I’ve been meaning to write about this since two weeks ago but thankfully I waited because a textbook case of the issue I’m about to describe just unfolded in the local Twittersphere (which is more like a Twitter knitting circle). This issue’s kinda complicated so it’ll be good if you can read this in a quiet spot with a notebook, a vaporising analgesic ointment of your choice and an open mind.
Ok enough teasing, here we go.
PART I: What just happened? What is this about?
Xiaxue just landed herself in the eye of a #progressive-teen-identity-politics-hate storm and allegations of transphobia have been pouring on the blogger since she tweeted about K Pop group Monsta X.
This is the tweet in question:
She made this comment after encountering Monsta X fanatics at the airport. No prizes if you can guess what the specific offending term was (it’s “trannies”).
There are a few other tweets which have been identified as problematic.
Given Xiaxue’s trademark devil-may-care tactlessness and her penchant for tossing social media molotov cocktails, it was only a matter of time before she would become embroiled in identity politics. The ground is fertile after the tension left behind by the ugly 2016 USA presidential elections. People within the US are participating in large organised protests to voice their discontent with the Trump administration, and people on the periphery are invested in their own battles in other corners of the globe. Just two weeks ago fashion model Karlie Kloss was berated for participating in a Vogue editorial which perpetuated cultural appropriation. The photoshoot was set in an exoticised vision of Japan and Kloss was costumed in derivatives of traditional Japanese dress. The Oscar-nominated musical La La Land is also under the radar for featuring an all-straight cast in a movie about show business. I think Xiaxue herself anticipated that she would be going through her own episode soon; she recently spoke out about hypocrisy on the internet and the indiscriminate use of accusatory terms like “racist” in a YouTube video. It seems like the progressive left has indeed gone rabid, and even public figures with a track record for supporting leftist causes are not spared (Xiaxue has spoken out against homophobia and has been an avid supporter of the local Pink Dot movement, and Karlie Kloss set up a coding scholarship for young girls to pursue a career in the male-dominated field of computer engineering).
Right now Xiaxue is facing the wrath of both K Pop fans and #woke teenagers, and that really is quite the combination. In the last day or so, she has received accusations of transphobia and virulent attacks on her 4-year-old son Dash. (It was really quite disgusting to see so many people deride her for perpetuating harmful ideas and in the same breath they drag her toddler son into the storm but that’s another story for another day.)
Transphobia, cultural appropriation, racism, sexism, homophobia. These are now internet age buzzwords. I don’t deny that these words carry a lot of weight and are useful descriptors for larger systems of entrenched discrimination in academic discourse, but most people are not formally educated on the nuances and complexities of these terms. These words transform into convenient, one-dimensional cusses on the tongues of the uninitiated. What do these terms really mean? What does it mean to be transphobic, and what do we do with the knowledge of someone’s alleged transphobia?
PART II: System VS the Individual
None of the issues that these buzzwords reference are simple. They’re all confusing, tangly messes, and they’re made worse because there are personal ramifications on the most vulnerable strata in society.
Take for example sexism. Sexism isn’t a one-way assault from the oppressive male onto the subjugated female. In many households, mothers transfer gendered expectations onto their own daughters. They ask their daughters to cover up before heading out, they expect fellow women to be more ladylike, they let their sons play outside while the girls stay home to prepare dinner. Men are also victims of sexism; male rape victims self-censor because of the emasculating stigma attached to victimhood, their role as parents is undervalued, people are less empathetic towards divorced fathers in custody battles, etc. Feminists argue among themselves if the hijab (Muslim headdress) is the embodied symbol of patriarchy, and there is no clear answer.
In the case of transphobia, there are 2 points to note. First, the term “tranny” has been unapologetically adopted by individuals within the trans community and it has positive connotations in older generations of activists. Take for example our local comedian Kumar. He has carved a career from performing stand-up comedy in drag, and he regularly makes self-deprecating jokes about being a “tranny” or a “bapok”. The term has been reclaimed in adversity to reinforce solidarity within the trans community (we also see this phenomenon with the N word in African-American circles). This complicates the term’s usage. It’s been normalised for some people, but remains offensive to others.
This is a great short video about his road to fame and about the personal sacrifices he made to be the trash-talking Kumar on stage.
