I was intrigued by how well my Fascinating tumblr arguments post did traffic-wise. Apparently I am not alone in finding it interesting. Here I detail another engaging argument I’ve tried to keep track of on tumblr, this one about the appropriate status of transwomen within feminism.
At the heart of the dispute is this question: are transwomen women? The dominant tumblr feminist contingent answers yes. A smaller tumblr feminist contingent — usually tagged as “radical feminists” — answers no. What’s so interesting about this dispute is that it appears to be totally intractable.
On its face, it seems like the answer is: it depends on your definition. But within the tumblr dialectic, you can’t simply discard it as a semantical dispute that turns on whatever definition you select. The reason why you cannot do that is because the answer has enormous implications for the prefigurative politics of the tumblr set. In particular, the tumblr set theorizes that political and social truth comes from the testimonies of those with certain identities. So for instance the truth of what racial justice requires is whatever the testimonies of people of color say about it. Likewise, the political truth of what justice for women requires is whatever women say it is. The flipside of this theory of truth is that others are required to defer to the testimonies of those with the correct identities for a specific matter, something I termed identitarian deference in a prior post.
Or to put it more basically: there is a ton of theorizing within the tumblr dialectic about whose voice you have to listen to and whose voice gets preference over others. This also bleeds over into the way this set organizes its meetings and organizations. It affects who gets to be included in those meetings and organizations, who gets to speak on a given topic, and how much weight their voice has on it. This becomes especially important when constructing safe spaces and identity caucuses because you have to know who qualifies for the identity in question to figure out who is allowed in. So, a ton of things actually turn on what identities you are able to legitimately claim, which makes this disagreement of far more importance than it might seem at first glance.
Although the tumblr set has a very developed literature about all of the things, political and otherwise, that flow from possessing or not possessing a specific identity, there is not as much literature on how you demarcate identities. This is understandable of course: theories of who counts as what identity are basically first-principles theories that are hard to actually argue about. How would you decide between two different meta-theories of identity qualification if not by whichever most spoke to your intuitions? The problem, then, is that different people might be drawn to different meta-theories, at which point you are basically at an impasse.
This is, as far as I can tell, what we have in this case. The dominant set that answers that transwomen are women for purposes of identitarian calculus often present a meta-theory of identity qualification that says: you qualify as an identity if you genuinely identify as that identity. The radical feminist set that opposes this seems to have a meta-theory of identity qualification that requires some hook beyond personally identifying that way, and in this case that hook requirement means only biological females can count as women.
This meta-theoretical dispute plays out in interesting ways. Although it seems to me that the dominant set has a much clearer rule for who qualifies for what identity, the radical feminists often point out that this rule has very strange consequences. They gleefully seize upon people who identify as a species other than human (otherkin), able-bodied people who identify as having a disability that they do not physically have (transabled), and people who identify as races other than their own (transethnic), among others. Most people in the dominant set and radical feminist set want to forbid these kinds of personal identifications (especially the last two). So radical feminists will hold out these problematic identifications as evidence of the problem that the dominant meta-theory on identity qualification creates, which is meant to demonstrate that it is the wrong meta-theory. Again, I have no idea how you resolve this.
The last thing that confounds this debate is that the radical feminist set does not merely think transwomen are not women. It actually argues that transwomen identifying as women is itself oppressive. It is one thing to think transwomen should not be included in women’s caucuses, women’s safe spaces, or have their voices deferred to on women’s issues. It is another to think that they are actually oppressing you. The former belief just requires certain kinds of exclusions, while the latter belief requires condemnation and political opposition.
How do radical feminists reach the oppression conclusion? It follows pretty straightforwardly from their definitional commitment, and goes like this: transwomen are not women, therefore transwomen are appropriating the gender of women, therefore transwomen are appropriating the gender of an oppressed group, which is a form of oppression (not unlike cultural appropriation). Of course the dominant tumblr set will disagree with this because it thinks that transwomen are women, a premise which nullifies the whole argument here.
The question I would like to see addressed is how exactly you are supposed to resolve the meta-theory debate over identity qualification. As it is, most of the arguments between the two groups are basically dismissive, non-responsive, and do not move the debate forward. But of course this could be because there is no way forward, only a first-principles dispute over what identity is. If that is the case though, there is basically an irreconcilable disagreement over one of the most important steps in figuring out how to actually put the theorizing of the tumblr dialectic into practice.