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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

Cabals, Communities and People
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steepholm
I was attending my aunt's funeral yesterday, so didn't get around to writing my promised second post on problematic tactics in the Moore-Burchill row. By now I imagine most people are sick of the subject, but for my own reference if for no one else's pleasure, here it is. Last time I was writing about the uses and abuses of analogy; today, I want to look at the term "community".

One tactic that has been repeatedly used by Moore, Burchill and others, is that of treating trans people as a monolithic group. Sometimes this group is characterized as a "mob" (the English elite's favourite word for unruly underlings since Shakespeare), but sometimes it mysteriously reverses its character and becomes a shadowy, moneyed "cabal", wielding huge power within the Establishment. (And really, this isn't surprising when you look at how many trans MPs and top civil servants there are, how many CEOs, judges, newspaper editors, TV pundits... Oh, right.) Whether in "howling mob" or "sinister cabal" mode, however, the community of trans people has one remarkable characteristic. Whatever any one of its members does, all the others turn out to be responsible for, both collectively and individually.

For example: some people were rude to Suzanne Moore on Twitter. Some people apparently even made threats. As it turns out, only two of the rude people and none of the threat-makers was trans, at least according to Zoe Brain, whose statements have a deserved reputation for being well-researched. Well, never mind - for the sake of argument, let's say some trans people stepped out of line. After all, some do, sometimes. In fairness, we should also note that many other trans people remained remarkably reasonable, even conciliatory, despite Moore's tweeting about "fucking lopping bits off your body" and Burchill's bile-belch in the Observer. I linked to some of their comments in earlier posts - feel free to go and read them. The majority of trans people, of course, said nothing at all, at least in public. Sadly, trans people are used to being abused, and a good proportion live in hiding.

Nevertheless, when Moore wrote about the affair in The Guardian on 17th January, she was able to affirm that "The wrath of the transgender community has been insane." This is Moore, note, not Burchill. She's meant to be the reasonable one, and she was certainly trying to strike a reasonable, more-in-sorrow-than-anger tone (her piece is called "It saddens me that supporting freedom makes me an opponent of equality"). She wasn't throwing swear words around, but look at what she's actually said here. For her "the transgender community" has reacted, as one, with an "insane" degree of anger. There is no attempt at qualification - no "some" transgender people, no acknowledgement that the majority of responses by transgender people have been anything but insane. She has, in effect, taken the voices of a couple of angry people on Twitter and attributed them to every transgender person in the country. (Given that trans people are regularly told that they have a mental illness, this was a unfortunate choice of adjective, by the way.)

Blaming whole groups of people for the perceived misdeeds of one or two, is of course - need I point it out? - the same reasoning that we normally associate with racism: "I was mugged by a Pole, so now I believe all Poles are muggers." If Moore was able to write it without blushing (or without other people blushing on her behalf), I think it has a lot to do with her use of that word "community", which is roomy and ambiguous enough to hide this reasoning, possibly from Moore herself. Quite possibly when she wrote "the transgender community" she had in mind something fairly organized and cabally, that sinister clique we spoke of before - or else its demotic counterpart, Shakespeare's "many-headed multitude" storming en masse into Fleet St to upturn laptops and lobster lunches. Neither of these hive-minded monsters actually exists, but as fictions they serve their purpose, which is to divert readers' (and perhaps Moore's) attention from the extremism of what she actually wrote.

I use the example of this phrase because its nastiness is not as explicit as Burchill's, but of course the same tactic was being used up and down Fleet St, often in less nuanced forms. Burchill's article was entirely predicated on the assumption that "My friend was insulted by some people who are trans, so I have carte blanche to abuse all trans people everywhere." Or, as one of the letters in this week's Observer put it, "nothing [Burchill] wrote was disproportionate to groundless death threats." Nor is the tactic an invention of the last week or so. Its past mistress is Julie Bindel: her MO is to write something vile about trans people, then trawl through the responses it provokes until she finds something offensive, before writing a follow-up article quoting that and only that, entitled "See what bullies trannies are!"

Given all this, should we ditch the word "community", since it offers such ample cover for abuse, and since trans people are in fact anything but monolithic in their views on gender or any other topic?

Of course, it's not so simple. "Community", to begin with, is used in a number of different ways, to imply different kinds of association. For example, I think it's obvious that the deaf community isn't a community in quite the same way that the birdwatching or environmentalist communities are. We might say that membership of some communities is an accident of birth or circumstance, while others are based on a shared set of interests, values, beliefs. From this perspective, part of the problem with Moore's (and others') use of the word is that they are writing about trans people (an accidental community, as it were) as if they were an ideological community. Not of course that it would be okay for Moore to blame all environmentalists for the sins of one or two, either - but I don't think I'd jib if she wrote "The environmentalist community is concerned about climate change". It's probably not true of every environmentalist, but as a generalization it's true enough for the newspapers.

It's not even as simple as that, though - because shared circumstances beget cultural identities. There is no reason that deaf people should have anything particularly in common beyond the fact of being deaf, yet by all accounts there is a thriving deaf culture. Their shared experiences shape a collective identity - a community, if you like. Finding oneself at a systematic disadvantage because the world is designed with another kind of person in mind is always likely to engender some kind of esprit. (Where there is no disadvantage, you tend not to get communities: there is no people-without-earlobes community, to my knowledge.) Now, it seems clear that trans people are a community in much the same sense deaf people are. They share certain experiences not fully understood by many other people; they are frequently isolated, and appreciate mutual support and advice; and they face a degree of systematic disadvantage in a world designed for people who are not trans. All these are bonding experiences, but it doesn't make them a "lobby" (to use Burchill's favourite word) any more than deaf people are a lobby.

Okay, I think that's more or less where I've got to in my cogitations on the question. I still think "community" is a dangerous word that can be abused far too easily; but I hesitate to discard it because there really is a kind of trans community - just not the type that Moore and Burchill write about.