I’m not the official spokesperson for the trans community, because not all trans people think alike. You should be suspicious of anyone, trans or not, who claims to be giving you the trans point of view.
Remember that trans people are most likely to have our voices amplified when we enjoy advantages like whiteness and wealth, and when our opinions are palatable to a cis audience. (Look at how frequently Caitlyn Jenner and Chaz Bono are held up as canonical examples of trans people despite being extremely unrepresentative.)
I’ll do my best to give broadly applicable advice, but all advice is defeasible. If the trans people in your life disagree with me, listen to them.
If there’s an epistemic policy that’s even worse than treating a single trans person as the spokesperson for an entire group, it’s treating cis people as experts about trans issues—or being a cis person who considers themself an expert just because they’ve devoted some perfunctory attention to trans issues. It is good and valuable for cis people to think about trans people, our lives, and our contributions to knowledge and culture, but it’s crucial that you approach this topic with the requisite epistemic humility.
It is common for public conversations about trans people to rest on false empirical presuppositions and to be shaped by anti-trans propaganda. (At this point, some audience members may start to protest about academic freedom. But while academic freedom forbids some methods of silencing anti-trans viewpoints, it doesn’t mean that these viewpoints have scholarly merit.) As a result, in order to make a genuinely original contribution to trans topics, you’ll need both knowledge and effort; otherwise, you run the risk of repeating ill-informed transphobic tropes that have neither pragmatic nor epistemic value.
Off-the-cuff thoughts from a cis person—even a clever cis person—are unlikely to meet the standard required for fruitful participation. Trans people are often forced by practical concerns to think through some of the facts and philosophical distinctions relevant to being trans; therefore, cis people start out at a significant disadvantage. If you want to understand trans issues, you need to listen to trans people before engaging. (I’ll provide a few reading suggestions at the end of this post.)
This 2016 editorial by Casey Plett provides an interesting illustration of how media narratives can encourage an over-emphasis on cis voices, to the exclusion of trans voices, and to the epistemic detriment of everyone. When the Gender Identity Clinic at Toronto’s Center for Addiction and Mental Health closed down, erstwhile director Kenneth Zucker’s methods were portrayed in numerous op-eds as “controversial”, with “science” on one side and “trans activism” on the other. But the controversy was almost entirely due to disagreement among cis people. Plett asks, “What happens when you try to leave the cis people out?” and shows that focusing on trans commentators reveals a near-complete consensus that Zucker’s methods were harmful.
Naming and Challenging Transphobia
What if you’ve internalized the message about epistemic humility, and you’ve started to recognize the transphobia that’s widespread in philosophy academia, but you want to do more?
A good first step is to practice naming errors and injustices when you see them. You can break this down into three smaller steps: explicitly stating the assumption or describing action that you want to critique, stating that you disagree with it, and giving a reason for disagreement. (In social settings where someone has just said something that calls for a quick response, the third step is optional.) Here are some examples of how the three steps might look in action.
- When you describe the group of people affected by the abortion bill as “women”, you’re conflating womanhood with the ability to get pregnant (stating the assumption), so I point out that some trans men can also get pregnant (stating disagreement and giving a reason).
- The article starts from the premise that trans women are sexual predators (stating the assumption), but that premise is unjustified (stating disagreement and giving a reason), and it’s harmful to presumptively treat a minority group as threatening (giving an additional reason).
- You keep directing the conversation toward our colleague’s sexuality (describing the action), and I find that inappropriate (stating disagreement). Would you talk that way about a cis woman? (giving a reason).
If you find it difficult to speak up this way in real-time conversations, you’re not alone; I do too. But it gets easier with practice. And you can practice in written conversations, where there is less time pressure. For instance, if you find yourself citing a source that bundles a transphobic assumption in with an unrelated point, you can add a quick footnote that names the transphobic assumption and distinguishes it from the useful point that interests you. (You can also choose to cite another source that makes the same point without the transphobic assumption, if one is available.)
