So you’re offended?

IMG_9866Freedom of speech is very high up on the list of my most important values – as I believe it is for most. However, following the expansion of social media as a platform where anyone and everyone can have their say on any topic under the sun it seems that freedom of speech has become confused with the freedom of not being offended.

I used to be an avid Tumblr user some years ago. At first it was a cool place for pop culture and fandoms where you’d find a lot of people deeply devoted to sci-fi shows doing character studies and meta-analyses and what have you. Feminism, LGBTQ rights and anti-racism were always prevalent and I have to say I learned a lot about everyday sexism and racism in the U.S. (most users seemed to be American) among other things. But then gradually everything became offensive to someone, and the term ‘trigger warning’ started to appear.

By the way, I’ve now heard that some universities in the U.S. and even in the UK have student bodies demanding that lecturers issue trigger warnings and refrain from using certain words lest they cause a student to be upset – or rather traumatised.
I sometimes wonder how the human race has survived for this long…

The thought behind this is that some topics may be triggering to survivors of sexual assault or otherwise. I can see the value of the idea but so long as media platforms like Tumblr don’t automatically generate trigger warnings haphazard tagging by a minimal number of users seems pointless.
With regard to establishments of higher education and research, I can hardly think of a worse course of action than to start censoring people in spaces which were created for free enquiry, research, discussion, debate and open critique of ideas and theories. I simply cannot stand the thought of going to do a Masters degree and finding out that the professors and lecturers are having to hold themselves back in the fear of accidentally making someone feel uncomfortable. This is inconceivable – and in my honest opinion, individuals who feel that they would be seriously damaged by hearing certain words or discussing certain topics should probably not go to a university in the first place. Being uncomfortable is crucial for intellectual development.

“It’s now very common to hear people say, ‘I’m rather offended by that.’ As if that gives them certain rights. It’s actually nothing more… than a whine. ‘I find that offensive.’ It has no meaning; it has no purpose; it has no reason to be respected as a phrase. ‘I am offended by that.’ Well, so fucking what.
– Stephen Fry

But back to Tumblr: the more I read responses to apparently triggering content, the more I came to realise that for the most part people were merely upset or angry about something they had read, rather than actually triggered in a psychologically serious way. In Finnish we have a wonderful word,’mielensäpahoittaja’, for people who seem to actively look for things to get offended by so that they can attack the alleged offenderAs soon as one seeks to shut down a conversation or silence their opponent on the grounds of being offended, in my eyes, they have lost. No problem was ever solved by declaring it a taboo.
So then I stopped using Tumblr because my blood pressure couldn’t handle the “How dare you use that word you racist, trans-phobic, misogynist, white supremacist, ableist, sociopathic cunt!!!” type of rhetoric that was rampant.

Escaping Tumblr was only a short-term solution and being offended is increasingly trendy in every nook of social media. Of course there are words like nigger or fag that are found offensive in most of their uses. However words in and of themselves are not and can not be offensive; we give them meaning and one can either chose – or not, to give or take offence. There are ideas that can be viewed as offensive, such as women as second-class citizens, and of course some people find nudity or homosexuality terribly upsetting. All in all everyone has a right to be offended. This is not an issue. The issue is the misconception that being offended means you are right and the other person is wrong; that somehow you, as the offended party are entitled to be de-offended. Spoiler alert: you are not, and none of us are. Taking offence is our own business, and if we wish to confront our perceived offenders we have every right to defend our views. But simply stating “This is offensive” is not effective advocacy, and will not aid your cause whatever it may be.

The world is full of interesting and hard conversations to be had and the real tragedy is if intelligent and insightful people start to censor themselves under the pressure of thin-skinned opponents and audiences. I firmly believe that any topic should be open for discussion and any idea fair game for critique. We should all recognise that when our ideas, views and beliefs are being criticised, we as persons are not under attack. For instance, when I question your religious ideology I am not questioning your personhood, morality or value. I would never deliberately offend a person but I would offend an idea.
How about actually offensive and hateful speech though – isn’t that bad? I think everyone should have the right to present themselves precisely as bigoted and ignorant as they in fact are. Genuinely bad ideas will more than likely be faced with mockery, and genuinely malicious speech will be condemned. Shutting people up won’t stop them from generating stupid ideas, laughing them off the stage might.
That said, when it comes to representing the views of a group of people, one ought to be held more accountable for their statements as they are in fact not only speaking for themselves.

