All posts by Abigail Curlew

About Abigail Curlew

Abigail Curlew is a PhD student of the sociology of surveillance at Carleton University, a freelance journalist, and an activist. She writes to bring attention to surveillance issues in technology, media, and politics in order to inform the public of the threat of ubiquitous watching.

The Specter of the Trans Activist

The specter of the “male-to-female transactivist” has been allegedly haunting the contemporary Western world, we’ve been accused of attacking free speech, contaminating children with trans ideology, and ruining science by insisting on the fact that we are women and deserve to use the woman’s restroom. Proponents across the political spectrum have been actively working to rebrand trans feminism in order to delegitimize our social, cultural, and political concerns.

Before I get into this argument, I want to be clear that I do not think that the work of activists is any less valuable than the work of experts. In fact, sometimes experts are also activists, and vice-versa. Knowledge production is complex, partial, variable, and consists of constantly shifting standards and values. So when I refer to the anti-trans mythology of the “radical trans activist”, I am referring instead to the character trope and strawman set up by anti-trans writers who want to demonize any form of criticism to their bigoted views.

The media of late has been lit up with transphobic and cissexist op-eds that are openly hostile to our basic human rights and skeptical of the expert knowledge of health professionals who advocate for gender affirmative approaches to trans health care.

As investigative journalist Siobhan O’Leary highlighted in a recent blog post, this media frenzy has been revolving around a false dichotomy that positions trans activists as always opposed to expert scientists, even when a trans activist is a scientist. Both the mainstream media and the academy have failed trans folks because of its inability to engage in nuanced discussions over queer issues and its hostility towards vocal trans critics.

O’Leary writes, “We continue to be upset because no matter how level-headed our criticism, no matter how rooted in the academic research we are, no matter if we are published in academic journals or not–we are demonized as activists to the exclusion of scientific findings, rather than understood as activists because of scientific findings”.

Just a few days ago, I published an article in Vice Canada in response to a shit show of a transphobic opinion piece written by professional bigot Barbara Kay. In this response, I made reference to several scientific studies and an analysis piece to debunk Kay’s misinformation, however, I’ve still been accused of being anti-science in reader responses.

Because of the past decade of increasing attention to trans issues and forms of marginalization, we’ve become an easy target for bigots who interpret our basic human rights as threatening to their own privilege. This sense of aggrieved entitlement is the key stone of the treatment of trans folks in the news media and even if we are now protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, we are still at the mercy of an increasingly hostile cissexist public.

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Just a few days ago Kay published an op-ed where she bemoans that medical experts acceptance of gender affirmative approaches to trans medical care, grinds her teeth at the thought that trans women are women, and digs into some classic moral panics to conjure up vitriolic stereotypes that trans women are hysterical activists and dangerous sexual predators.

She couches her work in Orwellian references of authoritarian and violent politics and co-opts feminist language to accuse trans women as being misogynistic for merely being in public.

Kay’s arguments aren’t worth contesting, they’re just venomous dribble with cherry picked evidence and exaggerated stereotypes. However, my contention in this essay is that the socio-cultural climate is just the right degree of toxicity to camouflage hate speech in the public discourse. We live in transmisogynist era where the substance of Kay’s hatred for trans women is business as usual, and challenges to her work are either ignored or accused of attempts of suppression.

Of course, this article is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, other stories have been citing a fresh new study that makes massive claims about the existence of a new form of gender dysphoria. Behavioural scientist Lisa Littman published an article claiming to have empirical evidence for the existence of “rapid onset gender dysphoria” (ROGD) which explicitly impacts children and adolescence through so-called “social or peer contagion” that allegedly spreads through social media websites like Tumblr and YouTube.

In a reimagining of the “contagious gay” epidemic of the last century, folks are peddling the idea that being trans is contagious and it’s all the fault of trans activists and their transgender ideology (often awkwardly called “transgenderism”).

Julia Serano, trans writer and biologist highlighted a series of major methodological critiques in a now notorious essay she published to her Medium page. Among other serious concerns, Littman didn’t actually interview or survey the children who allegedly have ROGD, just “concerned” parents sampled from already transphobic websites. These online communities have rather illuminating titles, 4thwavenow, transgender trend, and youthtranscriticalprofessionals, and consist of transphobic parents who are looking to legitimize any hostility towards their trans children through pseudoscience that carries the veneer of expert knowledge.

These methodological criticisms quickly roused some concerns in the wider scholarly community as experts began to question how such flawed and unethical research could make it through a rigorous peer review process.

Brown University, Littman’s scholarly nook, has recently pulled down mentions of the article from its website in response to criticisms of methodological rigging and the study’s hostilities towards trans folks. And on top of this, the article’s publisher, PLOS ONE began a “post publication investigation” into Littman’s methods, methodologies, and analysis to assess its scientific validity.

It is important to note that this research only contains the illusion of clinical authority, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), the body that sets international standards of care, published a statement setting the facts straight: “The term “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD)” is not a medical entity recognized by any professional association, nor is it listed as a subtype or classification in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel (DSM) or International Classification of Diseases.

And even if the study has been rejected by the majority of clinicians, it’s been championed by transphobic public figures and organizations and it’s contents are being used to justify the “concerns” of hostile parents who will inevitably force their children back into the closet. In a society defined by cisgender supremacy, as a recent study has illuminated, trans communities are facing a suicide crisis as trans folks are pushed into the closet to suffer in shame and isolation.

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Articles from big name media outlets, such as The Telegraph, the Wall Street Journal, and The Economist have been downplaying the academic criticism and characterizing detractors as radical activists trying to suppress Littman’s right to academic freedom and free speech.

Any opposition or critique to these ideas are usually rendered biased subjective nonsense, totalitarian, or anti free speech. And regardless of a trans person’s credentials, if we engage in these discussions publicly or stand up for ourselves, we are accused of being dangerous “male-to-female transactivists”.

Of course, this is not how the scientific community works. Free speech works differently in academic spaces where knowledge must be vetted by other experts in the discipline before it is solidified into an acceptable fact. This vetting process usually occurs through General Research Ethics Boards (GREB) or Institutional Review Boards (IRB), rigorous peer-review processes, and robust academic debate in order to make sure that what an expert is saying is, in fact, accurate. Anyone can publish an op-ed in the National Post and lash out at the trans community, but in academic publications, only the most rigorous work is published.

Of course, this process isn’t perfect, and sometimes bad research makes it to the academic press. But this is why PLOS ONE has decided to run a post-publication investigation. If they’re caught publishing bad research, it’s the journal’s credibility on the line.

To characterize methodological criticism as “suppressing speech” is a gross manipulation of the scientific method. Of course, these tactics seem to be super common on research that attempts to re-pathologize trans folks.

So to re-cap, the mainstream media is publishing a constant stream of anti-trans dribble, any critique of that dribble is considered the hysterical nonsense of radical trans activists, and certain members of the scientific community are willing to ignore the scientific method and proper methodological rigor when it involves trans topics.

Of course, these writers often try to dilute their hostilities with statements of support for “regular” trans people. These are the trans people who apparently don’t use public restrooms and try their best to meld in with the wider cisgender society.

For instance, Kay wrote near the end of her article, “In fact, [transactivists] bullishness actually hampers broader societal acceptance for the majority of trans men and women who do not feel represented by [trans activists], have no wish to die on vocabulary mountains, and who accept their biological reality as a fact of life” (p.s. I removed the name of the trans activist Kay was trying to run through the mud).

Though Kay’s article is an exception in that it is clearly a piece of hate speech, in most anti-trans articles, bigotry is embedded in the subtext. The writing might seem innocent, even impartial and objective, but will still tap into tropes and moral panics such as the spectre of the trans activist.

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This trend is not new but in the current political climate of Trump style far-right politics, it’s become fashionable to dog pile trans folks. The starting point of this collective anti-trans tantrum can be traced to the explosion of popularity around the now cultish, messiah-like figure Jordan Peterson.

In the Canadian context, the intensity of anti-trans rhetoric hit a spilling point after Jordan Peterson pulled a straight-up tantrum over Bill C-16, a piece of legislation to add the words “gender identity or expression” to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The extension of basic human rights to trans folks was apparently an unprecedented attack on free speech that would drive the country into an Orwellian nightmare.

Peterson put forward the myth that C-16 would pave the way for “compelled speech,” or the idea that people would have to use a trans person’s correct pronouns or risk imprisonment. Of course, this is far from the case. Legal expert Brenda Cossman set the record straight by fact checking the legal consequences of a robust human rights legislation that could help protect trans folks from active discrimination. Peterson’s opposition to the basic human rights of trans folks remains the key stone for anti-trans rhetoric by setting up the trans activist as the enemy of free people.

The results of this hot mess? Regular trans women must constantly and unwillingly confront transphobia in the media, in the restroom, and in public institutions as they navigate their everyday lives. The very act of being publicly trans is read as radical politics, whether or not they could be considered activists.

This trans activist versus scientist trope is a means for shutting down debate by delegitimizing the authority of trans folks to even engage in these issues. By using this trope in the media, journalists and editors have made it clear that the free speech of trans folks carry little weight or value.

“Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” and transphobic science: the case of fraught objectivity

With the recent and tumultuous controversy concerning “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria” (ROGD), the science, and what counts as science, has been muddied by researchers who are explicitly hostile to the rights of transgender folks. A few weeks ago, behavioural scientist Lisa Littman published an article claiming to have empirical evidence for the existence of a new form of gender dysphoria that explicitly impacts youth, through so-called “social contagion,” with the consequences of confused cisgender children inauthentically at odds with the gender they were assigned at birth.

Littman concludes, “Rapid-onset gender dysphoria (ROGD) describes a phenomenon where the development of gender dysphoria is observed to begin suddenly during or after puberty in an adolescent or young adult who would not have met criteria for gender dysphoria in childhood”. This “distinct” form of gender dysphoria is allegedly linked to “social or peer contagion” which allegedly allows the “ROGD’s” transmission to youth who are exposed to transgender cultural or technical knowledge. Brown University, Littman’s scholarly nook, has recently pulled down mentions of the article from it’s website in response to criticisms of methodological rigging and the studies hostilities towards trans folks.