Once you’ve named and acknowledged a problem, it’s easier to think of solutions. Epistemic humility needn’t mean epistemic helplessness. Like other domains of philosophical inquiry, from logic to metaphysics to history to philosophy of science, applied ethics is hard, and you’re not going to manage it without making some mistakes. But it’s worth acknowledging the difficulty of the problem, and then practicing your skills until you get better.
Sharing your pronouns is increasingly common in academia. Aside from names, pronouns are the most salient linguistic marks of gender in English, so they serve as a kind of metonymy for how someone wishes to be gendered.
Cis colleagues sometimes want to know whether they should share pronouns: Is it something you’re supposed to do to demonstrate sensitivity? Does it risk appropriating trans experience?
I encourage you to share your pronouns. A cis person sharing their pronouns is a gesture that helps to normalize pronoun-sharing, encourages people to check, instead of guessing based on someone’s appearance, and it sends the message that cis people, rather than being the unmarked default, have genders that they too make active decisions about.
Some trans colleagues have expressed concerns about being singled-out by pronoun-sharing rituals, and this is a legitimate concern to keep in mind. But there are plenty of ways to share pronouns while being careful not to put anyone on the spot. You can volunteer your own pronouns on your conference name-tag, in your email signature, on the title page of your talk, or in conversation, thereby creating the space for others to share theirs, if they wish.
If a trans person has published work under an old name, how should you cite them? You might have the impulse to use the name they published under, but there is good reason not to do this. The common word for using a trans person’s old name, deadnaming, reflects how many trans people feel about the practice: it digs up a part of the person’s past that is better left undisturbed.
There is no established institutional policy for handling the name changes that come with transition, but good options include asking the author how they would like to be cited, checking publicly available information like their webpage and their ORCiD for information about how they would be cited, and using their current name or their initials if you’re unable to find information about their preferences.
At the beginning of this post, I promised a list of reading recommendations. Here are a few places you can begin if you’d like to learn more.
Suggested Rules for Non-Transsexuals Writing About Transsexuals, Transsexuality, Transsexualism, or Trans, by Jacob Hale: a helpful set of ground rules
Trans Philosophy Bibliography at the Trans Philosophy Project: a growing bibliography of philosophical readings on trans topics
Transgender Studies Quarterly (TSQ): an interdisciplinary journal that “offers a high-profile venue for innovative research and scholarship that contest the objectification, pathologization, and exoticization of transgender lives”
US Transgender Survey from the National Center for Transgender Equality: a 2016 survey analyzing data from nearly 28,000 trans people living in the US
Feminist Perspectives on Transgender Issues, by Talia Mae Bettcher: a Stanford Encyclopedia article surveying history and current debates
“When Tables Speak”: on the Existence of Trans Philosophy, by Talia Mae Bettcher: a blog post encouraging greater epistemic humility among our cis colleagues, with more reading recommendations at the end
The Transfeminist Manifesto, by Emi Koyama: a 2001 document laying out the principles of transfeminism, a feminist movement by and for trans women, but also inclusive of others who “are sympathetic toward the needs of trans women and consider their alliance with trans women to be essential to their own liberation”
A Trans 101 Blog: an anonymously-authored blog offering short answers to ignorant or hostile questions, with links
Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity, 2nd Edition, by Julia Serano: a collection of essays discussing sexism against trans women
* Ray Briggs is Professor of Philosophy at Stanford University. Their interests include formal epistemology, metaphysics, and the philosophy of gender.
[Description of photo below: a headshot of Ray who is looking directly at the camera, is wearing a shirt with buttons and rectangular wire glasses, has long unruly curls on their head, and is smiling widely. Vertical blinds cover a window in the background of the shot.]
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[…] Ray Briggs offers some thoughtful suggestions for Cis folk concerning trans issues at Biopolitical Philosophy here. […]
One thing struck a chord with me: “If you want to understand trans issues, you need to listen to trans people before engaging.” The same holds for natal women – you need to listen to their concerns. And one more thing, they do not like being called “cis women”. You also learn that from listening to them.
