As readers who follow my Tumblr may be aware, I have a handful of pet peeves which I go on about continually (for definitions of “continually” which mean “whenever they show up on my dash”). Stop Being Mean To Neckbearded Bronies. Actually Those Studies Massively Undercount Male Rape Survivors. And, most relevantly here, What The Fuck Is Wrong With Nounself Pronouns.
For those of you who have not wasted your life getting in stupid arguments on Tumblr, I should probably explain what a nounself pronoun is. Currently, gender-neutral pronouns are in a state of Chaucerian anarchy: no one can agree on whether it’s spelled “zie,” “xie”, “xye”, or “sie,” much less how it’s declined, and maybe we should all use Spivaks instead. A group of trans people, mostly teenagers, have responded to this by inventing increasingly silly pronouns. “My pronouns are bun/buns/bunself! My pronouns are vo/voi/vois/voidself! My pronouns are sea/sail/sails/shipself!”
To be clear, I don’t actually know anyone who prefers any of those pronouns. Most of my nonbinary friends don’t have preferred pronouns period. And there are many reasonable objections to these pronouns: most notably, that no one is going to remember whether some random acquaintance prefers “vo” or “sea”. (The correct solution to this is to also accept singular “they”. To be honest, I think all nonbinary people should accept singular “they”, because no one is going to remember your position on the zie/xie/xye/sie controversy either.) And yet I have wasted hours of my life writing impassioned tumblr posts about how we ought to leave bun to bunself.
The reason? The sentence “they make us look bad.”
I should probably, at this point, acknowledge my debt to the concept of respectability politics developed, like all important social justice concepts, by womanists.
Essentially, the idea of respectability politics is that black people are stereotyped by society as sexually licentious, immoral, stupid, and lazy. Similarly, things associated with black people are also associated with immorality and stupidity: natural hair is “unprofessional”; African American Vernacular English is “not real English” (in spite of AAVE’s obviously fabulous tense/aspect system). However, the thought goes, if black people prove that they are not those things– if they have lifelong monogamous marriages, get professional jobs, wear their hair in white ways, stop speaking AAVE, and for God’s sake never fucking twerk— then white people will be like “oh! Sorry! Our mistake! Now we see that you are human beings!” and then racism will be solved.
This strategy has been tried for over a hundred years and yet somehow racism has not been solved yet.
Funny how that works.
Those of us who have been around the Queer Internet for mumblemumble years may remember the (fortunately, usually recognized as biphobic nowadays) specter of the Fake Bisexual Girl.
No one objects to real bisexuals, of course not. We just object to those fake bisexuals, the ones with emo haircuts and slashes on their wrists who identify as bisexual for attention but never really fuck girls. They just make out with girls at parties. In fact, fighting fake bisexuals actually helps the real bisexuals! Fake bisexuals make real bisexuals look ridiculous, so no one takes them seriously! If only there weren’t any fake bisexuals, then homophobia would be solved.
The obvious problem here is that there are many, many girls with emo haircuts, histories of self-injury, and a tendency to make out with girls at parties who are actually, in fact, really bisexual. There is nothing about an emo haircut that means you can’t stick your hand down a set of pants and be happy with whatever you find there. (Indeed, one might argue that the correlation between those two is, in fact, positive.) The only thing policing fake bisexuals does is bully actual bisexuals, keep actual bisexuals from getting community support for dealing with homophobia, and make actual bisexuals insecure about whether they Really Count if they haven’t fucked exactly fifty percent girls and fifty percent boys.
On a certain level, I feel like if your support for other people’s human rights is based on no members of that group ever looking ridiculous, you never actually supported that group’s human rights to begin with. Every group contains ridiculous people. Ridiculousness is the human condition. If you think to yourself, “well, I supported trans people’s right not to be homeless or bullied or fired from their jobs for being trans, but a trans teenager was silly on the Internet and now I can never support them again”, you are fucking awful at moral reasoning and I for one am perfectly happy with you self-selecting out of our social movement before a vulnerable person might think you’re someone to be trusted.
