: discussion of police violence, queerphobia, sexual abuse
One of the defining questions of our extraordinarily cursed sociopolitical epoch is, “what is truth?”
Note, the question isn’t about what is true, (we’ll get to that) but rather what truth itself is, as both concept and object. On the surface, that seems like an easy question to answer — truth is, unavoidably, real — but perceptions and definitions of reality are never in perfect accordance with reality itself. Reality is by nature inhuman. Therefore, human perception is always (at least in part) imposition.
This idea isn’t a new one, per se. But our society-wide awareness of it is.
Time was, truth (institutional truth, as perceived by white Americans) was dictated by doctors and juries and told by cops and printed in books and WaPo and the New York Times. Granted, I don’t personally remember that time, but I’m old enough that the people who taught me truth went off that same definition. Which is itself fallacious, but its fallacy might’ve been less apparent when access to dissenting opinion was less ubiquitous. Now, though, we know that doctors discriminate against women and do far worse to Black men, we know that men (and women) in media and finance commit heinous sexual abuse and cover it up, we know that cops fucking lie, and we know that jurors believe them.
After, say, 2007, concrete proof of all of this could be found online quite easily. In 2015-17, though, with the 2016 election and the early proliferation of the #MeToo movement, it began to cross offline. At time of writing in August 2020, the boundary keeping the proof in cyberspace has all but dissolved.
COVID-19 is a virus, and it does what viruses do. But it became an epidemic in the U.S. because of the way we’ve decided to impose truth on reality.
I feel like I’ve spent most of my life watching people deal with the decline of institutional truth — which is weird, because to me it often seems like the modern form of white American truth only came into vogue in the late 70s. On their podcast You’re Wrong About, journalists Michael Hobbes and Sarah Marshall seem to repeatedly cast the odd, sticky moral politics of the Reagan/H.W. Bush era as a sort of partial awakening.
On one hand, white America got woke to the somewhat-related social realities of CSA, AIDS, and drug addiction. On the other, they dealt with that knowledge by perpetrating bizarre, Christianity-infused witch hunts against childcare workers and sex workers, by demonizing and abandoning queer communities as they were ravaged by AIDS, and (perhaps most tragically) by terrorizing communities of color across multiple generations. These broad movements weren’t justified in any particular way, either. The supposed need for them went largely unexamined, but, by and large, was accepted as true.
I find this fascinating, in part because I see its form echoed in huge swaths of reactionary argument. T/RFs (for example) are currently spearheading a deeply similar moral panic over trans women, complete with its own assumed, unexamined truths. There’s no actual proof that trans women (as a group) pose a risk to cis women, but T/RF adherents are expected to hold that idea as gospel regardless. In the 80s, too, many second-wave feminists held similar truths regarding sadomasochism, leatherdykes, pornography, and (yes) trans women (this according to Pat Califia’s Public Sex, I’m a bit young to know personally).
Popular authoritarianism, then, is probably a lot more cyclic than we’d like to believe, and it doesn’t always align with patriarchy or governmental institutions. Rather, authoritarianism seems to beget itself, and authoritarian ideas often seem to form in response to greater, underlying forms of social and material control. The revelation of an underlying reality doesn’t prompt a reevaluation of truth per se, it just prompts a redirection of it.
On saying this to a friend of mine, she told me to read Conflict is Not Abuse: Overstating Harm, Community Responsibility, and the Duty of Repair by Sarah Schulman. I haven’t yet.
you might wonder
You might be wondering why two of my three examples of truth-rewriting authoritarian groups are conservative-leaning feminist movements, rather than QAnon or the Proud Boys or Ubisoft.
There are two reasons.
The first is that traditional reactionaries usually don’t read theory about themselves. This hasn’t stopped a lot of people from writing that theory (BreadTube is often very much about this, often with the implicit or explicit goal of de-radicalizing young white men). And don’t get me wrong — a lot of that theory is good — it just isn’t usually about its own audience.
I want astronautics to (mostly) be about the people who read it.
The second is that it’s dishonest to say that feminism is always (or has always been) purely progressive, and never reactionary or authoritarian. T/RFism, although disavowed by many modern feminists, has most of its theoretical roots in the Second Wave — most blatantly in Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male, although transmisogyny underlies much of lesbian separatist thinking.
The oft-mythologized term womyn was popularized in North America by the Michigan Womyn’s Music Festival, which used it in explicitly transmisogynistic terms: the festival famously enacted a womyn-born-womyn policy banning transgender staff, performers, and attendees. Its founder Lisa Vogel (along with 21 co-signers) also outed, misgendered, and verbally abused a trans engineer slated to work on the festival in a 1977 open letter to Olivia Records.
(author’s note: trans readers, only engage with that letter if you’re up to it — it’s rough.)
MichFest isn’t entirely a relic of the Second Wave, either — although it was founded in 1976, it ran until 2015, when it opted to shut down amid changing public opinion rather than drop its womyn-born-womyn policy.
My point in writing this section isn’t to imply that I have an audience of T/RFs — rather, it’s to imply that I have an audience of well-meaning cis people, and of trans people who might struggle with internalized transphobia (I know I do). I don’t want to blame anyone for cultivating a space where T/RFism can exist, and I also don’t want to divorce T/RFism from feminism.
Instead, I’m trying to pull up whatever common thread has made these forms of transmisogyny (institutionally) true enough to remain constant through more than 45 years of evolving feminist theory. Bigoted convictions, although harmful, exist for a reason, and we can’t dismantle them (and free ourselves from them) until we allow ourselves to see their constituent parts.
This brings me to some kind of central point for this very scattered essay:
The truth is hard to find, but indecision doesn’t help.
In order to deconstruct T/RFism, neoconservatism, or any brand of authoritarianism effectively, I need to consciously place myself outside of their scope, even as I necessarily acknowledge myself as one of their supposed enemies. In my mind, it will always be useless to view authoritarian ideals of truth as legitimate in any way — it’s dangerous to entertain authoritarianism without critique, and leaving any authoritarian truth unexamined is avoidance of that critique.
Rather, I think it’s important to deconstruct the ways in which authoritarians impose truth onto reality, rather than deconstructing any of those truths themselves. The actual content of authoritarian thought is often somewhat unimportant — instead, we should look at the mechanisms of authoritarian argument, in combination with the origins of authoritarianism itself. In doing so, we can better understand authoritarianism, and we can excise similar strains of thought from our own spaces.
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