I think that it hugely depends on the natal woman whether they like being called ‘cis’. Ray’s warning that trans people are not a homogeneous group applies even more here, since whilst, by definition, anyone who is publicly trans has taken a particular stance on at least some issues around transness, merely being a non-trans woman doesn’t involve taking any stance about this whatsoever about trans issues, so unsurprisingly, their opinions are all over the shop, including on the term ‘cis’. (I’ll pause here to say that whilst “gender critical” feminist often present their view here as *the* feminist view, a similar point applies: feminist activists are extremely diverse in their views on this as well, and it’s by no means clear that the majority are on the “gender critical” side.) Perhaps the *majority* of women dislike the term ‘cis’, but you need to provide hard evidence for this. (My guess is the majority of women in the English-speaking developed world haven’t even *heard* the term.) But it’s hardly unusual for women, especially liberal women to be supportive of trans rights. Speak to my Mum and my sister if you don’t believe me, and neither of them are any kind of activist or “extremely online” or given to PC-jargon.
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Ray Briggs urges to extend certain courtesies to trans people, admitting that this is a diverse group of people with different views. I urge to extend the same courtesy to natal women, although they are a diverse group of people…
Why play one group against the other? Why such a generalized statement about what you refer to as “natal women”? I am one of those.That means I am a cis woman. I am totally fine with being called a cis woman. ” Cis” is nothing bad. It just means that you define as the gender that was assigned to you at birth. That’s it.
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[…] “Practical Suggestions for My Cis Colleagues in Philosophy” — some advice, plus a list of resources, from Ray Briggs (Stanford) […]
‘Off-the-cuff thoughts from a cis person—even a clever cis person—are unlikely to meet the standard required for fruitful participation’
I’m not sure this fits with my general experience of the relationship between expertise and fruitful participation on less political/emotive topics, though I admit I have no hard data to offer, and so could be talking nonsense. It seems to me that as an academic, and watching political debates on the internet, I often see smart people ask very penetrating question to someone who knows far more about a topic than they do. Sometimes the more expert person even struggles to answer the question. I have certainly seen this in in Q&As after talks in philosophy. (For example, I am not a very good philosopher and I don’t specialize primarily in metaphysics, but I recall once asking an expert modal metaphysician from a question about their paper on modal metaphysics which most people in the room seemed to think they lacked a good answer to. Nonetheless, I remain convinced the modal metaphysician knows far more than me about modal metaphysics and is a better source on it. But equally obviously, if I asked a question they lacked a good answer to, my contribution was perfectly valuable, despite the gulf in expertise. Some very fast on their feet analytic philosophers seem to be able to this all the time at talks on a vast range of topics, often topics they have far less knowledge of than the speaker.) So I don’t actually think significance expertise is anything *close* to being needed for fruitful participation in a discussion by smart people. It’s not just that it’s not a necessary condition, it’s that while it undoubtedly lowers the chance you’ll make a complete idiot of yourself, it’s not even *uncommon* for smart non-experts to have worthwhile things to contribute. For one thing, experts are often very attached to a particular point of view on a topic, which can lead to confirmation bias that causes them to miss particular important things that smart non-expert can spot, even while the remain overall an authority on the topic, and a better source for someone trying to get an overall accurate picture. We’ve all been to talks where someone has spent so long working out the nuances of standard view X that they’ve long since lost the ability to get in the mindset of someone who takes standard objection Y to X seriously, and this can make them unduly dismissive of anything that seems to support Y, relative to someone hearing about the topic for the first time.
Now, it may be, even if I’m right about all that, that on particular topics relating to identity and oppression, something about the *kind* of expertise generated by being a group member makes it peculiarly unlikely that worthwhile objections to an expert’s view will come from non-experts. But I think that if I’m right about the general picture (and as I admit, I haven’t provided hard evidence that I am!) at least the null hypothesis is that this is not so.
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Cis people do sometimes make useful contributions to these conversations; I think it’s rare rather than impossible. (Also, “off-the-cuff” is doing real work here.) My view that it’s rare is motivated less by reasoning from general principles than by repeated observation (although this is unsystematic; I don’t have a lab notebook).
