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The Hydra Heads of Wokeness

Have you ever tried to explain why a meme is funny or true to someone completely unfamiliar? You first have to explain the image if unknown, then the context of the image and its relationship to the idea meant to be conveyed. Then you explain the wit behind the connection, while pointedly avoiding any other connections that could be made. Despite your explanation the listener, lacking your context, creates his own. In creating his own connections he creates his own meaning for the meme. Obviously, your only recourse was to detail the harm that came from the listener's inability to make sense of the meme as you had.

When I say that wokeness works like a meme, this is what I mean. It only functions for people who think they get the underlying idea. It lacks explanatory power for anyone not already versed in the cultural language. More important, it lacks any ability to address critique by those who reject its premises or answer basic questions about the underlying assertions. Asking questions for clarity is a moral indictment on you. It doesn't describe anything real, unless you believe it does. Don't let that distract you from the inherent harm and the damage done. Perhaps it's more true to say it describes nothing real in order to obscure that it does the opposite of its purported intent.

Just to reiterate, wokeness is not for the disadvantaged. Portraying cynical offense as deeply harmful while ignoring or minimizing actual harm will never be to the benefit of vulnerable people. It's just discourse about discourse. Thus, enforcement around wokeness will never be about minimizing harm to the weak, but maintaining control over the discourse for the sake of the powerful. 

If it's not clear, wokeness is an amorphous hydra, each head representing a different "marginalized" identity group-- black people, gays and lesbians, indigenous people, immigrants, trans people-- depending on the topic. Each head rears in order to argue against redistributive economic goals on the basis of missing something also important to another identity group. Rather than work to define the amorphous whole or detail the specific heads it's useful here to describe the ways in which it's all one thing by focusing on anti-racism and trans rights activism. The basic vocabulary is different, one focused on the social construction of race, the other on the social construction of gender. Yet, while this may make them appear to be separate arguments for different identity groups, it's the same argument for the interests of elites.

I've been thinking about racism most of my life. In recent years it occurred to me that my understanding of racism was flawed. Being so dependent on individuals addressing their own racist feelings, it was immutable. Like many I conflated perceived personal bias with anything that might be considered systemic. I was one of the people arguing that it was important to focus both on class and race not recognizing what it meant that they were inseparable while discussing them as two separate things. Talking about both class and race undermines any emphasis on universal economic security with a focus on specific groups. 

Two important truths to recognize here which may seem counterintuitive if you have not thought them through:

I challenge anyone to prove these truths false.

Clearly, anti-racism should both have an economic component and include the white people impacted by systemic racism. Increasingly, what is called anti-racism ignores anything economic to focus on the racist feelings projected on white people, especially poor and working class white people. In other words, what is called anti-racism has no interest in the material well being of black people or people of color. It is far more accurate to call it anti-whiteness.

To the degree that there are material appeals in the current moment they are unrealistic moral idealism. Defunding the police and reparations, which only existed in the discourse to undermine the universalist appeal of Bernie Sanders, appear to be material demands, but that appearance is deceptive. Black people don't want to decrease the presence of police in their communities. So how can defunding the police be considered racial justice?

Despite the current H.R. 40 bill for a reparations study, there remains no consensus on who would receive reparations or the intended goal. It's not even particularly clear if black people want a focus on reparations. Although they are proposed to address the racial wealth gap they would do nothing to change the structures resulting in a racial wealth gap. And whether it's acknowledged or not, reparations would represent a payment for the end of any claims of racism. It's unlikely that we will reach that point. There is no political argument for moving trillions of dollars for 13% of the population not already in control of most of the wealth.

There is also no political argument for addressing the poverty of a quarter of those impoverished while leaving the rest untouched. Despite the claim as racial justice, the idea of reparations is anything but justice. It's incredibly divisive. Arguing that poor white people have privilege but Jay Z deserves money because of dead ancestors is just designed to create racial antipathy. It's not really an argument FOR anything, it's an opportunity to call someone racist for not agreeing with the libertarian notion of justice.

Similarly, the demands for what's being called trans rights are just designed to create antipathy towards trans people or at least trans rights activists (TRA). There are no demands for the material benefit of trans people. Instead the demands are mostly over affirming trans women as women and for universal pronoun use. I, like many, initially accepted these demands as a simple way of showing respect, blind to the political and ideological function.  I have adopted a different approach in reconsidering racism and what it means to address it. This approach is guided by a simple principle for allies: "if your demand for a people you call vulnerable doesn't directly address material need, there's no reason for me to care about your demand." These discursive arguments aren't FOR anything, they're just an opportunity to call people transphobic for not agreeing.

