments. This leaves it especially prone to puncturing from any number of people with ready examples of individuals and institutions or events that fall outside the parameters I laid out in The Ministry of Strength. So, tonight, I’ll address some of the weaknesses of my argument and anticipate some responses thereto.

I certainly don’t deny that exceptions to the theories exist. I’d be a little scared if they didn’t. No modern society contains 100% socialised individuals. Indeed, no society ever has. The very proposition of individuality requires that one not be ‘fully socialised.’ By fully socialised I mean simply that the individual has fully internalised the mores, folkways, and ideas of their society and never challenges or personally interprets any one of them. Such people do not exist, of course.

To construe any totalising argument from the thesis of Ministry is to miss the point of such a theory. It’s never meant to explain absolutely everything, only to corral what factual realities it can find into a cogent framework of understanding.

This theory is intended to explain a broad social trend, not society as a whole. If this reads like a lengthy disclaimer, it is in a sense. I was fortunate to learn when I was very young that no philosopher or social scientist could ever explain the world at a stroke. But this is also going to be an attempt to clarify Ministry of Strength against a backdrop of competing ideas and common arguments.

i.

The first issue comes from what one might call the countervailing (and very arguably dominant) ideology to the notions put forth by my previous article. The Culture of Victimisation. Just this afternoon I got a slightly used sociology textbook in the mail, much to my delight. Not far in, however, under the chapter headed “Culture” there was an aside in one of those ‘Thinking Critically’ insets entitled “Don’t Blame Me! The Culture of Victimisation.” In it you are presented with five cases of this supposed culture that are very sensational indeed.

Among them are things like a man leaping in front of a Subway train in New York, surviving, and then suing the City for 650,000 dollars due to the nature of his injuries. Four similar examples are given and the author then begins to discuss what he sees as the possible existence of a culture of self-victimisation. I find the examples to be spurious. Not because they didn’t happen, but because it’s rather hard to fit these sensationalist outliers into a true understanding of victimhood. We occasionally hear some story about an outrageous lawsuit or enormous rewards being reaped from them by people with relatively minor grievances but is this really victim culture?

This Culture of Victimisation is a popular theme among conservatives to be sure, but the argument there is very often expanded to include women, people of colour, LGBT people, the disabled, and so on. To claim that they are perpetuating such a culture. Many white conservatives are fond of arguing that ‘self segregation’ occurring in poor neighbourhoods is the product of this “victim culture.”

This, however, seems to support my argument that as a society we’re redefining ‘victim’ into a self-created category. Oftentimes without much in the way of real evidence. The author of the textbook, John J. Macionis, says the following:

“What’s going on here? Is US culture changing? Historically, our cultural ideal was “rugged individualism,” the idea that people are responsible for their own triumphs or tragedies. But this value has weakened for several reasons. First, everyone is more aware (partly through the work of sociologists) of how society shapes our lives. We now recognise that categories of people (such as Native Americans, African Americans, and women) have suffered real historical disadvantages. But more and more people these days are saying they are victims, including white males, who claim that “everybody gets special treatment but us.” ”

Needless to say, I have trouble swallowing this. The most glaring solecism in my view is that he seems to suggest individualism is on the decline in our society. As I said last night- and stand by today- the very opposite has occurred. In the United States especially we have become increasingly individualistic, to the point where we are actually denying the existence of social forces, institutions, and most acutely oppression itself. The idea that, as Macionis states, “people are responsible for their own triumphs or tragedies” is a consensus view in our culture, not one that is withering away.

Out of that idea comes the notion that one can self-victimise. Ironically, Macionis makes a critique that could not exist but for a culture in which individualism was so powerful. The very idea that a whole culture of individuals victimising themselves exists could only come about in a society that exalted the supreme power of the individual.

ii.

It should be noted that Macionis points out that white men are among those engaged in this sort of culture. Up until very recently I’d have agreed with that idea.

It’s worth taking a step aside now for a mea culpa. Even up until quite recently I have inveighed against reactionaries like Men’s Rights Activists for being ‘self-victimising’. I myself, without realising it, participated in the shameful exercise of perpetuating this insidious idea; that one could make one’s self a victim and attempt to profit from it.

A far better critique, I realise, would be to call out such groups for their hypocrisy. Oftentimes conservatives of various stripes will accuse me and others of being self-victimising before immediately turning around and bemoaning the sorry state of the white male at the hands of faceless feminist or NAACP oppressors. This is less self-victimising than it is pure selfishness, I realise, and naturally hypocritical. It’s just better to point that out to them: “if I’m being self victimising then surely you are. Or can we both agree that this idea is a fallacy?”

This is certainly what I’ll try to do from now on.

iii.

I should clarify my views on capitalism a bit as well. I threw around the term “rational-individualist capitalism” without defining it clearly, which is a huge faux pas on my part. Its meaning can be adequately intuited but I should not leave such things to the reader as that’s just kind of mean.

Essentially, rationalist-individualist capitalism is as much a theory of society as it is a theory of economics. It holds that all human beings are rational actors serving their self-interest, always calculating and strategising to their maximum advantage. Thus, in this model, even apparent altruism has a selfish core. It also posits that individuals are supremely powerful and can overcome all obstacles if they are talented enough; if they fail or stumble it is entirely their fault and no one else’s. It minimises the role of group action and collectives, it also minimises (or in extreme cases outright denies) the existence of a society.

This is, in short, the “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” capitalism.

I went to pains to call this rationalist-individualist capitalism because to call it “capitalism” full stop as my Marxist and leftist friends are so fond of doing, is perhaps a grave mistake. Such is implicitly determinist, presuming that what we have at present is the inevitable form of capitalism that it was destined to take. The essential and basic ideas of capitalism do not lead to this society inevitably, however, at least not capitalism as an economic theory.