I think a good minimal standard for participating in a conversation is knowledge of relevant empirical facts. I’ve seen cis people make all of the following incorrect factual assumptions: that medical transition consists primarily of genital surgery, that most trans people are straight, that trans women athletes typically have higher levels of testosterone than cis women athletes, that pre-pubescent children transition by getting surgery and/or by taking estrogen or testosterone supplements, that trans women rather than trans men are the primary users of terms like “chestfeeding” and “front hole”, and that trans women frequently commit assaults in bathrooms. These misconceptions seem much less common among trans people.
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This is a few years old now but remains a good estimation of the faults of the gender critical movement from former gender critical trans feminist. Some good observations in here about how detransition is weaponised by transphobes as well:
Thank you for this link! It’s illuminating to hear from this perspective, and I’m also impressed by its virtues as a dialogue; I see Aoife taking emotional risks, and Rani opening up the space for her to do so.
As a trans man in academia, I have a few concerns about these distinctions between cis and trans voices in these conversations. I agree that trans people tend to have an advantage in understanding the experience of being trans. And as Ray correctly points out, neither group is homogenous. But I Also worry that “off the cuff” trans voices are not likely to be any more helpful than “off the cuff” cis contributions. At least, those voices, unless they are of people who have done due diligence, may represent an individual’s experience, but may not be as helpful in philosophical contexts as we might like. Having had conversations with a lot of trans people over many years, I’m skeptical that the average trans person (any more than the average cis person) is an expert in philosophy of gender.
Perhaps the unstated context is doing work here—that trans people who are academics will be in a better epistemic position to contribute to conversations about trans people and philosophical problems impacting us. But again, there is an important difference between reflective awareness about one’s own personal experience and philosophical training on a given topic. If the person speaking does not primarily work on feminist philosophy, philosophy of gender, and so on, I’m not confident that their being trans is going to by default put them in a better epistemic position most of the time. I think this is highly context-dependent.
Further worrying me about these distinctions is the implication that, in order to contribute to conversation, or be seen as contributing in a way that is thoughtful, one needs to disclose their identity. So if I am private about my gender history, and my interlocutors think I am cisgender, when I put forward an argument, unless I also add, “speaking as a trans man,” someone may very well challenge my conclusions, urging me to follow Ray’s advice and practice some epistemic humility. Sure, I can try to cite some published trans people who are open about their experience/identity, but what if I’m putting forward a controversial view? I think this worry generalises to a number of other topics, such as disability, race, etc., where the emphasis on the speaker’s personal identity as an indicator of epistemic position may then require disclosure in order for the argument to be taken seriously. But when the argument remains the same, and all that one learns by disclosure is that the proponent of that argument is personally part of the class of people being discussed, I suggest that this should not impact our assessment of the argument itself.
I have raised this online in a few places in various ways over the years, and not heard much from the openly trans academics working on these topics in standpoint epistemology and so on. If the reason is that there is some kind of existing literature that makes my point painfully stupid, would someone please do me the favour of pointing me to it? Maybe the upshot is that stealth trans people, people with invisible disabilities, people with ambiguously read ethnic histories, etc. are simply precluded from certain conversations unless they disclose potentially private information. That strikes me as a bad result, though. I really urge everyone to consider the potential harms in requiring disclosure of medical information, gender history, and so on, in order to contribute to these conversations.
But I Also worry that “off the cuff” trans voices are not likely to be any more helpful than “off the cuff” cis contributions. At least, those voices, unless they are of people who have done due diligence, may represent an individual’s experience, but may not be as helpful in philosophical contexts as we might like.
This is fair, and I agree that “defer to all trans people and no cis people” is a terrible rule. I think there are weaker versions of the rule that are helpful; e.g. if the overwhelming of your sources on trans stuff are cis, this likely indicates a problem. (I believe that this weaker rule is still strong enough to provide practical guidance.)
Further worrying me about these distinctions is the implication that, in order to contribute to conversation, or be seen as contributing in a way that is thoughtful, one needs to disclose their identity.
I would like to explicitly disavow this commitment.
But when the argument remains the same, and all that one learns by disclosure is that the proponent of that argument is personally part of the class of people being discussed, I suggest that this should not impact our assessment of the argument itself.