And as reported by Science Magazine, the article’s publisher PLOS ONE began a “post publication investigation” into Littman’s methods, methodologies, and analysis. As editor-in-chief said to Science Magazine, “This is not about suppressing academic freedom or scientific research. This is about the scientific content itself — whether there is anything that needs to be looked into or corrected”.

The publication of this research paper and its subsequent uptake by anti-trans groups has immense societal impacts on trans folks and the communities we belong in. It’s a clear effort of widely anti-queer groups to re-medicalize trans identity (which was declared not a mental illness via scientific consensus in 2013), the consequences of this would strongly imply that children with ROGD are mentally ill and in need of medical intervention. This is uncomfortably close to a renewed push for the use of conversion therapy, a dangerous form of medical intervention which has been widely condemned as abusive and unscientific.

Recently, the World Professional Association for Transgender Health (WPATH), the international body that essentially sets the standards of care for trans related medical and psychological clinical treatments, has published a statement declaring,

The term “Rapid Onset Gender Dysphoria (ROGD)” is not a medical entity recognized by any professional association, nor is it listed as a subtype or classification in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel (DSM) or International Classification of Diseases. Therefore, it constitutes nothing more than an acronym created to describe a proposed clinical phenomenon that may or may not warrant further peer-reviewed scientific investigation

WPATH reinforces the lengthily processes of scientific inquiry, debate, and rigorous scrutiny that an observation must go through before being officially considered a clinical phenomenon.

Another consequence of this debate is that our collective public presence as trans folks, whether it be through activism, journalism, or scholarly work, is being rendered an existential threat to allegedly cisgender children.

Oh, those darn trans-activists and their SJW agenda!

I will leave the science-y critique to folks who are closer to the subject area than I am, check out Julia Serano’s critique of Littman’s poor scientific praxis, and Florence Ashley’s critique of Serano’s critics.

What I want to address in this essay is the rapidly expanding viral moral panic that trans folks and our allies are attempting to impose trans-ness on cisgender youth through the widely practiced gender affirmative and informed consent models of therapy. Littman, and her now broad platform of supporters, have muddied what counts as rigorous quantitative and qualitative scientific methods to make vastly unsubstantiated claims about the existence of “ROGD”.

What is concerning to me is that Littman’s poor scientific praxis is being un-critically taken as objective knowledge production and her methodological problems are being neatly tucked away in lieu of critiques.

This is further aggravated by claims that queer activists, writers, and scholars are anti-science, biased because they are trans, and against free speech (Serano responds to these claims here). Of course, this is a regular rhetorical strategy utilized by transphobic public figures to render trans activists, writers, and scholars as fanatics interested in shutting down conversations (aka, anti-trans bigotry) and putting forward “feelings” ahead of science and reason.

The fundamental issue at play is the prominence of vernacular or folk understandings of scientific objectivity. In other words, how non-scientists and folks outside of the academy think scientists do the labor of knowledge production. Through the vernacular, non-scientists often impose a romanticised image of objective scientific methods that tidy up the messiness of research and obfuscate the scientific process.

Fraught objectivity

Scientists (usually a term relegated solely to those who use quantitative, as opposed to qualitative, methods within the popular imagination) are already and always “objective” (unless they are trans folks, people of color, or women) and thus are arbitrators of “facts”. The problem here isn’t science, but how scientific knowledge production is understood by non-experts navigating everyday life.

I’ve encountered the hypocrisy of this mentality many times over Twitter conversations, where the expert knowledge of progressive scholars and journalists are rendered ideologically biased or elitist, while far-right public figures like Jordan Peterson are uplifted as the very pinnacle of the scientific method (whether they use scientific methods or not).

As many scholars in the discipline of science and technology studies (STS) have noted, objectivity and the operability of the scientific method is entirely contingent on a scientist’s ability to put together a sound methodology that is reflexive of their biases. STS sociologist John Law has pointed out in a review of the ethnographic work conducted on scientific labor within laboratories that methodologies are always exposed to researcher bias, which impacts scientific results, and oftentimes are made opaque by the mere illusion of being objective. This is especially relevant for the messy disciplines of human behavior — a field of study that is wrapped up in the seemingly infinite complexities of historically contingent and culturally shaped subjectivities.

Littman’s research is emblematic of this issue. Her methods consisted of recruiting participants from a series of blogs that are known to contain transphobic parents, in order conduct empirical research on transgender children. Littman’s cisgender bias is present in how she constructs her research tools, before an analysis is even conducted.

As Serano notes,

The fact that Littman didn’t even bother to post a link to the survey on any of the many other online groups for parents of trans kids (i.e., ones that do not push an ROGD agenda, and who thus might have very different assessments of their adolescent trans children) strongly suggests that she purposefully structured her study to confirm the former parents’ assumptions, rather than objectively assess the state of their children.

This contamination of Littman’s objectivity is further aggravated by a key analytical issue — Littman didn’t speak to any of the children she claimed to have data on. She only surveyed transphobic parents who presumably have zero understanding of how their children feel. In a response to Serano’s critique, Robert D’Angelo with the newly formed Pediatric and Adolescent Gender Dysphoria Working Group (made up of the same anti-trans scientists), published a statement declaring that research through the proxy of a parent is standard practice.

This might be true, but it also has consequences for the project’s analysis. Littman’s research is not a study of trans children, it is a study of the perceptions of transphobic parents whose children are navigating the complex world of gender dysphoria and cissexism.

Getting access to children for academic research is difficult, but not impossible. And if a research isn’t willing to do the leg work to produce a workable methodology, then I hardly see how it is appropriate for her to “discover” a new form of gender dysphoria. There is a chance that Littman’s research, if proposed to be conducted on children, would not have passed an Institutional Review Board (IRB) which typically governs how academics conduct themselves in human research.

The point is, this research had never been objective, and it is surprising to me that these issues weren’t picked up by the peer reviewer at PLOS ONE.

In the scholarly world, knowledge is meant to be vetted by experts. A scholar typically can’t publish just anything in a scholarly journal — their knowledge needs to be rigorously assessed. A peer review process includes a panel of scholars who blindly review research to draw out methodological errors, poor or unsubstantiated analysis, and potential ethical ramifications of the publication. In the case of Littman, this process failed her.

Free speech ideologies do not count the same in academic publishing, scholars are restrained from making willy-nilly expert decisions for good reason.

The ability for a scholar to set aside their bias in order to achieve objectivity is fraught. Our own capacity to be reflexive of the biases and hostilities that inform our thinking are often made invisible. It is very difficult to point out the things that influence our ability to be objective, because, well, we’re human beings with complex emotional states informing our perceptions of the world around us. This is among the many reasons that scientists review each other’s work, because oftentimes we are unable to point out our own methodological errors and mistakes.

Scientists are, in fact, human like everyone else.

I do not have answers for the failure of PLOS ONE to conduct a proper peer review but considering the hostile history of cissexism in research on transgender folks throughout history, I have some speculations.

An historical primer of cisgender and heterosexual bias and gatekeeping

Cisgender and heterosexual (cishet) researchers have a long history of conducting bias research where prejudice against LGBTQ+ folks had become embedded in research design, methodologies, and analysis. Since the late nineteenth century, psychologists and sexologists have been pumping out research that sought to either hide or eradicate queerness. It was seen as a pathology, and like other mental illnesses or disabilities at the time, queerness was exposed to intense degrees of policing, incarceration, and extreme social stigmatization.

The history of science is far from objective, it reflected the ideological underpinnings of white cishet men and served to subjugate LGBTQ+ folks, women, people of color, and disabled folks.

The science at the time seemed to be clear, if you weren’t a white, male, cishet, you were sick and in need of remedy. As historical sociologist Johnathon Ned Katz illustrates in his book The Invention of Heterosexuality, the very historical development of the psychological categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality was infused with notions of what was considered normal at the time (fun fact, the first usage of the term “heterosexuality” in 1892 was in reference to people who were attracted to men AND women, not straight folks).

Katz observes,

In the twentieth century, creatures called heterosexuals emerged from the dark shadows of the nineteenth-century medical world to become common types acknowledged in the bright light of the modern day.

According to Katz, the production of the terms heterosexuality and homosexuality are laced with the bias of its late eighteen to early nineteen century Christian moral puritanism which eschewed sexual desire in favor of the “reproductive imperative” (or, in other words, having loads of babies). These emerging categories were put to work in the psychological discourse of the time and eventually came to be used to refer to straight people and everyone else. Those terms carried with it a baggage that constructed moral and biological hierarchies — straight folks were considered superior to queer folks.

The science of this period (and I would argue the same for contemporary science) was first framed through a cishet lens that privileged their culturally-shaped position in the world and actively othered queer folk. Not only was objectivity not achieved, the analysis emerging from this research was taken-for-granted and rarely critically interrogated. As historian Susan Stryker notes in her book Transgender History, in the eighteenth-century, science had come to supplant religion as the “highest social authority” and had massive influence over the moral codes that shaped everyday life. So not only were people pathologized for being different, they were actively stigmatized.

At the same time, the history of medical science in the Western world had been plagued with eugenics and an unhealthy obsession with creating natural hierarchies. This was an era of scientific exploitation that categorized everything that wasn’t a white cishet man to be degenerate and morally corrupt. For an interesting and colorful exploration of the history of degeneracy, check out this Contrapoints video.

Stryker observes that the words “transgender” and “transsexual” came into usage during the 1950s; it’s not that trans folks didn’t exist before this time, but they didn’t have a language to describe being trans. These categories emerged initially as a way of describing “gender identity disorder,” however, they were eventually reclaimed as categories used within the trans cultural lexicon. Despite these changes in usage, the terms and the identities they describe carry the historical baggage of discrimination.