A good sociologist must always keep in mind that no social institution is inevitable. The institution could’ve been different had the historical chips fallen differently. Capitalism and the economies of every country are no exception.

What makes our version of capitalism so special is that it is not just economics, it’s philosophy as well. The individualism and rationalism therein which posits that economics can objectively prove human beings are entirely selfish and are best left to their own individual devices out of which an orderly and efficient equilibrium would emerge… are entirely political ideas. There is precious little that is objective about any of this, and it isn’t even really economics either. It makes many assumptions about human nature simply to make mathematical models of global economies work.

The rationalist part in particular is what gives rise to this idea of humans as inherently selfish, who’ll stab you in the back if given half the chance and if there was profit in it. This, of course, becomes a self fulfilling prophecy among both the capitalist class and economists, but that’s a tale for another day. What’s important to remember here is that underlying this notion of victim culture is the idea that the self-victimiser is trying to leverage something out of you with their victim status.

Macionis’ idea was that it was money, of course, as seen in the cases of those high profile frivolous lawsuits. In the twisted ideology of those who promote the idea of “victim culture” those who call themselves victims are actually making themselves part of a privileged class, because then they’ll be pitied, sympathised with, and perhaps even lavished with money or book deals.

Furthermore, mutatis mutandis, this also relates to the MRA obsession with false-rape allegations. In their construction of this idea, they see every woman who accuses a man of raping her as coldly calculating her maximum advantage. Rationally pursuing a selfish interest. This plays into, of course, the stereotype of women as deft manipulators who can play the fiddle of emotion, but with the coldest of intent behind it.

The selfish individual, always ready to screw over who they can for profit (financial, social, or spiritual), is a key figure in the Ministry of Strength.

iv.

A worthy question may be asked now, however. How does that square with the idea that victims are weak? It does require a bit of cognitive dissonance, really. It exists for the same reason that entitled people can believe trans activists are self-victimising before going off to complain about how they themselves are victims of some social ill.

I might also say that you can accuse a person of being weak by accusing them of taking the easy path (self-victimising to win an argument or win sympathy, say). In this view, there is no contradiction between the weak victim and the conniving victim.

But at heart the idea remains: in a society of selfish individuals, a person must have a selfish reason for claiming the title of victim. Thus the privileged person asks first “what do they want from me?” In this vein it’s instructive to consider the constant panic among white conservatives in the US about the ‘threat’ of black citizens demanding reparations for slavery. For them, this is the selfish motivation underlying black community activism.

In this racist assumption you may find the core that resolves the cognitive dissonance of the privileged. A person is too weak to win resources the hard way, ergo they call themselves a victim in an attempt to guilt people into handing it to them- or in the case of the female false accuser, dodge responsibility for a regretted night of sex. This is how many people are now conditioned to understand any activism or any accusation against victimisers (whether as groups or individuals).

v.

A brief aside may be spared here for media portrayals as well. One may raise the objection that many women are often portrayed sympathetically in the media (fiction and nonfiction) as victims we’re supposed to collectively care about. One might further argue that some form of misandry keeps us from seeing male victims brought onto Oprah to shed their tears.

Two points to be made here:

  1. The use of women as sympathetic victims in the media is usually conjoined with some sort of redemption wherein they throw off the shackles of the label and reclaim themselves. They proudly tell how they “stopped being a victim.” Alternately they may be set up as someone for men to save (see the Jessica Lynch story) or as a tragic victim of their own failings.
  2. The unwillingness to show male victims often is borne of misogyny at heart, not pure misandry. The aversion to countenancing the male in society as a vulnerable figure who can be hurt, and who would be comfortable with sharing their feelings and admitting their struggle is ground in ideas of masculinity that are directly tied to patriarchal ideals. There is no feminist conspiracy barring public sympathy for men who’ve been in some way victimised. This aversion is very strong when it comes to men who are victims of sexual violence in particular. Rape is still understood as something done only to women. Some laws even explicitly define rape as unwanted vaginal penetration by a penis. This exists largely because the patriarchal construction of Man will not tolerate a man being the victim of sex crimes.

vi.

Here might be a good place to address another spinoff of the selfish victim argument. The idea that we want to induce guilt in others. The accusation of ‘guilt tripping’ is familiar to any liberationist who has debated the privileged and I regret not addressing the matter sooner. One MRA I sparred with recently made the thinking on the matter quite clear. They said in no uncertain terms that feminists and similar groups wanted to induce guilt in order to squeeze tangible concessions out of people and thus gain more privileges. It’s not hard to see how this fantastic idea dovetails with the concepts I outlined earlier.

As I see it, guilt is the exact opposite of what we want. I do not want men or cis people in general to feel guilty because of the things I tell them or argue for (unless they themselves have committed some grievous wrong, in which case, guilt away). But in general, no. Why? Because it’s ultimately counterproductive. Guilt is self-centered by nature “I feel bad about what I did, woe is me.” What is being asked for is not yet more selfishness (which is what gets us into these predicaments in the first place) but more empathy.

See the world differently than you saw it before. See me as a human being, if you’re feeling inclined towards the radical. Consider new ideas. But don’t debilitate yourself with guilt.

vii.

While this is nearly last I think this is among the most important connections to make. As a trans person how often have you heard from some particularly callous and callow sorts that you have “created your own class to self-oppress in” or somesuch.

Consider that for a moment.

You are being accused of inventing a marginalised group to be a part of so you can… reap the rewards of being marginalised? It sounds bizarre but with the elements outlined above and in conjunction with those put forward in The Ministry of Strength it’s not really that odd. Privileged people and even those who are not so terribly privileged think that it’s very common and desirable for people to claim a victim status for some selfish end. Thus it entirely makes sense that trans people would be attacked by bigots and entitled sorts who feel, in all sincerity, that we actually made this up just to get the apparent special favour that comes with being a victim.

