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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

Where can we live but days?

steepholm steepholm
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Cabals, Communities and People
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.

Still thinking about these things--and reading. You are onto something with the word "community"--one of the books I ordered is about passing, which is a concept that fits in with the dark side of communities.

The word "community"- as employed by journalists- has been annoying me for some time now- as has the phrase "community leader" which seems to mean something like "unaccountable, self-appointed loudmouth".

I almost added a bit about "community leader", but decided it would take an already-long post too far off topic.

Different communities...

Hear hear - especially about upturning a lobster lunch! BUT there is a deaf community and a Deaf community. Deaf people (BSL first language) share a language and culture which makes them very different regarding shared values and perspectives. Many Deaf people don't regard themselves as disabled either - although often disadvantaged by discrimination (which of course is so true for other people with disablities/differently abled). And some things overlap because you can't stuff people in boxes defined by anything (except in the most general way) let alone a shared interest, experience or condition. Just saying...

Re: Different communities...

Absolutely. No doubt I'm using too broad a brush in making the comparison (see my last post on the dangers of analogy!), but I hope the general point is a fair one.

Re: Different communities...

And there is the same in "the trans community" too given there's "not trans enough", are genderqueer people included. What about cross-dressers etc etc. In fact there are remarkable similarities between D/deaf community and Trans* community issues.

And in my experience in the UK at least the D/deaf community divide is made a bigger deal out of by people on the outside than anyone ever likely to participate in various forms of it.

Re: Different communities...

And there is the same in "the trans community" too given there's "not trans enough", are genderqueer people included. What about cross-dressers etc etc. In fact there are remarkable similarities between D/deaf community and Trans* community issues.

In writing my reply to heleninwales below I was wondering about that same thing, and particularly whether the attitude towards "late transitioners" from some (notably HBS) people has a parallel in the D/deaf community. (Not that the parallel works exactly, because late transitioners don't "become" trans in the way that people who lose their hearing in later life become deaf.)

A worrying thing about the use of the word 'community' is that in my experience, anywhere above grass roots the word is seldom used positively any more. Except, and this is a big exception, when it is being used about government employees, especially military, and the commercial sector - as in 'the intelligence community' being used to cover M15 M16 CIA etc and commercial intelligence organisations. Academics don't use it positively any more because they rightly challenge the idea there is one 'community' per identity. This holding of an entire accidental (good notion that) community to account has happened for centuries with all kinds of racism and still is, particularly with Roma people today. Burchill and Moore are trying to make trans people into both an underclass you can kick because they are the bottom of the heap, AND a moneyed cabal. I think most people of intelligence are seeing through it (though it saddens me people can respond saying Burchill is simply combative). This response of yours is a great analysis, and I think we have to go on analysing and problematising the ways 'community' is used. Sad for me, a one time community development worker.

It's an interesting question about usage. I'd quite like to chuck it over to the linguists, to see how pronounced these trends currently are. Presumably someone working on corpus studies could answer that.

Thank you for the compliment.

I also share poliphilo's annoyance with the word "community" as it is currently used by journalists. It definitely seems to imply something that doesn't actually exist.

For example, you referred to "the deaf community" but though there may be a loose association of people who have been deaf from birth, most people who are deaf probably don't even know of its existence because they became deaf late in life. If you lose your hearing in your 70s or 80s, you are unlikely to learn sign language, partly due to the difficulty of tackling a new language at that age, but mainly because it's not really going to help you. All your socialising and other interactions will be done with people with normal hearing. So are these people part of the deaf community or not? They are probably the majority of deaf people after all.

I also think that this tendency to put people into "community" boxes isn't helpful and prefer to think of people as individuals with many complex inter-meshing allegiances.

That's an interesting point about the majority of deaf people not having been deaf for most of their lives. I wonder whether, human nature being what it is, there is any kind of an urge to establish a hierarchy between those who have deafness as a birthright and those who came to it later, or indeed between those who are totally deaf and those who are to a greater or lesser degree hard of hearing? I suspect most communities have tensions of that kind, once you look a little closely.

I'm sympathetic to the idea of seeing people as individuals first, but of course people who are individually vulnerable often do find ways to provide mutual support, and in doing so form a community of one kind or other. This is why people join trades unions, for example - and there is a sense in which thinking too exclusively in terms of individuals plays neatly into a divide-and-rule strategy on the part of those in power ("There's no such thing as society", etc.). If the urge to see communities instead of individuals were only a function of journalistic laziness and/or dishonesty the issue would be much simpler!

You are right about people banding together to support a common cause and being stronger as a result, but I prefer to think in terms of proper associations, such as unions (which you mentioned) rather than the lumping together into a "community" which I think tends to be done by outsiders rather than the members themselves.

Also, you've got me thinking about who exactly gets lumped into these "communities". You often read about "the gay community", "the deaf community", perhaps "the Muslim community", but I've never heard "vegetarian community" or "cycling community". Both these would fit the bill of people with a common cause and many of them are pretty passionate about their beliefs too, yet don't seem (in the eyes of the media) to be a "community". They're just "vegetarians" or "cyclists". And now I'm wondering why that might be.

I agree those phrases aren't heard as much, but both vegetarians and cyclists have some cause to feel victimized or stigmatized at times, and with that in mind I wasn't surprised to discover that the Vegetarian Society describes itself as "the leading voice of the vegetarian community". As for the cyclists, check out this report in The Guardian, which has eerie parallels with the current situation (except that in this case the person who wrote the cyclist-baiting article apologized).

Community and ideology

It is also worth considering that communities which develop shared cultures also tend to develop shared ideologies, at least up to a point. Indeed there tends to be no hard-and-fast dividing line between culture and ideology.

Re: Community and ideology

Yes, I quite agree - which is why this is a fairly intractable issue. It wouldn't be hard to unpick my distinction between accidental and ideological communities further than I already have. It still seems worth making, though!

The expectation that every member of a perceived community is responsible for the actions of every other member is particularly irksome to peaceful Muslims who are branded terrorist-supporters if they don't spend all their time denouncing extremists in their midst. They have nothing to do with it; Islam is an even more decentralized religion than Christianity. Would we blame Unitarians for pedophile priests?

Yes, that's another case in point.


Perhaps we should just substitute "target group" for community.