The Oppression of Universal Assumptions: Rhetoric vs. Reality

I witnessed an exchange on Twitter the other day where @VeganMudblood (Chelsea) was attempting to call out @_CarolJAdams (Carol Adams) on her transphobia. It started with a tweet by Chelsea stating: "Sexism, transphobia, homophobia, racism, classism, sizeism, ageism, etc., have NO place in the #animalrights movement. #vegan," which Adams retweeted. In my opinion, Chelsea was right to call out Adams for her hypocrisy in retweeting an anti-transphobia tweet given Adams' refusal to take responsibility for or be held accountable for perpetuating transphobia herself. Adams responded to Chelsea by continuing a pattern of avoiding responsibility while retain her cissexual privilege. Adams then posted, "I am against transphobia."

Yet, so far Adams has done apparently nothing but avoid calls for accountability for what she is being called out on. She repeatedly states how long ago one incident happened, stating on her blog:

A five-year old report on a conversation that occurred more than 10 years ago that accuses me of transphobia has its own life on the Internet. I have read it; I remember it differently, and there was no intended harm or disrespect.

This is as if to say, "That was in the past. Why are you bothering me with it now?"

Does it really matter how long ago it took place? Most of what Adams cites in her own works took place long before what she is being called out on, yet Adams seems to think what she critiques are still valid incidents worthy of her readers' consideration. Yet when it comes to her own oppressive actions all the sudden there is something equivalent to a statute of limitations. Counter to the feminist principal that the personal is political, Adams attempts to reduce the incident in question to an annoying interpersonal disagreement that happened in the past.

In a similar way, in the same blog post Adams mentions that the conversation was in response to an older version of her (anti-sex worker) slide show, "After showing The Sexual Politics of Meat Slide Show (probably version 3.2; I laughingly say I am now on version 7.1), a trans activist and I had an interesting conversation." Again, as if to say this is such old news. However, as Mirha-Soleil Ross, the woman Adams anonymously and genderlessly refers to as simply "a trans activist," points out in her keynote address at the Queer Communities and Controversies conference, what Adams calls merely a "five-year old report," the book version of her slide show, The Pornography of Meat, seems to be based on the very same version of the slide show and has a chapter dedicated to "The Fish in Water Problem," the very metaphor Ross describes Adams using to bolster her transphobic argument.

Adams goes on to write:

In that version of the slide show, I discussed the way the West organizes itself into dualisms (human-animal, male-female, white/people of color, culture-nature, etc.). Both ecofeminists and posthumanists have identified such binaries. (Please note, it is interesting that ecofeminists who critique this worldview have been labeled essentialists, even when they are standing against these dualisms; but posthumanists who also critique these rigid ordering of the world are not labeled as essentialists.)

Well, what Adams calls "the fish in water problem" helps us understand why some feminists like herself are labeled essentialists. This is because Adams presents all women as having an essential experience of what is to be raised as a woman - that is, women are the proverbial fish and women's perceived universal socialization is the proverbial water. This universal/essential view of all women is a common flaw in the work of affluent-White-cis-feminists like Adams.

Ross describes in detail how Adams uses the fish-in-water trope to deny her experience and perspective:

"Isn't true that we haven't swam in the same water?" asked Adams, looking exhilarated all the while grinding her teeth, barely able to contain her spit at the prospect of vindication. "What? Swim in what water?" I responded, completely lost and perplexed. "You know, earlier in my presentation, I spoke about the metaphor of the fish in the water. I used a quote that said all women swim in the same water. So isn't true that we, you and I, haven't swam in the same water?"... "What do you mean? Can you drop the metaphor and get to the point?" I responded, even more lost, even more perplexed. All her groupies had regained their cute little frozen nervous smiles and had again stopped breathing, anxiously awaiting for a new round to begin. The group included only one person I knew, Tom Salsberg, who always stands out with his thick glasses and big mouth. "Well isn't true that you have CHOSEN to be a woman?" she asked with slow deliberation, feverish like a small town cop coercively extracting a confession from an innocent suspect, yes a cheap late night B-movie cop whose life has suddenly taken an unexpected, thrilling turn.

This is a very common line of reasoning used by affluent-White-cis-feminists to invalidate trans women, and it flows directly from their essentialist belief in a universal womanhood, often referred to as "sisterhood" - as popularized by Adams dear friend and raging trans-misogynist, Robin Morgan.