Not too many other people get hit with this exact iteration of bigotry. It’s hard to accuse a black person of making up their existence as a black individual, for example. The bigot can argue that they invent their oppression, yes. But beyond that, no. It is a testament to how far behind trans people are when our very class is accused of not existing. The odious Jack Donovan, MRA extraordinaire and professional ironic gay man, levelled this charge at trans people multiple times claiming that we made up our class to reap some ill defined benefit to being oppressed.

Think of how this pervasive ideology benefits those with power and privilege. To actually convince the mass of society that it is those who claim to be marginalised who have or seek privilege. How many times have you heard the LGBT lobby accused of pursuing “special rights”? How many times have you heard it claimed that we seek privileges over the rest of the hardworking, God-fearing populace? All of these ideas derive from this individualist ideology surrounding victimhood and the attendant notion that one can make one’s self a victim, with all emphasis taken off of any victimisers.

Like most cultural and social forces that afflict the marginalised, it seems trans people are prone to getting it especially bad.

viii.

Looking over these “footnotes” I know I may raise more questions than answers. None of this is easy and what I propose is an expansive way of examining this subject, part polemic, part sociology, part historical, part political science. But I feel we’ll be the better off for looking at this matter in a very different way going forward. Inasmuch as the fallacy of “victim culture” was put forward in a sociology textbook by an author who otherwise seemed disinclined to conservatism, it’s clear that what’s being challenged is a deeply engrained consensus viewpoint.

As illustrated last time, however, the need is urgent. Real people are being harmed by this ideology and its failings become abundantly clear in those cases.

Edit: Footnote seven was added a day later based on some thoughts I had after publication.

The Ministry of Strength

Anyone involved in any sort of emancipatory activism, from flame wars in forums to robust street protesting, is bound to be familiar with the phenomenon I’m about to describe:

“What’s the big deal!?”

This is most often asked when you broach a subject of media criticism or a critique of seemingly innocuous language. You’re told that it’s ‘not a big deal’ if someone says, say, ‘fag’ persistently in the most derogating way possible. It’s ‘not a big deal’ if a commercial is in any way commodifying or objectifying women. It’s ‘not a big deal’ if, say, a late night talk show host predicates a gag on trans panic. Et cetera. Et cetera.

Such is the power of privilege that the obvious, and in any just universe the only needed, answer never occurs to the offender for even a moment. “It’s disrespectful” ought to be enough, yet somehow it never is; so we are left justifying our anger at a seemingly small bit of errata that must appear like a speck of dust in the night to the privileged people we try so valiantly to reach.

We’re left trying to explain why it isn’t, in fact, so small. Why it is that that speck of dust is just one point in a far larger duststorm.

In that process the next bomb is very likely to be dropped:

“Why are you self-victimising?”

So it is that you pass through the gilded oak doors of the Ministry of Strength.

I.

It should go without saying that such little bits of nonsense are a big deal for the same reason my aforementioned dust storm is a big deal. When one is buffeted and utterly enveloped in one, one tends to be offended by every grain of sand in it. When we take umbrage at an example of irresponsible journalism or other exploitative or bigoted media, we’re merely pointing and saying “look, there’s the dust in my storm; that’s just one part of it, but it’s there.” We are not oppressed by the image or the word en toto, but are instead stung by its existence in a sinful constellation of ideas and legitimations that do us precious little good. In other words, its role in the grander scheme of things.

That much- the fallacy of the ‘big deal’ defence- is abundantly clear. But wither this Ministry of Strength?

It flows out of that all too common accusation that tends to come out of our attempts to show others the storm that swirls around us. The accusation that we are somehow making ourselves victims in pointing out a disrespectful word, thought, or image that is a bolt in the framework of institutionalised marginalisation or oppression. We point it out to say, in essence, ‘this is real.’ In this there is, to be sure, some strength. There is the strength to break free of seeing only the objectivated meaning of these images and instead see them for what their true purpose- latent or otherwise- really is.

So where does being a victim come into it? Needless to say, this is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Every single one of you reading this has probably had this happen to you, seen it happen, or perhaps even done this yourself: someone says they’re offended or disrespected by something and they are told they have a victim complex by the nearest available wielder of privilege. It serves to immediately put the complainant on the defensive, and it’s quite effective as a silencer to boot.

And yet the phenomenon goes further still. Witness this recent exchange on a blog written by a rape survivor. Familiar words enter the fray immediately:

“So your life now revolves around victimhood? Perpetual and eternal. That’s sad. You should move on. Life’s too short. Yadda. Yadda. Yadda.”

I don’t need to tell any of my readers this is but a small sample of this kind of nonsense. It’s ubiquitous and it’s churned out daily. In my observation of this I found that a nagging question pressed itself ever more firmly into my conscious thoughts: What is with this ‘victim’ poppycock? I believe I can now begin to formulate the elements of an answer.

II.

To say that calling anything “Orwellian” is a cliché is to insult clichés. Yet so rarely is Newspeak found so readily and in its perfect form, just as Orwell intended. So rarely is a meaning well and truly inverted and perverted in the way that words like ‘love’ were  in Orwell’s dystopian future.

“Victim” is the word that we’ve somehow made into a perverse opposite.

Where once ‘victim’ necessarily implied the existence of a victimiser, it has now become an individual phenomenon, located entirely in the person labelled ‘victim.’ Where once calling out oppression was popularly understood as bold and courageous, it is now seen as weak and ‘self-victimising’ (more on that connection in a moment). In our contemporary and popular understanding of the term, if I am a victim it means I’ve made myself one and am wallowing in it for some ill-defined reward; it does not mean, as it once did, that I was hurt by someone or something.

This will take a great deal more careful study but I believe I can trace the origins of this to four points.

