Friday, March 16, 2012

A Response to Possibly the Most Frustrating Essay I've Ever Read

I commonly read things that I disagree with. I frequently read things that anger me with their poorly thought out arguments and hypocrisy. I sometimes get blamed for the problems that I have to deal with as a trans* person. But never have I read an essay that managed to seemingly exist solely to be the perfect mixture of smugness, "false consciousness" argument, lack of historical or anthropological understanding, uninformed ideas on the method and nature of religion, and victim blaming that this essay seems to exhibit. I am going to assume it is an argument in good faith, but if I were a more cynical person (I know, right?) I would chalk it up to being simply a computer generated, personally tailored collection of things that anger me in an essay.

There is a response from someone else at my school here, but I think i want to run through my own issues with this essay, because that is my Wealth given right/privilege as a person with internet access. I've discussed this somewhat with Anna, so I am also going to credit em with some of the formulations of the thoughts that come out in this response. This is probably going to be what might charitably called "Too Long," so I'll make subject headings, like a "real academic"

Lack of Religious Studies Knowledge/Deconstruction

I find that most of the people writing articles like this seem to think that they are either 'above' reading actual religious studies methodology/scholarship, or they think that it is "the Man" trying to keep them down. I'm just going to say that, unless you are going to pay attention to the last hundred or so years of people discussing what 'religion' means, and whether that is a tenable term for a conversation, then I feel like maybe you should re-examine what you are doing.

But, I will discuss how her definition of religion (or lack thereof, with merely an implication) is a problematic, racist, and imperialistic artifice later. What I really want to address are some of the ridiculous, and provably false things that the author has written.

Anyone who ever writes something like "all religions [x]" or "all atheists [y]" is not only in danger, but willfully setting themselves up to being proven wrong by actual facts. For a person who scoffs at people for thinking that they are absolutely right, she seems to have either not gained any sort of evidence to make her claims worth listening to, or has forgotten all of it in favor of making grandiose statements that are not only false but embarrassing. When you make statements with "all" in them, you are on the track to failure; your faith in your cause has blinded you to nuance. Let alone one that reifies a concept like religion into one mass (which is philosophically unjustifiable anyhow). Although the author assures us that she is very postmodern, apparently this does not apply to her understanding of religion. I had a teacher (Robert Minor) who began his book “When Religion Becomes and Addiction” with the Chapter Title “Religion doesn’t do anything,” which is true. Religion is not a thing, it has no essence, so to treat it like it does is a fallacy. The fact that she uncritically accepts the concept of religion as an essence, and takes the traditional view of what it is undermines her completely objective, rational self identification (which is already a specious concept in and of itself).

So when she says that religions are fundamentally in tension or contradiction with queerness, she first of all misunderstands how queerness functions in other societies, but also how 'faith' does, and how they interact with each other. In fact, saying that "queerness is always counter-intuitive" shows that she has not seemingly read very many books of how queer people function in different religious contexts. Did she know that some religions mandate queer relations? Even in America! I mean, say what you will about how incredibly cissexist some of them are, but I think the entire lesbian women’s/Goddess spirituality movement shows that queerness and religion can be the same thing. I mean, even the Ayatollah of Iran is alright with binary identified trans people. Hot Damn, it's almost like if you make statements like that, you are just asking for people to point out the ways that you are wrong.

That's not even to mention trans* or gender divergence in religious practice. I mean, she even really kind of admits this, but then just is like "WELP, NOT SCIENCE." I mean, do I have to point her to the multiple Indigenous traditions, some Dogon peoples, and the multiple cross dressing saints of the Christian tradition? Believe it or not, what we consider queer was (and is) not always considered 'counter-intuitive' in other cultures. Not only that, but it has not been damaging in ever society at every time. Making statements like that is just begging to look like you are uninformed .

Imperialism and and Western "Everywhere"

Despite her (promised but never delivered, perhaps invisible?) postmodernism, she reminds us for what seems like an uncomfortable amount of space that she is in fact, not being racist or imperialistic. I wish I could magically say I wasn't being racist, and then it be so! Moreover, the truth is that everyone who might make the argument that her essay is racist, are in fact racist themselves. That is a pretty wonderful logical trick that she has going on there, but it's based on a somewhat faulty premise already: she seems to be speaking only to white people.

