Radical categorization and the difficulty of doing justice

In my last post I mentioned three caveats that I wanted to add to Miriam Posner’s keynote address to the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference, and I discussed the fact that the categories we use to organize our lived experience are slippery and problematic and just as reified as the ideological categories employed by researchers.

In this post I want to address some of the difficulties of doing justice, which are intertwined with those difficulties of categorization. Here’s a quote from Posner that gets to these difficulties:

Of course, we can’t capture these experiences without the contributions of the people whose lives we’re claiming to represent. So it’s incumbent upon all of us (but particularly those of us who have platforms) to push for the inclusion of underrepresented communities in digital humanities work, because it will make all of our work stronger and sounder. We can’t allow digital humanities to recapitulate the inequities and underrepresentations that plague Silicon Valley; or the systematic injustice, in our country and abroad, that silences voices and lives.

There is a perception that the world is divided into oppressed and oppressors, and that if we can just restore the balance of power, oppressors will no longer be able to oppress and justice will prevail. In language this finds its expression in “say this, not that” documents like the language guide produced by staff at University of New Hampshire that claims to offer “Bias-Free Language.” In the digital humanities setting that translates into the idea that if we can just include all the relevant underrepresented communities our work will be pure.

I don’t think that Posner had anything so simplistic in mind, but there’s a good chance that several people in the room, and some more people reading the written version, came away with just such a simplistic reading. To me this spells trouble, of a kind I’ve encountered before. Here are some further cautions based on my experiences when advocating for myself and people who are kind of like me in transgender communities.

One source of trouble is the idea that oppressed groups are monolithic entities. Categories are messy and slippery, and that especially goes for categories of people, like the ones we’re trying to include. What if we include an underrepresented community, but we use the wrong definition for that community and wind up excluding an even more underrepresented subgroup? I’m serious, it happens all the time.

And it gets worse, because the oppressed can oppress. Being a member of an underrepresented community does not make anyone a saint, and it does not give anyone an omniscient view of the community. People can, and do, exclude and silence segments of their community, out of greed, fear, hate and even simple ignorance. And they often do it by manipulating those slippery categories.

It’s important to remember that collective decision-making is problematic. In the trans community we don’t hold elections, whether to name our “community leaders” or to decide which words are taboo today and which words every right-thinking ally is required to drop in their conversation before they can be invited to the cool parties.

Finally, nobody is completely honest, either with themselves or with you. Sometimes we repeat what others say without giving it much thought. Sometimes we have a nagging feeling there’s some big logical disconnect in what we’re saying but we don’t have the time to rethink it all. Sometimes we live in a fantasy world because the real world is just too painful. And sometimes we have a hidden agenda that we’re not going to share with you.

I say this as someone who’s had to sit and listen as my transgender “community leaders” regurgitated dismissive characterizations of my subgroup in radio interviews. As someone who’s read blog posts claiming that we don’t belong in the community, even though the same bloggers are happy to claim us at fundraising time. As someone who has read dozens of tweets and Facebook posts on transgender topics by outsider “allies” – friends, neighbors, colleagues, students – that center the noisiest subgroup in our community and erase the group that I belong to.

You can’t include me by hiring that genderqueer kid who gave the cool speech at campus Pride last year. You can’t include me by co-authoring a paper with the late transitioner who bent your ear about access to hormones at the Decolonizing Culture Conference. You can’t include me by interviewing the director of the local Gender Authenticity Center, or by reading the book by that woman who was on Oprah.

In fact, if you hadn’t read my blog or my Twitter feed, you might not even know that I exist to be included. And even if you find me and manage to include me, that’s no guarantee that you haven’t missed some equally important, unrepresented segment of the transgender community that I’m also completely unaware of.

You can’t include everyone. It’s just not going to happen. We need to be mindful of this and set our expectations accordingly about what we know, and how far we can generalize that knowledge.

This is why in the question and answer period, I asked Posner if she would accept my interpreting her speech as a call for humility. She responded by saying that it was actually a call for hubris on the part of the excluded and silenced groups. Later at the reception I proposed a synthesis where hubris was called for on the part of those less powerful, and humility on the part of those with more power.

Posner accepted my synthesis at the time, but thinking about it now in the light of what I just wrote about how the oppressed can oppress, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with it any more. Calling for hubris from those less powerful sounds like an invitation to self-appointed “community leaders” to promote their vision of the community, without stopping to reflect on the possibility that they might be excluding or silencing others in turn.

Humility is most important for those of us with the most power. We need to keep that perspective on what we do. But it is still important for those of us with the least power. It is never not important. If Posner will not call for humility, then I will. Justice is hard. Please, be humble. Let every feeling of power be an invitation to humility. And thanks.

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