  • The changes to the law in the 1960s.
  • The self-help culture that emerged in the 1970s.
  • The backlash against emancipatory activism by the marginalised in the 1980s.
  • And the general form of rationalist-individualist capitalism that has come to dominate our society.

One of the first things that a privileged person, confronted with their privilege or with the existence of oppression, will try to do is to deny that the oppression exists. In this aim, they’ve been greatly assisted by the raft of legislation bequeathed to us by the activism of the 1960s. From the Voting Rights Act to Title IX, a broad swathe of (though by no means the entirety of) de jure marginalisation and oppression was struck down.  This alone facilitates the privileged line that is most often used to combat any number of call-outs: “You have your rights now so any failures you’ve had are your own. You’re totally equal now, you’re just being lazy/self-victimising.”

This ignores the complexity of such things, naturally. The law is only one avenue of oppression. Often it is the most overt, yes, and the existence of legal repression is one of the surest and obvious signs of socially sanctioned marginalisation of some group. But its absence does not mean inequality vanishes with it. If society itself remains unchanged, it’ll merely be displaced elsewhere.

But this is how the raft of 1960s-era civil rights legislation is used in this formulation. In order for it to be used in this way, however, (with special attention to the ‘all your failures are yours’ bit) more needs to be added to this stew.

By the mid to late 1970s the repackaging of the 60s counterculture into manageable, marketable fun size chunks was well underway and a major spinoff of these efforts was the beginning of the now ubiquitous self-help industry. Taking bowdlerised ideas of 60s liberation and individual freedom, they began to project a message that you were entirely responsible for how you felt, and that you had the power to completely alter your personal state, regardless of outside influence or outside forces. Indeed, some even promised that with the right attitude adjustment you could will outside forces to change for you. (This chicanery continues today in the form of the execrable book/program/cult The Secret).

Obviously not everyone bought into this. But society is a funny thing. We are ever in a dialogue with it and are invariably shaped by it. This conversation (or dialectic if you prefer the five guinea word) acts on society even as it acts upon us. Dialectic, in its most literal form, may actually be the best word to use as this is a saga about language and its evolution. For even as people might’ve rejected the deeper mysteries of self-help culture, they came to be entrapped by its argot and its message of individual empowerment. It began to undergird messages in cheerful daytime television (which would take off in the late 70s), children’s television, and the plotlines of popular programmes.

This then segues into the 1980s. “Backlash” is a term most often associated with feminism due to Susan Faludi’s perceptive use of it in her groundbreaking book of the same name, examining the travails of the 80s. But it just as easily belongs to all emancipatory movements. Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, a town best known for one particularly gruesome event:

“Philadelphia is known as the site of one of the most infamous race-related crimes in American history. In 1964, three civil rights workers were murdered by white supremacists on a highway outside of Philadelphia. The crime and decades-long legal aftermath inspired the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning.” (from Wikipedia)

Here he declared his unwavering support for “states’ rights”, the same notion trumpeted by segregationist George Wallace nearly twenty years earlier as a bulwark against desegregation.

This would be the beginning of a cavalcade of such ‘dog whistles’ to white men who felt increasingly antagonised and threatened by the sudden growth in power of both women and people of colour in general. It is worth noting that the small but potent transgender liberation movement was no less harmed by this backlash. What small but significant victories we had won in the 1960s were thrown back in our faces many times over as the 70s and 80s ground forward. The AIDS epidemic hit trans women of colour especially hard, and the backlash-mood of the time made it all the easier for much of the government to turn a blind eye to this suffering.

The 1980s then were the decade in which those who perceived themselves the losers of the 60s revolts found their footing again and began to reassert themselves as a political force. Out of this would come the battles against “special interests” (read: NOW and the NAACP), the crusade against “political correctness” and the beginning of such terms as “reverse sexism” and “reverse racism.” All of this nonsense, the New Racism and the New Sexism as I called it in the past, got its true start in the 1980s when the Republican Party’s infamous Southern Strategy was in full bloom. Similar forces were at work to varying degrees in other parts of the English-speaking world as well. It is no coincidence that the 80s were a time of conservative governments blessed with longevity in Britain and Canada as well.

In this period, our final bullet point also rose mightily into the stratosphere. Though individualist capitalism has been prominent in American culture since at least the 1920s, it truly hit the big time in the 70s and 80s with thinkers like Milton Friedman eagerly exporting new and ever more radical ideas to western democracies that praised the individual and the power of markets. All of capitalism’s legitimating mythology- the Horatio Alger myth, social mobility, the power of the individual, and so on- was greatly amplified by the new and ever more expansive pushes towards deregulation.

Needless to say, I do a very poor summary of economic history here and certainly entertain no delusions about doing justice to so complex a subject. I merely hope to illustrate with broad strokes the historical antecedents of our present predicament. (Should one wish to learn more they could do worse than to begin with this documentary.)

At any rate, so it was that capitalism itself- a dominant and powerful part of our social legitimating structure, as well as a source of much of our society’s meaning- came to throw its ever engorging weight behind this notion of the all-powerful individual. The climax of this would come with Margaret Thatcher’s infamous proclamation to the magazine Women’s Own:

“They’re casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first.”

Thus the ultimate formulation of our current problem was writ large. At this point they all intersect: privilege of all sorts, capitalist individualism, the denial of collective responsibility, the exaltation of individual power.

What follows from such a belief, now shared by many, is all too easy to formulate. If you “cast your problems on society” you are self-victimising and therefore weak.

Now where did weak part come from? All of the above? Yes indeed. There’s just one more bit, however, one of great interest to the feminist.

III.

Over the course of this time period we came to exalt a very particular type of masculinity. The classic archetype of the unwavering male-as-stoic-defender, that John Wayne model of manhood that would defy all odds to defend the ones he loved, and so on and so on. We had always worshipped this model of manhood to some extent over the last, especially, two hundred years but it seemed to become hugely popular in the wake of the Second World War with ever diminishing tolerance for alternate expressions of masculinity, perhaps because of the rise of the mass media combined with pervasive fear of Communism (the latter making apparent the supposed need for strong male warrior types).

