On Renouncing Privilege, pt. 3 (and Politics, pt. 2): Rhetoric and Discourse

I’ve been out and full-time for three months, and in that time I’ve almost completely stopped updating this blog. That happens sometimes, so nothing new there. The new semester started, which has largely eaten up my free time for writing, and moreover, I’ve picked my creative work back up, which basically chewed the rest. I think also that my being able to live authentically largely quelled my need to seek out this space as a refuge. In simpler terms, life has largely been really good, and I’ve just been trying to enjoy it as best I can.

That’s not to say that things are good all the time, however, nor that some days aren’t harder than others. Life is still really scary in many ways, from my eternally-uncertain financial situation, to uncertainty about my place in this country under Trump, to uncertainty about the long-term health of the planet itself. Intrinsically, I am happier now as a woman than I ever even fathomed was possible while living as a man, but extrinsically, I am anxious at best (and horrified at worst). I guess it’s for that reason that I’ve become much more driven to affect some sort of positive change, if not on a global, national, or social level, then at least on an interpersonal one.

So with that, let’s talk about one of the biggest changes I’ve encountered since coming out: my rhetoric.

According to Merriam-Webster, “rhetoric” is “the study of writing or speaking as a means of communication or persuasion.” To expand on that a bit, rhetoric is the way one must organize their thoughts and arguments in order to best persuade their audience. As an ESL instructor, I can also add that rhetorical expectations varies by language and by culture. The way one is expected to organize their thoughts is not the same in Arabic as it is in Chinese, nor are either the same as English. This effectively means that there is no “perfect” rhetoric for convincing all people of all things. Rhetorical structure must be tailored by situation and to individuals. This is why a politician might alter their message and their presentation for different interest groups, for example.

I’ve written a few times on how insane it is that anyone could possibly think that someone like me, who had the role of “white straight male,” would ever even think about shifting to “white lesbian transwoman” just because “the media encouraged it.” To reiterate, I was in the most privileged social position in the most privileged country in the world. And my detractors seriously think that I would change that just because “the media”? To say nothing of how horribly transwomen have historically been portrayed in movies and television, or how we’re still a joke to most people, or how we can potentially be left dying on the side of a road if the EMT has a religious objection to us. But sure, blame “liberal media.”

What does this have to do with rhetoric? Well, as I’ve quickly discovered, the rhetoric expected of me as a a) woman and b) transperson is very different than what I was allowed as a cisgender, heterosexual male. Unsurprisingly, it’s considerably more restrained, as I must now take on a kinder, gentler, more compromising tone…even when defending my very personhood and right to fair treatment against so-called “centrists” and open transphobes.

I was at least semi-conscious of this in my last year or two of living as a white guy, and did take advantage of it when I could to discuss/debate/push/address issues with those whom I did not agree politically. I almost certainly didn’t do enough of this, but nevertheless, I always felt heard and as though my words carried weight. I definitely believed that the tone with which I spoke was carefully considered, though in hindsight, perhaps not as much as I had thought (more on that in a moment). I realized that I had more conversational privilege both because I had friends with less, and because I had begun to think of what it would be like if I no longer had any; because of this, I knew I had a degree of authority to criticize Trump and be taken seriously in a way that others lacked.

Because of the struggles I had with my own identity, my liberal education, and somewhat diverse cast of friends, I was probably more self-aware than your average white 20-something American guy from the Upper South…which means almost nothing. Having since lost that privilege, it’s clear how ignorant I was on that issue.

Okay, so there’s two broad archetypes of transphobe I’ve run into within my social media circles since coming out: jesters and diplomats. Both these types can overlap, and they can also be further subdivided from there, but for the purposes of this post, the simple binary division will do.

Note: Because I am blessed enough to be surrounded only with supportive people in my everyday life in the real world, I don’t usually have to extend these rhetorical devices outside of social media. Not that I never do, but for the purposes of the rest of this article, I’m mostly only talking about my social media encounters.

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Oh Google, you always provide.

Jesters, or “It’s Just a Joke”

Jesters love to laugh, and they hate anyone who would keep them from laughing. They love having an audience, they love memes, they love upvotes and heart reacts and comments of adoration from their fans. They carry the philosophy that all things should be able to be joked about, regardless of who is doing the joking and what it is they are joking about. A white guy criticizing black culture through humor? The very same as a black guy criticizing black culture through humor. In fact, the very fact that I would care enough about the ethnicities of the joke-tellers to list them obviously makes me the racist. The unequal social capital of one group over another shouldn’t even be given a thought in humor; in fact, how dare I even imply that the white one has more privilege?

