Category fights: Splitting

Imagine that you belong to a category, like “tourist.” You fit all the necessary conditions for membership in that category: you are traveling to another part of the world for recreation. But that category has a bad reputation – literally a bad name. What do you do? You split the category.

In the past I’ve talked about other kinds of category fights: watchdogging alleged bait-and-switch tactics, or gatekeeping to prevent free-riding. Tonight I’m going to talk about splitting.

I grew up in the lovely arts colony of Woodstock, New York, which is crowded every summer and fall with tourists. They never bothered me too much, and they bought lots of stuff so that the merchants could afford to hire my parents, but my family and neighbors liked to complain about them. They drove too fast on our country roads, possibly contributing to the death of some of our dogs over the years. They filled up the parking lots and caused traffic jams on Mill Hill Road. They asked annoying questions – where was Yasgur’s farm? They were demanding and unreasonable to my sister and friends who worked in retail.

In terms of non-Platonic categories, there is a wide diversity of actual tourists, but the category is dominated in people’s minds by a stereotype of the Tourist, who is entitled, disrespectful, and lacks a proper appreciation for the people they are visiting and their culture. All tourists are tainted by the stereotype of the Tourist, but some people do pride themselves on being respectful, humble, open and curious. What can they do to advertise that to others?

As Lara Week documented in a study of several blogs in 2012, and described to Laurie Taylor on his Thinking Allowed podcast, one thing you can do is to split the category. A number of people have chosen to call themselves “travelers” instead of “tourists.” Week reports that they distinguish themselves by “doing what the locals do,” “respecting local cultures” and “being frugal,” and have added features like “seeking authenticity” and “going to ‘untraveled’ places.” She goes on to summarize critiques that argue that the self-styled travelers have “fail to address all of the problems created by tourism,” but that is not directly relevant to the linguistic issues here.

The travelers, notably, split the category of “tourist” so that they are outside of it. They have concluded that the category is irredeemably contaminated, and their only hope is to escape it. In contrast, as Ben Zimmer reported last year, a number of people have tried to split the category of “pedestrian,” keeping the stereotype of pedestrians clean by placing people who text while walking into subcategories of “petextrians,” or “wexters.”

The cleanliness of the stereotype is one factor in determining whether people choose to split themselves off into another category or to split others off. It also determines whether people try to split themselves (or others) into a subcategory or into a completely new category. Another factor is how rigidly the category is defined. It is very hard to leave the category of “men,” so some men who feel that the stereotype is contaminated have responded with the #notallmen hashtag, trying to reclaim it by splitting the bad men into a subcategory.

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.

On pet parents

I’m a parent. It doesn’t make me better or worse than anyone else, it’s just a category that reflects some facts about me: I conceived a new human with my wife, we are raising and caring for that human, and we expect to have a relationship with him for the rest of our lives. Some people don’t take parenthood seriously, so it doesn’t impact their lives very much, but their kids suffer. We take it very seriously, and it’s a lot of work for us.

I also take care of pets. We own three cats, and sometimes I walk my mom’s dog or take him to be groomed. It can be a lot of work, and the relationships can be very intimate at times. “Ownership” is kind of a funny word for it. In some ways it can be like certain stages of parenting: we buy all the food and make sure the animals don’t get into danger. It makes sense when I hear people refer to their pets as their “baby” or put words in their pets calling themselves “daddy.” I even understand when I hear them refer to themselves as “pet moms.”

I understand this usage, but I do not agree with it. I have a kid, and I have pets. The relationships are similar, but different. When someone calls themself a “pet dad,” it trivializes my relationship with my kid and infantilizes my pets. It erases the work of the actual parents, and trivializes the hard work of humans who act as surrogate parents to infant pets. I am a dad: I am not a pet dad, and I am not my pets’ dad. Or their mom.