What we artificially divided into masculine and feminine fell, as they always did, into a hierarchy with all that was good and masculine at the very top, with the dainty qualities of the feminine relegated to a status of tolerated inferiority. Because we as women were reified as the weaker sex, and socially defined feminine traits were reified as intrinsic to us, it followed that whatever was feminine was weak. In regards to this newly juiced up conception of manhood, this meant all feminine traits were verboten for men. Any hint of weakness was to be scrupulously avoided like death itself.

With the rise of the women’s movement, women were increasingly free to take on the roles restricted from them by patriarchy. The unforeseen problem was that this aspirational ideal was still based on a fundamentally patriarchal one: to be masculine is to be good. This would inevitably bring women as a whole into contact with the idea that weakness (as defined through objectivated patriarchal structures, lest we forget) was to be shunned if one wanted to be taken seriously.

Without a doubt, we wanted to be taken very seriously, and we fought twice as hard when we were thought of as half as good. We swam upstream, and indeed are still swimming upstream in many sectors to reap the fruits of our labours. Yet while we still live in the master’s house (a la Audre Lorde), one constructed of patriarchal dark iron, we run into this fear of weakness. Fear of the feminine in ourselves.

Assuredly this branches off into complex topics all on its own; these too I’ll write about in time. But for now let’s return to the Ministry of Strength.

IV.

Thus we live in a society that values a very particular idea of strength, one which women now feel very compelled to live up to (with the added handicap of us being thought of as intrinsically feminine and thus intrinsically weaker). We also live in a society that has constructed the individual as all-powerful, even able to shape her or his surroundings through sheer will, and a society that is increasingly sceptical of its own existence, much less the existence of structures that could repress or marginalise whole groups of people.

At base, to be a victim is to be hurt. In the patriarchal conception, to be wounded is to be undesirably weak. To admit it is an even greater taboo. If one thinks that these masculine ideas don’t afflict women in dire circumstances I direct you to the heartfelt words of a woman I spoke with recently on the subject:

“May I add, and this is something else that others may be familiar with: The alienation from the victim role can inhibit true processing of an event.

Feeling as if something bad has happened is a natural part of grief/processing. Yet, we’re encouraged to ignore this huge step of dealing with things that happen in our lives and encouraged to just get back to normal.

Yes, I refused to accept that I was a victim when I was raped. I thought it would make me sad and slow and weak. I thought that saying I had been victimized would be caving in and giving power to the person who wronged me. Now I realize that I did myself a grave disservice, and thought I was being strong when I did so.”

This is a phenomenon affecting and, indeed, afflicting real people.

Without a doubt, a man who was raped or abused would be compelled to feel even worse by his peers. By social standards we still nurse, he is given every reason to see himself as a failure.

We pretend that we can will away the fact that we’ve been victimised. The assailant becomes almost incidental, tangential, a nonfactor. All that matters is you. It’s not hard to see how this ties into the pervasive culture of victim-blaming that still dominates our society. When a woman is raped the accusations fly, even sometimes from other women, about the clothes she wore, where she was walking, or where she was partying, or what she was having to drink, or what she did or did not do, or who she did or did not sleep with.

In it all, the rapist is lost, relegated to being a merely implied spectre in the whole thing.

If this woman, who is to blame for her own rape according to some in society, dares to socially locate that rape in broader cultural phenomena rather than as a justified consequence of her actions, she is immediately called self-victimising. So it was with Ms. Chester, the blogger from earlier, who uses her words to help combat these evils and knows from whence they sprung. A man accused her of self-victimising to silence her, positing to her that Orwellian ideal that there was strength in supplication, redemption in denial, joy in silence. He enjoined her to move on with her life, unable to fathom that this is how she is moving on with her life, as she comes to truly understand it for the first time.

It is so mystifying and threatening to him precisely because we believe now that the role of ‘victim’ is entirely self created and self-imposed, and that if only one were strong enough it could be wished away, along with all the attendant pain.

In our ongoing conversation with our culture new phrases and ideas have begun to come out of this. “Inspiring stories” in the media will often feature the moment when the subject proclaimed “that was the day I stopped being a victim.” When less-sympathetic victims are spoken of by others it is not uncommon to hear that they “let themselves” be a victim. People fond of giving aggressive, ‘ tough-love’ style help will take you by the shoulders and say forcefully “stop being a victim!” if they feel you haven’t taken the appropriate amount of control over your life. All of this is out there, and until quite recently I myself used many of these phrases flippantly, unaware of how I’d bought into this ugly new concept of victimhood.

It is a Ministry of Strength, in the Orwellian sense, then. A social institution dedicated to the proposition that weakness is strength. The activist, oppositional posture is cast as weakness, whereas apologising for those in power is cast as strength. Strength comes from doing the one thing that obviates your healing: denying that you’ve ever been hurt. The focus for victims of rape and abuse is now on shrugging off the mantle of ‘victim’ before doing anything else. If you can erase the label from yourself, you’ll be cured and pure again, so goes the self-help wisdom. Inasmuch as it exists on the same continuum as victim-blaming and slut-shaming it is plain to see where the interest for broader Feminism lies in this matter.

Some might argue that we see very prominent cases of victims shouting j’accuse at their tormentors. Yet study the discourses surrounding those events. If it is a woman claiming to have been raped, invariably mentions of the Duke Lacrosse team will surface. If it is the victim of a war crime they’re branded as glory hogs or terrorists in disguise. If it is the victim of discrimination in housing or employment, they’re branded attention whores trying to strike it rich in a lawsuit. That is how these people who dare to speak up are cast and framed. They are mercilessly pilloried for their efforts and assumed to be selfish (another rationalist-capitalist idea, by the by), they are rarely seen as entirely sympathetic.

