Content warning: transphobia.
“‘People who menstruate.’ I’m sure there used to be a word for those people. Someone help me out. Wumben? Wimpund? Woomud?” – @jk_rowling, 6 June 2020
Was JK Rowling’s tweet about people who menstruate transphobic? Probably. There are lots of people smarter than me who have responded to it and I suggest you read them if you have not made up your mind. Rather, I’d like to focus on the arguments made by those defending her who think that she is on Twitter trial by the intolerant masses for the simple act of trying to promote good-faith debate about an important issue.
Firstly, this has been painted as an infringement upon her free speech. It is not. No person or entity has tried to stop her from sharing her views. She has not been arrested nor have government agents seized her books. She has 14.3 million Twitter followers at the time of writing. That is two and a half Scotlands worth of people to whom her words have direct access. Perhaps it is not the right to free speech that people see as being infringed upon but the age-old power for people to disregard and mock those with less power in society, all the while not needing to worry about being held accountable. It is uncomfortable to have people prove that our world views are outdated and need revising; it would be easy if nobody questioned our language and social faux pas.
Yet they are well within their rights to complain. I would argue that in fact it is the responses from everyday people to the influential among us which are key to shaping society into something that is better and more comfortable for everyone. Being wrong and being called out in a public forum for that is not oppression. Being subtweeted by members of the LGBT community is not oppression. Equating online backlash to an infringement on human rights purposefully tries to muddy the argument with a poorly crafted straw man argument.
Criticism is also levelled at the intolerance of progressive movements towards those with whom they disagree, and that’s sometimes justified. Cancel culture can go too far, acting without due process before all the information is available. However, there comes a time when lines must be indelibly drawn in the sand, the shades of grey collapsing into either supporting the community whole-heartedly or standing against it. This isn’t academia: this is real life, and trans people should be able to live without being peer-reviewed and required to debate their positions to anybody with a mouth or a Twitter account and a keyboard. Treading on eggshells and placidly discussing perspectives serves only to grind oppressed communities down into an exhausting cycle of justifying their existence to a seemingly unending wave of disbelief.
Intolerance can be an important part of pushing us all forward onto higher ground. As a collective, we have largely decided not to tolerate racism and sexual assault and – to a growing extent – homophobia, even if there is a long way still to go on sufficiently wrapping these issues up. It is not really up for debate if racial slurs have a place within the linguistic framework of modern day life, and neither should we be expected to bend over backwards to tolerate the views of those who think they do. This is not to say that Rowling’s desire to discuss the relevance of biological sex to issues like domestic violence is equivalent to the usage of racial slurs. However, it serves to demonstrate that the framing of progressive intolerance as an evil act is unfounded and a smoke-bomb distracting from the issues at hand.
It is also important to remember that an audience owes a performer nothing. Consumers are not under any obligation to agree with, support or even debate in good faith with the providers. Twitter, more than most social networks, is built upon an idea of having an audience with engagement numbers, likes and retweets. One person performing for millions is very much a different dynamic to one person performing for the hundred friends and family they have on Facebook. Providers and consumers on Twitter are two very distinct roles without any presumption of an equal footing. When you tweet, it is a deliberate act of content production for an audience, an audience which you can’t see and don’t know (especially when you have 14 million pairs of eyeballs on that tweet).
That is why we cannot just dismiss Rowling’s womund tweet as a joke and why I do not accept that it was supposed to act as a constructive discussion about a larger issue. She read that article and decided that the phrase “people who menstruate” was so offensive/egregious/upsetting that it deserved a tweet of its own. It was not an overhead snippet of a private conversation that was taken out of context. It was not communicating an important debate about the safety of female-only spaces. It was not adding to the debate around the oppression and violence against women or trans people. It was a pithy and superficial wisecrack. What should have been a learning opportunity and a period of quiet and private reflection for Rowling has been spun into a larger – and largely unnecessary – debate about the semantics of language, and fear of trans-women occupying space.
Concerns are also raised over the usage of new language which subtly redefines concepts that we thought were solid for centuries. Yes, “people who menstruate” may be jarring for those who have considered “women” to be the only users of sanitary products. We recognise that feeling confused about that change is a valid way to feel. However, the novelty of these words is not evidence for arguments against using them. Have you spotted the circular logic? If Rowling’s supporters had their way, we would not use gender neutral language because of it is unusualness, and therefore it would become normalised and meet their acceptance criteria of commonality. Rather, we must take a proactive approach to amplify progressive and gender-neutral language, catapulting it into the zeitgeist artificially. Let us not forget that writers, like Rowling, have the unique power to create words out of thin air and have them become part of our shared vocabulary the world over; as such, she is uniquely placed to normalise these words in bookstores, homes and schools.
By very nature of their lack of power, the voices of oppressed and marginalised groups in society are quietly swept under the rug while simultaneously being considered fair game for ridicule. When we hear their voices, we can respond with reactionary and defensive rhetoric, calling public dissent denunciation or using phrases like morally repugnant to describe those who use their platform to support the marginalised. We can bend over backwards to hide transphobic words in a thin veneer of progressive and academic language. It is easy to go with the flow and join in – it takes extra effort to actively listen and question our own behaviour.
Image: Daniel Ogren via Wikimedia Commons