My kid will one day be an adult, and while I may always think of him as The Kid, he will be able to function as an autonomous member of society. (Note that the term “kid” itself is an animal metaphor – referring to a juvenile goat.) Only one of my cats can still be considered a juvenile by any standard; the others are five years old and twenty years old, respectively. They are adult males, and until the last century they would have been free to come and go as they wished.

If my cats are incapable of leaving our house unaccompanied it is more likely due to the fact that we have cars everywhere than anything else. When I was a kid we lost three dogs to car culture. When I was eleven I saw a neighbor’s cat crushed beneath the wheels of a car, and arrived just in time to see him take his last breath. We have indoor cats and dog leashes in part because we have made the outdoors inhospitable.

I suspect one reason we hear more about “pet parents” is that so few of our pets are parents themselves. I support universal neutering, and have only adopted neutered cats from shelters or feral rescuers. It’s the best response to the overpopulation of feral animals, but it does make the pets neuter – and childless.

When I was a kid we had a cat who had a litter of kittens. I watched one of our dogs give birth to eleven puppies, and then found homes for the ten that lived. Our male cats were aggressive, sexual toms. Again, not wise in retrospect, but it was hard to think of any of the humans in the house as “moms” or “dads” of our pets while they were themselves moms and dads.

There is one human I know who would qualify as a “cat mom” in my mind. She is the woman who leads the feral cat helpers in our neighborhood. Six years ago someone found a baby kitten near some railroad tracks in Manhattan. My neighbor fostered this kitten in her apartment for five months, feeding him with an eyedropper until he was old enough to eat. She posted his picture on her website and we adopted him. If he has a “pet mom” it’s her.

Prejudice and intelligibility

Last month I wrote about the fact that intelligibility – the ability of native speakers of one language or dialect to understand a closely related one – is not constant or automatic. A major factor in intelligibility is familiarity: when I was a kid, for example, I had a hard time understanding the Beatles until I got used to them. Having lived in North Carolina, I find it much easier to understand people from Ocracoke Island than my students do.

Photo: Theonlysilentbob / Wikimedia

Photo: Theonlysilentbob / Wikimedia

Prejudice can play a big role in intelligibility, as Donald Rubin showed in 1992. (I first heard about this study from Rosina Lippi-Green’s book English With an Accent.) At the time, American universities had recently increased the overall number of instructors from East Asia they employed, and some students complained that they had difficulty understanding the accents of their instructors.

In an ingenious experiment, Rubin demonstrated that much of this difficulty was due to prejudice. He recorded four-minute samples of “a native speaker of English raised in Central Ohio” reading a script for introductory-level lectures on two different subjects and played those samples to three groups of students.

For one group, a still photo of a “Caucasian” woman representing the instructor was projected on a screen while the audio sample was played. For the second group, a photo of “an Asian (Chinese)” woman was projected, with the same audio of the woman from central Ohio (presumably not of Asian ancestry) was played. The third group heard only the audio and was not shown a photo.

In a survey they took after hearing the clip, most of the students who saw the picture of an Asian woman reported that the speaker had “Oriental/Asian ethnicity.” That’s not surprising, because it’s essentially what they were told by being shown the photograph. But many of these students went further and reported that the person in the recording “speaks with a foreign accent.” In contrast, the vast majority of the students who were shown the “Caucasian” picture said that they heard “an American accent.”

The kicker is that immediately after they heard the recording (and before answering the survey), Rubin tested the students on their comprehension of the content of the excerpt, by giving them a transcript with every seventh word replaced by a blank. The students who saw a picture of an Asian woman not only thought they heard a “foreign accent,” but they did worse on the comprehension task! Rubin concluded that “listening comprehension seemed to be undermined simply by identifying (visually) the instructor as Asian.”

Rubin’s subjects may not have felt any particular hostility towards people from East Asia, but they had a preconceived notion that the instructor would have an accent, and they assumed that they would have difficulty understanding her, so they didn’t bother trying.

This study (and a previous one by Rubin with Kim Smith) connect back to what I was saying about familiarity, and I will discuss that and power imbalances in a future post, but this finding is striking enough to merit its own post.