Our present economic structure excels at producing atomised individuals, and when combined with the creaking but still operational machinery of patriarchy, as well as the better oiled rigs of transphobia, racism, and homophobia, it creates atomised victims. Victims who are actively encouraged to not fight back, or even admit that they’ve been victimised. Victims who are encouraged to be alone in their sense of victimhood. Should they dare speak the name of their assailant, he or she will always be Thatcher’s individual- never part of something bigger. There are only individual bad guys out there, and anyway they don’t matter as much as your own self-victimisation, do they?

Conclusion.

Recently I got into a sparring match with someone who deployed the self-victimising ploy yet again. She said to me:

“I don’t know, I want to start a [forum] for women who look out the window and say ‘ “i have more control over my life than the world does over me and i am going to live my life knowing that.” “

I responded as follows:

“Your concept of “self-victimisation” is false and does not exist. To be honest, I look out the window every day and think “I have more control over my life than the world does” in my heart. How could I not? I have things to do, a life to live, degrees to get, dreams to fulfil. How could I not think that empowering sentence each and every day?

I want independence, I want the fruits of my labour to be ripe and bountiful. That’s exactly why I fight sexism, and there is something ennobling about that very act that gives me even more strength to keep right on saying that the world has no power over me. I recognise and grapple with reality, but also try my best to rise above it. Why? Because I can do no other.

Recognising discriminatory or biased behaviour, however small, is not self-victimisation. Fighting against bigotry (whether it be sexism, racism, transphobia, homophobia, or all of the above) is not allowing one’s self to be defeated by the world or surrender power to it. It’s the very opposite. It’s the seizure of strength, of identity, and independence.”

What struck me most was that it seemed to win over my opponent, who deleted her accusatory posts and left one to me saying she’d love to hear my stories of overcoming adversity sometime, something for which I hope an opportunity soon presents itself.

In this is, perhaps, part of the solution to our problem- and it is a problem we all face whatever our group identities. That solution is to continue to emphasise and frame the strength of activism. Activism need not mean taking to the streets or leafleting. It can just mean having the strength to say “hey, that’s transphobic, stop that.” That alone is the activist posture that resists the perpetuation of marginalising or alienating norms. That alone will do to qualify for the activist label (that’s certainly Fox News’ standard). But it is not enough in the face of these new oppressive ideas that have redefined victimhood. We must smash this new Ministry of Strength with the very real strength we possess, and remind others that this strength stems not from apologising for the way things are but from actively working to change it, and from proactively seizing your identity from others who would define it for you.

In this lies strength, in this lies freedom.

Feminism and I

In my recent writings I have taken great pains to criticise elements of feminism that I believe are failing the women this movement purports to serve. I stand by those challenges and will repeat them so long as there is need for them.

But I should also dedicate this space to my own robust support for the ideals that undergird feminism and there is no better place to begin with an introductory question: what does feminism mean to me? What follows is my answer to this question, a modified version of which appeared on Reddit in a thread of the same name.

I will not simply trot out the radical cliches about how “feminism is the belief that women are people” and it would take only a few seconds for an observer to note that I most definitely believe in equal opportunity and equality between the sexes. These two statements, for me, go without saying. The deeper definitions for me have more to do with the following: love and respect for yourself as a woman and a willingness to confront unfairness.

But Feminism is, above all, the standard to which I repair.

When times are at their hardest, it lends me strength. It lent me strength for much of my life, even when I did not think it my own. It gave me an enormous amount of courage, the strength to not hate myself for wanting to be a woman, the strength to see something positive and worthwhile in it, and the strength to face transmisogyny; strength I didn’t know I had.

Because above all else it is the term ‘repair’ that matters most. Feminism gave me the strength to not simply sit down and shut up or hide in a dark corner, but to forcefully assert my dignity, rights, and right to exist. It gave me the ability to repair my strength when it was left mercilessly battered and tested.

When I came out it gave me the strength to stand up to my father, who groped me and demanded to see my underwear. The strength to know this was not only wrong, but why it was happening.

It gave me the strength to stand up to radical feminists who said I had no place in the movement, and to find the courage to never doubt my own womanhood.

But it’s not just about my own life. My mother is not a self identified feminist, yet in making certain things clear to her she began to realise she had a right to self respect as a woman. She began to wake up and see that no, it wasn’t okay for her husband to withhold medication from her in exchange for sex or to dismissively tell her to take a cab on a night she needed an ambulance, it wasn’t okay to force himself on her the night before her father’s funeral after she said no dozens of times, it wasn’t justified or excusable that he used to hit her, it wasn’t right that he constantly put her down, it wasn’t hers to accept her role in his deluded fantasy…

To many men, especially, it is hard to see why it would take something like feminism to get someone to realise those basic and essential things. Well, that’s why it’s still very necessary. Because even in this day and age it is so easy to beat a woman down into self-loathing hopelessness.

That is why I say that feminism is not Michfest. It is more than a building, or a convention, or a sign, or a Women’s Studies Department. It must be that place where you discover it’s okay to have dignity. It must be the ideal that equality is more than a word, or an airy thought, but a reality that you can live.

It’s about more than material political battles, it’s about the battles you fight in your own life.

It is about developing the habit of freedom.

It’s the battle one of my closest friends fought to find self worth as a mother after spending several years in sex work just to raise her child and pay for medical treatment. It’s the battle another friend had to accept that she could be into BDSM. It’s the battle my mother’s still fighting to find the strength to divorce herself from a man who controls all of her savings. It’s the battle my trans women sisters fight every day to see themselves as people of worth, in a society that dumps on them twice as hard because they are women. It’s about the time I launched myself out of my chair to condemn a man speaking to my classmates with pride about how he kicked his pregnant daughter to the curb, with the child of her rapist, because she was a ‘slut.’