The parents that Littman surveyed are among many transphobes that tap into the historical notion that queerness is a mental illness to justify forcing their children back in the closet. This is a form of violence that push queer youth into isolation, mental illness, and potentially, death by suicide. The hostility of abusive and anti-queer family members can also lead to spikes in youth homelessness as trans youth are either kicked out of their home or forced to flee abusive behavior.

Though informed consent models and gender affirmative therapy have been growing in popularity, there is still an overwhelming attachment to the gateway model of trans health care. As Serano writes in her book Whipping Girl, “Until 1998, the HBIGDA Standards of Care stated that ‘[a]ny and all recommendations for sex reassignment surgery and hormone therapy should be made only by clinical behavioral scientists’”. The gateway model proposes that a trans person must prove that they really are the gender they claim to (largely) cishet doctors, psychiatrists, and social workers in order to gain access to medically necessary treatments.

The history of gatekeeping is dark AF. For one, cishet experts were put into the position of judging what types of gender performances counted as authentic. So non-binary and gender non-conforming trans folks were often deemed ineligible for HRT or any form of gender affirming surgeries. In the case of trans women, because of prevailing norms of femininity, trans women had to perform 150% femme in order to get access to services. Otherwise, they would be deemed not woman enough, and would be denied access. In many cases, doctors could refuse medical access to queer trans folks for not conforming to the prevalent sexual norms. In order to get needed medical assistance as a trans person, you had to be straight.

These medical and legislative strategies were aimed at curing trans folks of their “ailment”, and if that wasn’t possible, to make sure the only people able to transition would be those who could pretend to be cishet and fade into relative invisibility. These practices were policed by a system of surveillance called the “real-life test” where a trans person would have to prove that they lived full-time in the gender they aligned with.

The historical legacy of cissexist and transphobic medical science are echoed in the vernacular understandings of trans science put forward by anti-queer activists today. To these folks, it doesn’t matter whether or not there is a general scientific consensus that being trans is a natural and normal human experience. All it takes is a problematic and morally dubious publication in an academic journal in order for these controversial discussions to be revitalized in the public eye.

Efforts to bring forward a critique of Littman’s research are obfuscated by accusations of censorship, anti-science mentalities, and the public harassment of trans writers, activists, and scholars. Legitimate academic criticism becomes immediately suspicious due to its connection to the notorious “trans activist agenda”.

Littman’s research, which she positioned in opposition to gender affirmative therapy, taps into the long history of biased, cissexist research that has served to disadvantage queer folks in our society. Her conclusions showcase a renewed effort to re-pathologize trans identity, and even if these assertions are rejected by WPATH, they provide the foundation for intensified transphobia, prejudice, and discrimination in the public discourse.

Gender affirmation and trusting the experiences of trans folks

When faced by biased and unobjective research, there is a need for grassroots mobilizing to highlight already existing platforms for medical and therapeutic intervention. The Sherbourne Health Centre in Toronto is a medical grassroots and community initiative that provides LGBTQ+ specific treatment to marginalized populations.

Their scientifically supported Guidelines and Protocols for Hormone Therapy and Primary Health Care for Trans Clients document has become a cornerstone in Canadian transgender healthcare. The document reads, “The trans population has suffered a great deal of prejudice, misunderstanding and harm from the medical community, and systemic oppression experienced by trans clients has often resulted in the denial of service”. This sort of scientific reflexivity is a sight for sore eyes in the realm of trans health care. Recognizing the historical and current abuses by medical professionals, the guidelines suggest a move towards the informed consent model which advocates that the threshold for prescribing hormone replacement therapy is given to the client after an information session of the positive and negative impacts of transition related medical procedures.

As pointed out by Florence Ashley and Alexandre Baril, the use of gender affirmative therapy attempts to affirm and encourage parents to take their children’s issues with gender identity and expression seriously. It is not, as many transphobic critics fearmonger, forcing children to undergo invasive medical procedures to undergo gender transition.

Ashley and Baril write,

Instead of encouraging the child not to be transgender and risking pushing them back into the closet, therapists seek to support the child and their parents throughout the process of exploring gender. They remain neutral with regards to whether the child should be trans or not.

Being transgender is confusing, but the confusion involved in transitioning has nothing to do with being mentally ill, it has everything to do with the misinformation, lack of education, and wider societal anti-trans prejudices. The lack of information about gender identity and expression in primary and secondary education curriculum means that children aren’t getting the proper education to help them navigate gender dysphoria.

Littman and her crowd view queer education and gender affirmative therapy as ideological nonsense pushed by the “trans agenda”. She renders knowledge about queerness as a catalyst for “social contagion” which threatens to contaminate cisgender children. Their solution to this issue is to literally silence and police gender non-conformity in children. This is enormously problematic.

Scientific objectivity is a fraught process that is mired with the messiness of research and the biases and prejudices of researchers. This is why WPATH asserts that “ROGD” can hardly be considered clinical, as it is one study with relatively little scientific scrutiny. The construction of facts in the medical world is a very slow process that unfolds through a multitude of studies that contest each others knowledge production in order to sift out lazy methods and potential biases.

In the face of these scientific hostilities, we need to listen to the experiences of trans folks. No one knows our struggles better than ourselves. This is why there is an emerging emphasis on gender affirmative therapy and the informed consent model. Instead of working from a position of suspicion and practices of surveillance and scrutiny, we need to give folks some well needed agency to explore their gender identity and expression.

We also need to listen to the experiences of trans writers, activists, and scholars who are working in the interest of safekeeping our access to basic human rights and dignity. We still live in a world that is hostile to queerness and difference and social conservatives consistently bemoan having to accept trans folks as human. Trans critics are painted as anti-free speech and anti-scientific, even while we raise legitimate scientific concerns with bias research that is being used against our communities.

So please, stop putting forward your romanticized assertions about what counts as objective research — you’re muddying good scientific practice and making life increasingly difficult for trans folks.

The manufactured free speech crisis and how we should respond

On the heels of the academic new year, as students are preparing to return to class and instructors are scrambling to put their syllabi together, Ford decreed that colleges and universities must implement free speech policy, or risk losing public funding. This is a big demand coming from the Ford administration, considering only a week prior Ford set up a snitch site to bully primary and secondary teachers into using an out-dated and anti-queer sex-ed curriculum. It is a perplexing thought that a government that relies on strong arm politics would interfere with knowledge production to satisfy the free speech boogieman.

It could be a symbolic gesture to please his social conservative base, who have spun up a mythology that colleges and universities are unsafe places for right-wing thinking. Or it could be that Ford is a social conservative himself, who believes that the far-right should have the capacity to advocate against marginalized folks without consequence.

Free speech issues are perplexing, multidimensional, and complex — it is an agonizing process of constantly balancing the imperative to speak truth to power with the need to foster anti-oppressive strategies. However, in its current form in the public discourse, free speech arguments are being used as a rhetorical strategy on the far-right to legitimize hate speech (or dog whistling hate speech) on campus spaces.

Free speech and the far-right

Campus free speech issues became contentious in Ontario politics following the Lindsay Shepherd controversy where a teaching assistant manufactured a free speech crisis out of her inability to hijack the content of a University class to question the existence of non-binary trans folks. Though Shepherd likely didn’t intend for the public fiasco that emerged in the wake of her disclosures, her incident provided the far-right with a martyr that they could use to pull public heart strings. The Federal Conservatives, via Andrew Scheer, immediately made a gesture of support by declaring colleges and universities spaces hostile to free speech.

Shepherd was run through the news cycles of op-eds and feature interviews, while simultaneously maintaining a popular Twitter presence where she verbally attacked trans and POC activists. Shepherd is not the topic of this paper, but her presence in the politics of free speech is emblematic of the issues I want to touch on. Click here for a more detailed analysis of the Shepherd controversy.

In an effort to tap into this oasis of conservative values, as well as to please his bigoted social conservative base, Ford made a campaign promise to enforce free speech policies on campus and enforce this demand through funding conditions.

I think Ford’s politics are dangerous for several reasons. First, it shows a vast ignorance about how academic freedom and free speech work in practice at academic institutions. Second, the government is attempting to give far-right bigots a get-out-of-jail-free card to spread racist, (cis)sexist, and homophobic BS on campus, while stating that protesting bigoted speakers is unacceptable. Such an argument immediately elevates the free speech of some, from the free speech of others.

The major controversy that free speech advocates tap into is the existence of protests meant to de-platform controversial and offensive speakers. I see a lot of social media debate focusing on the de-platforming of Faith Goldy, neo-Nazi and white supremacist, at Wilfrid Laurier University because someone pulled the fire alarm. Ford Nation wants the ability to speak about oppressive politics without the ability for resistance or consequences. They are working to normalize the presence of fascist ideologs who propose that society should be actively hostile towards non-white, non-straight, and non-cis folks.

Ford’s government is calling for the implementation of the Chicago Principles, a common goal in right-wing free speech circles. The Chicago Principles refer to the Statement on Principles of Free Expression, a non-binding policy statement published by the University of Chicago to address de-platforming strategies used against offensive speakers.

Though the policy nuances that free speech is never an absolute condition and that there’s sometimes reasonable restrictions on speech and expression on campus, it is broadly insufficient at addressing the major tensions between the right to speak and the need for anti-oppression policies. It’s major contribution, and why it is so popular among the far-right, is that it targets protesters, usually from the left, who are concerned that far-right speakers are normalizing bigotry.

The policy statement reads: “Although faculty, students and staff are free to criticize, contest and condemn the views expressed on campus, they may not obstruct, disrupt, or otherwise interfere with the freedom of others to express views they reject or even loathe”.

Of course, arguments for free speech must include the right to protest ideas as well, and the lines between a protest and efforts to de-platform are often very blurry. The Chicago Principles have no way of dealing with these tensions.

The oppressive consequences of universalist free speech policy

The fundamental issue that I have with these policies is that the authors do not account for the existence of structural disadvantages that marginalized folks face in a socially stratified society. If the baseline in our society is inequality, then it’s clear that within a system of absolute free speech, only those sitting on the top of that hierarchy will be free to say and do as they please.

