This is the ninth in a series of posts in which I answer uncomfortable questions posed by readers. You can learn more about the series, read the other questions, and ask your own here.
What’s the point of attending these extremely progressive conversations if the rest of society is so far behind and doesn’t seem to be catching up? (gender pronouns,etc)
Wow. My experience of this stuff is very different. It wasn’t very long ago that you could easily spark a real argument among well-intentioned people about whether it was wrong to use the word “retard” as a pejorative — if I were to take ten minutes, I could rattle off half a dozen different arguments people have given me about why that word is really perfectly fine and how silly it is for people to get up in arms about it.
I haven’t had one of those arguments in years, and it’s not because my circle of acquaintances has narrowed. It’s because values have changed. And those values have changed precisely because of all the arguments that were had.
Now, it’d be an oversimplification to portray this change as merely a happy story about how things get better when people get yelled at. Language shifts and evolves in all sorts of ways and for all sorts of reasons, and often the chart of those changes can look more like a squiggle than an ascending line. (Farther back, I still remember the brief vogue for “differently abled,” and the righteousness that accompanied both its arrival and its departure. This stuff is complicated.) But yes, beliefs and behaviors do change as a result of discussion and reflection. That’s a fact.
You didn’t ask whether the terminology we use ultimately matters all that much, but I know some people reading this are wondering about that right about now. Your “what’s the point?” is the cousin of another: “What’s the point of spending so much energy policing language when there are real, material struggles that need to be waged?”
That’s a legitimate question. Changing the dictionary is easier than changing the world, and it can be more attractive as a political project in part because it’s easier. There’s a danger that an emphasis on vocabulary can distract us from other fights and divide us when we should be united. And yet.
I never met someone who I knew was trans until after I’d graduated from college. I was never friends with someone who I knew was trans until quite a few years later. And frankly, if I’m being honest, those two facts aren’t completely unrelated.
An argument about how we talk about a thing or a person or an idea is a discussion about how we think about that thing or that person or that idea. It’s easy to mock the progression from “colored person” to “negro” to “black” to “African American” to “person of color,” but each of those nomenclatural debates was a debate about how we understand race and racial difference — about what the experience of being black is, what it should be, and how we should comprehend it. Each of those debates was a debate about blackness, and each one allowed people — white and black and otherwise — to grapple with questions of identity and culture in new ways.
Which is all a long way of saying that a debate about the word “tranny” is a conversation about trans people, and that if there had been more and better conversations happening in our society about (and, crucially, with) trans people when I was young, I would have grown from that. I would have benefited from that, and a lot of other people would have too.