This is more than politics, it’s more than a gathering of opinions; it’s my life, and the lives of the people I love.

That’s why I identify outside of the wave system. The whole Third Wave et al. series of designations is useful academically but I do not like to box myself into one mode of feminist thinking. I let my experience, learning, critical thought and observations inform what I believe.

Because as I said, feminism is more than anything tangible; more than something that can be corralled in the neatest of confines.

In all of this is my rejoinder to the ceaseless and witless suggestions about “equalism”. Those experiences are why a separate word is needed. But I am an equalist too. Feminism is about standing up for yourself as a woman, in addition to equalism and humanism.

It is the standard I hold proudly, and I’ll never let it go.

Castles in the Air

In the many debates I’ve had about the truth of my existence the question of whether one can ever truly be trans is a pressing one. How do you know you’re a woman? What does this mean about gender? Does the fact of my existence better support biological essentialism or the theories of social constructionism? Thus it is that again my life is reduced to someone else’s ideological pawn. Must I validate anything by existing? Other than the already obvious fact of human diversity, of course. But nestled in this tangled mess is the burden of my own past, which I’ve recounted in some sketchy detail here recently.

How to see it and how to understand it is an ever pressing question, the answer to which evolves over time. How we reinterpret our biographies is part of how we live our lives and how we measure its progress, in a way. One is often considered mature when they can look back on the relative immaturity of their younger years- a time when they were sure they were absolutely right. So what do I see when I look back on those days when I was younger and when I was still struggling to know myself?

Pivoting off of this thought provoking post over at Sugar and Slugs I thought its particular timeliness in the wake of Daughter Also Rises (Part I, Part II) meant this would be a good time to re-examine some of what I said.

I was impressed most of all by the fundamental honesty of her post and I think it touches on a fundamental question that dogs us all, not just trans people:

How do we know what we know?

The sociology of knowledge, such as it is in its very theoretical and airy form, exists to try and answer this question and is generally at the basis of what we know as social constructionism. This was best epitomised by the groundbreaking text The Social Construction of Reality by Thomas Luckmann and Peter Berger that, while dense as a brick and an extraordinarily wonky read,  is nevertheless worth considering. We do, to a great extent, invent our knowledge. Male and female are loose biological concepts that have been reified into socially constructed genders and identities. That is to say that the gender expressions of males and females and all who exist outside of that binary have at least some societal grounding. What we consider the ‘trappings’ of male and female are socially determined.

But then other things come into it. Why, for example, would I find such peace from taking hormones if biology didn’t somehow become part of the mix? There are many interlacing layers of complexity to be found here.

But that aside, what we understand as gender has a largely socially constructed definition that is reified by the existence of what a layperson sees as two mutually exclusive sexes (and I say ‘layperson’ because biologically speaking things get considerably more complicated than that). Thus all of that said, how do I know I’m a woman?

I just know. How can I describe how this feels? I really cannot imagine the alternative any longer and with each passing day I feel more and more at home.

This raises another question, however. This life is a hard one, one that is complicated by the many externalities of womanhood in a patriarchal society. The latter creates a welter of problems before one even gets to the part about being trans. Some particularly dense radical feminists ask why on earth one would want to be a woman in this society with all the problems we face, when one was born with a one way ticket into Male Privilege. Why indeed.

The answer lies back in World of Warcraft.

One of the details I ought not to have skipped over in my telling of that story and which I may edit in later was how I handled my first Bad Female Experiences. I was flirted with, even against my expressed wishes, stalked, had photos demanded of me, heard and rolled my eyes at innumerable sexist jokes, and so forth. The first two were especially bad. A lot of people tend to blur the lines between fantasy and reality in these games and more than one person who I roleplayed with, even for just the briefest of times, felt we had “a moment” and sought to declare their undying affection for me.

My stalker felt very much the same and he was quite determined to be my betrothed, regaling me with tales of how I’d lay against his bare chest while he played the guitar and held roses. I’m honestly a bit unclear on how that might’ve worked physically. This was something wholly new to me that I had not really experienced at all in high school. Suddenly I was surrounded by men who wouldn’t take no for an answer, who felt entitled to my time and attention, who stalked me, and who underestimated my capabilities.

Did this suck big time? Absolutely. But something else happened in that crucible. I found the strength to fight it. I certainly didn’t enjoy being treated like a woman in this respect, but I found a sense of pride in standing up for my dignity against it. When I lived as a male I didn’t ever really want to stand up for myself. I never had the energy or desire to do so. Even though I came under fire as a woman, I found I had the sense of pride I needed to find dignity in battle, so to speak.

This is not to spin my WoW experience as some kind vortex of misogynist misery; in my two years there I had some great times and met some absolutely wonderful people, men and women alike, who treated me as a friend and comrade. Suffice it to say, we kicked the arse of many a raid boss together. But the gendered experiences were instructive. When men foisted gifts upon me in thoroughly unwarranted contexts I felt hopelessly put upon and burdened. But I also found the strength to not indulge in the commodity model they were buying into; I knew I owed them no attention of any sort, least of all sexual, and learned to not feel pressured into accepting unwanted gifts or advances.

In summary, being a woman has its problems but I had the strength to deal with those challenges, drawing on a well of dignity that was somehow unavailable when I was struggling to be a male in society.

Sugar and Slugs makes an interesting point here:

“If womanhood comes, as many transsexuals seem to believe, from some kind of internal knowing (which itself seems like a form of mental essentialism), I have no way to know that my experience of “knowing” that I am a woman is the same as the “knowing” that other people experience. It’s nonverifiable.”