I’ve written about default assumptions before: how for example people in different parts of the English-speaking world have different assumptions about what they’ll get when they order “tea” or a “burger.” In the southern United States, the subcategory of “iced tea” has become the default, while in the northern US it’s “hot tea,” and in England it’s “hot tea with milk.” But even though iced tea is the default “tea” in the South, everyone there will still agree that hot tea is “tea.” In other cases, though, one subcategory can be so salient, so familiar as to crowd out all the other subcategories, essentially taking over the category.

British concentration camp, Second Boer War (ca. 1901). Photo: British National Army Museum / Wikipedia

British concentration camp, Second Boer War (ca. 1901). Photo: British National Army Museum / Wikipedia

An example of this eclipsing is the category of “concentration camp.” When you read those words, you probably imagined a Nazi death camp like Auschwitz, where my cousin Dora was imprisoned. (Unlike many of her fellow prisoners she survived the ordeal, and died peacefully earlier this year at the age of 101.) Almost every time we hear those words, they have referred to camps where our enemies killed millions of innocent civilians as part of a genocidal project, so that is what we expect.

This expectation is why so many people wrote in when National Public Radio’s Neal Conan referred to the camps where Japanese-Americans were imprisoned in World War II as “concentration camps” in 2012. NPR ombudspeople Edward Schumacher-Matos and Lori Grisham observed that the word dates back to the Boer War. Dan Carlin goes into detail about how widely the word “campos de reconcentración” was used in the Spanish-American war. Last year, Aya Katz compared the use of “concentration camp” to that of “cage,” and earlier this year, reviewed the history of the word.

In general, the “concentration camps” of the Boer War and the Spanish American War, as well as the “camps de regroupement” used by the French in the wars of independence in Algeria and Indochina, were a counter-insurgency tactic, whereby the colonial power controlled the movements of the civilian population in an effort to prevent insurgents from hiding among noncombatants, and to prevent noncombatants from being used as human shields.

As Roger Daniels writes in his great article “Words Do Matter: A Note on Inappropriate Terminology and the Incarceration of the Japanese Americans” (PDF), the concept of “internment” refers to the process of separating “alien enemies” – nationals of an enemy power – from the general population, and was first practiced with British subjects during the War of 1812. While this was done for citizens of Japan (and other enemy powers) during World War II, Daniels objects to the use of “internment” to describe the incarceration of American citizens on the basis of Japanese ancestry. He notes that President Roosevelt used the term “concentration camp” to describe them, and asks people to use that word instead of “internment.”

In the case of the colonial wars, the camps were used to isolate colonized people from suspected insurgents. In the case of the Japanese-American incarceration, the camps were used to isolate suspected spies from the general population. In neither case were they used to exterminate people, or to commit genocide. They were inhumane, but they were very different from Nazi death camps.

It is not hard to understand why the Nazi death camps have come to eclipse all other kinds of concentration camps. They were so horrific, and have been so widely discussed and taught, that the inhumanity of relocating the populations of entire towns and rounding up people based on ethnicity pales by comparison. It makes complete sense to spend so much more time on them. As a result, if we have ever heard the term “concentration camp” used outside of the context of extermination and genocide it doesn’t stick in our memory.

For most English speakers, “concentration camp” means a Nazi death camp, or one equally horrific. This is why Daniels acknowledges, following Alice Yang Murray, that “it is clearly unrealistic to expect everyone to agree to use the contested term concentration camp.”

The word “cisgender” is anti-trans

The word “cisgender” was coined to refer to people who aren’t transgender, as an alternative to problematic terms like “normal,” “regular” and “real.” Some have gone beyond this and asked their allies to “identify as cis,” and even treat trans people as the default realization of their genders.

