Friday, April 10, 2009

Identity, Defensiveness, Privilege, and Other Stuff

Today Monica of TransGriot asked the following question in the comments section of this post:

if they hate the transgender community so much, why do these wannabe rad fems bother coming on our blogs?
Similar questions have been posed and have occurred to me many times before regarding Defenders of Male Privilege who comment on womanist/feminist blogs, Defenders of White Privilege who comment on POCs blogs, Defenders of Ableist Privilege who comment on blogs that take on issues surrounding disabilities, etc. It seems like whatever issue you're dealing with on your blog, you'll attract some individuals who are not interested in constructive dialogue or learning or growing or working together in any way. They're simply there to preach at you about how wrong/evil/disruptive of society you are. Since it's so clear that neither of you is going to change your position at all based on this interaction, you wonder why they keep coming back? And why do they often have to be such assholes about it and interpret everything you say as a personal attack against them? For one thing, this view is incredibly narcissistic. But more interestingly, I think it reveals a deep insecurity and problem within their own personal identity.

In the comments on a recent post here, Erin recommended Gender Treachery Homophobia Masculinity and Threatened Identities by Patrick Hopkins, which I'm obviously going to have to read. Erin summarizes Hopkins main point as follows:

He posits that the reason some men have so much vitriol towards other men who display any feminine characteristics is that they have so much of their identity tied up in notions of 'masculinity' (defined simply as NOT a woman), that any threat to traditional definitions of masculinity is a threat to personal identity.
I think this is actually a really helpful way to think of it, and I think it applies to many identities beyond just male. It seems to me that a lot of people, especially those who are somewhat insecure and lacking in maturity, see the stability and value of their identity as linked to the negation of the validity or value of the other. So if they're male, being clearly demarcated from the feminine and devaluing femininity is of utmost importance. If they're somewhat insecure about their gender identity, then it's important to them that gender be maintained as this essentialist, "natural" thing, and therefore they feel threatened by genderqueer and trans people. And so it goes with all of the binaries we're so fond of in our culture: gay/straight, white/colored, cis/trans, able-bodied/disabled, young/old etc. The existence of each as a discrete category depends on the negation of the other, which often also involves devaluing the other. And it seems to me that the more insecure a person is, the more important this distinguishing from and privileging your own over the other identity is to you.

But I think that understanding this has changed my response to the insecure identity defenders. For one thing, understanding the dynamic makes me more likely to see them as scared and insecure individuals rather than just hateful assholes. It's true that their behavior is hateful and need not be tolerated by anyone. But my dismissing them as assholes is somewhat lacking in compassion. After all, something(s) must have happened in their lives to make them so insecure. What kinds of experiences have they had in our culture, which can be terrifically brutal at times, to make them become this way? And how can I, a person who is very privileged in this way, condemn them for being this way? In this sense, I'm incredibly privileged. I am a very secure and well-balanced person largely because of factors I had no control over. I had the good luck to be born to parents who were thoughtful, mature, and intuitively good at parenting in a way that fostered confidence and high self-esteem without arrogance and self-centeredness. I was fortunate enough not to be physically or emotionally abused by the adults in my life or rejected and belittled by my peers. But I did nothing to earn the security and well-adjustedness that allows me to be more open and compassionate. I don't feel threatened by others largely because of the environment I just happened to be born into. In this sense, it is privilege. So for me to write these people off as hateful assholes is to refuse to acknowledge that I'm lucky not to be plagued by the insecurities that drive them to behave this way.

Does this mean that their behavior ought to be excused or tolerated? No. Just understood in a new light and empathized with. Nobody should have to tolerate the hateful and vitriolic words that are often thrown around regarding these topics. Everyone should feel safe and able to care for themselves. But I think I'm done dismissing people as hateful assholes, because doing that requires that I remain blind to my own privilege in this sense. From now on I intend to be critical of the behavior but compassionate (or at least tolerant) of the person.


  1. Hmmmmm. I still kind of think they're assholes.

    No, I think this post makes a lot of sense. But it's still really hard to be tolerant/forgiving of people like this because it feels like they're coming into our spaces and spreading their pollution. Although, on the other hand, our blogs don't just exist so we can talk to each other and "preach to the choir." I mean, I think we hope to influence people who don't already agree with us as well, and that requires interacting with people like this sometimes.

