“You must trust me to know my own identity”

Josephine Livingstone at the New Republic apparently thinks that people are simply not allowed to discuss or write about what is meant by “trans” and how we know any of it is true and subjects of that nefarious kind.

Jesse Singal, who has gained notoriety on the left for his frequent tweeting and writing on trans issues, says he just wants to talk. When readers get angry with him, which happens often, he sees them as curtailing a productive conversation that he has prompted in the spirit of a free and vigorous exchange of ideas.

How dare he. No, what we’re supposed to do is find the Correct trans people on Twitter, find out what they say, memorize it, and point to it if the subject ever comes up. How do we know they have it right? Never you mind; we’re not permitted to ask questions of that type.

But if there were a neutral space online for this imagined debate about, say, trans children, its location would certainly not be Jesse Singal’s Twitter feed. There’s a reason that we have a saying about not dignifying an idea with a response.

But anyway we’re not supposed to have a debate. We’re just supposed to find out what the revealed truth is, and then shut up. If we wonder how anyone knows all this, we must keep it to ourselves.

Singal’s lamentations elicit a very particular weariness among trans readers. His logic is circular, and obsessive. In returning to the subject repeatedly, Singal seems intent on cracking some truth about the trans experience that is not accessible to him, as if provoked by that very inaccessibility. And this is the epistemological challenge that trans culture lays at cis culture’s doorstep: You must trust me to know my own identity. To extend full humanity to trans citizens means marking the limits of cis knowledge.

Ok, dropping the sarcasm now. That’s not an “epistemological challenge”; it’s a command to accept narcissistic bullshit without question. There is no such imperative. No, we are not required to trust anyone to know her or his “own identity” if her or his claims about said “identity” are implausible. We don’t have to extend people in general that kind of sweeping trust, because people can lie and people can be mistaken, yes even about their own identities. Of course they can; self-knowledge is subject to warping by self-interest, self-protection, self-love, to name just three obvious distorters. So no. That’s one reason the claims about trans identity are so contested and so contestable: they really entirely on subjective understanding of a magical self, and that’s not a strong basis for genuine knowledge.

That fact is clearly politically anathema to a lot of people right now, but that doesn’t make it any less true. The fact that the New Republic employs someone (Livingstone is a staff writer) who can’t see that is kind of embarrassing.

(There is also, to repeat, the simple fact that people can lie – yes, even about their “own identity.”)

One of the reasons that trans skeptics get so riled by this demand is that it implies that their empathy and their intellect have borders. It also denies the universality of human experience, and undermines the notion of a pure discourse where only reason prevails. Ironically, nothing makes those borders starker than the Singals of this world patrolling the edges of a culture war, demanding that their opponents meet them at the fence for a healthy conversation.

Can you figure out what that’s supposed to mean? Because I can’t.

Maybe we should just trust it.

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