Further, I would assert that if your demands for a vulnerable group are not explicitly for the material benefit of that group, you are explicitly arguing against the material interests of that group. I made this point repeatedly in a Twitter thread before someone shared the following:

She then proceeded to repeatedly ask how a focus on pronouns distracted from a focus on economic security while never once mentioning economic security again.

To the degree that there is a material component to trans rights activism, it is as divisive as reparations and far more dangerous. I think that the ground is shifting much faster than the vast majority realizes. While TRAs are incredibly silent about economic rights, they care a great deal about gender affirming care for young people. This advocacy includes drugs to interrupt the developmental stage of puberty. When activists talk about health care for trans youth, they evoke suicide and trans erasure, and they call caution conversion therapy. The arguments are incredibly manipulative and deceptive.

People with gender dysphoria are approximately .002-.014% of the population depending on the survey doing the counting. Not all people who identify as trans have gender dysphoria. (Quick aside, I recently became cognizant that the term "transexual" is considered increasingly offensive. That seems central to the growth of the importance of gender identity. To paraphrase Debbie Hayton, trans is becoming what people are, not something they do.) Among high school students the number has risen to 1.8% who identify as trans. In 2018 the American Academy of Pediatrics published a policy statement recommending gender affirming care. In essence, they recommend that physicians approach the mutable self concept of adolescents as immutable fact. Adolescents are notorious for knowing exactly who they are. What could possibly go wrong?

It's possible that the exponential increase over previous generations of teens identifying as trans is the result of individual understanding. What seems more likely is that it's sociogenic, the result of social media and social contagion. Physician Lisa Littman coined the phrase rapid onset gender dysphoria (ROGD) in her survey of 250 families of children experiencing gender dysphoria. She found that 80% of the children were female at birth. The majority had exhibited no characteristics of gender dysphoria prior to puberty. A large number of parents reported increased use of social media by children prior to coming out as trans. And many had one or more peers coming out as trans prior to coming out themselves. 

If one starts from the assumption that children who identify as trans, with their limited knowledge of sex and sexuality, should transition, puberty blockers possibly make sense. This is the assumption that many TRAs seem to make. They argue that children are trans from birth, that it's a natural or biological state rather than a condition in interaction with social factors. This is the ideology behind "gender affirmation". They argue that what is most important is that the children are trans, apathetic to the fact that the children are children and the implications of that. A number of people whose transition involved just identifying as women recommend a lifetime of pharmaceuticals for girls after treating a normal stage of human development as a pathology to avoid. The people who get offended if you suggest a connection between being trans and gender dysphoria want to operate as if all children identifying as trans have gender dysphoria. To consider anything else is to support conversion therapy.

Imagine all the changes that take place in puberty. The focus of gender identity discourse is on avoiding  the change to secondary sexual characteristics. The entire body changes in puberty, from bone and muscle growth to brain development that continues until 25. So, when TRAs and medical professionals say that puberty blockers are reversible, what does that mean? How do you reverse lower bone density and smaller physical size? How do you ensure the ability to reproduce if the drugs cause sterility. TRAs point to the use of drugs for early onset puberty as if that means the drugs have no negative consequences. They are wrong.

The idea that blocking puberty and then taking cross-sex hormones is reversible would be laughable were it not promoted by the American Academy of Pediatrics. I don't think that I know better than medical professionals, but there is more than enough reason to be skeptical of medicating children on the basis of their self diagnosis. (Endocrinologist, Dr William Malone thinks skepticism is more than justified.) There is no strong evidence that this represents best practices. However, there is strong evidence that puberty will help a majority of youth to desist with their gender dysphoria, while beginning social transition makes that more unlikely. 

While the number of people who detransition-- returning to representation aligned with their biological sex-- has been relatively low, there's reason to suspect the number will grow proportionate to the number now identifying as trans. Transition is not even the best option for everyone with gender dysphoria. Reversing course after realizing you were wrong isn't as simple as just stopping the drugs. Changing your body to match the concept of yourself in your head to feel better about yourself is no guarantee that you will feel better about yourself. Feminine men, masculine women, and awkward weirdos are the old normal we should embrace.

It's a bit anger inducing to be repeatedly called transphobic for suggesting that hormone replacement therapies and amputation to a healthy body should be considered exceptional for teen healthcare. It's difficult not to believe that some TRAs push positions designed to create opposition. If you're arguing about a discrete position you're not unpacking the entire ideology. In anger it's easy to forget the argument for reparations or puberty blockers isn't really an argument FOR those things, it's an argument for the sake of argument. It's for shutting down critical thought and examination.

I think that an increasing number of supporters will begin to see the gender identity ideology for the harm it represents for youth. As it is delegitimized despite the massive investment in spreading it, it's worth contemplating the distracting hydra heads that will grow beside it. I'm looking forward to arguing about the people who are transracial from birth in 5 years.


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