Respect isn’t a finite resource

The venerable Lindy West and Mary Beth Williams have both weighed in over at Jezebel and Salon about a recent back and forth between Suzanne Moore, Julie Burchill, and the public regarding an article Moore published last week about female anger, in which she wrote the following: “We are angry with ourselves for not being happier, not being loved properly and not having the ideal body shape—that of a Brazilian transsexual.”

If you had the same reaction as me, you cringed when you read that sentence because in addition to being offensive, it seemed out of place in a piece that otherwise attempted to discuss women’s rights issues.  A Twitter follower of Moore’s pointed out that while the piece was excellent, that particular line was offensive, and instead of acting like an adult, Moore basically told the woman to go jump in a lake.  Tacky, sure, but then Moore’s friend Julie Burchill weighed in and things quickly turned from tacky to appalling.

Burchill wrote an article that ran in the Sunday Observer titled “Transsexuals Should Cut It Out,” wherein she positioned herself as a bigoted, uneducated woman masquerading as both a crusader for “real” women’s rights and defender of her friend’s honor.  The article has since been taken down by the website, after its editor offered a half-hearted apology for running it in the first place.  You can read the article in its entirety over at the Telegraph, which has republished it, but you can pretty much get the gist from this gem:

“To have your cock cut off and then plead special privileges as women – above natural-born women, who don’t know the meaning of suffering, apparently – is a bit like the old definition of chutzpah: the boy who killed his parents and then asked the jury for clemency on the grounds he was an orphan.”

When I re-read this particular sentence, painful as it was, all I took away from it was a petulant “Hey over here! Look at us! We should get the attention, not someone else! Hey trannies, stop stealing our thunder! You guys aren’t real women anyway!”  The article could have contained simply those words and the exact same meaning would have been conveyed, though we wouldn’t have gotten such a pretty picture of Churchill’s true nature.  It was one of the most disturbing, hateful, vitriolic pieces of “journalism” I’ve seen in a while, and this paragraph I found particularly disgusting.  The entire thing was a cyber hissy-fit that did nothing but make Burchill look much like the ignorant, uneducated, terrified-of-change misogynists she so often calls out for being as much. 

I can’t say I am an expert on the subject of transgender individuals.  To be sure, the issue of transgender men and women has become more complex over the years as the medical and psychological communities learn more about the issue, and it will probably be a long time until we get it right.  I don’t want to confuse not understanding something fully (which I don’t) with ultimately finding that something less important or worthy of attention and inclusion (which I believe Burchill was doing), because the two don’t go hand in hand.  Even Gloria Steinem used transphobic language during her tenure as the face of feminism.  I can’t say for certain why, but my guess would be a mix of misunderstanding of what it is to be transgender, and a fear that in the wake of a supremely fierce push back against feminism from both men and women, “men” were trying to hijack the cause, however misguided I find that latter belief to be.  I don’t want to be overly critical of Ms. Steinem or the feminists of her time with respect to the transgender issue, because I think we’ve gained a great amount of understanding about issues of gender normativity and biology over the last several decades which allow us to form better opinions.  “Hindsight is 20/20” and all that.

But for Burchill, there really is no excuse.  You can’t claim to be an integral part and voice of a movement while at the same time refusing to educate yourself on emerging facets of that movement.  I didn’t know much about Burchill before this fiasco except that I’d seen her name thrown around in discussions about feminism.  But in viewing much of her work, I have to say she appears to be someone better categorized as a journalist who occasionally writes about her own misguided notions of feminism.  I describe it as such because I dislike the idea that she in any way represents the present or future of the movement itself.  Sure, there are differing ideas of what feminism means. I don’t want to sound short sighted, but personally, I cannot accept a feminism that relies on exclusivity and a nonsensical (and infuriating) use of the term “real” or “natural born woman” to define who it will and will not encompass and who is or is not worthy of acceptance.

It’s true that incessant, nitpicky policing of each other’s variants of feminism isn’t useful in the sense that it does nothing to further the cause.  I do, however, see a need for intelligent, collective self-reflection in the movement; in this case, reflecting upon how we move it forward as a cause that is inclusive, not exclusive.  Feminism isn’t and shouldn’t be a static notion of how we view the world or what we believe the ideal to be; like any movement, it will need to evolve.  Although not identical, I liken the issue some feminists have towards transgender women to the belief that low-income women, women of color, and men should be excluded from the feminist movement all together.  I find all of these beliefs to be antithetical to the central tenets of feminism.  Yes, policing another’s idea of feminism can be harmful, but evaluating it from the inside out to make sure it’s not doing more harm than good is necessary, and that includes examining whether a movement that fights marginalization has ended up engaging in the practice.