As a trans person and a linguist, I disagree with these last two for a number of reasons. As I wrote last month, it’s bad etymology, and there is no evidence it will work. You might ask, well, what’s the harm in trying? The problem is that there is a cost to using “cisgender”: it divides the trans community. This may seem surprising at first, but it hinges on the fact that there are at least four different but overlapping meanings of the word “transgender.”

tg-definitions1The original use of “transgender” was as an “umbrella” term including transvestites, transsexuals, drag queens, butch lesbians, genderqueer people and more. Another popular definition is based on “gender identity,” including everyone who believes that their essential gender is different from the one assigned to them at birth. A third sense is based on feelings like gender dysphoria, and a fourth is restricted to those trans people who transition. Trans people regularly argue about these definitions, but in my observations it is common for a single person to use more than one of these senses in the same conversation, and even the same sentence.

These overlapping meanings produce what I call the Transgender Bait and Switch. Intentionally or not, many trans people use the broader “umbrella” or “dysphoria” definitions to show the largest numbers, neediest cases or historical antecedents when they are looking to get funding, legitimacy, or political or social support, but then switch to narrower “identity” or “transition” senses when they are deciding how to allocate funding or space resources, or who is entitled to speak for the group, or who is an acceptable representation of trans people in the media.

This is a problem because the meaning of “cis” depends on the meaning of “trans.” Who are the “cis” people? Are they the opposite of “umbrella” trans – those who don’t belong to any of the categories under the umbrella? Are they the opposite of “identity” trans – those who do not believe they have a gender different from the one assigned them at birth? The opposite of “feeling” trans – those who do not feel gender dysphoria on a regular basis? Or are they the opposite of “transition” trans – those who don’t transition? I’ve heard all four uses.

For all their lofty claims about the goals of “cis,” when trans people use it they do so to exclude, and typically they focus on excluding the marginal cases as part of the Transgender Bait-and-Switch: people who fit in one definition of “trans” but not another. It has become commonplace to refer to drag queens as “cis gay men,” and gynophilic transvestites as “cis straight men.” Drag queens, transvestites, non-binary people and others are regularly challenged when we try to speak from our experiences as trans people, and the refrain is always: “You are cis, you have not transitioned, you do not have the same experience.” Meanwhile, the same people seem to have no problem presenting themselves as the representatives of the transgender umbrella when they want to, even when they do not have experiences of drag performance, fetishism or non-binary presentation.

The best known challenges to “cisgender” have come from people who are not trans under any definition: didn’t transition, don’t have a gender identity mismatch, don’t feel chronic gender dysphoria, and don’t fit in any of the identities under the umbrella. They claim that the word is used as a weapon against them. They have a point: many trans people blame “cis people” for oppressing them, conveniently ignoring the fact that we’re just as capable of oppressing each other as they are of oppressing us. And it is counterproductive: since almost all estimates – using any of the definitions – put us at less than one percent of the population, we can’t live without non-trans people.

But the reason I hate “cisgender,” the reason I’m asking you not to use it, is because it’s used as a weapon to exclude other trans people. When they want money, we’re trans. When they want to claim our legacy, we’re trans. But when we want some of the money, we’re “cis.” When we want representation, we’re “cis.” When we want to speak for the trans community, or even for our segment of the trans community, we’re “cis.”

“Cisgender” divides the trans community and reinforces a hierarchy with transitioned trans people on top and nonbinary people, drag queens and transvestites at the bottom. So next time your transgender buddy Kyle tells you to “identify as cis” to prove you’re a real ally and stay on the invite list to his parties, I’m asking you to tell him no. Tell him that your transgender buddy Angus said not to. And if he tells you that I don’t count because I’m not transitioning, tell him he just proved my point. And his parties suck anyway.

Will “cisgender” work?

Some people have come up with the word “cisgender” to refer to people who aren’t transgender, as an alternative to problematic terms like “normal,” “regular” and “real.” Some have gone beyond this and asked their allies to “identify as cis,” and even treat trans people as the default realization of their genders. As a trans person and a linguist, I disagree with these last two for a number of reasons.

