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Don't Eat With Your Mouth Full

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When is an Adjective a Label?
A few years ago, John Boyne had a hit book, later a film, in which he told the story of an oppressed group from the point of view of a member of the group doing the oppressing, and made the latter's suffering the centre of the story.

This device clearly worked so well for him that he has apparently done it again, in a different arena. His latest novel (which I won't name here, because even the title is pretty horribly transphobic) has caused quite a flurry on Twitter, I gather. I suppose I'll have to read it at some point, because I'm meant to be giving a lecture on this kind of fiction later in the summer, but it can certainly wait until I get back to England.

What I want to mull about in this post isn't his novel, which sounds terrible, so much as an article he recently published to promote it, in which he joins the ranks of those disavowing the word "cis." The reason he gives is a familiar one, and one that has some superficial plausibility: one shouldn't foist labels onto people who don't wish to accept them. He doesn't "identify as" a cis man, but simply as a man.

The obvious riposte is a tu quoque: how would Boyne (who is gay) feel if straight men refused to be described as such, despite being attracted exclusively to the opposite sex? If they said, "How dare you call me a straight man - I'm just a man!"? At best, it would seem a rather strange thing to say. More likely, he would hear it as a way of dividing the world into gay people and "normal" people.

Or, let's take a different kind of case. How would Boyne feel if someone described him as six feet tall? (Let's assume for the sake of argument that that is his height.) Would he say, "I'm not a six-foot man, I'm just a man! How dare you foist that label onto me when I don't identify with it?"

I very much doubt he would protest in those terms. But why not? What is the difference between that and calling him cis?

It's an obvious point, and trans people and allies have been painstakingly making it for years, but otherwise-sensible people have been curiously resistant to it. Somehow, it seems that certain things (being six feet tall, being Irish) are harmless adjectives, the use of which, assuming they are true, would cause no one to feel infringed upon, even where - as in the case of nationality - they might have a real connection to one's sense of personal identity. Other things, no less accurate, are regarded as "labels", the application of which is "foisting". For an adjective to be applied felicitously, it just has to be consistent with fact; a label, by contrast, also has to be something one "identifies with."

Trans people tend to use the word "cis" as an adjective, but many cis people hear it as a label - as a political act, not a neutral description. The reason, I suspect, is that this is also the way they hear the word "trans." Just as any trans person who opens their mouth is automatically called a "trans activist," so to mention that one is trans is to be parsed as making a kind of political point. That, I think, is why disavowal of "cis" is basically transphobic.

Still, all that said, the distinction between "adjective" and "label" is not a sharp one, any more than that between constantive and performative language generally. If I had time, and were not on a train to Kobe, I would spend a couple of hours maundering that, but for now I will refer you to my friend Mr Derrida.

That’s a really good point. I too had been wondering the resistance to cis - it does seem simply to be a transphobic response. At the very least you have given me more articulate retorts. If I use them I’ll report back what the follow-up response is.

I’m happy if the discussion was useful!

I have slight issues with "cis", not because it's a label but because it implies a binary divide between cis/trans. In fact there is actually a continuum or even more than one axis. I personally don't feel I am properly cis (as I've seen it defined) because I've never felt totally like a "normal" feminine woman, though I learned to accept that I was born with a female body and I won't quibble if people refer to me as a woman, though I don't think that "woman" defines me well and you would tend to make assumptions about me based on that label that would be wrong. I also know people who identify as asexual or agender (using the pronoun "they" for themselves). So just assuming that because someone doesn't claim to be trans that makes them cis is not necessarily right.

Having said that, I know nothing about the book you're referring to or the author.

I totally get that, and of course to an extent I erase non-binary identities in my post for the sake of simplicity (which is not cool). I can see that you might not feel that either ‘cis’ or ‘trans’ applies to you; but that does not of course mean that the terms have no utility. Similarly, there are many people who do not identify as either ‘straight’ or ‘gay’ (and there are of course numerous ways of not doing so), but those words and the concepts they refer to are still quite useful, and few people object to them (as long, of course, as they don’t erase other identities).