One thing stood out to me as I was reading her article a second and third time (besides the utter offensiveness of it all).  At the heart of it seems to be a gross misunderstanding that respect, acceptance, and basic human decency are finite resources; that the act of providing those things to some people depletes the supply that can be given to others.

But giving these things to your fellow human beings, and encouraging others to do the same, does not result in less to go around for everyone else.  These things are infinite materials, if you will, that are not constricted by the bounds of time and space.  You can respect, accept, and behave decently toward people you’ve just met or bumped into accidentally on the street, and it doesn’t keep you from doing the same to your partner or sibling or someone you might meet tomorrow.  You can ask for respect, acceptance, and decency from society, and at the same time support society giving those same things to others, even if you don’t align yourself with them. Being supportive of another group’s rights doesn’t put your own rights in jeopardy. Advocating that others be respected doesn’t exclude you from receiving respect.  The conferring of basic human decency is not a zero sum game, where more for someone else means less or none for you.

Burchill seems to think that hijacking the cause of feminism and keeping it for only those she and Moore call “real women” is necessary to ultimately fulfilling the goals of feminism.  Their belief showcases a very basic human selfishness, where we want our own problems, and those of the people exactly like us, to come first because we believe them more important.  It’s compassion at its most narcissistic.  It makes me think of the relationship between white women and women of color within the feminist movement.  At the core of that struggle is racism or at the very least ethnocentrism, but I have to wonder whether at least a part of that dilemma is also the idea of respect and acceptance being a limited resource for which we all must clamor, lest we end up being left out.

In fact, quite the opposite is true.  If we demand respect and acceptance for everyone, our argument that no one should be denied these things is only strengthened.  We aren’t jeopardized by believing in this notion; we are jeopardized by viewing the entire struggle as some sort of Hunger Games scenario, where we fight one another for what we perceive to be a finite amount of social equality.

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  • Smiley

    My oh my.

    I never cease to be amazed at people’s capacity for taking offense.

    “…and not having the ideal body shape—that of a Brazilian transsexual.”

    I have never seen the body of a Brazilian transsexual, but that is not important. What is important is the imagery. And I guess everyone knows what Ms Moore was getting at. Basically, a Brazilian transsexual has a super body.

    So? What is so horrible about saying that a retouched body is likely to be ‘nicer’ or ‘better’ than a standard, non-retouched body. (Here, I mean in a plastic and superficial way.) It is to be expected, in the same way that teeth that have seen braces are likely to be straighter than those that have not.

    Similes work like that. Had someone said ‘… as rapacious as an American lawyer’, everyone would have understood the idea, and everyone would smirk if the American Legal Profession had complained about the lack of respect. Right?

    How about ‘the liberalism of a Tennessee redkneck’? Or the ‘bling of a rapper’?

    Julie Burchill was absolutely right to stand up for Ms Moore. Good on you Julie!

    • Jayne

      Did you actually read Burchill’s piece?? My main issue was less with Moore’s comment, which, although it made me cringe and seemed a little offensive, could have been just a simile, as you pointed out. It was more with Burchill’s hate speech (let’s not kid ourselves, that’s exactly what it was). Burchill went far beyond “standing up for Ms. Moore” and actually called transgender individuals horrible names, engaged in offensive stereotyping and generalizations about transgender individuals, and displayed an extremely short sighted view of feminism. She also shows she knows little about the issue of Gender Identity Disorder. I encourage you to go read Burchill’s article in its entirety. I doubt anyone who truly believes in intersectional feminism would not find the article blatantly offensive and uninformed.

    • Jayne

      Just in case you aren’t so inclined as to go read Burchill’s entire article, here are a few excerpts. How exactly was this not offensive again?? Did you and I read the same thing? I can’t believe we have.

      “I nevertheless felt indignant that a woman of such style and substance should be driven from her chosen mode of time-wasting by a bunch of dicks in chicks’ clothing.”

      “Shims, shemales, whatever you’re calling yourselves these days – don’t threaten or bully us lowly natural-born women, I warn you. We may not have as many lovely big swinging Phds as you, but we’ve experienced a lifetime of PMT and sexual harassment and many of us are now staring HRT and the menopause straight in the face – and still not flinching. Trust me, you ain’t seen nothing yet. You really won’t like us when we’re angry.”

      “She, the other JB and I are part of the minority of women of working-class origin to make it in what used to be called Fleet Street and I think this partly contributes to the stand-off with the trannies. (I know that’s a wrong word, but having recently discovered that their lot describe born women as ‘Cis’ – sounds like syph, cyst, cistern; all nasty stuff – they’re lucky I’m not calling them shemales. Or shims.) We know that everything we have we got for ourselves. We have no family money, no safety net. And we are damned if we are going to be accused of being privileged by a bunch of bed-wetters in bad wigs.