If white people were the only people who were pointing out that the arguments that she was making were culturally imperialist, she might be onto something. The truth though, is that there have been plenty of queer  and trans* women of color who have brought this up. First. Apparently the author either thinks that the arguments that these women of color (also, the invisible trans* men of color [surprise, trans men are invisible!]) make are so far below her that she does not have to deign to answer to them, or that she doesn't have either the argument or the courage to disagree with them. Instead she speaks about people of color to the other white people in her intended audience. Great. Nothing wrong or paternalistic about that.

Anyhow, like I said a little earlier, how she conceptualizes religion is basically imperialistic. Why, you might ask? Well, the very use of the word religion to generalize onto all societies outside of the western is in itself not justifiable in any rational way. She uses what amounts to Sigmund Freud's usage in his seminal Future of An Illusion, where the important part of religion is the dogma (or faith). Of course, this in and of itself is an imperialist concept, and talking about religion as if it has an essence is a function of imperialism. The simple fact of the matter is that privileging beliefs over actions in understanding religion is a very Christian/Western way of doing that, which makes things like ritual invisible. I mean, the fact that the author wants to act like “religion” or “faith” are concepts that you can take and place on other cultures is basically itself not only a fallacy but an imperialist one: only cultures that come from the Greco-Roman tradition actually have the word ‘religion’ in them, or ‘faith’.

What the author seems to be saying is that she can take Western concepts, place them in contexts where they don’t fit, and then judge these other societies by her concept of what faith is. Wow, that doesn’t sound like cultural imperialism at all. Of course, the author then tells us that telling her something is culturally imperialistic is in and of itself culturally imperialistic (I think I see a pattern here). This is an embarrassing tactic which basically shows that she either 1) has no ability to distinguish between societies and people 2)has no argument, and is still speaking to white people only 3) thinks that people who say “you’re intolerant of intolerant people” is a great argument, or 4) all those three. I am going to go with number four.

However, to show how not imperialistic she is, she brings up Buddhism, because WHY NOT? Of course, she doesn’t really have any sort of argument for Buddhism being against trans* people, so she uses what seems to be a vaguely Nietzschean argument that it isn’t life affirming. Not only does she seem to be grasping in this situation, but she also fundamentally misunderstands Buddhism (which she apparently thinks is all one belief system). Of course, she decides that since she has addressed a single non-Abrahamic religion, that obviously her feelings can be extrapolated onto all of history in all societies, including the future. Of course, if she were to address religions that have no concept of anything happening after death, her argument falls apart, but obviously it was painful enough to address not white cultures even for a short paragraph, and she moves on.

Historical Lack of Awareness

Not only is everywhere the West according to the author, but also history never happened! This is understandable, because looking at history reveals that her arguments are specious at best; at the very least, we see that there is a great more deal of nuance going on than a person who says that all (western conceptualizations of) queers are counter-intuitive and religion is always terrible would care to admit.

The most interesting thing going on is that in any sort of realistic sense you could make the argument that much of the oppression of trans* people stems not from religious ideas, but from those of science. the Enlightenment need of categorization that were diametrically opposed led to the binary gender system that exists today, which is where a lot of the problems for trans* people exist. The medicalization of gender, and advent of psychoanlaysis and psychology have generally stood as the vanguard of status quo oppression, and to this day recognize trans* people as mentally ill. That seems much more reactionary than many religious groups that exist today (or historically), but I imagine that the author is probably not going to rush to claim that psychology is a moral intrinsic evil.

We can still see this today, and it is not pastors who hold the keys to the access of hormones, surgeries and other things like that. In fact, I have been more frequently attacked for my gender on the basis of science than of faith (perhaps that is from the circles I run in). What I mean to say is that trying to say “SCIENCE GOOD RELIGION BAD” is a position that not only insults those religious groups and people that are trans* affirming, but also ignoring those secularists that aren’t.

Serious Logical flaws And Oppression Reductionism

Of course, it is not only the lack of thinking that anything outside of the modern West has ever existed that makes this essay wrong. There are also ridiculously flawed arguments within it that, even granting that the author is not imperialistic, make this a sad work that insults our intelligence.