Second, the mathematical divide between terms like “homosexual”, “queer”, “drag” and “trans” is a relatively new phenomenon and not everyone is familiar with the semantics. Take for example the 1969 Stonewall riots. The New York City riots are considered by many to be the galvanising movement for gay activism in the USA, and the Stonewall Inn housed a gathering of all sorts of “abnormal” folk. Transvestites, trans people, cis homosexual men, lesbians and other individuals were fed up with the way they’ve been violently treated by the authorities and there was backlash. Distinct categories were not a thing back then. Back when the movement was in its infancy, it was a hodgepodge of social misfits fighting for fair treatment. I think present-day definitions of “gender” and “biological sex” stem from Judith Butler’s seminal text on gender performativity, and in that text she analyses drag performances as an embodied reaction towards male-female sexual difference, but that’s really esoteric knowledge and we can’t expect most people to know that. This sort of knowledge is available at approximately $22,000 a year at an exclusive university. In any case, it’s really confusing to bring up these complicated terms in a heated debate because most people won’t understand the distinctions.
What’s my point? My point is that these problems are complicated, systemic, and larger than any individual. Transgressive acts are not isolated choices in the lives of a few blame-worthy public figures. They are already embedded in culture and racism, sexism etc manifest in many different ways in our day-to-day lives. People can be placidly and passively complicit in perpetuating harmful stereotypes without even knowing it. I’m not saying that we should toss all our progressive ideals out the window and start singing the kumbaya when we think someone is being unfair to a minority group, but I’m saying that lone individuals are not responsible for the crushing weight of systemic discrimination. We need to give everyone a chance to understand the nuances of these issues. What are we doing when we jump the gun and call someone racist/transphobic/etc? We’re missing a valuable opportunity for progressive dialogue, and no one will leave the conversation wiser.
PART III: Nobody is a villain in their own story.
Everyone operates on reason given the information and resources available to them, and no one is a one-dimensional evil villain. This is why even the blatantly racist don’t consider themselves racists—it’s never as simple as someone hating someone on pure account of their race.
If you’re a white person and you’ve spent your entire life in a desolate midwest town away from people of other races, and everyone around you relies on Facebook clickbait and Fox news for information about the coastal cities, then of course you’re going to think black people are thugs. You don’t know any black person but thank god you don’t because they seem really dangerous, and you’re afraid. The TV keeps showing violent images of Black Lives Matter protests and businesses are going up in flames. When a white police officer, someone you’ve been taught to admire, shoots a suspicious-looking black man, what are you going to believe?
You’re not going to believe that you’re racist. You’re going to believe that you’re a reasonable, rational person who wants your family protected from hoodlums. You don’t think black people are bad because they’re black, but you are wary of them because you associate them with crime.
Here’s another example that’s a hot topic for debate: victim-blaming in rape cases.
Two things are simultaneously true:
- Many parents are worried sick about finding their daughter bruised and battered after rape. They will do everything they can to prevent that, and it seems to them that dressing conservatively will help, so they enforce it on their daughters.
- Statistically, rape cases have little correlation with a woman’s outfit because most perpetrators of rape are not strangers with straying eyes. Rapists select and groom vulnerable women/girls they are entrusted with. Controlling a woman’s attire does not help to prevent rape, and it takes away a woman’s agency over her own body.
Does this make parents the enemy? Are they deplorable sexists for controlling their daughter’s attire? Or are they expressing their concern and using the information they have to protect their family?
PART IV: What now?
In case it isn’t immediately obvious, I take left-leaning political stances and I have had the privilege of studying these issues at length in a comfortable academic environment (my own final research paper is about the polemical female image in selfie representations and writing this blog post constitutes procrastination). I am not advocating for racism or sexism etc to be overlooked.
To be clear about my purposes, these are my main ideas:
- Social problems are big and complex and they operate like systems. They are not the fault of individuals. It is not fair to blame a single person for something so big and complex, especially if they cannot understand.
- It is frustrating to listen to someone with a conclusion different from yours, but there will be greater progress if we make room for conversation.
- At the end of the day, people fight for the things they care about. People are not fundamentally good or fundamentally evil. They act on the things they truly believe in.
How do we make room for conversation? I don’t usually default to crusty men from the 1600s for advice because they were wrong about a lot of things, but here we can take a leaf from Blaise Pascal’s book:
When we wish to correct with advantage, and to show another that he errs, we must notice from what side he views the matter, for on that side it is usually true, and admit that truth to him, but reveal to him the side on which it is false. He is satisfied with that, for he sees that he was not mistaken, and that he only failed to see all sides. Now, no one is offended at not seeing everything; but one does not like to be mistaken, and that perhaps arises from the fact that man naturally cannot see everything, and that naturally he cannot err in the side he looks at, since the perceptions of our senses are always true.
Ok, I hope this has been helpful for you.