Far too often, the consequences of structural inequalities and privileges that disadvantage many while benefiting some are ignored or overlooked. To be fair, it’s difficult to spot out the effects of social stratification as it’s become so common sense in our day-to-day lives. It takes deep reflection and study to objectively glance at the social privileges you might avail of and even more rigorous work to do comprehensive research on the societal impacts of social inequalities. This is why sociological and anthropological research is so perplexing — it is the art of making opaque socio-cultural processes visible in order to agitate for change.

Mapping out relations of inequality and privilege often include an analysis of socio-economic stratification, as well as the impacts of other vectors of identity. Our presence in the world is impacted by our gender, sex, race, ability, class, and sexual identities. Some groups have a much wider access to economic, social, and cultural resources with the pinnacle of this access sitting with white, cisgender, heterosexual (cishet) men. To be clear, I’m not seeking to diminish the struggles of men, but to highlight that other folks have compounded struggles to deal with that white cishet men typically don’t experience.

For instance, as a trans woman I’m made to consistently navigate hostile publics that make the mere act of leaving home an anxiety-ridden adventure into the unknown. Every time I present identification in public, I’m viewed with suspicion. If I’m recognized as trans in the street, my presence draws uncomfortable, disapproving glances and sometimes harassment. I must consider how every new person in my life might react to my trans identity. And how my identity will impact my ability to get a job or sufficient housing.

When I enter academic spaces, I might have to deal with debates about whether I am allowed to be in a woman’s washroom or whether or not my identity is even legitimate or authentic.

These are all life conditions which exist for me, and not for cishet men, and they are only present because of the existence of cissexism, or the idea that cisgender identities are inherently superior to transgender identities.

It’s very easy for folks who do not experience structural inequality to forget that a lot of people have it worse. It’s also difficult for us to empathize with those who are different from us. And this oppressive cocktail leads to a lack of sensitivity for the struggles marginalized folks are made to face in everyday life.

This is compounded by the fact that it is becoming increasingly more acceptable to spread white supremacist, nationalist, and cishet patriarchal politics. For instance, there was an outpour of public support when Faith Goldy was de-platformed at Wilfrid Laurier University. Folks were pissed off that a racist sitting on the fringe of far-right politics wasn’t able to speak at an institution of learning.

My main contention in this essay is that the implementation of a universalist and enforceable free speech policy ignores the existence of socio-cultural stratification and thus is insufficient to protect the free speech of everyone.

When we let figures like Faith Goldy and Jordan Peterson spread hostile ideologies across college and university campuses we inevitably create a chilly environment for marginalized folks. This means that for marginalized folks to rebuttal attacks on their basic human rights, they need to stand up to figures hostile to their existence and the oftentimes violent retaliation from their supporters. For instance, the last time I wrote about these issues in relation to the Lindsay Shepherd fiasco, I was forced to endure a great deal of Internet abuse from folks who simultaneously disagreed with my analysis and dehumanized my existence.

However, the intimidation tactics and forms of political violence that are meant to target marginalized writers, activists, and scholars aren’t considered a form of de-platforming by the vast majority of people. The goals of “name and shame” tactics over the Internet are often used against marginalized folks to push them into silence. The stakes of public participation are burdened with a fear of reprisal from hate groups, and their supporters.

I can think of several academic colleagues that I know who are afraid to mention certain ideas in their analysis because it might generate a cybermob. These voices are censored, because there are no supports put into place to protect their right to academic freedom and free speech. And the mainstream is to busy musing about how the very famous Jordan Peterson is censored (even though he isn’t, and he’s made a fortune off of his public presence).

There is never any public discussion about these issues, as we always get distracted by manufactured free speech crises by public figures with huge platforms.

If we have a free speech model that ignores the existence and consequences of a stratified and hierarchal society, we are only uplifting the voices of those at the top of this hierarchy. The far-right have been asserting that they are being censored and silenced by the “intolerable left”, although this is far from the truth. It’s voices on the left who get singled out and silenced by University administrations and such actions are rarely featured in the mainstream media. The far-right are just able to make a bigger deal out of being censored, and they are empowered by the complicity of everyone else.

A rigged debate

Free speech conversations are messy by nature, because they deal with the vexing overlap of the need of marginalized folks to fight for emancipation from structural inequalities with the need of a political climate where it is okay to upset the status quo. Theoretically, we should be able to find a policy solution that allows for a constant assessment of the fine line between these two points. In practice, these discussions are muddied by the far-right, who often willingly champion free speech arguments as a dog whistle for bigotry.

Dog whistling is a clever rhetorical strategy that allows a group to embed a subtextual meaning in their speech that is generally invisible to those who are ill-equipped to recognize it. So when the far-right say that gender identity and expression being protected by the Charter of Rights and Freedoms is a form of compelled speech (forcing someone to use correct pronouns under the threat of criminalization), it’s also advocating hostility towards trans folks.

For those who don’t have a deeper knowledge about the terms and consequences of a public debate will come to see progressive activism as SJW “political correctness”, and not as a defence of the basic human rights and dignity of trans folks.

This is what sociologists call media manipulation, or the use of political rhetorical strategies that are made to use publicly acceptable debates as vehicles for their more hostile and radical political ideologies. It’s not transphobia, because Peterson or Shepherd have not directly said that they don’t like trans folks. But the implications of their arguments are hostile towards the basic human rights and dignity of those of us under the trans umbrella.

Furthermore, the Chicago Principles only recognize that free speech isn’t absolute in relation to the law. That means in Canada, the exception to free speech policy is any speech or expression that falls under hate crime as defined by the Criminal Code, which is defined as speech that advocates for violence or genocide against a fixed group of people.

The criminal justice system uses a high threshold for what a judge might consider to be hate speech. As Jennifer Yang reported for the Toronto Star, “The burden of proof is high, conviction rates are low and what actually constitutes a “hate crime” isn’t explicitly defined by the Criminal Code”. In the case of the pronoun debates, what Peterson and Shepherd have to say about trans folks is not considered hate, even while it dog whistles a transphobic and cissexist worldview. Legal expert Brenda Cossman has a super useful article exploring the messiness of the pronoun debate from the legal perspective.

It’s also important to point out that controversial speakers aren’t legally responsible for their supporters, meaning that when Peterson or Shepherd rile up their base, they are not held responsible for the targeted harassment enacted by their cybermobs.

How should colleges and universities respond?

Since Ford mandated that colleges and universities must cobble together these policies by the new year, we need to start conversations about how to include social justice and anti-oppression provisions into the Chicago Principles immediately.

A good starting point has been developed at Laurier following the public relations fallout in the aftermath of the Shepherd controversy. After a comprehensive review of the state of free speech on campus, Deborah MacLatchy, vice-chancellor and president, announced their movement towards a “better speech” policy.

In her op-ed for the Globe and Mail, MacLatchy writes, “In the face of language that threatens the humanity of our students, staff or faculty, we must continually promote better speech. This means questioning and challenging opinions with sound arguments and evidence. Students and faculty must be able to share views and experiences while simultaneously committing to high ethical and intellectual standards for open, constructive conversations”.

Calling for critical reflection, she continues, “Inclusive freedom involves a vigorous commitment to free speech, coupled with the assurance that all individuals have an opportunity to engage in free expression, inquiry and learning”.

Of course, this sort of policy is akin to leaky patchwork. It inevitably places the burden of defending social justice on those who are already marginalized. For instance, it will be largely trans folks who are made to defend their basic humanity against bigoted speech.

I am unsure how “inclusive freedom” in free speech policies will work in practice (if they work at all), but it does provide us with a foundation to start a more nuanced conversation.

We need to begin with the premise that absolutist approaches for free speech fail to address how marginalized folks are silenced.

In order to ensure that we are heard by the authoritative bodies of college and university campuses across the province, we need to employ every tool we have access too. Student unions and federations need to put the pressure on University Senates to think more deeply and critically about the shape of their free speech policies. Professors and graduate students need to put forward sensible and nuanced accounts about how academic freedom and free speech function in the academy. And we might need to mobilize and protest the decisions of the University administration.

They need to hear us speak about the things that silence our speech. They need to be shown that media manipulation and digital political violence are often used against marginalized writers, speakers, and advocates on the very campuses we are speaking about. And that those forms of violence and the folks who deploy them often masquerade under the cover of free speech.

We need to ensure that the Chicago Principles do not become a pathway to bigotry across college and university campuses. Instead we should take Ford’s political intervention as an opportunity to think deeply about these issues and put forward novel ways to nurture accountable, academic spaces for students and researchers.

Ford’s snitch site and the chilly climate of surveillance culture

In the past week the Ford administration has been increasing the political stakes around their discriminatory sex-ed repeal. In order to impose punitive measures to ensure compliance to their repeal, they rolled out a snitch site for parents to file complaints if they believe that their teachers aren’t following the newly reinstated 1998 sex-ed curriculum. In his statement to the press, he declared, “We will not tolerate anybody using our children as pawns for grandstanding and political games. And, make no mistake, if we find somebody failing to do their job, we will act”. The governments implementation of a snitch system is a blatant use of surveillance technology to punish teachers through a punitive use of citizen tattle tailing that will only lead to a divisive and chilly climate in Ontario politics.

This is highly significant, as invasive surveillance has become a cornerstone of contemporary society. Our media saturated lives have allowed for the development of a wider surveillance culture where being watched and being visible has become ingrained in our everyday lives. Ford’s decision to implement a Snitch Site is moving the bar of what we consider a normal quantity of surveillance, and we must actively resist the normalization of state-sponsored, punitive surveillance strategies.

The sex-ed repeal

The sex-ed repeal is among the Ford Nation’s more controversial political interventions into the lives of Ontario citizens. I’ve argued in The Conversation that Ford’s initiative to roll back to the fossilized, 1998 sex-ed curriculum is explicitly discriminatory against LGBTQ+ children and will make life incredibly difficult for queer kids who just want to live normal lives as they navigate their school lives.