Then there are those who claim with one side of their mouths to be a member of a dozen or so social minorities, while with the other spreading bigotry against those and other minority groups through “jokes.” You know, the type of non-black person who really wants to be able to say the N-word. But that is a rant for another day.

Because everything a jester shares is “just a joke,” they claim immunity from any criticism that what they shared might, in fact, be queerphobic. This, both in their eyes and in the eyes of much of their audience, exonerates them of any “badness” while simultaneously discrediting me (should I dare to point out the obvious bigotry) as a shrill, unfunny, oversensitive, “cancel culture” liberal.

Never mind that the same strategy has been used by fascists from the early days to now.

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Diplomats, or “Can’t We Just Agree to Disagree”; Alternative subtitle: “Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin”

There’s a famous line from Jame Baldwin that circles social media from time to time:

“We can disagree and still love each other unless your disagreement is rooted in my oppression and denial of my humanity and right to exist.”

This quote is in direct response to the diplomat archetype–those who treat (gay people, trans people, non-white people, foreign people, the Jewish question) as a topic of debate, just the same as gun ownership or marijuana legalization. Specifically in my case, these are typically religious or traditionalist types who believe that to be gay or trans is innately wrong or degenerate, but also feel as though we should “agree to disagree” on the matter and continue to be civil to one another (even as they actively work or vote against my rights and freedoms).

Ultimately, engaging with this sort is the same as the joker, but the path is a little different. Diplomats frame themselves as the masters of reasonable politeness, and in this country, shouldn’t we have the freedom to believe what we want (especially if lumped in with so-called “religious freedom)? If they can compromise and find middle ground, why can’t I? If they can “meet me halfway”and tolerate my existence, why can’t I do the same and agree to having fewer rights because their religion says I should? Obviously, if I’m unwilling to compromise on being treated like a fucking human being, I must think myself better or smarter than they are, or I am spoiled and entitled, or whatever else.

Back to Rhetoric and the “Discourse”

Before getting back to the central topic of this post, I’d like to point out how deeply bullshit it is that my personal identity is treated like a discourse between me and everyone who doesn’t “agree with my lifestyle,” or those who would rather just laugh at me as a circus freak than to understand me. I am not a discourse, but I am certainly treated like one.

Okay, so, what happens if someone I know posts something that is flagrantly homo- or transphobic?

I guess the first check is my relationship with the person. Do I know the person? How well do I know them? How long have I known them? How did we meet? Am I ever in direct contact with them?

The transphobic content I see shared by those in my circles ebbs and flows. Sometimes I can go a month without encountering any, sometimes I can’t go a day. When it spikes, it is often due to current events (bathroom bills, tampon wrappers), but sometimes it seems totally random. I guess what I’m saying is that I don’t necessarily see this sort of stuff every time I open Facebook, and even when I do, I don’t always engage with it.

However, if the first check is passed, and I determine that the person is, in fact, one that I want to engage with for whatever reason, what next? At that point, I have to consider that person’s friends. I typically have a rule for this reason: don’t comment on other people’s pages. This is because the audience who is going to be seeing and commenting on whatever I say is generally going to only be made up with that person’s friends/followers, not mine (unless we have mutual connections). My only exceptions to this are:

A) The person seems like maybe not the absolute worst person in the world, but rather someone who didn’t realize that they were perpetuating bigotry.

B) The person posted something so overt, direct, and negative that it simply cannot be overlooked or explained away.

C) I’m jumping in for a friend who is being attacked by someone else.

D) I think there’s an actual chance for learning and growth (either for the person themselves or their audience).

Fine, but what if all those checks are passed, and I decide to engage? How should I do it? Well, this is where rhetoric comes in.

As I mentioned earlier, because I am now in a socially-disadvantaged role, both as a queer person (who ticks many of the letters of the alphabet) and as a woman, I have to be very careful in how I present myself if I have any hope whatsoever of being listened to (spoiler alert: in these situations, I rarely am). Further, because that role is hierarchically lower, this means that I must effectively lower myself in order to achieve those ends. Even in the face of virulent anger, or disgust, or comical derision (either directly towards me or towards all those like me), I must be kind, and understanding, and never make the other person feel as though I am attacking them, or making them feel bad, or giving them cause to claim persecution or prejudice.

