I recently read this excellent personal essay about transness and how alienated one closeted trans woman feels from feminist discourse, and it has me thinking about discourse norms.

Social justice tends to emphasize people’s beliefs coming from their position in society. The previous belief tended to be that people of color, women, disabled people, LGBA people, etc. were biased, because they were involved in the issue, while white people, men, abled people, straight people etc. could have an objective view on things. Of course, no one has an objective view on anything, all our viewpoints are inextricably linked to our positionalities, and we just have to muddle along as best we can to get at objective truth. (The anti-social-justice reader who is about to object to this paragraph should reflect on how many of their beliefs are a product of having the positionality ‘human.’)

At the same time, marginalized people have access to a certain kind of knowledge that privileged people do not. There are quite a lot of cis academics who have a better understanding than I do of the etiology of transness, trans people cross-culturally and in history, the causes of transphobia, etc., but not one of them has felt the icicle-in-the-heart of being thoughtlessly misgendered. Of course, it is quite possible to have experienced that and also be wrong about things– just as it is possible to be an expert in the neuroscience of gender variance and be wrong about things– but just like it would be a mistake to leave neuroscientists out of the discussion of transness, it is also a mistake to leave trans people out. For these reasons, social justice tends to prioritize the opinions of marginalized people.

On the other hand, the sensible viewpoint that marginalized people’s opinions should be prioritized can create a culture of obligate self-disclosure. Marginalized identities are often a source of great pain. For many marginalized identities, such as abuse survivor or intersex person, disclosing your marginalization can mean disclosing private information that people feel uncomfortable sharing with strangers. In many cases, such as mental illness and queerness, a person may be a member of a marginalized group and not know it themselves. And of course being publicly a member of a marginalized group sets you up for all sorts of bad experiences, ranging from familial rejection to harassment to well-meaning people attempting to keep you from going to hell.

So what does this mean?

  • Any person you talk to about homophobia could be a closeted gay or bisexual person.
  • Any person you talk to about poverty could be poor or have grown up poor.
  • Any person you talk to about transphobia could be trans, whether stealth or closeted, or a non-transitioning gender dysphoric person.
  • Any person you talk to about sexism could be female. (And for the MRAs in the audience, they could be male too.)
  • Any person you talk to about disability could be disabled– whether neurodivergent or a person with an invisible physical disability.
  • Any person you talk to about race could be a mixed-race or white-passing person.
  • And online, any person you talk to about any subject could be anything. On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.

Now, you might be thinking, “Ozy, does that mean I am not allowed to criticize anyone for being oppressive?” Of course you can, because marginalized people are routinely oppressive to other marginalized people. You can even criticize them in a snarky or vicious way, if you think that tactic is warranted: it is perfectly reasonable to be snarky about Debi Pearl’s misogyny, in spite of her being a woman. However, it seems wise to me to direct snark at people with stupid ideas, and not people with privileged identities. The ideas, after all, are the bad part.

There are certain tactics I would advise avoiding in one-on-one discussions. For instance, do not tell people what they did or did not suffer; it’s rude and always an asshole move. People can suffer things they don’t tell you about, and being told you didn’t suffer something you did feels like shit. Similarly, don’t tell someone they couldn’t possibly understand X experience because they are privileged; even if they’re not closeted, a lot of experiences are shared across marginalizations anyway. It’s probably wise to avoid speculating about the group membership of people you don’t know very well; there have been far too many awkward cases in which the privileged neurotypical turned out to be a mentally ill person. In general, whenever possible, stick to arguing about facts and evidence, instead of exploring why the person you’re arguing with believes the thing they believe; the latter often winds up condescending.

On the other hand, it doesn’t make sense to give everyone the same treatment you would to a person you know is a member of a marginalized group. Think about neuroscience. In general, people will give more weight to the same neuroscience claim coming from a neuroscientist than they would coming from a layperson. Of course, neuroscientists can still be wrong, and non-neuroscientists can still lay out citations to peer-reviewed papers that show their claim is correct. But if you wanted to not disclose that you’re a neuroscientist for some reason– perhaps this identity is the one you mostly use for writing very embarrassing fetish porn– then you’re not going to get the respect people give to neuroscientists. Similarly, people give more weight to the same claim about what being trans feels like when it comes from a trans person, as opposed to a cis person. But if you are not out as trans, you cannot expect to be given that benefit of the doubt.