I'm tired of being your intellectual fodder for a made up debate and you chafing at my discomfort with that

I don't know how else to put it and clearly when put this way it challenges your notion that you are not at heart a well-intentioned individual

They say every day there is a new main character on Twitter and it is in your best interest to avoid it being you.

On a day where Jair Bolsonaro, the President of Brazil, gave a maskless interview to journalists after being diagnosed with COVID, a Wide Receiver on the Philadelphia Eagles literally quoted Hitler in his social media posts and Donald Trump is alleged to have paid someone to take his SATs, somehow a group of prominent writers stole the spotlight of media twitter with an open letter to protect “Open Debate” during a time of a national reckoning on institutional racism and sexism in the United States.

The heart of the letter, which has been written ad nauseum at this point in some form or another, is that to promote an open and just society, people should not face professional consequences for voicing unpopular ideas in the name of honest debate.

Nevermind the fact that it took until last month for LGBTQ Americans to have a court rule that it is in fact illegal to fire them for existing, and most Americans are at-will employees meaning they can be fired for just about anything else. Somehow, to these prominent individuals the true threat facing our society is the fact that pushing dialogue forward requires hard truths to be dispensed and two equal and opposite threats are out there ready to step in and stop free expression: Trump in the Oval Office and protesters calling for an unvarnished look at American history and an adjustment of our social contract to actually include everyone going forward.

Don’t take my word for it, take the letter itself written in Harpers:

The free exchange of information and ideas, the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted. While we have come to expect this on the radical right, censoriousness is also spreading more widely in our culture: an intolerance of opposing views, a vogue for public shaming and ostracism, and the tendency to dissolve complex policy issues in a blinding moral certainty. We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought. More troubling still, institutional leaders, in a spirit of panicked damage control, are delivering hasty and disproportionate punishments instead of considered reforms.

I really didn’t want to write any of this. I’ll be honest. It is taxing, emotionally fraught and requires a lot of effort to dig up all of the sources out there that shows how caustic the bad faith arguments are for marginalized people and how the burden falls on them disproportionately to defend themselves against the status quo that does not seek to put in the effort to consider their viewpoints.

As a trans woman I know this all too well dealing with more and more high profile individuals using their platforms to speak out in favor of a “gender critical” feminism, which seeks to protect spaces for their narrow definition of women at all costs and safeguard the children of the world from being coerced into affirming their own gender identity through robust skepticism from their guardians. It feels every day I have to hit back reminding people that science shows that sex and gender are not binary, that my existence is not a threat to cisgender women and that aligning with social conservatives is dangerous for feminists in the long-run.

Ultimately, these arguments come down to a belief that there is a free-rider problem in gendered spaces, and those free-riders are predators looking to take advantage of ease of access to transgender care to assault women. Most people when taking a step back realize that this supposed free-rider problem is not very large, and that predators do not need to go through these steps to take advantage of transgender care to, well, be predators. Except, those who think that there is a real issue and threat to themselves and others refuse to concede that there is not a debate about this, despite plenty of evidence, and wish to have a platform to influence policy and public opinion through their critical analysis. This platform exists rather largely on Twitter dot com, and through many columns in both the mainstream and right-wing press in both the United States and Great Britain, where the majority of the English-speaking debate happens.

Yet, when presented with the notion that this supposed free-rider problem is getting disproportionate coverage compared to the real damage that the transgender community faces just to live their lives day to day, these pundits dig their heels in and claim that they are being silenced and losing access to their precious marketplace of ideas.

All of this, when typing it out, seems silly at times, but it has real implications. Younger generations are waking up that the versions of history they have been told have been slanted by colonialist and patriarchal institutions for generations, centering white men as heroes and lauding the gains fought by those who worked within that system. If you think of the colonial institutions worldwide as a heirarchal elevator shaft, cultural history is the concrete on the side, which holds it up. Those at the top of the elevator shaft generally wish to bring others closer to their perches up top, but need to reinforce the shaft as much as they can, lest it fall down. For if the colonialist institution is dismantled, they fall the furthest.