I don’t quite agree with this, though. An argument might have premises that rely on knowledge of what some particular situation is like. I don’t know what it’s like to be treated with suspicion by the police because of my race, and if I try to do a thought experiment in which I imagine someone in this situation, I am likely to miss morally relevant factors and get important details wrong. Knowing what something is like for me doesn’t give me superb insight into what it’s like for everyone, but it it is better than total ignorance.
So I think both of us reject strong standpoint epistemology (we agree that being a member of a marginalized group is neither necessary nor sufficient for having insightful ideas about issues affecting that group) but we disagree about whether to reject or accept its weaker formulations.
I have raised this online in a few places in various ways over the years, and not heard much from the openly trans academics working on these topics in standpoint epistemology and so on. If the reason is that there is some kind of existing literature that makes my point painfully stupid, would someone please do me the favour of pointing me to it?
It doesn’t sound painfully stupid to me, and I would be interested in reading more about it. (I also have done most of my work in metaphysics and formal epistemology and am not a standpoint epistemology expert.) Maybe others have reading suggestions?
Thanks for the replies. I don’t want to take away from your practical advice, which is useful. I suppose I just want to underscore the fact that there is no trans spokesperson. That speaks to the importance of reading/listening widely to see where there is controversy.
Brief thoughts in reply:
1. I’m glad you disavow that commitment! I think it’s important for cis (and, frankly, trans) interlocutors to realise that not everyone wants to disclose and that someone’s trans status is personal.
2. I agree with you about personal experience when the argument’s claims depend on it. However, I think many arguments do not. While relying on one’s own personal experience is better than total ignorance, most of us aren’t in positions of total ignorance. We can be informed by testimony. Selene Luna, in a recent documentary about Armistead Maupin, described how the author’s book about a straight woman who is a little person was a major source of insight about her own experiences as a little person. Yet this was a book written by a gay man who was not a little person, and which he wrote in part after listening to his friend, Tamara De Treaux, and her testimony about her experience (though he also described it as “partly autobiographical”!) I think listening and empathetic imagination can get us far. Further, recognising what counts as “morally relevant” doesn’t depend, in my opinion, on personal experience, but on philosophical analysis.
To me, all of this entails that a cisgender person could, in some circumstances, be a source of insight for a trans person about that trans person’s own experience, and it means that cisgender philosophers who have done their due diligence can, and ought to, publish research even when it challenges what has been written by transgender philosophers. This doesn’t take away from your practical points about the need for education, of course. I just think this implication is worth underscoring, too.
I’d be happy for reading suggestions, as well. And maybe our conversation can serve as an example of the sorts of disagreements present among people under the trans umbrella and the need to pay attention to your first point about there being no trans spokesperson!
Why does the caption say Ray’s wearing a button-down shirt, when the shirt Ray is wearing is visibly not a button-down?
Oops! I corrected the image description. Thanks for pointing that out. I hope you otherwise enjoyed the post. Shelley
Earlier this year I had a confusing dispute with a transwoman I was otherwise on good terms with (for an online acquaintance, anyway), which involves the issues discussed here. It began with her sharing a post critiquing the slogan “If men could get pregnant, abortions would be free” on the ground that some men can indeed get pregnant, and so the slogan “erased” transmen. While agreeing that the conventional though incorrect assumption is that men =cismen, I suggested that this criticism might misunderstand the implied logic of the antecedent, for (setting aside the rhetorical exaggeration of the phrase) the likely greater availability of abortion would presumably not follow if, say, only .001% of cismen could get pregnant. But it surely does not require that 100% be able to do so, either. So the antecedent should not be taken to mean, e.g., either -(x)(Mx -> -Px), or (x)(Mx -> Px). Plausibly it is true if some sizable fraction of them could get pregnant (90% certainly; perhaps 40% would do). The undisputed point surely being that it is cismen (who are sometimes incorrectly equated with “men”) hold outsized power in society, and their needs get unwarrantedly extra attention. Since, of course, transmen are nowhere near even 40% of men, then, I expressed the view that the phrase may be valid and needn’t be taken as “erasing” transmen; we can acknowledge their existence and validity without changing the phrase. I conceded of course that many people don’t think carefully about the logic of such phrases, and so might misunderstand this while using the phrase, but this has more to do with their other background assumptions than a problem intrinsic to the phrase itself.