First, there is the simple fact that this is basically working as an oppression reductionism. This is similar (although not identical) to when people say that there really isn’t racism, but just prejudice towards poor people. What the author seems to be saying is that trans* oppression is relaly just a function of religious oppression (which is only a tenable position if you ignore vast amounts of reality), and therefore we should worry more about getting rid of the oppression of religion than trying to solve its symptoms (ie. cissexism). Of course, this could only be a tenable position if the only oppression of trans* people came from religious sources; this is in my experience not true. I have had too many people say that there are scientifically only two genders, and they are chromosomal, to even grant that as a realistic analysis of the problem of trans* oppression. It is transphobic in the same way that saying racial oppression is only class based is racist.

Unfortunately, that is not the only flaw worth speaking to. Of course, the main thrust of the argument basically says that trans* people participate in their own oppression because by saying God exists, you legitimate the position of people who are not trans* affirming. The fact that this argument is something that the author finds logical seriously undermines the idea that religious people are defined by their lack of rationality, and that atheists are always the most ardent followers of Reason (capitalized for reification purposes)

First of all, this argument reasonably leads to the only moral action being complete monastic withdrawal (which is ironic), or suicide. If ascribing to ideas legitimates the worst elements of that idea, then there is basically no way that one can not be constantly legitimating the worst horrors of the human race. That is basically akin to saying that if you think that using the scientific method can be used to better people’s lives, then you are legitimating the underlying ideologies of eugenics, scientific racism, ablebodied supremacy, anti-queer and gender binarist thinking, all of it. They all think/thought the same thing about science too. In fact, believing in an ethic at all supports the underlying idea of ethics, and therefore you are supporting every other single person who has ‘ethics’ no matter how horrific they are. This argument can be taken to such ridiculously absurd conclusions that it is worthless in any form. Are you an anarchist? Well, if you believe that the material world exists, it turns out you are supporting Stalin/Franco/every other authoritarian in the world since you legitimate the idea of an existent material reality that under-girds their authoritarian philosophy. And so on.

False Consciousness/Victim Blaming

But why oh why would trans* people be in religious practice if it obviously always hurts them in every place in every time (including the future)? Obviously there is nothing good that they can gain out of it, and we shouldn’t actually... I don’t know, listen to these actual trans* people. So what the author decides to do is use the particularly annoying tool of false consciousness. Basically saying, “I know you why you do that better than you do,” which is extremely condescending, and really has no response. If the person is legitimately no longer listening to the people that they are actually describing, it feels to me like she is basically doing the same thing Western anthropologists did in other cultures for years: act like they were the objective arbiters of everything as opposed to the people who were actually living it. It’s basically a very convenient way to say that in reality, if religious trans* people weren’t so goddamn stupid/naive/brainwashed, then they would agree with the author. I’m not saying that this is particular to her argument: you come across false consciousness attacks with an unfortunate frequency, really. But that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

So why could trans* people possibly be religious, since it validates the vague notions of the reified concept of religion? Well, the answer for the author is that trans* people who are religious are like battered spouses (the author implies a gendering of this, an abused woman. I’m unsure whether this is because when she says ‘trans people’ she only means ‘trans women’, as has been characteristic of her essay, or what). This is honestly insulting and condescending as hell, not only to trans* religious people, but also to abuse survivors/victims/whatever they identify as.

This metaphor is not only completely unsuitable, but also leads to a really unfortunate implication, when you take her argument into account. Not only does her “trans* religious people validate religion, which is always evil” sound basically like lesbian separatism (which has always been kind to trans* people,), insofar as one could say “being in a non abusive heterosexual relationship validates the heterosexuality of abusive relationships,” but it also ends up making what amounts to a victim blaming argument.

What I mean is that trans* religious people are “doing it to themselves” in this metaphor. She compares religious trans* people to abused people, yet also says that they perpetuate their own abuse and the abuse of others; the abuse is their fault, and that they are complicit. And what is her advice? “Just get out of the relationship,” basically, which I’m sure has never been said to a person in an abusive relationship. I hope I am not the only person who sees that argument/metaphor combination as completely messed up. Comparing people you disagree with to abuse victims takes away their agency almost as much as calling them barnyard animals (sheeple), but telling them that they are basically their own abusers is just the exact same victim blaming attitude that perpetuates sexism in our larger culture.