The move to repeal sex-ed curriculum is a dog-whistle for cis- and hetero- sexism, meaning that the Ford government is enacting legislation to attack LGBTQ+ rights, while actively disguising their homophobic and transphobic motives with talk around “parent consultations”. This has allowed the Ford administration to roll back the curriculum with a promise of future modernization after consulting parents. Of course, the status of queer inclusion into the curriculum is unknown, but if we take a lesson from the state of populist style politics, queer folks are typically left behind or actively discriminated against. The 1998 curriculum was designed in a time before the Internet, the legalization of same-sex marriage, and the various human rights changes that were designed to protect queer folks.

The snitch site, aptly named For the Parents is both an attempt to roll out a public consultation, as well as a surveillance mechanism to ensure compliance to the repeal. The Ford government makes no attempt to hide their motives, for any teacher who wishes to teach scientifically supported sex-ed curricula, Ford’s staffers are out for blood.

The chilly climate of surveillance culture

The Ford government ran on a neoliberal platform that seeks to treat our democratic process as a capitalist playground of top-down leadership strategies. Doug Ford is no stranger to using management strategies that belong in capitalist businesses to obfuscate democratic institutions and government transparency. This mentality is readily present in his attempts to strong arm his decision to cut down on democratically representative councillors in Toronto’s City Hall. As well as his attempts to lash out against government transparency by dodging the press. This was certainly the case when politically appointed staffers engaged in intentional applause to drown out questions from reporters at a press conference concerning an increase in funding for the Toronto police. When reporters pressed the staffers on why they were engaging in this behaviour, they scurried away to avoid answering.

The Ford government is pulling strategies out of the far-right playbook to engage in authoritarian practices in our Provincial political institutions. As Ford Nation becomes more comfortable flexing its muscles, the dangers of utilizing online surveillance systems radically increase.

The more state-sponsored, punitive surveillance practices become normalized in our wider social practices, the more we feed a chilly climate informed by deep fears and anxieties. In other words, it feeds into a wider culture of surveillance where, as sociologist David Lyon has observed, “[surveillance is] no longer merely something external that impinges on our lives. It is something that everyday citizens comply with — willingly and unwittingly, or not — negotiate, resist, engage with, and, in novel ways, even initiate and desire”. As surveillance culture becomes more entrenched in our everyday lives, we become increasingly comfortable with invasive forms of watching and policing.

The Ford snitch site relies on the ability for parents to issue complaints about the pedagogical strategies of teachers in the relative anonymity of the Government’s servers. As I found in my yet-to-be-published research on social behaviour in anonymous communities, the use folks ire as a form of disciplinary practice will likely only lead to false accusations, over-exaggerations, shit slinging, and a communicative environment punctuated with vitriol and bigotry. All the while it sets a climate of fear for teachers just trying to do their job and now having to do it under the omnipresent pretext of hostile parents snitching on them and putting their employment at risk.

When Ford won the Ontario provincial election with a majority government, it set in place a nightmare scenario for LGBTQ+ folks as the “Overton window” shifted to the political right. Ford’s landslide victory in Ontario politics broadcasted that homophobia and transphobia were once again supported by social and political institutions. This anti-queer mentality, coupled with the chilly climate of a wider surveillance culture, is threatening to send our communities back into hiding. We must not let that happen.

There is hope for resistance

The Ford governments quick and decisive actions to strike at the curriculum have left many, including myself, feeling hopeless in the face of an a right-wing partisan crusade against teaching children about consent, safer sex, and sexual and gender diversity. It is becoming increasingly difficult to navigate hostile publics to resist public displays of discrimination and oppression that seek to lash out first and foremost at queer children and youth.

However, there has been an uplifting surge of resistance from folks in Ontario.

Not surprisingly, the sex-ed repeal will likely violate the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as it directly discriminates against LGBTQ+ students by removing mentions of their existence from the curriculum. Following Ford’s decision to roll out the repeal in time for coming fall semester of school, there have been a handful of legal challenges. Earlier in August, six families led an effort to file complaints with the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario to challenge the negative impacts the repeal will have on queer children. In the forefront of this legal challenge is an 11-year-old transgender student who is bravely standing up to the anti-queer political entities that seek to erase her identity and thus, stigmatize her existence. And more recently, the Canadian Civil Liberties Association have moved to sue the Ford government, accusing the their efforts as being a “ham-fisted dog whistle of bigotry, of homophobia, dressed up in a consultation fix”.

And this is on top of active resistance from school boards and teachers across the province condemning the Ford government for playing politics with children and ignoring educational experts in favor of the social conservative, Ford Nation platform. More recently, teacher unions have come on the public record to declare that they will do what they can to protect teachers who defy the sex-ed repeal in the coming fall semester.

If you are as enraged by all of this as I am, there is something that you can do to actively resist the increasingly chilly climate set up by the Ford snitch site. Follow this link to the snitch site and lodge a complaint against the Ford administration using their own surveillance strategies against them. Either send a message of critique, your thoughts on why a robust sex-ed curriculum is widely beneficial to our youth, or straight up spam their systems so their punitive tactics will be rendered unmanageable.

We can protect educators in this province and their acts of resistance to the discriminatory imposition of fossilized, socially conservative pedagogical methods by flooding their servers with criticism. If enough of us send in complaints, they will be unable to process punitive action against teachers who defy their bigotry. And in doing this, we can support the LGBTQ+ children who will be most affected by this.

Share the snitch site with your friends across social media and encourage them to complain as well.

Also, happy pride week ❤


References

Lyon, David. 2017. “Surveillance culture: Engagement, exposure, and ethics in digital modernity,” International Journal of Communication, volume 11, pp. 813–831, at http://ijoc.org/index.php/ijoc/article/view/5527.

Stumbling into trans dykehood: the making of a queer love story

CW: Gender Dysphoria, Cheesy Story

I met my life partner at the Reelout Queer Film & Video Festival in Kingston, Ontario. It was this event that would foreshadow our future together as a queer lesbian couple. At the time, I was still identifying as a cisgender man and had hidden my gender identity under a thick layer of masculinity, muscles, and ginger red beard. None-the-less, I felt queer in my heart and decided to go on a friend date to see some rad films. We watched a steamy flick of two gay men in Columbia, a barber and a soldier, who shared an overnight love-fest in the barbershop. And we also watched a very upsetting story about a trans sex worker who was nabbed and murdered by a transphobic asshole.

I was in the closet as a trans woman, but out as a bisexual man. And my partner had not yet reflected on her queerness and was never confronted with the opportunity to explore it. When we were walking home, snowflakes floating down from the night sky, I asked her if she would go on a date with me. She hadn’t been in the dating scene for some time and was caught by surprise. She paused to think and mustered a yes. I walked home grinning.

Our first date was in her house. It was a crowded house with stinky carpet and many housemates (all lovely folks, of course). We had a homemade sushi night and stayed in with some wine. I had worked as a server for a sushi place back in Newfoundland and I was able to cobble up some rough looking rolls. As it turned out, we both loved food and we bonded over that hard.

It was a while before we started going steady. I was immensely shy, and she was uninterested in committing to a label. This was a wonderful way for us to progress through the various stages of love. It allowed us to nurture a non-possessive and not-so-jealous attitude with each other. We could sleep in the same bed with friends and cuddle with loved ones and be happy for each others various life intimacies.

The more time we spent with each other, the more we realized that we had some rad synergy. I told her, months later, on a trip to Montréal for a conference, that I loved her. She agreed, and from then on, we were going steady.

I had problems with my sense of embodiment, and that left me with countless insecurities. I had decided several years prior that I could never be a woman and I was terrified of the backlash from my family who were invariably anti-queer. I took on a hushed-up label of gender queer, all of the while moving into lifting culture at the gym. I gained a substantial amount of muscle, and for a while my body felt good in being distracted by the constant strain of regimented exercise. I had mentioned in passing to my partner that I was gender queer. But I tucked away my issues with gender into the deeper recesses of my mind and forcefully forgot about them.

Almost two years after Reelout, I moved to Ottawa to start a PhD program. It was a tough move, but we had decided that we could make it work. It was difficult at first, but it worked out. We would Skype often and send each other love letters. I tried to get her to join a Minecraft server with me, but she wouldn’t have any of that. There were many hurdles, but it was worth the work we put into it.

Two months into my move, I was sitting in lecture, a class I worked for as a teaching assistant, and the professor was instructing a sea of 400 undergraduates about the complexities of gender and sexuality. To illustrate the textbooks somewhat dull explanation of (trans)gender realities, she put on a short documentary about a trans woman coming out of the closet, and the struggles she encountered with her family and her partner.

I had a sudden ball of pressure in my chest, and I almost started crying. It was that moment, as I was about to turn 29 years old, that I realized I was a trans woman. I bumbled through my tutorial lesson and managed to keep my calm disposition, but the seed was planted, and my mind was making connections between the discomfort I held with my body and the potential undercurrent of gender dysphoria. I called my partner when I got home to inform her that she was indeed dating a woman. And to my surprise, she did not panic or freak out. In fact, she was very supportive. Yes, I have a rad girlfriend!

I cried myself to sleep because I had no idea what to do. The next day I watched a bunch of YouTube videos, learned about the transitioning process, and began to make connections between my life experiences and my womanliness. That evening, I emailed my dad a panicked message to tell him the truth. That was a struggle that I will never forget. We don’t talk anymore.

She took the bus to Ottawa as soon as she was able, and though she didn’t tell me until later, she did a ton of research herself. While I was shaving my beard and learning about make-up, she was consulting our queer and trans friends so that she would know how to approach this without bombarding me with questions and anxieties.

When she arrived, we sat on the bed in silence and I eventually mustered enough courage to tell her a super difficult truth. I said, “I don’t want to hold you hostage. If you need to leave me because this is too much, I would totally be okay with that”. I was afraid that she would force herself to stay, even if she didn’t find me attractive. My whole life, I was fed narratives of the repulsiveness of being trans. I was saturated in internalized shame and I believed that no one could possibly love me.

