Othering, dehumanization and abuse

In a comment, Candy asked:

Can we also please talk about how “cis” is used as a term of abuse against feminists? As in, “shut up privileged cis bitches”? It’s the bit where trans activism begins to overlap with Men Rights Activism.

The use of “shut up” and “bitches” in Candy’s (unattested) example is definitely abuse, but in this dismissive context, “cis” is not functioning as abuse but othering. It positions the referent as an outsider who has no standing in the group, and possibly a threat. Othering can hurt, and it can often be done with malicious intent, but it is not the same as abuse, and responding to it as though it were abuse is generally not effective.

We can distinguish othering from abuse by removing the abusive terms and imagining a different context. Imagine that you have a group of army officers discussing how to attack a fort. Someone with no expertise is walking by and says, “Hey guys, you should just hit the tower with a bazooka!” The officers would be justified in saying, “Are you an army officer? What do you know?” or just “Get this civilian out of here!” “Civilian” isn’t a term of abuse here. It’s othering, but without malicious intent.

Othering is close to dehumanizing, which is a process where categories of people are reframed as enemies unworthy of common decency. This is a well-documented response to trauma, but it can also be done without trauma, when one group is framed as an existential threat to another. This framing can be done quite cynically, as Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadži? did with Muslims and later with NATO troops. As I’ve discussed on my trans blog, much of the hatred against gay men, lesbians, trans people, and women who don’t obey men is often in response to a framing that portrays them as unwilling to cooperate in increasing the birth rate of the group. I’m sure any of you can think of several more examples.

Othering is connected with abuse because dehumanizing is an invitation to abuse. If someone is really The Enemy, and unworthy of common decency, then any attacks on them are allowed. Restrictions demarcating acceptable conduct like forum rules and rules against torture are seen as an inconvenience at best, and at worst a dangerous vulnerability at times when “we” can least afford it.

Othering and dehumanizing are forms of category profiling: substituting a category of people for the feature that is required. The army officers have training and experience attacking forts, and in theory they’ve been promoted because they’ve demonstrated some skill. There’s no evidence that this civilian has training, experience or skill. Similarly, German soldiers on the Western Front in World War I were under genuine mortal threat from French and British soldiers who had been ordered to kill them, but there was no evidence that, say, Mexican soldiers were a threat to them at that time.

Of course, category profiling can go wrong in decision-making. There are many examples of experts failing spectacularly, and of outsiders succeeding where the experts don’t. There’s a whole genre of stories about these, like the film Working Girl, where our heroine’s financial expertise is dismissed because she’s categorized as a secretary. When she changes her clothes and hairstyle, people classify her as a financial executive, take her recommendations seriously, and make money.

Profiling has a notorious record in connection with dehumanization. The way that the US treated Russians and Communists when I was a kid, and Arabs and Muslims now, is far out of proportion to any threat. Profiling almost invariably misses some threats, and innocent people are always caught up in the mess.

Now let’s bring in the principle of “nothing for us without us,” which is a foundation of both representative government and identity politics. The idea is that people are experts in the issues that affect them, and the best people to discuss issues affecting a category of people are members of that category. It is very common in activist movements to insist on centering members of a particular category and excluding non-members – either from participating at all, or from taking part in the discussion. This is why othering statements like Candy’s constructed example are common in activist contexts.

When the “nothing for us without us” interacts with dehumanization, it leads to fear that They are pretending to be Us, derailing our discussions within the group and misrepresenting our goals to the wider public. This is not some paranoid fantasy: there is a long history of people infiltrating enemy movements with the goal of spying and disrupting. Recent examples from the FBI include the COINTELPRO infiltration of anti-racist groups in the 1960s and 1970s, and ongoing infiltration of Islamic groups. Our interactions increasingly take place online, where it can be even more difficult to judge people’s affiliations and motives.