I don’t really have a conclusion, other than to say that I’m writing this conclusion long after I wrote the original piece. My friend asked me why I felt compelled to write it if I wasn’t personally hurt by it, which led me to ask myself what about this hurt me?

Part of it is that it really angers me when people talk about religion like they know what they are talking about, when in fact they are completely incorrect. The conservativism that was present in this essay angered me in the same way that other conservativism does: I felt like it is a step backward in trying to achieve respect and liberation for all people. I also feel upset that my identity is being used in order to attack other people’s cultures, along with my own. I’m not deluded enough to think that anything I said will change someone’s mind if they already believe that religion is/was/will always be evil: that is, in itself, a faith claim and moral judgment that is improvable. But don’t act like you are being a jerk
on my behalf, please.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Respecting identities: Are There Limits?

Something that I hear a lot from people in activist communities/internet activism is something that can be broadly generalized to "It's not anyone's place to question another person's identity." This can also filter to gender identification, pronouns, sexual orientations, and other things like that. I'm interested, because as of the past couple of months, there has been a sort of rise in activism from segments of the internet where these same people feel like one obviously cannot accept that person's identity, without accepting some rather unfortunate consequences too.

Of course, there have been people that identified in ways that the mainstream and perhaps even radical circles chose not to acknowledge as correct or worthy of respect in the past. They would probably still not be accepted within social justice movements today. What I am thinking of is the growth and subsequent marginalization of pro-pedophile groups like NAMBLA. Sure, you have the odd queer activist who will defend the right of NAMBLA to lobby for pederasty: you have Allen Ginsberg, or Harry Hay for instance. But the majority of queer activist groups, along with most of the other social justice groups, refuse to see pedophiles as an oppressed group, or as a legitimate identification that requires the level of respect that other sexual and gender minorities do.

But something that has come up more recently is taking the rhetoric and ideology surrounding transgender people (and their narrative) and affixing them to other identities. Perhaps the most "out there" version of this would be the Otherkin phenomenon. That is, people who feel like they secretly have the soul/essence of some sort of other species (or mythological creature). Describing themselves as having "species dysphoria" and use the societal understanding of trans* people as "X in a Y's body," they pattern their ideas on one specific type of transgender self-understanding. Sometimes they want to do surgery in order to realign themselves with what they feel they are on the inside. You get the picture. To most people, this seems ridiculous if harmless. Of course, intuitive "ridiculousness" by society is not really a good metric of whether something should be respected, in my opinion.

Feelings get a bit more heated, however, when it comes to people identifying as a group that they are not "Really" part of. Two examples that I have seen recently are those who identify as transabled and those who identify as transethnic/transracial. The basic rundown of these two groups is that transabled people see themselves as dysphoric due to their lack of a specific disability, whereas transethnic people generally see themselves as identifying as a race that they were not 'born as'; this also sometimes includes surgeries. It's hard for me to find a lot of stuff on transethnicity, but from what I've heard, it basically tracks that way.

I bring those up, because most of the people that say that a person should not question another's identity are very quick to judge whether these identities are 'appropriative' or 'correct' or other things like that. That seems to me, to be a bit hypocritical.

That might anger people, but I guess what I mean by that is that although those identities do seem to me to be intuitively different than transgender ideology, I have seen the concept of intuition used in ways that are transphobic before. What strikes me is that people who on one hand say that we should never criticize certain types of identities are generally the ones to think of these as completely untenable. For me, I think it is rather arbitrary to say "gender identities/sexual orientations are unquestionable" while ethnic or racial identities are. Both are socially constructed, and also have less division than is generally credited by society. In fact, race and ethnicity are much less binary than gender is in Western society.

This would seem to lead me to three solutions:

1) Racial and ability identities should not be questioned, much like gender identities should not be questioned.

2) They are somehow different.

3) Not all gender identities (or ways that gender is conceptualized in trans* ideology) deserve respect.