This was unintentionally upsetting for her. She was aware that I didn’t have a conventional gender orientation and she saw through my masculine ruse from the beginning. In fact, she was already embracing her new lesbian identity and had already come out to her family, who accepted both of us and all our queerness. Even while I was struggling with the idea that I was a woman, she had already accepted it wholeheartedly.

We kissed and she’d later reflected on how my lips were so soft without the thick tendrils of my ginger beard.

The next morning, we listened to cutsie queer music and she walked me through the clothing and make-up she and some queer friends gathered during a collective closet raid. We went to the mall together to buy some womanly things and a ton of cheap make-up. I was terrified. I felt naked walking through the mall without my outer layer of masculinity, muscles, and beard. I felt so exposed to a hostile world, but she squeezed my hand and led me around from store to store. It would be a very long time before I could go to a woman’s store alone. That night she waxed my body and dealt with all my pain. We drank wine and talked about how we met, that night at Reelout.

 

Happy Pride  everyone <3

The DIY Gender Police: doxxing through visibility and ubiquitous presence

This is the second post of a small series on DIY gender police, or anti-trans activists who take it upon themselves to police and harass trans writers, advocates, and scholars in order to reverse our access to human rights, public space, and pride and dignity.

Read part one here: The DIY Gender Police: the surveillance of trans folks by anti-trans activists.


CW: transmisogyny, harassment, suicide

After coming out of the closet as a trans woman, my ability to engage in public discussions as a writer radically shifted. My new identity substantially intensified the stakes of publishing critical ideas as I was forced to come up against anti-trans hate groups on the left and the right.

I mustered up the courage to transition a few weeks before the Lindsay Shepherd controversy at Wilfrid Laurier University which would rapidly become a rallying cry for the far-right, who manipulated arguments in support of free speech to dog whistle white supremacy and (trans)misogyny across the Canadian mediascape. I wrote an article for Vice Canada called For Trans Folks, Free Speech Can Be Silencing to address how open debates about trans and non-binary pronouns often dehumanize and silence trans students in undergraduate classes. I mean, imagine being made to debate your own existence in a classroom setting!

This was the first time I had an encounter with the trolly hate group known as Kiwi Farms. I remember getting a Google notification not long after I published my Vice article informing me that my name had been mentioned on the Internet. I was blissfully unaware of doxxing groups before checking my gmail account that day and I was appalled by their cruelty. I had been doxxed, and I felt violated and vulnerable in the visibility and exposure afforded to me by the Internet.

Along with bemoaning that social justice warriors (SJWs) who wanted nuanced discussions about free speech were somehow ushering in a dark era of Orwellian or Huxley style totalitarianism, Kiwi Farm trolls also attacked me based on my appearance and my gender.

One post read, “If accommodating the 0.1% or so of people who are trannies involves destroying free speech for everyone else, fuck trannies”.

Another followed up, “I thought he just kind of an ugly girl, not a troon”.

This was my first time getting doxxed. As I mentioned in the previous article in this series, doxxing involves active lateral surveillance and intelligence techniques used by a person or group to scour the Internet for any publicly available information that is collected into rough dossiers and posted to cyberspace to engage in punitive “name and shame” tactics. Doxxing is the primary strategy in the  DIY policing toolkit, and it’s widely used within the Kiwi Farms community.

In fact, I will likely get doxxed again for mentioning my experiences with Kiwi Farms as they thrive on negative press. It took me a while to decide whether or not I should tell this story as it will give these trolls more ammunition to shoot back at me. But these assholes need to be challenged, and silence, I feel, is no longer an option.

Another user wrote, “They do it to escape their insecurity or their mistakes from their male self. Unfortunately, the Internet never forgets, nor does their body, which is male”.

They’re right, the Internet never forgets. Trolls and bigots are able to exploit the visibility and ubiquitous presence provided to us by our reliance on social media platforms and near constant connection to the Internet. Kiwi Farms is a prime example of DIY policing in that it has allowed for home brewed vigilantes to play both spy and police officer by weaponizing our visibility to threaten us into silence. It’s also worth noting that they also take joy in attacking people with disabilities and plus size women.

Visibility and ubiquitous presence

Though folks engage in social media to varying degrees, it is safe to say that most of us spend a great deal of time producing and consuming user-generated content. Many of us use social media like Facebook and Twitter to build online social identities and we curate those accounts to give off impressions of who we are. Social media platforms have become synonymous with communication in the contemporary Western world, and this has massive consequences.

Sociologist danah boyd offers us a useful concept to think about our engagement with social media platforms. She draws attention to how social media become “mediated publics” where folks communicate through technologies that shape (or mediate) our interconnections with each other. In line with physical public spaces, mediated publics allow for people to interact with each other, but these interactions are augmented by features unique to cyberspace.

Navigating mediated publics are characterized by persistence, searchability, replicability, and invisible audiences. In other words, interactions in mediated publics endure through time, are easily searchable, can be copied outside of its original context, and are seen by an unknowable number of strangers.

For instance, Kiwi Farms homed in on embarrassing thoughts that I posted to Reddit during a time where I was confused and questioning my gender. Though I won’t go into the nitty gritty details, I posted these thoughts several years ago without foresight that they would be found and used to embarrass me years later. The details that I posted on a trans subreddit were eventually archived, copied by trolls, removed from their original context, and used in a doxx meant to embarrass me in a public full of hostile strangers.

Because social media platforms have become a constant staple in how we communicate, our presence in mediated publics become ubiquitous. We are exposed to publics that might seem harmless, but can quickly dissolve in a cacophony of vitriolic bullshit.

As we navigate mediate publics, overtime we produce substantial social exhaust. This is a form of seemingly innocent enduring data that can be brought together in countless ways and to varying effects. Surveillance scholar Daniel Trottier, notes, “No single act seems risky or malicious, but when taken together overtime, maintaining an online presence can have damaging consequences”. It is this social exhaust, the fragments of a person’s digital identity, that become the weapons of DIY gender police.

Doxxing as political violence

As I mentioned in the first article in this series, activists, scholars, and journalists often focus on the dangers of state-level hierarchical surveillance while neglecting the impact of lateral surveillance practices used in everyday life by everyday people. This is often done in a way that obscures or obfuscates attention to the violences involved in lateral surveillance practices. For a lot of folks, the damaging impacts of DIY gender policing are opaque, and thus, rarely discussed outside of the marginalized groups who face the blunt of such tactics.

Earlier this summer a trans game developer named Chole Segal ended her life after substantial harassment from trolls and doxxers over Kiwi Farms. Though Segal’s tormentors weren’t the sole cause of her dying by suicide, they played a terrible role, and this marks some of the more extreme consequences of doxxing in the trans community.

Gay Star News reported, “Kiwi Farms linked to her death. On the thread there was no regret, only misgendering and mocking”.

Doxxing in inherently violent in that it violates the assumed privacy of a person by collecting disparate forms of social exhaust given off by a lifetime using social media in order to cause a person personal damage.

While speaking about surveillance, Fuchs and Trottier observe, “Surveillance gathers data about humans in order to exert actual or potential direct, structural, or cultural violence against individuals or groups. The violence involved in surveillance either operates as acutal violence or as the threat of violence in order to discipline human behavior”. Doxxing isn’t a mundane or inconsequential act, it is an intentional act of violence that is meant to do harm to people.

The communities that engage in DIY policing are accountable to no one but themselves, which sets them apart from state agencies who are at least marginally tied to a legal system. There are few ways that a person can seek justice after being victimized by anonymous and pseudonymous vigilantes who enact extreme forms of discriminatory violence.

It is important that we begin to address these issues in ways that will provide us with tools and strategies to resist DIY gender policing, ubiquitous presence, and (trans)misogynistic violence. Furthermore, we need to strategize ways of building tighter communities of support over cyberspace, as well as queer, feminist security practices that we can utilize to protect ourselves from forms of weaponized visibility. In the next addition to this series, I will explore how far-right groups use media manipulation and forms of digilantism to actively work towards the marginalization of people of color, LGBTQ folks, and women.


In the coming weeks, I will be exploring some key concepts and ideas around how trolling, doxxing, e-bile, and vigilantism over digital platforms have been seriously impacting trans communities in extraordinarily violent ways. DIY policing, and its vast arsenal of techniques, seems largely opaque in cishet (cisgender, heterosexual) society, and because of this, is mostly ignored as a form of active discrimination. We need to make this form of political mobilization visible and start having a serious conversation on how we might collectively address it.

References

boyd, d. (2007). Social Network Sites: Public, Private, or What? Knowledge Tree 13. https://www.danah.org/papers/KnowledgeTree.pdf.

Fuchs, C., and D. Trottier. (2015). Towards a theoretical model of social media surveillance in contemporary society. Communications 40(1): 113-135.

Trottier, D. (2017). Digital Vigilantism as Weaponisation of Visibility. Philosophy and Technology 30, 55-72. https://doi-org.proxy.library.carleton.ca/10.1007/s13347-016-0216-4.

The DIY Gender Police: the surveillance of trans folks by anti-trans activists

This is the first post of a small series on DIY gender police, or anti-trans activists who take it upon themselves to police and harass trans activists, writers, and scholars in order to reverse our access to human rights, public space, and pride and dignity.

Read part two here: The DIY Gender Police: doxxing through visibility and ubiquitous presence.


Part one: DIY Gender Policing

To be transgender is to be exposed to constant surveillance. Much of the scholarly work exploring the surveillance of trans folks has been fixated on hierarchical forms of watching conducted by state, carceral, and medical institutions. These institutions spy into the everyday lives of folks at various stages of their transition. This form of institutional watching is often rolled out by various experts who act as gate keepers to accessing basic forms of medical treatment and funded aid. Many of these experts are cisgender, heterosexual doctors, psychologists and state bureaucrats who claim knowledge of transgender issues without having ever experienced it.

As Julia Serano illustrates in her book Whipping Girl,  these forms of expert intervention gives way to a system premised on ensuring an “authentic” transition (i.e. informed by cisgender expectations) that lead trans folks to overcompensate their gender performance (like, 120% femme) to convince the expert that they are indeed transgender just to get access to medical care, such as hormone replacement therapy (HRT).

