Transauthoritarians: Meditations on propaganda in the LGBTQI+ movement

Propaganda detection is becoming a lost art form. Soon it will only be a vestigial instinct, a remnant from the age of aristocracy and empire. This is a deeply unfortunate outcome. The rise of information technology and the internet has only heightened the density and sophistication of propaganda. As demonstrated in the U.S. in 2016, the optimal method for undermining rival powers is no longer invasions, blockades, or even super hackers crippling the government directly; instead, foreign powers spread propaganda through Facebook and Twitter, with careful effort taken to feign false legitimacy.

The new terminology used to refer to this phenomenon, “fake news,” is sold as a simple synonym for “propaganda.” As though propagandists were kind enough to simply get the facts wrong. In actuality, the most nefarious use of propaganda is not to simply lie, it is a mode of communication where the propagandist seeks to conceal all perspectives of reality which contradict with their own. Effective propaganda removes any opportunity for rebuttal or debate by framing its subjective perspective as an objective consensus.

Propaganda is also often assigned misleading connotation as the tool of evil actors. This is due in part to a collective memory of the outrageous propaganda of the Nazis in the Second World War. There’s no rule which suggests that all propaganda must be false. However, due to wartime experiences of government-produced mass propaganda efforts, the word is now used in an unequivocally derogatory sense. This understanding can itself be misleading; as an example, the material produced the abolitionist movement in order to convince the public to oppose slavery was often propagandistic in nature, but was intended to persuade others of a morally righteous perspective.

This is in essence to say that:

  • Propaganda is more than simply false information, it involves a whole array of rhetorical techniques designed to mislead.
  • Material which involves an attempt to manipulate audiences into believing even true or valid perspectives can still be propagandistic. The defining quality is actually the manipulative character of the presentation.

Prelude complete. Onto the primary subject.

Through Tumblr I was recently exposed to an eloquently written style guide regarding respectfully addressing transgender individuals and related problems. And after reading it, I have some thoughts about the intersection between helpful language advice and propagandistic language policing.

Firstly, credit where due, the guide contains a lot of helpful and accurate advice about widespread misconceptions and mistakes that are often made when writing about transgender individuals. It urges “transgender” to be exclusively used in its grammatically correct adjective form. It also clarifies the differences between gender nonconforming individuals and being non-binary, and continues making a genuine effort to disentangle a range of other gender-related language issues.

The problems begin once it becomes evident that an authoritarian instinct runs throughout the post, especially once the issues get a touch more controversial. Let’s take a look at a part of Section 2:

Pronouns are simply pronouns. They aren’t “preferred” and they aren’t inherently tied to gender identity or biology.

Use: pronouns; personal pronouns; she/her/hers; he/him/his; they/them/theirs; ze/zir/zirs; Sam/Sam/Sam (and any other pronoun or combination)

Avoid: preferred pronouns; masculine pronouns; feminine pronouns; male pronouns; female pronouns

As J. Mase III once succinctly put it, “my pronouns aren’t preferred; they’re required.” A person’s correct pronouns are not a preference; neither are pronouns inherently masculine, feminine, male, or female: for example, a masculine person could use she/her/hers pronouns and a female person could use they/them/theirs pronouns.

No, I’m sorry, but nobody’s requests on my language are “required.” The essential confusion here is the same made by propagandistic material: The author wishes to overlap the subjective perspective of transgender individuals with a sense of objective authority. This is false. Transgender individuals have the right to feel and respond to the language of those who misgender them however they wish, but they do not have the right to control and demand conformity from those using the troubling language. The thoughts and speech of those other individuals are sovereign, they are not yours to command.

The piece continues:

Affirm that trans women are women, trans men are men, and non-binary people are non-binary.

Use: all women, including trans women; cis and trans men; cisgender people
Use: Maria, a woman from Nogales; non-binary students; Zed is an agender young adult

Avoid: women and trans women; normal people; real men; biological women
Avoid: Nogales resident Maria, who identifies as a woman; students who consider themselves “non-binary”; Zed identifies as agender

A consistent way that trans people’s identities are invalidated is when trans women and men are treated separately, linguistically, than cisgender women and men and when language is used to describe trans people’s genders, names, or pronouns that undermines them or calls them into question. Ashley Dejean’s article “How Journalists Fail Trans People” powerfully speaks to this.

As an example, a cis woman would never be described with the language “Mary Beth identifies as a woman” (one would just say “Mary Beth is a woman”), so using this language for a trans woman marks her as different and undermines her gender. Another example of invalidating language treatment is the use of “scare quotes” to set off the words trans folks use to describe ourselves.

Here, we cross yet more dubious lines. Transgender men and women are certainly separate from cisgender men and women. Even if you believe the distinction does not matter, and that trans men/women are real men/women, it is self-evident the dissonance between the assigned gender and identified gender of transgender individuals places them in a different analytical category. At least, that is all a valid perspective. And the failure to recognise that is where this section falls flat.

The author here is uniquely not just issuing a command on what and how to write about transgender individuals, it is a command on what to think about them. And this is a repeated problem with the guide. By placing the identities and perspectives of each transgender individual in an objective space, alternate perspectives are not just treated with suspicion and contempt, they are declared invalid. As though they cannot even coexist with the truth.

The guide has endless more minor examples of a uncertain line between useful grammatical instruction and enforcing manipulative ideological perspective. Each one with its own nuances.

It should, however, be self-evident how dangerous it is to attempt to alter language in such a propagandistic fashion. It is the central warning of George Orwell’s philosophy of plain, non-euphemised political writing. If the LGBTIQ+ movement is allowed to demand that we speak as though subjective perspectives of individuals are in fact objective truth, we will lose the words needed to express contrary opinions. Policing language is, perhaps due to unfortunate limits in human capacity, all too often equivalent to policing thought.

I—as a sovereign human being—continue to reserve the right to wrongthink. It is certainly a reasonable expectation that a transgender individual knows their identity best. But despite that, they will never have the right to demand that I submit to that perspective, not in language or thought. And the attempts to trick me into doing so are nothing more than propaganda, even if it is just trying to help.

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