One quick objection that I have to get out of the way: “cisgender” is bad etymology. It’s true that “cis” is the opposite of “trans,” but only in the sense of location, existing on this side or the other side of a boundary. We are “trans” in the sense of direction, crossing from one gender expression to the other. In Latin as far as I know there is no prefix for something that never crosses a boundary. Of course, that’s a silly objection. We have plenty of words based on inaccurate analogies and they work just fine. I just had to get it off my chest.

Now, for real: the simplest objection is that there is no evidence “cis” will work as advertised. First of all, default status is not necessary for acceptance or admiration. Blond hair is marked in the United States, and that can make some people with blond hair unhappy. But there is no real discrimination or harassment against people with blond hair, not like that against trans people. People with English accents are marked, but they tend to be admired.

Transgender people (under almost any definition) make up less than one percent of the population. Do we even have the right to ask to be the default? Why should everyone have to think about us a hundred percent of the time when they only deal with us one percent of the time? Why should we be the default and not, say, intersex people?

Let’s say we manage to convince everyone to make us the default and themselves the marked ones. How is that going to make them more tolerant or accepting of us? There are plenty of groups who are or were the default, and even the majority, but were oppressed anyway: Catholics in British Ireland, Muslims in French Algeria, French Canadians in Quebec before the Quiet Revolution. The people who tell everyone to say “cis” don’t mention any of this.

The proponents of “cisgender” do not point to any time that this strategy has succeeded in the past, because there is no evidence of it succeeding. There are in fact intentional language changes that have some record of success, like avoiding names with implied insults. Switching the marked subcategory of a contested category is not one of them.

The main reason to not say “cisgender” is that it probably won’t work. If it were easy to get everyone to say “cis,” and it had no negative consequences, I would say that we should all just go ahead and say it, knowing full well that it probably won’t work, to humor its proponents. But the fact of the matter is that it does have negative consequences, consequences that affect me directly. I’ll talk about them in the next post in this series.

In the meantime, if you want to do something to help us, I’ve got some suggestions for you on my Trans blog. You can ask your friends and family to take a pledge not to kill us, or not to beat trans teenagers. You can even write the missing hip-hop song where a guy treats a trans woman with something other than violent contempt.

Trans, cis and the default

In a recent post, I talked about one reason that the word “cisgender” was coined. I agree that it is a good idea to have ways of talking about people who aren’t trans without evoking a context of “real” or “normal” to imply that we are not legitimate or to highlight our minority status. If this were the case, something like “non-transgender men” might be enough. But many of the arguments for “cis” go beyond this.

The first step beyond simply using “cis” is asking non-trans people to “identify as cis.” The idea is that trans women are marked as “not normal” just by virtue of having a word for ourselves, while non-trans women are the default “women.” There are similar situations for women in general, for example in soccer:

@jaclynf After this game, everyone better start calling it “soccer” and “men’s soccer” #usausausa #USWNT

Asking people to “identify as cis” – possibly as a condition of being accepted as an ally – means asking them to center trans people as the norm and mark themselves as deviating from that norm, at least in that context.

Some people have gone beyond simply asking people to “identify as cis,” and made a point of criticizing the use of unmodified “woman” in contexts that do not apply to all (or any) trans women. The idea is not just to make “trans” one acceptable default, but to exclude anything else from default status.

These three linguistic goals – replacing words like “normal,” admitting “trans” as a possible default status, and removing default status from non-trans people – are all aimed at removing the stigma associated with transgender actions. This stigma is real: I’ve received dirty looks and received petty harassment for wearing women’s clothes.

Of course, I’m relatively fortunate. I have never been attacked for being trans. I have received unconditional love and support from my family, and found a reasonable amount of success in my work life and acceptance from my neighbors. Others have been fired, kicked out of their homes, beaten and even killed for “being a man” in a dress or in the women’s bathroom – or for *not* “being a man” enough in the family or the workplace.

This stigma is not fair, and it needs to stop. The question is whether a word like “cisgender” can confer default status on us, whether default status will actually help to stop it, and if so how much.