Trans folks are exposed to a profound amount of suspicion ranging anywhere from police and prison guards to friends and family. This suspicion could be as banal as an extra layer of scrutiny when you present your ID card to a liqueur store employee or as extraordinary as rousing suspicion at the border when crossing through airport security. There is an overwhelming sense that a trans person must constantly prove their transness while they are exposed to invasive watching, and if this is not done properly, they can be denied access to important social and medical resources.

A recent example, as reported by journalist Katelyn Burns, is the spike in US government officials revoking passports from trans folks and offloading sometimes extra-legal bureaucratic weight on identity changes.

Though it is important to have conversations about these forms of institutional surveillance, oftentimes these conversations happen in ways that obscure other forms of surveillance which have a great deal of impact on trans folks. Oftentimes, the most impactful forms of surveillance that we face is the surveillance that comes from our friends, family, and peers, and even worse, from Internet trolls, trans exclusionary radical feminists (TERFs), and far-right bigots.

Lateral surveillance

This is what the sociologist Andrejevic calls lateral surveillance: “not the top-down monitoring of employees by employers, citizens by the state, but rather the peer-to-peer surveillance of spouses, friends, and relatives.” The use of lateral surveillance in everyday life relies on the hyper-visibility of a networked social media culture where we are all willingly tethered to various social media platforms where we share intimate details of our private lives. These digital publics allow us to post user-generated content for other users to browse through and has led to the normalization of watching each other.

Though I would argue that being constantly watched by friends, family, and peers does have a disciplining effect on people (i.e., you are more likely to act according to societal norms if you’re aware that you’re being watched), that is not what I am interested in here. I am interested in how lateral surveillance can be taken up by trolls and TERFs as a form of political violence that deeply impacts the trans community.

This is often done through doxxing which is commonly defined as the collection of private, identifiable information and its subsequent publication online. It is usually used in harassment campaigns where the person being doxxed receives a slurry of death threats, harassment, and abuse. For a lot of folks, doxxing is limited to actual names, home addresses, and phone numbers. However, I think it’s necessary to expand its definition to include the collection of publicly available information about and by a victim throughout the Internet.

Doxxing as a political violence

As a trans person involved in the public sphere through activism and writing, I’ve been doxxed several times for expressing important issues in the trans community. What caught me off-guard was the fact that all three times I was doxxed, a profound amount of information about my browsing and Internet history was scooped up into amateur  dossiers that were subsequently posted to forum boards. Literally, a person (or a group) spent an enormous amount of time and energy scrutinizing my life in order to cause me embarrassment, shame, and to ultimately silence my dissent. This has become a common practice across the political spectrum.

I’ve been working on a concept called do-it-yourself (DIY) policing, a form of digital vigilantism, practiced in left and right digital communities, that harness and weaponize the ubiquitous visibility afforded to us by our constant need for social media attention. The Internet, and the mobile technologies that tether us to each other, allow for the most inexperienced watchers to take on intelligence techniques to interrogate the lives of the people around them by collecting user-generated content that victims have produced over the media they used throughout their life.

It’s pretty damn awful.

In practicing DIY policing, digital vigilantes take on the punitive role of state policing in order to dole out forms of punishment and take justice into their own hands. They conduct intelligence work, google social media posts, plunder public records, build dossiers of potentially embarrassing information, and post those dossiers to their forum boards to encourage their members to harass, intimidate, assault, and dehumanize their victims.

Justice, of course, is entirely relative to the political and cultural orientation of the people orchestrating the doxx. For an instance, antifa groups often use DIY policing in order to doxx nazis and white supremacists to cause embarrassment, public shaming, and loss of work and social connections. The goal behind this form of political violence is to remove their capacity to organize against marginalized communities. This form of DIY policing can seem entirely acceptable as the groups being targeted are literally attacking marginalized folks for merely existing. It can be a form of collective self-defence in the absence of protection from state intelligence and policing agencies.

What I am especially interested in exploring in the next few blog posts I will be writing is how anti-trans groups have taken up DIY policing to embarrass, silence, and intimidate trans activists, writers, and scholars who engage in publicly facing advocacy. DIY policing, in this context, is used as a form of political violence to disrupt the so-called “transgender agenda” put forward by “social justice warriors (SJWs)”. What these vigilantes are working against are gains and protections won for trans rights via the often difficult and tumultuous work of activists engaged in protest and lobbying. They are working to actively marginalize us from public participation and lobbying to have us downgraded to second class citizens.

In more extreme circumstances, these groups want trans folks to disappear from what they consider their corporeal and digital spaces.


In the coming weeks, I will be exploring some key concepts and ideas around how trolling, doxxing, e-bile, and vigilantism over digital platforms have been seriously impacting trans communities in extraordinarily violent ways. DIY policing, and its vast arsenal of techniques, seems largely opaque in cishet (cisgender, heterosexual) society, and because of this, is mostly ignored as a form of active discrimination. We need to make this form of political mobilization visible and start having a serious conversation on how we might collectively address it.

References

Andrejevic, M. (2005). The Work of Watching One Another: Lateral Surveillance, Risk, and Governance. Surveillance & Society 2(4), 479-497.

Serano, Julia. Whipping Girl: A Transexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity. Berkeley: Seal Press.

 

The Case of Media Manipulation and the CSIS Agenda

CSIS report on media disinformation conflates activists with conspiracy theorists

Accusations of fake news across the political spectrum have transformed a very concerning issue into a weapon of delegitimization. A recent report published by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS) titled Who Said What? The Security Challenges of Modern Disinformation have conflated anti-globalization activists, who oppose military intervention, environmental destruction and global labour exploitation with conspiracy theorists and “foreign nationals” in the sharing of disinformation.

The report, which emerged out of a workshop organized by CSIS for the purposes of academic outreach, reflects a common attitude that state security and intelligence agencies have towards social and environmental justice activists—that of flippant dismissal and demonization. Though the spy agency claims that this report does not reflect an official position, it does reveal some logics underlying the surveillance of political activists. The report had obscured any of the workshops participants or the reports authors under the Chatham House Rule.

The immense popularity of social media and its omnipresence in how we communicate and share information has transformed the social and political landscape in ways that are only now being unveiled.

As a controversial experiment conducted by psychologists has demonstrated, people’s emotions can be remotely shaped through computer algorithms over social media platforms. Called “moral contagion,” psychologists working with Facebook secretly manipulated the news feeds of close to 700 000 Facebook users and silently influenced how they express emotions online. The idea of mass manipulation has recently overtaken the news cycle with the Cambridge Analytica leaks, revealing the role of socially hacking user’s political sensibilities to aid Trump’s election win. Clearly, there is a case for concern with how social media landscapes can be used as tools of surveillance and manipulation, this is especially concerning when groups use a combination of bots, social media exploits, and fake news to manipulate people on mass for political gain.

Edward Snowden aptly framed the situation in a recent tweet, “Business that make money by collecting and selling detailed records of private lives were once plainly described as “surveillance companies.” Their rebranding as “social media” it the most successful deception since the Department of War became the Department of Defense”. In other words, we’ve been duped. The tools we use to organize our social life are being used against us for profit, surveillance, and policing.

In the CSIS report, the authors collapse any distinction between activists, conspiracy theorists, and hostile foreign nationals into the category of “independent emergent activists” who are understood as “agents of disinformation”. This report asserts that activists distrustful of Western governments engage in the amplification of conspiracy theorists from the political left and right and are susceptible to being hijacked by foreign state disinformation organizations.

Instead of providing a nuanced approach to understanding emerging digital threats in our social media landscape, the report conflates the political lefts opposition to violent military interventions and the exploitation of the global south to online conspiracy theories. There is a big difference between asserting that foreign nationals are able to influence how activists share news stories and activists also being implicit in producing disinformation.

Political and military violence overseas are hardly half baked conspiracies, for an instance, there have been legitimate concerns with unceremonious killing of innocent civilians overseas via US drone strikes. According to an investigation run by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, in a staggering 4,737 strikes to date, there have been between 737-1,551 civilians killed and barely any media coverage. Opposition to such violence inflicted by the Western World through the “war on terror” isn’t merely ideological activist “propaganda”, it is the expression of legitimate concerns that non-Western human life can so easily be rendered disposable by Western nation-states.

CSIS has muddied the water of the very issues it sought to address. At best, it provides vague and ambiguous background information that is unable to distinguish between activists and trolls. At worse, they have contributed to their own campaign of misinformation by not providing sober nuances of complex issues in social and environmental justice.

This is not surprising. It’s within the interests of Canadian state security and intelligence agencies to slander and dismantle the legitimacy of claims from activists. Both CSIS and the RCMP have a long history of spying on activists who are viewed as a threat to either the government or “critical infrastructure.”

With that said we can’t minimize the impacts of disinformation and fake news on our media landscape. These concerns signal the emergence of forms of media manipulation that can be deployed on mass while targeting an individual’s specific tastes and dispositions.

According to a report published by the Data & Society Research Institute, there is still no legal or political consensus on a definition for fake news or how to approach the issue. There are also concerns around the question of who gets to draw the distinctions around what is true and false, acceptable or propaganda. They offer a nuanced approach to understanding the context from which fake news emerges, and how we might collectively approach mediating its negative impacts. And most importantly, the do so in a way that is careful not to throw activists under the bus.

As the report observes, “With ‘fake news,’ the risk is not necessarily that it will overtake real news, but that democracy itself might drown in information.” If we are to approach this issue, we need to be careful not to fall into a state policing bias that privileges security concerns over the ability to engage in political dissent, whistleblowing, and holding the power to account.

Free speech, messy epistemologies, and the reframing of the WLU controversy

A trimmed down, edited version of this article was published in The Conversation.