Unfortunately my acquaintance harshly shut me down, saying my opinion was “moot and irrelevant” because I was a “cisman…outside your scope of practice…telling marginalized groups what they should and should not accept.” I tried to respond with care via private message, but to little avail. I explained that logic and grammar is indeed within my scope of practice; that while I respect the need to listen to marginalized voices to enrich my understanding, I don’t think it is impossible for my opinion to be valid or not worth considering merely because I am not marginalized in the same way; that I am happy to change my opinion if someone can explain to me why my thinking on this or related points is erroneous, but not very happy if someone simply tells me I’m not a member of group X so I can’t understand X’s needs. Sadly, the conversation ended with my acquaintance, IMO, persistently misattributing to me things I did not say, ignoring several things I did say, demanding that I answer certain rhetorical questions I had already answered, and refusing to answer my questions in turn, then shutting down the conversation.
I am not asking anyone to say “you were totally right” here. I may, despite my attempt to be respectful, have failed here somehow. Yet I currently see this as an example of something I have occasionally seen before: a member of an oppressed minority, perhaps reacting to blatant oppression in the past, overreacting to a reasoned expression of opinion and conflating it, unwarrantedly, with further oppression. Now again, I am not asking anyone to say “you are seeing it correctly.” Maybe I’m not. But if not, could someone actually explain to me what might’ve gone wrong here? What could I do differently to express myself on this or related points? How should I think about this to be more sensitive to the relevant concerns as expressed here and in Ray Briggs’ original post? Open here to either substantive points about the disputed phrase, or meta-comments about how to talk about such things.
I see it as similar to a gatecrasher paradox: Morality sometimes entails that we make or withhold judgements about /people/ based on more than just statistics. No one disputes that trans people are a pretty small minority of the population. But not being included is, in the long run, incredibly harmful to us in various ways. For instance, if you address a group as “ladies and gentlemen” and that group includes even one nonbinary person, you’ve done harm to that person. In regard to the post you quote, it seems to me that “If cis men could get pregnant, abortions would be free” is a perfectly fine way to get that point across while also being inclusive. Using inclusive language is an adjustment, but one that will make you a better ally and a better person.
For more info, please see this post and the linked resources: https://trans101faq.home.blog/2019/06/14/q-are-trans-people-just-making-up-silly-words-for-their-gender-identities/
Also, for future reference, most trans people tend to prefer, e.g. “trans woman” to “transwoman.” (This is a generalization; as Ray points out, not all trans people think alike.) “Trans”/”transgender” and “cis”/”cisgender” are adjectives.
Thanks MX; I probably hadn’t thought before about the space/no-space issue. A quick google search shows an almost even split between these two variations (and adjectives do sometimes become prefixes), but the space is slightly more common, and I will try to observe this in the future.
I have no strong objection to someone using the “if cis men…” phrase (and said so in the original conversation). I’m not still not sure it’s wrong to use it the other way. For if we lived in a very different world and a very large percentage of men were trans, and hence could get pregnant, then plausibly trans men would have a lot more power/voice than they currently do, and abortions would indeed become more readily available or even “free,” as the original phrase suggested. If so, then saying only “if cis men…” would *exclude* trans men, when “men” alone *includes* them. This is a point I wasn’t even able to get to in the original conversation because it got sidetracked by accusations so quickly. Now again, I might be wrong about this, but am curious what others think. It is, at least, far from obvious to me which version of the phrase is less exclusionary.
Indeed, now that I think about it, the phrase was obviously developed by someone who wasn’t even thinking about trans men…but once we do so, can we even make sense of a “cis man” getting pregnant? Wouldn’t one who could by definition be a trans man, and talk of “pregnant cis men” might be exclusionary and a kind of appropriation of possibilities to where they are not possible, even as a counter-factual? Maybe not; I suppose Arnold S’s character in “Junior” get “pregnant” without being a trans man. But now I’m truly over my head and admit my perplexity in trying to think about what is exclusionary and what is not in this particular case. Not saying we can’t make such judgments, of course, and I agree there are many cases where it is clear what counts as exclusionary language. It’s just that in this particular case I find myself more befuddled than in others.