So, a broad coalition of thinkers has recast the issue of our time as a threat to a free society for all, to preserve their spot as the gatekeeping of the intellectual class.

Here I want to take a second to point out that I am centering the trans-experience for two reasons. First, I am transgender and it is my lived experience, so I feel I can speak on it. I do not wish to belittle the lived experiences of other marginalized groups, I just feel they can articulate their own struggles better. I hope that is clear and I would love to boost any other writings on this topic from their perspectives when I can. Second, because many of the signatories of the Harpers Letter have waded into the “transgender debate” (their framing, not ours) it is important to note that the pushback they have received from corporate donors who are waking up to the capitalism of equality and young people tired of trying to conform their lives to an outdated standard that promises no rewards could have real material impact on their lives. That being said, that material impact is based on society choosing to right the material disadvantage that they have inflicted on marginalized communities, not trying to stifle open debate.

By going about this way it creates a no-win situation for marginalized communities that seek to use what voice they can amplify to fight back against the gatekeepers. Fighting wanting to preserve “open debate,” makes the effort seem illiberal at its core, despite that being further from the truth. Also, it means that marginalized people need to continue to expend unpaid labor to educate the broader public about how they harm others through their words and actions, instead of the public at large attempting to learn any of this themselves.

I’ve used this example before, but the situation always reminds me of the short lived website “Fire Joe Morgan,” which from 2005 to 2008 attempted to fact check and demand better from complacent sportswriters who did not look like or represent the modern sports viewer. The site was a labor of love and sought to bring nuance and new voices into an aging industry that was fossilizing in plain view.

The site won. Blogs forced columnists and reporters to think differently and add new viewpoints to their reporting, though it did not succeed in pushing out the old guard. Many kept their jobs, while working with and learning from upstart young journalists and bloggers to change and adapt to a world with advanced statistics and challenging the conventional norms that governed sports such as baseball. There would be no endless discussion on launch angles in 2020 if someone wasn’t demanging Mike Lupica not write the same column every week.

“Fire Joe Morgan” was what could be described a labor of love. The people behind it weren’t getting paid, and it turns out they had the time and luxury to sit around and offer their criticism until they couldn’t. In this case, until they couldn’t meant, for one of the bloggers at least, writing the television show Parks and Recreation.

Nearly all of us in the trans community don’t have that time or energy to be able to sit on the sidelines, cultivate an audience and spend our time chipping away at the establishment reframing the intellectual class’ viewpoint of how we exist. We are too busy, well existing. Life doesn’t stop and there are already enough roadblocks for trans people to have to navigate in daily life sapping our energy, plus there signatories of the Harpers letter are already busy preventing the formation of our own literary class that is allowed to play by the rules of the gatekeepers.

You see, the real worry for many of those institutional gatekeepers is that when you cede power to marginalized groups you are expected to honor the political capital won from the “debate”. I’m sure many of the signatories have no issue with that and are genuinely concerned about censorship and the like, when viewed in an optimistic lens. However, it is impossible to not look at the body of work by others on that list and wonder if they only see my, and my brother and sisters’, existence as a theoretical concept they can debate in a high style while asserting their grip on being an intellectual gatekeeper. When gender is not on your mind 24/7 living through the struggle of existing in a body that never, ever feels quite right, such a notion remains something that can be debated as there must be multiple sides to every issue, as such their cultural legends have taught the world.

Reality is much messier than that. Reality can’t be boiled down to all sides equally threaten the ideals in which the line “all men are created equal” falsely promised this political experiment. Reality does not create free-riders, but reality creates material conditions that generate the need for punishment on supposed free-riders. We choose not to subsidize public transit completely and require fares while preventing certain groups of people from being able to afford the fares but require public transit to pay off the debts in other aspects of their lives. Thus, fare jumpers are not the fault of rogue individuals trying to subvert a system, but in fact they are the product of a system designed to create a public good that the entire public cannot access, but requires to live.

The same goes for the trans community, which needs medical affirming treatments so we can live, but places as many barriers as possible in place to secure them, while allowing for people who will never need such treatments to debate the treatements’ effectiveness and decide who should have access to treatement. All in the name of open debate.

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