Imagine going to the bookstore and waiting in line. You and the person in front of you start talking and you notice that she is holding a book you know, and you make a comment about it. Out of the blue the other person throws a complete fit and begins to scream how you don’t know anything about her experiences and how dare you assume something that is not true!
If it happened in real life, you would think the person had gone mad and rightly so. How could you, a total stranger, know anything about her life? Yet, this scenario is all too true over at social media every day. Perfect strangers scream at other perfect strangers and for some reason it is considered to be perfectly acceptable. But why is that?
At some undefined point in the past, someone decided that experience is what really matters. There is no need to understand philosophical concepts of justice, equity, or fairness, all we need to know is how we feel. It is true that to experience our humanity we have to have all kinds of experiences, for experience is what makes or breaks our human, well, experience. But is experience enough to create a solid understanding of the needs and wants of the human community? Whose experience counts as the ultimate one, the one we can all compare our own to see if our experiences measure up? This is where all the problems begin, because there is no such ultimate experience. Even if we took into account all the experiences we could find, there would always still be one more that we missed, and the one we missed has the ability to tilt the whole pile into another direction.
When experience reigns as policy maker, the policy remains as elusive as the memories of those experiences.
Not only are we doomed to chasing down the latest feeling, we also expect everyone to know our experiences. When our subjective experiences define the conversation, we expect everyone to know everything about us. Isn’t that after all why people are talking to us, to compare their experiences to ours? And that’s when all the yelling and all caps at social media happens, when we find that perfect strangers don’t know us, and we get sick and tired of having to repeat our life’s story to every single one. That’s when we tell them that we are done doing “emotional labor” for them, and if you want to know about me, pay me!
Eventually the whole conversation comes to a halt.
Instead of looking for the subjective experiences of individuals as a guide how to live our lives, much like the churches where the pastor's ideas and experiences become the norm for everyone, we need an objective reality we can all see and understand to ensure that individual experiences are not too far off from justice, fairness, and equity. That way our individual stories can once again become the stuff off novels and movies, and our collective story becomes one of ensuring everyone’s rights as humans are respected.
One of the reasons experience became such a hot topic is because we found a new way of looking at human sexuality. Instead of there being two categories – male and female – there is a whole smorgasbord of identities a person can choose from. All a person has to do is stick his card into the identity machine and choose from the menu and presto! a new identity has been formed. This identity is fluid on purpose to ensure that it can be changed at anytime.
What hides behind the endless choices is experience. We want to experience ourselves and other people in different ways and the old rigid gender stereotyping didn’t allow for this variety to exist.
So far so good.
But as with experience, when identity becomes the guide, something is oddly missing. What does it mean to be a man or a woman? That anyone can identify as either has to mean that there must be an objective reality, a man or a woman, that I can choose to identify as.
Here Plato’s famous Forms make their grand entrance. Plato believed that there is another realm where nothing changes, where all things have their unchangeable Form that reason can discover. Since our senses lie to us (i.e., experiences can be false), we need find the Forms in order to learn objective truth, or we will spend our lives believing and living a lie. Aristotle famously rejected the Forms, for only philosophers had the time and ability to look for them; ordinary artisans didn’t need to find the Forms to know how to make a good shoe or chair. In his opinion senses provided us with objective truth.
Let’s return to identity.
Identity politics relies on Plato's model. When we are told we can identify as a man or a woman, what is meant is that there is a Form of Man and a Form of Woman that we can identify as. These Forms contain all the cultural masculine or feminine qualities that we can choose from. It also contains an archetypical body.
The body is where the whole choosing of an identity gets tricky, because it's not possible to change the body without outside help. Because a person, who is a man but wishes to identify as a woman, can never have a woman’s body in its complete form, we are told that it is not necessary. Anyone can be a woman as long as she chooses to identify as a woman. Periods, ovaries, ovulation, and the womb are not necessary for a person to be a woman. In other words, identity is based on cultural gender stereotypes of behavior. If you wish to behave like a woman (wear skirts, makeup, and high heels), that's a sign that you must be a woman. And because a man in a dress is still considered a ridiculous thing, the body has to be modified to fit the cultural stereotype of a woman (this is not to say that some do not sincerely feel they were born in the wrong body early on, but to recognize that there are different reasons for transgenderism). The only real difference between the old patriarchal model and the new one being that we get to choose which stereotype we wish to identify as.
It sounds great!
Except that it kills feminism.
If who we are as men and women is based on strict gender stereotypes that we are free to choose from, then being a woman is a choice. Any effort to talk about women’s rights is quickly shut down, because “it erases trans women.” In other words, we have all the choices in the world as far as our sexuality is concerned, but those choices come at the expense of our human rights.
Experience and Identity
When identity and experience are joined together we get situations in which feminists, who highlight the different experiences women who have been women from birth have from women who are women by choice, are now told to be quiet, because they are said to "erase trans women.".
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote:
"I think if you've lived in the world as a man with the privileges the world accords to men, and then switched gender, it's difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning in the world as a woman, and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are." (Read the article here)
And the internet exploded.
Ms. Adichie was doing what feminists have been told to do for many years: she acknowledged that women have different experiences. So here’s the question: why is experience an important qualification when it comes to black women versus white women, but when it comes to trans women, suddenly every woman’s experience is the same and we should make no qualifying statements whatsoever.
It is here that we find the crux of the argument.
When intersectionality became vogue in feminist thinking, experience became the way to describe the intersectional discriminations women experience. Because all women have something in common, two x chromosomes, it became important to highlight the differences. But with trans women, there is a difference, hence the need to highlight the sameness.
We are essentially having two conversations with two diametrically opposed viewpoints. On one hand we all work hard to highlight the differences, on the other hand we work hard to highlight the sameness. And we wonder why we all feel so confused.
Either all women are the same on a fundamental level, or we are all so different that we can never understand what other women experience. We can't argue both at the same time, for feminism is far too important to be destroyed as a movement simply because we want to have our cake and eat it too.