This is closely connected to my point about epistemic humility.
You are right about the narrow technical point—there is a possible translation of that sentence into a formal language which does not logically entail that all men are cis—and you also overestimate its significance. If a practical consequence of the thought experiment is that it encourages hearers to ignore the existence of trans men, then why is it important that this encouragement works by association rather than strict logical entailment?
Taking a broader perspective, I would ask: which values do you care about in this interaction?
It sounds to me like one of the values you were committed to was demonstrating your own cleverness. And I get it—I’m an analytic philosopher too—but I don’t think it’s the most important value at play in this situation.
Another value is that everybody in the conversation should be and feel heard. It sounds like nobody in that conversation felt heard. (In your friend’s place, I would have felt talked over, and like you were ignoring my substantive point in order to win at an adversarial game of your own devising.)
A third value (which your friend was addressing in her original post) is that everyone should have adequate access to reproductive health care. Yes, a crucial part of this is defending cis women’s access to abortion, and noting that threats to abortion access are often motivated by misogyny. But I don’t see why necessary or helpful to choose rhetoric that makes trans men into collateral damage. This is not just a detached thought experiment: trans men actually face serious obstacles to accessing reproductive health care, and this is a problem that has had personal impact on people I know in the past year.
Is there something important accomplished by “what if men could get pregnant?” that could not be equally well accomplished by rhetoric that acknowledges (or at least doesn’t actively obscure) the reality of trans men who need reproductive health care?
If you can think of an important value that’s at stake, I would suggest naming it, naming your interlocutor’s value, and thinking through whether there’s a compromise that reconciles them, before you say anything. That will probably make for a better conversation opener. If you can think of no such value, I would suggest writing your pedantic comment down in a private journal or texting it to your best friend in order to get it out of your head, and then moving on. (That’s all advice for next time when you’re starting fresh. I doubt that the friend in your story is interested in re-opening this conversation, given what you’ve said here.)
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Ray, I agree with you that associative implication can sometimes be as important as logical implication, though I would qualify that as associations can exist for all kinds of bad reasons (often we should challenge associations that certain words have come to have–indeed, is that not to a large extent precisely what you want us to do here?) Framing the point in these terms at least acknowledges two relevant sides to the issue, and I will try to reflect on both of these aspects before making further judgments on this particular phrase, or future ones where this might be relevant.
Your talk of values in play is also very useful. I would like to think that value #3 was my primary concern, though I can’t deny that #1 often plays a role in my conversations. On #2, obviously I felt that I was not heard at all, and then failed to hear anything from the other side because she refused to explain herself (I cannot hear what is not said) and dismissed me as a “cis man” rather than address me as an individual. I find this particularly frustrating since I would have thought that trans persons and members of other minority groups might be particularly aware of the dangers of dismissing a person’s comments because of their group membership, thereby committing the genetic fallacy. Perhaps if my friend (and you?) thought I was only acting on value 1, my comment could justifiably be downgraded as “pedantic.” I do not think this is a fair or accurate way to put it. I was not playing an “adversarial game” and certainly wasn’t talking over anyone, but talking with… then my friend very explicitly announced that she had the right to talk over me.
Your final question, whether there is “something important” in the original phrase that wouldn’t be contained in a modified one, is certainly crucial. I would be all for the modification except that the old one will be more readily comprehensible to most people, and this is valuable because abortion rights continue to be gravely threatened. But the more I think about it, and do so as I type, the more I find myself unable to defend that as an adequate reason to stick to the original phrase. Those who agree with the sentiment are likely to understand the “if cis men could” language just as well, while those who don’t will not change their minds based on a single bumper-sticker-sized slogan even if it uses words they are more familiar with. And perhaps getting people more familiar with the newer language is more important today than fighting old battles with old phrases which, unfortunately, have not won us the day yet. In short, I think you’ve convinced me on the first-order issue here, and you have given me much to think about on the second-order ones. Thank you for your patience and carefully chosen thoughts, Ray.
[…] You can find Ray’s guest post on BIOPOLITICAL PHILOSOPHY here. […]