Drew Summitt talks about something called the bourgeoisification of the left. Its principle is as follows: every social movement will succeed to the extent that it manages to make itself fit in with the bourgeoisie life plan: college, a good job, financial independence, a love marriage, and parenthood.
Gay marriage and adoption? Yep. Cottaging? Not so much. A “woman in a man’s body” who conforms to her identified gender and wants complete physical transition? Sure! A Latina sex worker who moves fluidly between calling herself a gay man and a woman? Not really. Affirmative action? Great! Black nationalism? Nope. Women working outside the home, trapping us all in the two-income trap? Wonderful! Wages for housework? Quit dreaming. NAMI? Wonderful. Anti-psychiatry activists? Eeeeyeh.
I am not pointing this out to say that I disagree with the bourgeoisifcation of the left. I think anti-psychiatry activism, while it highlights some real abuses, has a distressing tendency to ignore that mental illness is a real thing that actually exists, erase the people helped by psychiatry, and be infiltrated by Scientologists. Black nationalism and wages for housework are interesting thought experiments but not very good policy proposals. I am just noting a pattern.
You can even see this in current movements. Polyamory activists tend to highlight normal-looking middle-class couples with stable long-term relationships. Sex workers’ rights movements tend to play up the middle-class college-educated woman who decided that escorting was the best option to make sure she could also take care of her kids, not the teenage runaway desperate to avoid going back into foster care.
In some cases, this is good. Gay marriage might be argued for with Neil Patrick Harris and Ellen DeGeneres, but it helps my poly trans ass as well. Decriminalized prostitution will probably help the teenage streetwalker more than the college-educated escort; after all, the former is far more likely to get arrested. In some cases, it leads to really fucking weird priorities: consider the anti-rape movement’s bizarre focus on college campuses (“don’t worry, we’re only helping nice white middle-class girls not get raped!”) or Lean In’s contention that the most important feminist issue women face nowadays is becoming CEOs just like the boys.
But overall I believe this tendency is dangerous. I don’t want liberty for the bourgeoisie. I mean, certainly liberty for the bourgeoisie is better than liberty for no one at all. But if freedom means “the freedom for everyone, regardless of race, sexuality, or creed, to be a suburban parent who plays fetch with the golden retriever on weekends”… well. I don’t think that’s the most important kind of freedom, nor is that half of the freedom I want.
I think the reason this topic makes me so angry (a word which here means “prone to pedantically explaining its incorrectness at great length on Tumblr”) is that it involves my favorite things in the entire world: abstract meta-level ethical principles. Not only that, but it is my favorite kind of abstract meta-level ethical principle: the kind that are actually the foundation of classical liberalism.
Take it away, John Stuart Mill:
That principle is, that the sole end for which mankind are warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either physical or moral, is not a sufficient warrant. He cannot rightfully be compelled to do or forbear because it will be better for him to do so, because it will make him happier, because, in the opinions of others, to do so would be wise, or even right. These are good reasons for remonstrating with him, or reasoning with him, or persuading him, or entreating him, but not for compelling him, or visiting him with any evil in case he do otherwise. To justify that, the conduct from which it is desired to deter him, must be calculated to produce evil to some one else. The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
The other principle is this: we do not negotiate with terrorists.
It may be that Fake Bisexuals and users of nounself pronouns, gay men who cottage and teenage runaway sex workers, do in fact drive people away from supporting the rest of us. But this sets a terrible precedent. It can be justified as a tactical decision, but only a temporary one, and it is never a good thing to do– merely a bad thing we do in the hopes of better consequences.
My allegiance is not to getting rid of homophobia, transphobia, and whorephobia. My allegiance is to over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual being sovereign. My allegiance is to anonymous sex and to kissing girls at parties and to runaways and, yes, to ridiculous pronoun choices. (And, to be sure, to saving oneself for marriage and celibacy and staying in horrible abusive situations if it’s your best alternative and to “they.”)
If yours isn’t, you are not on my side. I may ally with you temporarily for a common goal, but I will gladly throw you under the bus– the same way that you are planning to throw me.