‘If someone tells me that I’ve hurt their feelings, I say, “Well I’m still waiting to hear what your point is”.’
– Christopher Hitchens

Some resources:
The Thinking Atheist Podcast – I’m Offended!
Sam Harris and Jonatahan Haidt talk about political correctness on campus and lots of other things (just listen to all of Sam’s podcast episodes, he’s brilliant and you might get offended)
SubReddit about Social Justice Warriors on Tumblr and elsewhere (it’s funny ok)
All of Christopher Hitchens’ debates on YouTube (he’s the bomb)

The Gender Police

blacksheepI’m listening to The Thinking Atheist podcast episode from last summer and the topic of discussion is transgender issues. As a conversation starter the host reads out loud a couple of bigoted and misinformed views of people who feel entitled to weigh in on certain trans-celebs’ experiences. I got particularly annoyed by a Facebook response to Caitlyn Jenner from a middle-aged lady, Emilee Danielson who asserts that “Mr. Jenner” has no right to identify as a woman because there is a multitude of innately feminine experiences that “he” will never be able to have, including period pains, menopause and pregnancy.

This also ties in with a very recent campaign launched by the youth sect of a Finnish right wing, nationalist political party “True Finns” (How do I hate the English translation they use!). I’m not actually sure what’s going on with the campaign now because it immediately faced an onslaught of backlash and ridicule in social media. Anyway the point of it was to enforce traditional gender roles and get rid of “confusion” and “needless complexity” that that arise from a more fluid definition of gender. Wearing baseball caps stating ‘boy’ or ‘girl’ these young conservative actives call for the right for boys to be boys and girls to be girls because according to them our sexual nature is clear-cut binary. Not only is the statement scientifically inaccurate, but it also dismisses the difference between sex and gender entirely. To their defence, in the Finnish language, we only have one word that covers the two terms, and so confusion is understandable. However, one would think that in a campaign seeking to reduce confusion more research into the socio-biological study of the topic of gender should have been done. But maybe that’s just me, and to be honest, these True Finns are notorious for making rather outrageous and poorly justified claims in public. Therefore I shouldn’t be surprised.

I would suggest that behind these – or any – truth claims about sex and gender are some very deeply rooted misconceptions: 1.) sex and gender are interchangeable words for the same thing, 2.) there is a clear-cut binary division in sex/gender, and 3.) there is something inherently special about one’s gender that is also inherently different from the other.

So let’s start with the difference of sex and gender. In short, sex describes one’s biological properties, and is somewhat easier to define. Most people are born with either two X chromosomes and female reproductive organs, or with one X and one Y chromosome and male reproductive organs. So there is the binary, plain and simple – or is it? Although rare there are those who are born intersex i.e. with some elements from both reproductive organs. Sadly, very few of those babies get to grow old enough to know whether they want a surgery or not, and are often assigned a gender by their parents and doctors in infancy. And we can’t always even look to the chromosomes to know what’s going on because some people with female reproductive organs are born with three X chromosomes or even a traditionally male combo XY. So reducing both sex and gender into a the combination of sex chromosomes and denying the validity of alternative gender identities seems rather ignorant.

Which brings us to gender. Gender in a nutshell is a social construct, which traditionally holds all of our preconceptions of how people of one or another gender are or should be. It shows in ways in which we express ourselves to the world, and in how we feel about our place amongst people of other genders. Gender as a term is in constant flux and can seem elusive especially if you, like me are cis-gendered i.e. your biological sex matches your gender identity, and you’ve never had to ponder what being certain gender means to you.

But let’s go back to the Facebook post and Emilee’s view on who gets to identify as a woman. According to her the formative experiences of womanhood include the physical experiences arising from female reproductive systems and hormonal changes, the challenges of motherhood and the fear of male violence. And as trans-women can’t have all of those experiences they don’t get to be called female? How about the women who are sterile? Or those who never want biological children? Are they somehow lesser than women who go through period pains and pregnancy? The problem with this narrow description of womanhood, which boils down to ovaries is its exclusiveness especially in today’s world where it is increasingly socially acceptable to choose to leave no offspring. Needless to say this view also perpetuates conventional nuclear family structure, which in turn leads to the conclusion that women belong in the home whilst men rule the world. Of course, it is entirely possible to be a mother and also work and realise one’s dreams outside the family, but saying that motherhood is the pinnacle of femininity is archaic – and so 1950’s.