I am not sure where I fall on this. Accepting choice 1 seems to have a whole lot of unfortunate consequences: people in blackface, racial essentializing, all of that. While most activists would take number 2, I want to point out some flaws that I see with many of the arguments that are made on that point.

While the majority of people I see who reject the idea of transethnic identity claim that transethnicity and transgender identity have nothing in common, there is a level of irony in the statements that they make: since most of the people who identify as transethnic would be called "white people who want to become people of color," the arguments mostly take the form of appropriation: that is, privileged people taking the identity of those who are oppressed. But I feel like I have heard that argument before... where have I...

Oh wait! Here it is!

I mean, honestly. Part of the reason that I feel uncomfortable with the arguments against these people is because most of them track pretty easily onto the arguments that some lesbian feminists make against trans women. Even the argument that transethnic people grew up white/don't have the culture or history of non-white people has a sort of "womyn born womyn" stylizing behind it. Or that transethnic people make non-white peoples into a stereotype: also a Janice Raymond argument against trans women.

So that details my discomfort with most of the arguments being currently used against people who identify as these groups.  My own discomfort comes from essentialization of whiteness and different ethnicities; however, I recognize that that also reflects my discomfort with the transgender essentialist narratives. I also find the wholesale co-option of transgender rhetoric a bit unrealistic. While ethnicity (and perhaps disability) might function in similar ways to gender, I see that the rhetoric is being used without the theoretical grounding. By this, I mean that I would expect transethnic discourse to reflect postcolonial ideas more than queer theory, if it were trying to understand ethnicity and race in the context that they are understood in a theoretical sense today.

Although, like I said, I am still undecided.

Friday, March 2, 2012

On Original Sin

I'm not Catholic, and Episcopalians don't really need to believe in anything (This statement is really more of a joke than anything), but I've been thinking of the concept of original sin. I'm not exactly sure whether the concept of original sin is something that is around in Anglican thought very much: regardless, we never really talk about it, mainly because I imagine it is "kind of a downer." That's understandable, because it kind of is. I mean, it's not as bad as Calvin's idea of "total depravity" (although that would be a sweet band name). However, the Episcopal church has also kind of moved away from an Augustinian idea of how sin works, so we don't really see it as a necessary argument to have.

To be honest, Augustine doesn't really seem to me to have a cogent idea on sin throughout his work. That's not bad, because we all change our minds. But he makes the argument that evil doesn't really exist: saying that evil is a lot like cold or darkness. Evil is merely the absence of good. That sounds compelling, right? But at the same time, he somehow believes that Satan is around and is a manifestation of evil. That always seemed to me to be a contradictory position, and I want to argue in better faith than "Well, looks like he was still a Manichee." Not only that, but if evil is merely the absence of good, then how does there become a stain of evil that is passed down in a hereditary manner from the beginning of people? I just don't think that the concept of original sin was thought very well through in the light of his philosophy of evil.

However, by rejecting that notion of original sin, I don't want to follow a lot of newer theologians and say that sin has no real place in our worldview. I think that is a temptation, but it is very clear that people are doing sinful/bad things in the world, whether through negligence or through actual willful harming of other people. To say that that is not important in how the world works seems to basically be giving a free pass to people who have been benefiting off of harming others (ie. oppression). Ignoring the fact that people do bad things does not make those bad things go away, nor does it help the people harmed by those actions.

Karl Rahner has an interesting concept of original sin that I think is possibly the most cogent one in recent history. He said that it is impossible to live in the world without causing harm to others. Perhaps not on purpose, but it still happens. As more and more people willfully or ignorantly harm other people, we live in a world where it is impossible to exist and not cause harm or oppression to other people: that is original sin. I think that conception of it helps with certain things: first of all, it is realistic and not some sort of weird genetic metaphysical state (a la Augustine). Yet again, it also posits sin as something not completely individualistic, and therefore something that can be used to guilt people into paralysis, but as a reality of society. There is an amount of negative things that we do that are at least partially out of our control. I think it moves past the debt/guilt model of sin that seems to be the real problem those who dislike the notion of sin are getting at.

I'm not exactly sure that I have a full thought here, more along the lines of just a couple of thoughts collected. If you have anything that you want to say on the subject, then feel free to add to the discussion.