Of course, the idea of representation immediately bumps square up against the profiling problem. The fact that someone is affected by an issue is no guarantee that they understand that issue, or have any ability to communicate it or resolve it. It is also no guarantee that they are sane or ethical. It can also be difficult to pin down the specific category affected and center just the members of that category. For example, low-income female-presenting nonwhite transgender people working in sex industries are targets of violence and discrimination, but even if trans people are given voice to talk about it they are often white, relatively affluent, not sex workers and even male-presenting. And because categories can be messy, it is sometimes possible for people to be simultaneously (or intermittently) part of one category that needs representation and another category that some in the first see as a threat.

Several people, including myself and Third Way Trans, have observed that it is common for trans people to have a history of trauma. This leads many trans people to take an us-and-them view of the world, where all trans people are good and innocent, and all “cis” people are evil abusers – despite the fact that trans people are just as likely to be abusive as anyone else. Their trauma leads to othering and dehumanization, and that invites abuse.

So that’s the answer to Candy’s question: “cis” in this context is not used as a term of abuse. It is used for othering, and in combination with the dehumanization that many trans people practice, that justifies the abuse. I don’t see any direct connection to “Men’s Rights Activism.” Thanks for your question, Candy; I hope this helps!

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.

It’s got to be deontic necessity

Gretchen McCulloch has been posting about epistemic modality on her All Things Linguistic blog recently. If you don’t know what epistemic modality is, very briefly, in many languages (including English), there are words that are ambiguous in a particular way: between saying something about our social and moral codes, and saying something about our knowledge of the world. Consider this expression of necessity:

  1. She should be there by now.

Under a deontic interpretation, this “should” is telling us that she has an obligation to be there by now, but under an epistemic interpretation it means that we expect her to be there by now. Other expressions of necessity like “must, have to, got to” have similar pairs of interpretations. Now consider this expression of possibility:

  1. She could have gone there yesterday.

Under a deontic interpretation the “could” means that she was allowed to go there yesterday, but the epistemic interpretation means we have some reason to imagine that she went there yesterday. There are other expressions of possibility like “may, can, might” that allow similar ambiguity.

There are also root modality interpretations: under root necessity, (1) means that the circumstances of the world have culminated in her being there by now, and under root possibility, (2) means simply that it was possible for her to go there yesterday.

A few years ago I noticed that the Jackson Browne song “Somebody’s Baby” had an interesting twist to it. According to Harmonov it was written in 1982 for the soundtrack to Fast Times at Ridgemont High, as a theme for the character of Stacy, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh.

I was listening to “Somebody’s Baby” again yesterday not long after reading Gretchen’s post, and I realized that the lyric twist plays on the ambiguity between epistemic and deontic modality. In the first verse we hear “got to be” and “must be”:

Well, just, a look at that girl with the lights comin’ up in her eyes.
She’s got to be somebody’s baby.
She must be somebody’s baby.

The clear intent is the epistemic one: the girl is so fine that the narrator can only conclude she has a relationship based on this evidence. The guys on the corner don’t harass her because they come to the same conclusion and don’t want any trouble from “somebody.” But the twist comes in the second verse:

I heard her talkin’ with her friend when she thought nobody else was around.
She said she’s got to be somebody’s baby; she must be somebody’s baby.

The epistemic reading of these modals is ruled out by the fact that it is the girl who is saying them. Presumably she knows whether she’s somebody’s baby or not, and does not need to declare this epistemic relation to her friend. This leads us to the root necessity reading: she has a need to be somebody’s baby, and the deontic reading: she has an obligation to be somebody’s baby.

It’s actually very sad that this girl believes her beauty and worth are not validated unless she is in a relationship highlighted by metaphors of possession and infantilization. Not to fear, our narrator will use this overheard intelligence to approach her when all the other guys are too intimidated, and she can be his baby. Let’s hope he’s a decent guy.

But anyway, the point is: modals. The first verse is epistemic necessity, but the second verse has got to be deontic necessity. It must be deontic necessity. It’s so fine.

Eclipsing

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.

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.