About 'Alpha+Good'

Alpha+Good (sort of a bad wordplay on Orwell and machismo) is a side project that belongs to 'Onklare taal' ('Unclear language'), the umbrella of several of my literary projects in Dutch. This section is almost exclusively in English and comprises my ongoing thoughts on progress, gender, politics and various other social themes. Are you a little lost? This link will take you right back to my home page.

Sunday, May 04, 2014

Identity and truth

Quite recently, I was involved in a protracted discussion on identity following a Gawker article that highlighted a few of the more eccentric and reviled social justice corners of Tumblr. The question basically is: do people who believe that they are animals or mythical beings inhabiting a human body (otherkin), people who are convinced they were born the wrong 'race' or culture (transethnics) and people who feel they have a physical condition not reflected in their actual body (transdisabled) a place in the broader social justice movement, and why (not)?

My answer, in most cases*, is a resounding no. Let's unpack.

Identity is not a 'get out of jail free' card

The basic two arguments for inclusion that keep getting brought up are (1) who are you to deny someone's self-reported identity and (2) that this identity denial was broadly accepted until a few decades ago as an argument against transgendered people (and still is among TERFs**).

The problem with (1) is that what someone believes about themselves may not necessarily be true. Or are people who suffer from body dismorphic disorder 'transobese'? It seems dangerous to me to accept at face value identity concepts that are clearly problematic or may end up being harmful for the believer as well as their environment. I'm not required to believe people who claim to be Napoleon or the Son of God, even if they believe themselves to be the deceased French Emperor or Jesus Christ come again.

To frame this argument from a different perspective: on basis of rational thinking and logic, I think it is so unlikely that leprechauns exist that people who do believe in them shouldn't expect me to entertain their beliefs. I won't be hostile to them, either, as long as they don't cause harm, but the point with the Tumblr fringe is that they are causing harm to social justice, by playing right into the cards of reactionaries who love painting the entire social justice movement as a collective group therapy for the mentally ill and deranged.

Cosplay or illness?

As said in (2), the lines of reasoning above make some people uncomfortable because the same things were said - are still being said - about homosexuals or the transgendered. Yesterday's DSM disorder might be tomorrow's accepted identity. There's a flaw in this line of thinking, though. While the arguments are similar, the underlying roots of the condition are totally different. Human beings can come in a great variety of experiences in terms of gender and sex - it is all fundamentally part of the human condition. Being an animal is not (I'll get back to the other two groups soon). Men and women can plausibly, if often with difficulty, imagine what life as each other might be like, but what human can truly fathom what being an elephant, let alone a unicorn would be like?

Suppose that someone is convinced they are a wolf and wants to express this identity. From what I've seen around the Internet, most of these people still want to function in human society, drive cars, indeed surf the Internet, and so on. I'm sure there are many ways of being a wolf, but I've never heard of a wolf in the wild driving a car or ordering books on Amazon. In short, this strikes me more like nth-degree cosplay, or might even be similar to drag. There is nothing wrong with either, but it's not a functional identity concept on par with male/female or straight/gay - and everything plus and minus.

Now, if someone does go 'all out' and decides to start living like an animal, this quickly becomes very problematic for society as a whole, and this person may end up dying soon. Human stomachs are not meant to digest raw meat, and the human body can't survive without clothing and shelter during long winter nights in snowy woodlands. Undomesticated animals and humans don't tend to mix. Should society be prepared to let these people act out and risk death? I think this clearly falls within the boundaries of mental illness.

Transethnicity appropriation station

For transethnicity, one might bring up that this is still a part of the human experience I referred to earlier, and that while not easy to imagine life as part of a different culture or race (in the sense of race as a social construct), it is not impossible. I might even be very supportive of people who wished to move to a different part of the world to feel more at home and part of a culture they have a stronger individual connection with than their own.

However, in practise - again, my evidence is anecdotal - the same scenario seems to play out over and over again: the transethnic person in question reduces the target culture to a grab bag of stereotypes and seems more interested in fantasising about social acceptance than actually making the effort to learn about the culture in question. Claiming a transethnic identity to me seems like a lazy cop-out of this (under the assumption identities don't require proof), and again, more like drag and cosplay than anything else.

Transableism and Münchhausen

By far the most widely criticised group of the three, but paradoxically one with at least some amount of documented evidence beyond Tumblr say-so. Autonomous hand syndrome and BIID are but two examples of conditions that one might conceivably label as being 'trans' in nature, but have very harmful effects on the affected. The key here, as would be with the 100% 'living life as an animal' condition, is harm. Labeling it as an identity is not only dangerous because it trivialises the severity of such conditions, but it is also essentialising: sufferers from mental or physical illnesses don't like being reduced to their condition.

Apart from the essentalisation (which is also a huge factor in transethnicity), which is completely at odds with the intersectional social justice movement of today, there is also the appropriation of the visible pain and suffering of others. For example, people with cancer go through costly treatments, anxiety and pain - and that's if they are lucky. People who might claim to be affected with 'transcancer' have none of that suffering, but would feel entitled to the same sympathy. Indeed, I suspect that this is what drives people to make such claims, and if that's the case, we already have a name for that: Münchhausen Syndrome. At any rate, mental or physical illnesses are not identities, so that should be that.

Some closing words

In a distant future, perhaps we will have the technology to transform the human body into that of animals, or to upload cultural awereness directly into our brains. Today, we don't. And as I pointed out, two out of three groups described above run into a vast list of potentially harmful situations if they were to live out their self-perceived identity.

However, in most cases, it appears to me that it's a form of extreme cosplay - or in some cases, legitimate mental disorder - that combines with a sense of entitlement and social grief to form this unholy Tumblr trinity. Part of it is escapism: it's nicer to imagine life as a majestic animal or being accepted into a fantasy version of a culture than to face a socially bleak reality. And unfortunately, the rhetoric of social justice lends itself to be abused by those who not only refuse to get help or help themselves, but would want their social justice cosplay to be taken for legitimate. In that sense, there's an eerie similarity to MRA, which has the rhetorical trappings of a social justice movement, but none of its goals or underlying realities.

In closing, let's not overstate the existence of these fringe groups. They perhaps draw far more ire than they're worth, although that's easy to say for a privileged person like me. But, the key point is that we shouldn't allow campaigns to be derailed by them, nor have people seriously consider them as the advocates we would like to be represented by.

* In case of otherkin and transethnic people, I'm willing to make an exception for feral children or people who might have grown up in a totally different cultural enclave.

** Trans-exclusionary radical feminists.