Then there is this experience of fear for male violence when alone in the dark  – apparently unattainable by trans-women.

“You will never know what it is like to have your car break down on the side of the road and when a couple men stop to help your prayer is that their intentions are good because there is no way on earth you have the ability to physically hang let alone overpower them.”

I have two issues with this statement. First of all, to insinuate that trans-women are not vulnerable to violent crimes is simply ridiculous. The Human Rights Campaign reports that there were more reported transgender homicide victims in 2015 than any previous year. These crimes are not recorded as hate crimes but for the sake of this argument this isn’t really even relevant. The point is that the fear of violence is very much present in many trans-women’s lives – probably even more so than an average cis-woman’s due to the prejudice and lack of empathy towards trans-identities.

It bears a mention that most victims of these crimes are not only transgender but also people of colour, and in this light it is probably accurate to say that Caitlyn Jenner personally is not at risk of violence to the same degree as the victims mentioned in the HRC report. However, also Emilee is white and so statistically safer than any woman of colour – cis or trans. Of course fear and statistics don’t go hand in hand but the claim that trans-women having lived or living in male bodies are unfamiliar with the experience is plain ignorance and lack of compassion.

The other huge problem in this passage is the notion of fear for violence inflicted by men as an integral part of the “true” female identity. I find this one of the most misogynistic statements about femininity that I’ve ever heard – especially coming from a woman. That to have a full and real experience of womanhood we must feel inferior to men to such a degree that we are afraid. Just to clarify, I completely understand why many women feel unsafe walking alone at night and uneasy in the presence of strange men. I am by no means saying that the feeling is irrational and weak and stupid – no. I don’t really experience this myself but I empathise with anyone who does, and the rare times that I’ve been outside at night alone, I have made sure to be alert and cognisant of my environment.

The real issue is seeing the fear of male violence as an inherent part of womanhood without which one cannot identify as a female. This kind of thinking perpetuates inequality between genders and promotes traditional gender roles where woman is seen as less than complete, and man as the ultimate human. In short, it implies that a woman needs a man to protect her from other men, which is seriously counterproductive to feminism and social equality at large. To promote such a view is to promote the experience of self-inflicted victimhood, which only leads to passivity, lazy name-calling and making complaints instead of taking action in one’s own life. There is really nothing worse than to teach ourselves and our children to adopt an overarching fear of a group of people. I was never told by anyone to avoid being raped or attacked by doing this, that or the other thing, and somehow I learned to carry myself with confidence instead of paranoia. I’m not saying I’m untouchable; bad things can happen to anyone. But to hold fear at the core of an authentic gender identity is to put a stop to progress.

In conclusion, I find the gender policing from the likes of conservative youth politicians and the Eileen Danielsons of the world boring and a waste of everyone’s time with their quick judgements and eagerness to put people’s identities in neat and contained boxes with no overlapping and no fluidity. Frankly, there are so many actual problems in every corner of our planet that getting overly agitated by someone’s non-conforming gender identity seems very petty and short-sighted. At least Mrs Danielson is just a regular person with some regressive opinions which she certainly is entitled to, but a political organisation should probably reconsider the target of its resources. If you are so threatened by the acceptance of diversity of unconventional gender roles in society that you feel the need to shout from the rooftops what it really means to be a woman, maybe consider seeking professional help. And I am sure to send you an invite back to the 50’s as soon as someone invents a time-machine.

Live, and let others live.
p.s. Listen to The Thinking Atheist!!

Resources:
The Thinking Atheist Podcast – The Transgender Question
Emilee Danielson’s Facebook post
The HRC report
The Guardian’s article on the HRC report
Broadly – ‘He’s not done killing her’: Why so many trans women were murdered in 2015
Chromosomal anomalies
The True Finns campaign (in Finnish)
For some gender theory check out Gender Trouble and Undoing Gender by Judith Butler