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.

Challenges for radical categorization

I enjoyed Miriam Posner’s keynote address at the Keystone Digital Humanities Conference. It was far from the only talk last week that was animated by a desire for justice and compassion, and it was good to see that desire given such prominence by the organizers and applauded by the attendees.

As a linguist I also welcomed Posner’s focus on categorization and language diversity. I was trained as a syntactician, but over the past several years I have paid more and more attention to semantics, and categorization in particular. Building on the work of Ludwig Wittgenstein, Eleanor Rosch, George Lakoff and Deborah Cameron, I have come to see categorization as a touchpoint for social justice.

I should note that for me, categorization is not just where I can advocate for others with less power. As a transgender person, the power to categorize myself, my feelings, my beliefs and my actions is denied to me on a daily basis. The main reason that I study categorization is to regain that power for myself and others.

Much as I share Posner’s passion for justice, her talk raised some concerns in my mind. First, digital humanities cannot bear the entire burden of social justice, and even language as a whole cannot. Second, categories are slippery and flexible, which is a great strength of humanity but also a great weakness. Third, there are limits to how much we can trust anyone, no matter how high or low they are in the hierarchies of power. These concerns are not insurmountable barriers to a radical approach to categorization, but keeping them in mind will help us to be more effective fighters for social justice.

I plan to address the issues of the burden and trust in future posts, and in this post focus on the slipperiness of categories. As I understood it, Posner drew a distinction between the data models used by digital humanists (among many others) to categorize the world, and the lived experience of the people who created and consume the data.

There is often conflict between the categories used in the model and in the experience, and there is often a power imbalance between the digital humanist and the humans whose data is being modeled. Digital humanists may be perpetuating injustice by imposing their data models on the lived experiences of others. Posner gave examples of binary gender forms, database fields for racial classification, and maps of places. She contrasted these models imposed from above with examples where humanists had contested those models, aiming to replace them with models closer to the lived experience of people with less power who had a stake in the categorization.

The problem is that our lived experience is also a data model. As George Lakoff and other cognitive scientists have shown, the categories that humans use to describe and interpret our experience are themselves conventions that are collectively negotiated and then imposed on all members of the language community, with penalties for non-compliance. They are just as distinct from reality as the fields in a SQL table, and they shape our perceptions of reality in the same ways.

Whether or not they are encoded in HTML forms, categories are always contested, and the degree to which they are contested is a function of what is at stake to be gained or lost from them. In my experience, categorizing people, whether by race, gender, nationality, religion or other criteria, is the most fraught, because these categories are often used as proxies for other factors, to grant or deny us access to valuable resources. The second most fraught is the categorization of place, because places contain resources and are often proxies for categorizing people. After that, food seems to be the most fraught; if you doubt me, ask your Facebook friends for the most (or least) authentic Mexican or Italian restaurant.

And yet, as Wittgenstein and Rosch have observed, it is normal for categories to have multiple, slightly different, meanings and memberships, not just in the same language community but in the same individual. In my observations it is possible for the same person to use two different senses of a word – a category with two different but overlapping memberships – on the same page, in the same paragraph, in the same sentence.

Responding to Posner’s talk, Matt Lincoln posted a recipe for using the Resource Description Framework (RDF) to describe overlapping, contrasting systems of categorization. I think that is an excellent start, particularly because he places the data models of lived experience on the same level as those imagined by the researchers. My word of caution would be to keep in mind that there is not one singular data model for the lived experience of a community, or even for an individual. As Whitman said, we contain multitudes. Each member of those contradicting multitudes has its own data model, and we should thus be prepared to give it its own entry in the RDF.

I and others brought up similar issues in the question and answer period, and in the reception after Posner’s keynote, and I very much appreciate her taking the time to discuss them. As I remember it, she acknowledged the challenges that I raised, and I look forward to us all working together to build a humane, compassionate humanities, whether digital or not. I will discuss the challenges of bearing the burden and of trusting the community in later posts.