On being a public linguist

People say you should stand up for what you believe in. They say you should look out for those less fortunate, and speak up for those who don’t get heard. They say that those of us who come from marginalized backgrounds, like TBLG backgrounds for example, but have enough privilege to be out in relative safety should speak up for those who don’t have that privilege. They say that those of us who have undertaken in-depth study in the interest of society have a particular responsibility to share what we know with the world as “public intellectuals.” They say that we linguists need to do a better job of applying our knowledge to real-world problems and communicating solutions to the public at large.

They’re right of course, but there’s a reason more people don’t do these things. They’re hard to do, and even harder to do right. Lots of people are strongly invested in the status quo and in thinking of themselves as good people, and they don’t like to be told that what they’re doing at best ineffective and at worst harmful. Lots of people think that because they’re trans they know everything there is to know about trans issues, or that because they use language they know everything there is to know about language.

Case in point: after watching with increasing frustration for years as the word “cisgender” was invented and abused, back in December I wrote a series of blog posts about it. I know this is a controversial topic, and I was a bit apprehensive since I was on the job market, but my posts was not idle rants: as a linguist, a trans person, and someone who has observed trans politics for years, I had been trained to do this kind of analysis, and pursued these topics beyond my training.

I anticipated a number of potential objections to my argument and addressed them in the first three posts. As I published each one I was worried it would get a huge backlash, but there was barely a peep (more on that in another post). So for the title of the last one I went big: “The word “cisgender” is anti-trans.” Not much reaction.

A few weeks ago I came across a Facebook post by a gender therapist asking for opinions about “cisgender,” so I left a link to my blog post, identifying it as “my professional opinion as a linguist.” The therapist then shared my post without identifying me as either trans or a linguist.

Then there was a backlash. Several people immediately called my post “garbage” and “horse shit.” There were a handful of substantive disagreements, all of which I had anticipated in my post and previous ones that I had linked to. There was some support, but the vast majority of comments were negative. There were several similar comments made on my blog post itself, most of which I left unpublished since they were repetitive and unhelpful.

I know that plenty of people face far worse reactions to things they post. I didn’t receive any comments on my looks, rape threats or death threats. But it was still very upsetting, particularly as it was posted the same day I began my first full-time job since receiving my Ph.D. – an event that was positive on a number of levels, but upsetting on other levels.

The gender therapist, who presumably helps people with their mental states, showed no interest whatsoever in mine. They made no effort to moderate, did not intervene in the comments, and sent me no personal messages. The idea that a trans person might be losing sleep over these attacks on their page may not have even occurred to them.

The response my post has gotten from other public linguists has been minimal. A columnist who’s written about the issue and encouraged me to write gave my post a few tweets. A radical feminist whose writings about language and politics inspired me for years completely ignored it. It has not been picked up by any of the popular linguistics blogs, or by anyone talking about language, gender and sexuality.

It’s quite possible that these linguists disagree with me. There are some very specific linguistic questions at stake. But linguists love to argue, and I would welcome respectful, constructive engagement with these questions. So far there has been none.

I have also gotten very little support from other linguists. When I was first formulating these arguments a few years ago on Twitter, there were at least two linguists who explicitly denied that I had any standing to contest the arguments for “cis” that they were retweeting. They were satisfied with the flimsiest of pseudolinguistic rationales in pursuit of their political and social goals, and for whatever reasons I did not qualify as an authentic voice of the trans community in their eyes. I stopped following them on Twitter, and as far as I could tell they had no reaction whatsoever to my posts.

I know that a lot of people don’t want to get involved in flamewars on Twitter or Facebook. It’s really hard to know who’s right and who’s wrong. At first glance I look like just another white guy, and I project an image of success and confidence on social media because that’s what everyone tells me I need to do. Some people may disagree with my stance on a political basis.

I mostly came out of the Facebook flareup okay, although it’s hard to tell how much of my insomnia and touchiness relates to that as opposed to other stresses. Re-reading some of those comments just now was pretty upsetting. I made a decision to focus on the new job, and avoided reading comments, posts or links for a week or two. Now it’s blown over – but there’s no telling when it’ll get shared by someone else.

My main point is that being a public linguist isn’t easy. Speaking out isn’t easy. Fighting on your own behalf instead of some Little People somewhere isn’t easy – even if you’ve got a certain amount of privilege. If you’re wondering why people don’t fight for themselves more often, why they don’t speak up, why linguists don’t write more public posts about issues that matter – there’s your answer. It’s much easier to bury your nose in a book and write about grammaticization vs. reanalysis in Old Church Slavonic.

If we really want people to take a stand on these things, we need to support them. We need to stick up for linguists who speak out in public. We need principles that go beyond identity and political and social affiliation. And we need people who are willing to support linguists who speak out based on those principles. We need people who will make themselves available to back up other linguists on the Internet. Without real support, it’s all empty rhetoric.

One thought on “On being a public linguist

  1. Daniel

    Dear Angus,

    I wanted to tell you that I really appreciate your blog and that I have learned a lot about trans-related matters by reading it. I’m one of those readers that nod, agree or disagree in silence, without getting into conversation with public voices like yours. As a blog writer, you must be aware, albeit sometimes also frustrated by this.

    I’m a linguist myself, in the forties, living in Switzerland. I’ve reread your texts about the cis/trans-terminology and I asked myself what was my point. I find your arguments about the multiplicity of – sometimes intersecting, sometimes excluding – meanings of the word “trans” very convincing, as well as what I’ve learned about the power relations that can be involved when it comes to naming ourselves – or others. Vague or even confounding semantics don’t surprise me. Therefore, I don’t mind acknowledging the existence and use of “cis”, which can be as polysemic and confusing as “trans”. (As a matter of fact, I’d prefer “cis” myself over “non trans”: for no better reason than having a pair of words that are on the same level; neither is the “un-” or “non-” version of the other.)

    Maybe what strikes me a bit is the determination some people show to stand up for or against certain words or language uses. I’ve been raised (academically, I mean) in a very descriptive environment: being prescriptive was rather frowned upon. I’ve never been overly convinced by this stance; as a matter of fact, why should we linguists be less active language users and movers as any other person? But still I try not to advocate political matters too directly. This does not mean that others shouldn’t do it! Yet I ask myself what position would be mine in this specific case: “This word is confusing” or “Don’t use this word”?

    Thanks again for your work and your blog!

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