    And I never would have thought of this as an issue of privilege, but it does make sense the way you describe it.

  2. Michael4/10/2009

    I'm not sure that hatefulness like this is always caused by insecurity or past abuses, though. Some of it seems to be ideologically driven, like based on some religious or political view.

  3. Michael4/10/2009

    Also, some of the pictures you embed in your posts are hilarious.

  4. Anonymous4/10/2009

    Hmmm. Interesting. I’m definitely new here. Nonetheless, I don’t think one should see these people as “assholes,” nor “feel sorry” for them. It seems like the digital age has had a tremendous impact on culture and communication. Before blogging, people used to communicate by talking to each other directly, and then came chat rooms and bbs forums. At that time, everybody had to “share the same space.” Now days, people view blogs as “personal space” and if you’re not supporting a person in their “home space” and on their “turf” then you have to leave. So the change went from direct communication to open forums to personal space. Blogs have now become like support groups where only people who support the blog creator are encouraged to join in. Everyone else is a troll. In my opinion, this is digital segregation. Feminists here, Blacks here, Hispanics here, GLBT here and the list goes on. This is very different from the pre-digital segregation era of direct discussion, chat rooms and open forums. In fact, it may turn out to be a great disservice. Sara is correct. This amounts to preaching to the choir. It you want to make a change, you have to be inclusive enough to engage those around you that do not think like you. In real-world conversation this would happen. In a personal space called “my blog”, it’s not going to happen and so the poster already knows he’s an outsider going in and therefore goes in with a chip on his shoulder expecting to not be respected. Feeling sorry for the person is only going to piss him off even more. So, I think the question should be the other way around. Why should only Blacks go the Black blog, Feminists to the Feminists blog and Trans to the Trans blog? Why is digital segregation so prevalent? I’m not a feminist, but I go to feminist blogs because I want to know if other feminists see the same thing that I am seeing. I find that feminists have become no different than the Christian right in setting moral overtones in which public standards ought to be considered right and wrong. In my mind, homophobic and any word ending in -ist is just as much “labeling” and “othering” as “sinner” and “slut” are.
    -Ben the new guy.

  5. @ Ben

    Yeah, I actually think of blogs as a public space. But I do think that when someone is posting on an issue that's very personal to them, and when they're socially vulnerable because of their identity, as in the case of a trans person, then I think they have a right to protect themselves in "their" space from people who are truly just coming in to be hateful and have no interest in a real discussion.

    These are the types that I often have simply thought of as assholes. They're never going to change their views and only come here, for instance, to call me every name they can think of and attribute all kinds of things to me that I'm not saying. For instance, on the "Guy Culture" post, I got over 20 comments and emails combined calling me a prude, a fatty, a cunt, and claiming that I was only writing it because I don't like anal sex. There's nothing in that post about whether I like anal sex, and it's totally irrelevant. So those are the types I'm referring to.

    However, I don't think everyone has to agree or be homogeneous on blogs. I think dissent and diversity are good if the people who are disagreeing are open to constructive dialogue and are there in good faith. And I participate in a number of blogs on a daily basis that don't match my demographic - check out my blogroll for a few of them. But I do think that if I'm commenting on the blog of a POC or a trans person or a disabled person, I should be respectful of the fact that they're working through issues that affect them in a way that I will never experience, so as a friend and an ally, I should be prepared to do a lot of listening and not think that my beliefs or experiences are central to the discussion. Otherwise, the privileged tend to come in and co-opt and dominate the spaces that were originally intended to allow marginalized groups to raise awareness of and work through the issues that are relevant to them.

    As to your last point, I do think that feminism is about social justice and fighting oppression everywhere we find it. This requires pointing out biased social attitudes that perpetuate the systemic mistreatment of certain people. So if there's some social practice or attitude that's harmful to gays and lesbians, for example, it is the job of feminists to point it out and work for change. This shouldn't be done in a hypocritical or condescending way, of course, but if nobody works on these issues, I don't think we can expect social change to happen.

    I appreciate your comments!

  6. Anonymous4/10/2009

    Well said. Thanks, and once again, I do like your blog.

  7. @ Michael

    I often suspect that many of the "hater" types use religious or political ideology as a front for the mean and exclusionary way they already want to behave based on their insecurities. It's like they've found a larger framework that they're using to try to legitimize their hate and vitriol.