Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Always punch up; never punch down

So, about this post, which is basically, short version, about the fact that people refusing to allow a label to apply to them because they're normal either prevents people unlike the unlabeled people from talking about themselves at all (if there isn't a label for either group) or prevents them from being talked about (by themselves or others) without the language indicating they're strange abnormal quasi-humans (if the alternatives are normal and the people with a label.)

The example I said the most about was cis and trans, in part because it's what got me to write on the topic, in part for personal reasons, in part because the two terms have been part of our language for much longer than they've been applied to gender identity and part of language for much longer than we've had a language.

I said in that post, truthfully, that by definition anything that is not trans is cis and anything that is not cis is trans.  This is true of gender identity and molecules and all sorts of things because it's what the prefixes mean.  You can give definitions for both of them but to understand them both you only need to know the definition of one and simply consider the other "not that thing."  It doesn't matter which definition you start with.

I also mentioned people who are genderqueer and genderfluid.  And this led to some confusion, deservedly so.

There are people who are genderqueer or genderfluid who don't identify as transgender or cisgender.  But I just said that trans[something] and cis[something] together cover all of [something].  And they do, by definition.  (By definition, in fact, genderfluid and genderqueer fall under transgender.)  But definitions are only sometimes useful.

And a good way to see when they're useful is something I learned from Fred Clark:
Just follow this one rule: Always punch up; never punch down.

Note that both parts of that are an ethical obligation. Punching down is immoral. So is failing to punch up.
I brought up the fact that everyone is by definition trans or cis in response to the fact that a hell of a lot of privileged people are trying to kill off the term cis, sometimes going so far as to label it as hate speech.  If they succeed then rather than having people divided into cispeople and transpeople the division will be "people and transpeople" which marks transpeople as somehow subhuman.

That would be the punching up, fighting against the comfortable people who have no idea what this sort of bigotry is like and yet are engaging in it by attempting to warp the language in such a way they'll be marked as normal while the people not like them will be marked as freaks.

And if you should find yourself up against these people I encourage you to use the dictionary against them in any and every way that can help you.  Pull out the etymology and a thesaurus too if it'll help.

So what about the people who are genderqueer or genderfluid who don't identify as transgender?  Should we all go around pointing out to them that the definition says they're wrong and they are transgender?  Fuck no.

For one thing the problem with cis people refusing to allow the word cis to be used is that they're setting up a dichotomy between "people and transpeople" which means that transpeople are being excluded from the first group.  Someone saying, "I'm not trans or cis I'm genderqueer/genderfluid," does no such thing.  It's not warping language to hurt an already otherwise marginalized group.

But more importantly, that would be punching down.  It would be afflicting the afflicted.  That's a no-no.  It's immoral.

There are all kinds of reasons, often (though not always because no one is perfect) quite good reasons, for someone not to want to identify as trans and you can pretty much guarantee that any non-cis person who wants to identify as something other than trans is even more marginalized for being whatever they do identify as than most people who identify as trans are for identifying as trans.  I don't want to get into the oppression Olympics here, but it is worth noting who is being oppressed.

As a human being it is your job to work to make it so that fewer and fewer groups are oppressed and any oppression that can't be done away by your actions (which, unfortunately, is most of them) with is at least lessened.  It is, it should be noted, not your job to overwork yourself in this capacity.  Nor is it your job to get depressed if it doesn't seem to be working.  It's a massive group effort and shouldering all the burden yourself is just going to hurt you and help no one.

But the point here is that you're supposed to be helping the marginalized, not hurting them.  Don't punch down.

If you should find yourself lecturing a genderqueer person on how, regardless of what they prefer to identify as, they are in fact transgender then the definition is on your side but morality is not.  Put down the dictionary, recite rule number one 15 times (Try not to be an asshole.)  Then, you know, apologize.  And go and sin no more.

Language is important, and sometimes you need to bring definitions to bear, but if you're bringing definitions to bear in a disagreement, remember which way you're punching.  It can be immoral not to use them to punch up.  It is immoral to use them to punch down.


  1. I don't have much to add to this, but I wanted you to know that I really like it :)

    1. Thank you for letting me know. Very serious and heartfelt thank you.

  2. This and its related post make good points. Thanks for writing them.

  3. Baffled - you say the division will be "people and transpeople." Can't there simply be no division and both groups would simply fall under the collective category of "people?" How about we all stop worrying about labels so much? You wont stop bullies with a special label, and everybody else doesn't care about your sexuality.

    1. It seems like you might have missed that this was an addendum to another post that addressed that very question at great length.

      The short version is that sometimes you need to be able to talk about different groups within the larger whole. That's that's the whole of the short version, but I can give an example, which I shall do.

      Consider sexual assault. Most people would agree that that is a bad thing we should try to stop.

      If we just have no division and have both groups fall under the collective category of "people" then we find that sexual assault happens to 35% of people in America. That's bad and we should do something about it.

      If the collective category of "people" were enough to understand the problem then subgroups* would have about the same rate. It wouldn't always be 35% but it would always be close. The difference between the actual rate and 35% would be mere statistical noise.

      In fact, sexual assault happens to 50% of transpeople in America. That's not just about 35%, and the difference isn't mere statistical noise. If we want to stop sexual assault of all people then we need to recognize that what's happening to cispeople isn't the same as what's happening to transpeople and address those different manifestations of the same problem differently.

      If we don't separate the groups, then we can't understand the problem (because the problem manifests in different ways for different groups), and if we can't understand the problem, then we can't fix the problem.

      Want to stop sexual assault? You need to be able to talk about transpeople and cispeople as different groups. Why? Because they're already being treated differently by the people who are doing bad things.


      * Excluding the obvious exceptions. The subgroup "people who have never been, and will never be, sexually assaulted" would still have a rate of 0%, for example, because it uses sexual assault as part of its selection criteria.