Sometimes I say something like “look, you need to have a sense of proportion about culture war stuff. There are a bunch of people who are trying to make you scared and outraged and defensive about things that aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things. But your fear and outrage and defensiveness makes them seem really important. If you take a step away from it and look at the rest of the world, you’ll discover that millions of people honestly don’t care about your pet issue, or haven’t heard of it at all. And if you do that you’ll be happier, you’ll be better able to prioritize your time to deal with the more important issues, and even when you decide to engage with culture war stuff you’ll be a lot more relaxed.”
Of course, it is rather hard to take this on faith if you are currently trapped in a culture war bubble.
So. I want to point my readers to Reddit’s gender critical subreddits [cw: transphobia, read with caution if you are transgender], a central hub for trans-exclusionary feminists. This is particularly useful for my readers, because most of you guys (both social justice and anti-social-justice) tend to be fairly trans-accepting. So their particular culture war bubble is different from yours. (My apologies to my three trans-exclusionary feminist readers.)
There are a bunch of normal reactions to perusing the gender critical subreddits. For example, “I don’t think it’s very good allyship to detransitioned women to talk about how their bodies are irreversibly mutilated by testosterone.” Or “regardless of the accuracy of your statement that real lesbians don’t want to ‘have sex with penis’, I feel like you could say this in a way that doesn’t make me visualize women having sex with enormous disembodied penises.” Or “wow you people really really hate trans women. Like, a lot.”
However, a reaction I have to it very strongly is “wow, you people are really obsessed with trans people.”
At the time of writing, 12 of the 20 top posts on the subreddits are about trans people. The most popular thread on r/gendercritical, the Peak Trans thread, consists of people telling their stories about how they realized that trans activism was wrong. (Notably, there is no Peak Patriarchy thread in which they talk about how they realized that sexism still shapes women’s lives.) Even posts which aren’t originally about trans people often become about trans people, including the mind-boggling tendency to respond to articles about obstetric fistulas and sex-selective abortion with “but trans people claim these women have cis privilege!”
And, like, they’re not wrong. Trans advocacy has made tremendous progress in the past decade or so: we’ve passed local nondiscrimination acts, made it easier for people to legally change genders, improved access to transition care, raised awareness among cisgender people about the discrimination we face, and so on and so forth. Caitlyn Jenner and Chelsea Manning are in the news a lot. And inn many subcultures (the queer community, the rationalist community), it can feel like trans people are everywhere and it’s impossible to get away from us.
And yet– trans people are less than one percent of the population. Even from a trans-exclusionary perspective, it’s really implausible that trans people cause 60% of the world’s sexism. If we all worked overtime, individually causing ten times as much sexism as the average cisgender person, we’d still only be responsible for three percent.
But it can feel that way. Maybe you start out in a community with a lot of trans people, maybe you have a formative negative experience with a trans person, or maybe you just get into a lot of arguments about it on Facebook. Eventually you find yourself reading r/gendercritical, Feminist Current, and other trans-exclusive feminist websites. Naturally, these websites don’t provide you with a randomized selection of things that happened, or even of sexism-related things that happened. Every time a trans woman punches someone, or commits a crime, or says something obnoxious (or even just poorly phrased) on Twitter, you will learn about it. These websites are notably free of articles with headlines like “Crime Committed By Cisgender Woman,” “Man Punches Other Man Because He Is Drunk, It is Completely Unrelated To Trans People In Any Way,” and “Person Makes Obnoxious, Or Possibly Just Poorly Phrased, Tweet About Dog Breeding.”
Trans people might not be sixty percent of the sexism in the world, but they are sixty percent of the sexism you read about.
Every website full of culture war bullshit is like this. You read Breitbart, you find out about immigrant crime. You read Feministing, you find out about sexual assault and harassment on university campuses. You read pro-life blogs, you learn about Alfie Evans. You read anti-racist blogs, you learn about cops shooting black people.
And then because of how people work, when you ask yourself “what are the most important problems in the world?”, your brain goes through all the examples it can think of and spits out “sexual assault on college campuses” or “immigrant crime” or “censorship on college campuses” or “cops shooting black people” or “trans people” or “trans-exclusionary radical feminists.”
(I know, I know, you are so outraged to see your personal issue on that list. Don’t I know that your pet cause is actually important?)
Your brain does not spit out (for example) “macroeconomic policy in developing countries,” because unless you are a somewhat unusual person you do not read articles about developing-world macroeconomics for fun. I work for an effective altruism organization and I don’t read those articles. I open them up, make a firm resolution to read them at some point, and feeling an aura of virtue go back to reading about Catholic Twitter drama.
“How many articles have I read about this topic?” is not particularly well-correlated with “does this topic, like, matter at all?” But if you’re not careful your brain might think it is.
If you enjoy your current level of interaction with culture war bullshit and it’s not interfering with your ability to achieve your other goals, then by all means continue. I’m not the sort of hypocrite that writes articles about transness and then turns around and tells people to stop caring. But if it makes you stressed and depressed and you can’t tear yourself away because this is important, this matters, what if the misogynists or the SJWs ruin video gaming forever—
Try a detox. A week, maybe two, away from culture war bullshit. Read books: I’d suggest both something that’s trashy and fun and lets you turn your brain off, and an academic work on something you find interesting. Go for walks. Bake banana bread. Call somebody you haven’t talked to in a while. Play with your kids. Play with someone else’s kids. Culture war bullshit has been going on for at least sixty years, it’s still going to be there when you get back.
Who knows? Maybe it’ll still be important after you’ve had a chance to rest and fill your brain up with examples of other things. Maybe it won’t. But I think it’s worth a test.