Free Speech rally at Wilfrid Laurie University

The Lindsay Shepherd controversy has opened the Pandora’s Box once again on the notorious, vitriol-ridden “free speech” debate across Canada. It has largely consisted of tired arguments penned up in op-eds advocating that the university has become home to left-wing authoritarians who muzzle the speech of those with whom they disagree. Such debates have become so politically noxious that Andrew Sheer, leader of the Conservative Party of Canada, has jumped on board—calling for a political response to the free speech crisis in universities. Furthermore, Lindsay Shepherd has become an alt-right darling in the amplified calls for free speech on campus; she now has roughly nineteen thousand followers on Twitter and is consistently feeding the fire with toxic tweets. One tweet reading, “Confirmed: WLU is a mental institution”.

Debates about free speech have a tendency to become unnuanced and flat as they typically amount to blanket statements that call for the unbridled and unrestricted ability to say anything. As I explored in an article for Vice, such an understanding of free speech is complicated sociologically when superimposed on a society already stratified along vectors of identity. Free speech becomes even more nebulous when we read the sub-text of free speech advocacy which often cozies up with white supremacy, transphobia, and sexism.

I want to shift the discussion about free speech. Instead of focusing on why the academy needs free speech, I would like to ask how free speech is reasonably deployed in the scholarly pursuit of knowledge production. This analytical shift will allow us to move beyond romanticised notions of free speech and academic freedom and consider the various ways in which knowledge emerges and becomes entangled in institutional practices and professional obligations.

This debate has by-and-large ignored the ways in which knowledge is produced and shaped within the academy. I would like to suggest that the epistemological insights of science, technology, and society (STS) can provide a scaffolding to understand the complexities of free speech in practice, as opposed to free speech in theory. Epistemology is the study of knowledge production. Despite the centrality of knowledge in all our social encounters, epistemological issues are often undervalued. Donna Haraway illustrates the importance of the structures of knowledge in this beautiful quote, “It matters what matters we use to think other matters with; it matters what stories we tell to tell other stories with, it matters what knots knot knots, what thoughts think thoughts, what descriptions describe descriptions, what ties tie ties.”  The various shapes of the in-between matter that inform how we understand the world have consequences for how we frame free speech.

The production of knowledge in the academy is laden with formal and informal processes that shape how knowledge is produced, debated, disseminated, and taught. The sociologist, John Law, provides a useful framework for approaching knowledge production in the academy. He draws our intention to the messiness of the world in practice;how human emotions, scientific methods, institutional priorities, research ethics boards, peer review committees, professional reputations, class syllabi, employment contracts, graduate student committees, and codes of conduct become entangled when we go about the business of saying or writing something. When we talk about free speech, these constraints are made opaque despite their centrality in shaping how we talk, write, and debate.

A graduate student, depending on their discipline and department, will typically take graduate courses, be employed as a teaching assistant (TA), and research their independent thesis work. In order to guide a budding scholar through the complexities of academic research and politics, a grad student works under a committee. Such committees are made up of professors who have been rewarded PhDs for their familiarity and experience as academics. One of these committee members is the grad student’s supervisor who very closely guides that student’s academic work. All research produced for the student’s thesis must be rigorously checked by their supervisor and committee. This leads to a painful process of sending in drafts and receiving back red marks. Such a process shapes what knowledge is reliable, rigorous, and fair, and what knowledge is inappropriate, poorly thought out, and not defendable. If a student ignores their committee, they will likely fail their thesis defense and not receive a degree.

If a grad student were to write their own independent research, to give it credibility they would need to submit it to an academic journal. All reputable journals use a peer-review process where a committee of scholars assess the quality, reliability, and credibility of academic work and reject work that doesn’t meet academic standards. Poor research is sent back to the grad student to be revised or sent elsewhere. And some work is rejected for not meeting the criteria of the peer reviewers. Grad students need to have tough skin, as we will get torn to pieces several times a year.

There are other ways in which academic knowledge is reasonably shaped. Research on human subjects is tightly controlled by General Research Ethics Boards (GREB) that are informed by federal policy and legislation. If a grad student ignores GREB, they could be expelled and have their credentials revoked. Academic conduct is held to a Code of Conduct and other university policies that shape how scholars can interact with each other. And ultimately, the university must abide by the Criminal Code and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that protect people in the scholarly community against hate crimes and discrimination.

Finally, a grad student typically becomes a TA to help fund their studies. This is an admittedly precarious job that usually have students working overtime with no extra pay. The TA signs an employment contract, works under a professor who teaches the course, and does not have any authority to teach their own content. TAs do not have the same academic freedom as professors. Aadita Chaudhurry, a PhD student at York University, penned up an article that appropriately delves into how Shepherd failed at her obligations as a TA. Grievances with professors are often mediated through a public service union that advocates on behalf of the grad student.

These formal restrictions on how knowledge is produced are complemented with informal occupational norms that are enforced by students, faculty, and administration. This is the everydayness of the academy. A grad student can’t just write anything. Everything a grad student does in public (including their publications) are informally assessed by colleagues and professors. Miscalculations or poorly thought out work can negatively impact the future of a grad student.

To engage in proper research in the academy is to maneuver through the tangled red tape of policies, expectations, institutions, regulations, and professional obligations. This has a grad student dancing and staggering back and forth through research and teaching and negotiating and compromising on the substance of their scholarly practices. This is the messiness of epistemology in practice. These processes are all swept away in popular debates around free speech in the academy. Such arguments are far too easy because they ignore how the academy functions as a complex institution and community.

And don’t get me wrong. None of these processes or practices are immune from criticism. But that is an entirely different discussion than the one being advocated by Lindsay Shepherd. Academic freedom is certainly important, but so are the ways in which it can and cannot be practiced. University administration, faculty associations, and student and labor unions are constantly in friction over how these limits should take shape. These are discussions that are always already happening and do not get near the press attention that Shepherd’s employment bungle has attracted. If the academy is in crisis, its critics are focusing on the wrong issues.

Musings of an (a)social collective: Anonymity and Community

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Anonymous communities can easily be mixed up with as a thick mess of senseless social interactions. At least, that is how I saw this world when I first decided to study anonymous communities for my Master’s thesis. I thought I would study how surveillance operates in anonymous social media applications—specifically, a very popular (at the time) application called Yik Yak.

Just a side note: Yik Yak had gone into a sudden bout of madness and removed the ability to be anonymous from their application. After a complete revolt of their user base (they just about all left), they switched back. But the feed is still a smouldering ruin of regret and nostalgia. To simplify this argument for the sake of a blog post—let’s pretend that the application did none of this. Let’s make an ideal form: an anonymous community.

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When I first downloaded the app a month before I decided to dedicate two years to it—my room mate had convinced me to check it out. An seemingly infinite central feed of anonymous comments that were sorted by a slurry of up-votes and down-votes. The Yak feed is tied to a geolocational system that connects the app to particular locations. My Yak, was the Queen’s University Yak. It was a busy feed. And it was constantly changing. To me, it seemed to be a chaotic and nebulas thick tangle of associations. A fun challenge for a scholar following and Actor-network inspired philosophy.

The popular posts stood out from the unpopular posts by an upvote/downvote feature. It was kind of like a mash between Twitter and Reddit with a touch of anonymity.

After a stint of digital ethnographic work and a ton of interviews with enthusiastic and committed users I began to see something else. Something that, as an outsider, was invisible to me at first. There was an elaborately balanced Yik Yak community. As Gary T. Marx asserts, anonymity is entirely a social process. The only way for anonymity to occur is through a faceless interaction with another faceless person. This includes social regulations, exploitations, and oppressions. But also, playfulness and a culture of care.

I would like to play with a concept I’m thinking of called (a)social. ‘a’ can be used as a negation. ‘a’ can also be used to represent anonymity. But mostly, ‘a’ will be used to approach a society which remains almost entirely faceless. A community of people interacting around nothing more than posts from people who occupy similar space. Similar cultural values.

Though I have major problems with the corporate side of Yik Yak with their capitalist motives and try-hard branding schemes, their application has facilitated the construction of an elaborate community. It’s created an (a)social experiment. It is a community that both contains a culture of trolling and a culture of care.

All things are a collective endeavor. The (a)social communities are also a collective endeavor. In Donna Haraway’s most recent philosophical publication, Staying with the Trouble, she discusses her concept of sympoiesis—a collective unfolding of reality. This collective includes everything. All human, inhuman, and nonhuman components that are threaded into the collective mess.

When we load up Yik Yak to our mobile phones and post snippets of thought to the main feed (or engage in grueling arguments over all controversies in the comments)—we work with silicone, wires, codes, telecommunication companies, algorithms, molecules, humans, bots, and entire scaffoldings of bureaucracies, legal frameworks, and governments. Interacting with the Yak spans the world over.

Furthermore, the Yak’s platform—allows particular functions and blocks others—shaping its users to interact in particular ways. They impose standards, through their Code of Conduct, which they enforce through algorithms looking for offensive key words. And they sometimes change up everything in an update (to remove their main feature, anonymity). These are the institutional forces that shape and provide stability to the community.

However, I have noticed that there is something more powerful at work in maintaining the community. It seems that the mess of interactions from users balance out particular norms and ways of acting. This is done through both the comments section and the up-vote/down-vote feature. These are the vernacular forces that generate norms and cultures. Certain topics, maybe, offensive topics, are down-voted (a -5 score from votes deletes the comment from the feed). This vernacular power, though institutionally enabled, allows for a regulation of trolls and bullies without Yak’s employees ever having to get involved.

(a)social sympoiesis initially looks like a senseless and dense knot of relations. It’s noisy and confusing. But, once, as an ethnographer, you begin the arduous work of untangling these associations—it begins to look like every other community. Despite all of the contradictions, despite the arguments, the controversies, and the confusing faceless interactions—the Yak community is able to balance out, stabilize, and “hang together” as a coherent whole.

Though such an (a)social collective is not shielded from the larger world. Once, for whatever reasons or motivations, Yik Yak decided that their users didn’t want to be anonymous and forced every user to get user handles (and suggested they link up their Facebook page)—the entire community collapsed. All that is left are groups of Yak “refugees” with no where to go but to be visible to the world.