It seems like a wash but I can answer it, I feel. How we know ourselves, as individuals, and then vis a vis our various group associations, is an individuated self-knowing that is likely as vicissitudinal and unique as a fingerprint. So, naturally, my self knowing as a woman is different from my female best friend’s self knowing, which is different from my mother’s self-knowing and so on.

Thus while my self knowledge is unique, it is not invalid.

That knowledge is coloured by experience and how we grow into ourselves. Some of it is self knowledge based on our physical form, and the distinctive ways that hormones can interact with our brains, as well as consciousness of our particular social location in the broader world.

“If, on the other hand, we take a stance that “existence precedes essence”, and that as Simon de Beauvoir wrote, “one is not born a woman, but becomes one”, we can see womanhood as something that arises from the form and capabilities of the adult female body and the way in which that person is treated by the wider world.”

Thus this becomes a part of self knowledge for some, if not self knowledge en toto.

How do we draw the line that bifurcates essence and its prototypical ‘existence’? We cannot. Aside from simply being unable to know the consciousness of another person, we also have to account for individual variance. Shared experience is not analogous to identical experience. Thus how we see our individual womanhoods (or manhoods, or other identities as the case may be) depends on who we are as individuals based on a very diverse matrix of individual stimuli, variables, and experiences.

In my own case when I look back on my childhood and my teen years I know that I was not fully a girl, and that particularly in many of my interactions at school and in the outside world I was socially located as a male with the many things that implies. But I also know that I was not fully a boy in any sense. I was someplace that was less easily categorised. The rise of my own feminine essence, to use de Beauvoir’s term, can probably be traced back to my tentative steps into gaming.

Was I not a female before that? My self-understanding says that I was, just heavily repressed. I have no way of proving this, naturally, but that’s what it seemed to feel like. The reason I can’t prove it is a very simple one.

Womanhood isn’t any one thing.

I’d have to say I was a woman because I did or didn’t do x, y, and z. That makes no sense whatsoever and is incredibly reductive. The constituent parts of my experience, taken by themselves, and compartmentalised into bullet points, do not amount to a definition of womanhood, any more than a brick adds up to the Empire State Building. But taken together and arranged in a certain way, all those experiences I delineated, great and small, added up to something I understand as womanhood.

It would be wrong to say that just because I played female characters in video games or tried on my mother’s clothes, I’m therefore a woman. Those are just building blocks of my tower of womanhood, so to speak. Essential parts, but mere parts all the same.

In short, I was not a cis girl growing up, no. But neither was I a cis boy. I had what best approximates as a trans girl’s childhood. One of a million different kinds but a distinctive experience all the same, during which one internalises the mores and ideals of a patriarchal society and during which one can build up the same amount of baggage many cis girls have to unpack by the time they hit 20.

Constantly being told to be insecure, to hate yourself, to see yourself as less; to see yourself as less beautiful, less capable, in need of constant improvement conveniently provided in small doses by expensive products, on and on. How many times did I watch television or some movie and wonder why it was always “the hero gets the girl” and not the other way around, or wonder why every even remotely independent woman had to get hitched to a man as part of the boilerplate “happy ending”?

Figuring all of that nonsense out actually took years of slow and steady intellectual growth. It was on my road to feminism that I began to discover this, and on this path I’d begin to unravel what was within me as well.

Nebulous Persona is fundamentally correct that we have no solid, firm, incontrovertible proof of our womanhood (and presumably trans men of their manhood, or nonbinary people of their identities) at least in terms of something that could be written and considered as inerrant and objective as a physics formula. But then… neither does anyone about any of their identities or self-understanding.

No matter what I or anyone else says, I know those who are convinced that I’m somehow disturbed or evil will continue to see me as such. I’m quite sure that any fundamentalist, MRA, extremist feminist, or general, run of the mill hater will read my story and ‘pick holes’ in it. I cannot convince these people of my identity in any rational, logical, or Socratic sense. There’s just an element of decency that many people have which allows them to take a leap of faith and understand the personal truth of my womanhood, to understand what I mean when I tell my story to them, the way many of my mother’s relatives seem to ‘get it’ more or less.

But they do not do what they do because they were presented with a flawless argument.

Such attention is paid to trans people, and such harsh absolutist questions (“How do you know who you are!?”) are asked because who we are still seems to upset a great many taboos. Yet we all, each of us, somehow upset the templates laid out for us at birth. In some little way, we stand out and engage in our own unconscious acts of rebellion. Why? Is there a test that confirms some cosmic veracity of one person’s taste in fashion, for example?

Of course not. Nor will there ever be. Why should there be?

Why should my rights depend on such? It is one of the reasons why I consider the growing body of research into homosexuality to be academically useful but politically flawed. Why should it matter if it can be biologically ‘proven’ or not? Our democracies defend the choice of religion- no one argues that Christians needed to have ‘Christ-like DNA’ before they were accorded protections under our laws. No one argues that political speech must have a biological origin before we bestow the blessings of liberty upon it. So why do I have to prove myself in that way, with anything other than what I feel is my own lived experience? The obvious answers of heteronormative and cisnormative social standards leap to mind, of course.

Thus it is that while I consider these questions to be useful to consider from various academic and theoretical standpoints, I feel that they above all constitute castles in the air. To whatever extent they are solid and tangible, they’re far out of reach, occupying an almost mythical space in our collective conscience.

When I was a wee one I loved The Phantom Tollbooth and it remains my favourite children’s story. Few tales were such an elegant celebration of education and knowledge.  Toward the end Milo ascended to the beautiful Castle in the Air, high above the Mountains of Ignorance, where the exiled twin queens of Rhyme and Reason were locked away, and freed them that their wisdom might again reign over the land. To my mind, on this subject and quite a few others, we could do a lot worse than to become Milo and spring Rhyme and Reason from these aerial castles of ‘proving one’s gender.’

How do I know I exist?

Because I am here.