talkRadio debates in the morning are sacred. Whilst Question Time can be far too safe in its approach unpicking divisive and sensitive topics, on the other hand Twitter is often rife with vast amounts of vitriol that is spewed when trying to engage in uncomfortable, meaningful discussion. However, a segment on transgender people sharing prison spaces erupted when Julia Hartley-Brewer threatened to kick out comedian Steve Allen when he referred to her as a ‘cis-woman’, with JHB labelling the term as ‘BBC claptrap’. A somewhat volatile end to what was an interesting and much-needed conversation. It got me thinking about the recent advances of self-identification and what this could mean for the natural evolution of language.
From a personal perspective, I have always referred to myself as a ‘brown’ person, modelling in much the same way that a Caucasian person, who could actually be from anywhere between Iceland or New Zealand, might calm themselves ‘white’. Most of the time, I follow it up by saying that I’m Sri Lankan to narrow it down since ‘brown’ is pretty generic, but the reason that I decided to self-identify this way was a combination of how I genuinely feel, as well as what’s easier for others who aren’t from my background to understand me clearly. Many a time have I been asked, ‘Oh, are you Indian?’ and more bizarrely constantly being told how cool it is that I’m South American when I was living in Queensland. Language has allowed me to use ‘brown’ to narrow down my origins a bit more than previous Sri Lankans might have enjoyed, demonstrating it’s inexhaustible ability to be progressive when social norms change around it.
Now this is where it gets tricky. I’ll tend to naturally refer to other people that I deem to be from around my parts as ‘brown’ too. This is, of course, an assumption that I make. If they told me that they prefer to say that they are Indian, Pakistani or anything else, I’d happily adopt their way of saying it. Anyone’s wish to be referred to in a certain way should be respected, and that’s a two way street. But if someone, in an attempt to learn more about me, assumes that I am Indian or Pakistani in conversation when I am in fact not, can I really be offended? Offended by what, that someone who doesn’t know me is using whatever existing knowledge and preconceptions they have to make an assumption? That’s quite a reasonable thing and we are all guilty of it. We make constant assumptions. Bankers earning a lot of money or people who are only children being spoilt. And assumptions can be upheld or rebutted, so if someone looked at my skin colour, the composition of my name and extrapolated from what they knew Indian people looked like, then it wouldn’t be an unreasonable guess for them to think that I am Indian. I’d like to make clear that I don’t think you should really assume anything in life, or take anything at face value for that matter. But I feel that making an educated guess in the pursuit of understanding a concept shouldn’t be something that is deemed offensive if it has basis in prior knowledge, and I feel this should also apply to the realm of self-identification. Ideally, it would be best to straight up ask, but assuming that they’re something else should not be taken as an act of malice or a personal attack on the individual. The cure for ignorance is to question.
This is where I find the offence in the gender arena hard to understand sometimes. The term, ‘Don’t Assume My Gender!’ has become a bit of a meme/gimmick, but it’s foundations are confusing to me because any first observation is an assumption based on consolidated facts. If I see something that on first observation looks like a cat, my brain will tell me that based on what I’ve experienced previously with cats and what I know about cats prior to this encounter, that, on the balance of probabilities, it’s a cat. It could potentially be any other animal, and the only way I would know it’s true identity is when I’m told what it actually is. Assumption is essential to uncovering truth because if you stop people reaching conclusions by extrapolating from well-established knowledge, you’re denying every scientific and social advancement from being reached accurately in the future. This is not to say that well-established knowledge and ideas can’t be re-written or adapted, and without education regarding new cultural and scientific trends, then language cannot effectively evolve. The understanding of gender has definitely changed in the last 70 years and in order to move with that change, we have to accept that the traditional stance has to be challenged, which is inevitably offensive. If you don’t allow people to look at a new way of thinking and criticise it compared to the conventional way, then you will never convince anyone of the new movement. Nicolaus Copernicus in formulating his model that placed the Sun, rather than the Earth, at the centre of the universe didn’t tell the Catholic Church and everybody else to stop assuming the Earth’s position in the universe. He published his findings and received an onslaught of heavy criticism from literally everyone, until his stance was accepted. He challenged the assumption, and ultimately, uncovered one of the greatest scientific truths in history.
Language is complex and a mutation of social discourse. JHB has every right to be questioning being referred to as a ‘cis-woman’ in much the same way that a transgender person might question being a ‘man’ or a ‘woman’. One thing we cannot have is gatekeepers of language, people who decide what we can and can’t say. I would, for example, be quite irritated if someone said that I couldn’t self-identity as ‘brown’ because they do not approve of that language. Some language can, of course, be restricted, such as the way we don’t use the phrase ‘half-cast’ to describe individuals who are mixed race nowadays. But language cannot be compulsory and impulsed on an individual. In a free society, no one should be able to tell you what you are, and that goes for self-identification in a way that promotes mutual respect for everyone’s uniqueness. This would mean that I can happily identify as whatever I like, and have that challenged and debated. I will never be able to force anyone to call me ‘brown’ but out of mutual respect, it would mean that I would happily refer to anyone else by however they would like to be called. This ensures that people feel comfortable being who they are, without being forced to conform into any categories that they feel uncomfortable with. In the society that I feel is most progressive, JHB should be able to state her gender identity freely and without restriction, but have to accept that Steve Allen is not forced to accept her identity and is able to challenge her, in exchange for his own gender identity to be respected too. It’s a tricky balance, but it’s the only one that I feel allows for criticism of ideas and a respect for each everyone’s identity. We cannot have double standards with self-identification as it will undermine the legitimacy of those wanting to self-identify as well as create power imbalances where certain groups of people feel more entitled to classify things. The whole point is that you as an individual can dictate what you are called, and not by anyone else.
On the first day of my AS Chemistry class, a new student walked in who appeared to be transitioning from male to female, and there was a palpable air of uncertainty. Our teacher then referred to the student directly by her name, something that was discussed between the two before the lesson, and from then on, there was no uncertainty remaining. Anecdotal as it may seem, my point is the best method to respect people’s self-identification is surely education and direct conveyance of information. I feel it’s not conducive to, for example, blame a person referring to someone who looks like a male as a male, because it’s not the most constructive approach. The best way to change people’s viewpoint is not by berating it, but by shedding light on a new way of thinking and hence providing them with an opportunity to change. There’s a discussion to be had about gender self-identification and potentially moving away from a historically heteronormative lens, but unless you allow people to assume, be curious, and have such assumptions upheld or rejected, then no change will ever arise.