I think that is one of the most difficult lessons I have learned about privilege since coming out: if there is any hope whatsoever of a bigot listening to me, I have to take great care to make sure I don’t make them feel like the bad guy, even though they are the ones who posted the obviously-transphobic content in the first place. It’s the very same as a partner taking up for their domestic abusers.

Is it right? Hell no. Should I be doing it? Debatable. Is it expected of me? Absolutely.

I always fear that when I prostrate myself before transphobes that I am actually doing more harm than good. Not only because my opening my mouth (whether to a joker or a diplomat) almost always instantly becomes a case of them assuming victimhood and accuse me of trying to limit their “freedom of speech,” but as the Germans say, “if there’s a Nazi at the table and ten people talking to him, you have a table with eleven Nazis.” (Side note: funny how, to those people, “freedom of speech” in those circumstances only applies to the person speaking the hate, and not to the person voicing their concern.)

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Allies: What Can You Do? or “Don’t Be a Damn Centrist”

I hesitate to co-opt the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. in the service of queer rights, but I firmly believe what he said of “white moderates” during the Civil Rights movement is just as applicable towards sexual minorities in this country as it is to ethnic minorities.

“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Council-er or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

American culture fetishizes so-called political centrism, despite the fact that the “center” is nebulous and ill-defined. Ask twenty Americans what beliefs constitute the political center, and you’ll likely get twenty different answers (yet, confoundingly, nearly all of them will define themselves based on their proximity to it). America: where everyone is middle class, despite an ever-shrinking middle class. (And what is “middle class,” anyway?) A country where, growing up, the overwhelming majority of adults around me identified as either “center” or “just right-of-center,” regardless of where their beliefs would land them on the political compass (spoiler: it’s usually the upper-right corner).  To be able to compromise is the hallmark of intelligence, kindness, and fairness; to refuse to compromise is a sign of elitism and entitled foolishness.

And if you are reading this and also from my home state of Kentucky, a state (in)famously neutral during the Civil War, a state which produced Henry Clay (“The Great Compromiser”), this obviously all goes doubly for you.

On the surface, there is a clear appeal to wanting to define oneself as politically moderate–it allows one to feel a false sense of intellectual superiority by decrying all others without committing oneself to the work of actually having to defend anything at all. But what this actually tends to lead to is a phenomenon known by critics as “radical” centrism–the belief that all things are debatable, and wherein the most intellectually “enlightened” stance is always the center. Again, in the case of issues like guns and weed, maybe there is an argument to be made there. But in cases where an individual’s humanity and rights are being debated on the grounds of their ethnicity, sexuality, nationality, religion, etc., it’s clearly a deeply flawed ideology. I mean, it’s easy to frame any question with the result you want in the center, which makes it an extremely accessible exploit for fascists and other grifters to make otherwise extreme beliefs more palatable to a wider audience.

So please, dear God, if you are reading this and want to be a good ally, don’t let yourself be seduced by this. I know the how alluring it is–I identified as a moderate from high school until relatively recently, precisely for the reasons outlined above (and because I once sat on a heap of privilege). I don’t actually care if you identify as politically moderate, or conservative, or whatever else, but please understand that there’s a difference between debating the economy and debating which people should be treated like people. A willingness to compromise on how other humans should be treated just because they are, in some way, different from the majority will always (whether actively or passively) contribute to discrimination against them.

I’ve found that when I speak up, I basically convince queerphobes of nothing, and am only listened to by people who already supported me. That is why I am writing this post now: in my experience, I’ve had more success changing people’s minds here than I’ve ever had advocating for myself directly on Facebook or elsewhere (not that that’s going to stop me, even if I have to be saccharine sweet to be listened to while doing it). But if you are an ally reading this, your voice still has at least some of the authority mine used to have, perhaps even more. Please, when you can, use it like I should have done more, while I still had the chance.

Oh, and as for jesters and diplomats? Some identify as centrist, others as conservative, and others still as “classical liberals.” In truth, it doesn’t matter–the discourse is ultimately the same for each. No matter how kind my rhetoric, they are generally disinterested in hearing what I have to say, and whether it is actually the intent or not, they all contribute negatively to social equality for me and all others like me. Speak up when you see it, or at the very least, don’t be one of them.

And if you are one of those people, it’s never too late to learn, grow, and change for the better.

One Reply to “On Renouncing Privilege, pt. 3 (and Politics, pt. 2): Rhetoric and Discourse”

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