Elaine Stritch’s full life ending at 89 only makes me sadder about Gazan children whose lives have been cut short at 4, 6, 8… Sorry to crash the funeral but also not. Everybody rise.
So Jack Halberstam’s “You Are Triggering me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma" hit the internet this weekend, and immediately some people were like, "FUCK YEAH," and other people were like, "FUCK NO." The brashest "FUCK NO" response came from whoever created the Twitter account "Jock Halberslam.”
For whatever it’s worth, here are some thoughts, adapted from my earlier Facebook post:
I actually really value and appreciate Jack Halberstam’s critique of the rhetoric of trauma — especially when it comes to the over-use of “trigger” discourse by people who don’t have actual PTSD. This phenomenon deserves critique, but I would be more targeted than Jack has been. Rather than disregarding the whole concept, I think we should be careful with its application. I’d go so far as to say that trigger warning misuse has actually endangered people with PTSD, because it has made their concerns seem really, really stupid, instead of simply practical. Informing an audience or a class that they are about to see depictions of graphic violence or sexual assault shouldn’t be any harder than warning a crowd about a strobe light that could cause seizures. It’s a medical issue. Warning people about what might offend them? That is not a medical issue, and Jack is right to call this out.
That said, I think, in some ways, this piece is attacking a straw man (straw person! - lol, oy), or at least attacking an extreme perspective where we would learn more from discussing a middle ground. While I share Jack’s concern about making queer critique all about psychology, all about personal harm, all about fragility, I do not think all of the critiques he mentions are doing just that. (Though some certainly are!) While a lot of the critique around “tranny,” around “Female or Shemale,” and many other recent cultural flashpoints, involves a weird misappropriation of PTSD rhetoric, a lot of the other critique involves valid concerns about how media reinforce violence and harassment.
In other words, I am much less interested in, for instance, how Drag Race’s “Female or Shemale” makes an individual trans person feel, and much more interested in what it tells a straight or cis audience about gender, about women, and about Funny Things You Can Say About People You See On The Street. And while it would be naive of me to think that there is a one-to-one relationship between the media representation of gender-based harassment and its actual manifestation on the street (I am no Tipper Gore), it would be naive of anyone else to think there is no relationship at all.
Why is a generation of post-modernist thinkers acting like language and media don’t co-create our assumptions, prejudices and realities? When did media stop being a reasonable terrain to approach injustice?
Here’s a weird thing: We are all so excited about Janet Mock, about Laverne Cox, about CeCe MacDonald, about Laura Jane Grace — all of these fantastic trans women who have become famous over the past few years, and yet, in our excitement about why their fame is good (in part because their stories help an ignorant public understand that trans women are human beings), we haven’t talked about why their absence from the public eye was bad (because an ignorant public doesn’t think that trans women are human beings!). And that popular misconception — that trans women are less than human — doesn’t come from nowhere. It emerges from culture, which manifests in media. So if it’s ok be excited about Janet Mock in mass media, why is it not okay to be pissed off about transmisogyny in mass media? If media doesn’t matter, then neither does Janet Mock. And Janet Mock clearly matters.
I’m not advocating censorship (and I do not think critique is the same as censorship), nor am I advocating a world where we pretend that language doesn’t create meaning (which is what a lot of this backlash suggests). I’m asking us all to reconcile our commitment to free expression with our commitment to a culture that respects the most precarious among us — like, REALLY try to integrate those two things together.
Even further, I’d like us to consider the value of a trans/queer revolution that forces us to change the way we talk, the way we think, the way we treat each other, and the way we imagine the world. Like any revolution, not all of it is easy, and not all of it is even good, but let’s not dismiss it out of hand.
I could end there, but I also just wanna say: I totally get Jack’s citation of Justin Vivian Bond’s defense of “tranny.” And I think the way folks like Justin Vivian, Our Lady J and Jayne County have been attacked by other trans women online has been really ugly and misguided. But I’d also like to cite Justin Vivian’s defense of v’s own personal pronouns, and the controversy that erupted a few years ago when a cis gay reporter relentlessly mispronouned Justin Vivian in a profile in New York Magazine, and used other language that exoticized and misrepresented v’s gender (http://justinbond.com/?p=614 ). This moment was controversial, not just because an individual person was being disrespected, but because the piece in question was performing that disrespect in a meaningful and instructional way, and was miseducating straight and cis audiences about trans issues. And when Justin Vivian protested (with tremendous poise and wit), the outrage from the cis gay world (“You’re attacking your allies!”, “You’re asking too much!”, “WE’RE NOT THE ENEMY,” etc.) sounded a lot like the backlash happening within the queer and trans world today. I AM TOTALLY NOT SAYING THEY ARE THE SAME SITUATION (THERE ARE MANY IMPORTANT DIFFERENCES) - I’m just saying that I don’t think these issues are black and white, and I am concerned that the anti-call-out backlash (the calling out of calling out) is minimizing the value of critique, and making all callers-out sound like - as fictional Jock Halberslam might put it - “pussies.”