What needs to be pointed out is that the conversation that Adams and Ross had was about Adams' misrepresentation and exploitation of the lives of sex workers as rhetorical means to her own highly abstract theoretical ends. While Ross is herself a sex worker and an internationally know activist for sex worker justice, Adams, who has never herself been involved in sex work, is attempting to tell Ross what it is like to be a sex worker and what that says about what it means to be essentially any and every woman.

Adams' would be nowhere if it weren't for her essentializing theory of sexual oppression. By essentializing the experience of all women Adams is able to appropriate the lives of sex workers and then misrepresent them as rhetoric for what she calls "The Sexual Politics of Meat" and "The Pornography of Meat." This then is taken up by Adams' readers and audiences, who tend to also be affluent-White-cis-feminists, who are encouraged to perpetuate this rhetorical appropriation of sex workers' lives.

Cherríe Moraga noted this rhetorical pitfall of "Radical Feminists" in her 1983 classic, Loving in the War Years:

In failing to approach feminism from any kind of materialist base, failing to take race, ethnicity, class into account in determining where women are at sexually, many feminists have created an analysis of sexual oppression (often confused with sexuality itself) which is a political dead-end.

As Ross has pointed out, sex workers have an analysis of their own needs and oppression the experience:

Our analysis and positions as working prostitutes have been elaborated from years and years of daily experience of prostitution. They are not the results of abstract theorising conducted by feminist social scientists who have never turned a trick and who have spent most of their lives buried deep down within their library books. Unfortunately the animal rights community has been one social justice movement where the voices of prostitutes have been painfully absent, and this in the presence of very disparaging and hurtful attitudes and propaganda. Writers like Carol Adams, Gary Francione and Jim Mason all regurgitate old seventies misinformed radical feminist ramblings around prostitution and pornography. They make offensive and trivialising comparison between consenting adult women working in the sex trade and non-consenting animals murdered by the meat industry. And they do so without ever speaking to us. If anyone is going to start writing articles and developing theories linking meat to pornography and prostitution and the so-called objectification of women's bodies, then I insist that we – as women and as prostitutes and as sex workers – be the first ones consulted regarding these matters!

If I digress, it is only because the essentialism that lends itself towards Adams pontificating about the lives of sex workers is not unlike what now seems to be used as license to educate people about what's really going on with transphobia. Just as Adams presumes to know more than Ross about the lives of sex workers, she seems to believe that she is an authority on how transphobia works: "anthropomorphism." She tweets, "Transphobia is an aspect of anthropomorphism and show how anthropomorphism 'patrols' the human."

Please excuse me, Carol, if I'm unimpressed. In this society of cis supremacy and institutional cissexism, cissexuals like yourself have already taken the authority to define the terms of my existence (or absence thereof) as a transsexual woman, you do not get to define the terms of my resistance against your domination!

Adams is suggesting that if we address what she's calling "anthropomorphism" then transphobia, as well as the other forms of oppression, will vanish with it. This is a strategy that works great for those who perpetuate one form of oppression in the name of ending another. It's no different than Marxists who say all forms of oppression are rooted in oppressions based on classism and capitalism, or anti-racists who say all oppressions are rooted in racism and White supremacy, or mainstream affluent-White-cis-feminists who say all oppression is an aspect of sexism and patriarchy. In each case, the conflation of oppression into one unifying, essential form of oppression is used to silence and marginalize all other distinct forms of oppression. This is more harmful essentialism, more harmful universalizing of oppression.

Basically what is happening is that Adams is changing the subject from transphobia to a rhetorical and abstract construct she's calling "anthropomorphism," which is a convenient smokescreen for Adams to avoid responsibility for cissexism and retain cissexual privilege. It offers no discussion of the power dynamic where Adams, as a cissexual woman, uses her privileged status to define the lived reality of Ross, a transsexual woman. It presents no discussion of the assumption of cis supremacy that is omnipresent and taken for granted in Adams' own works, as well as the works of similar feminists. It offers no attempt to interrogate cissexism as an oppressive social structure under which all cissexuals, including Adams, are conferred dominance over those who are trans.

In Adams' Twitter exchange with Chelsea, Chelsea challenged Adams on her obvious complacency and refusal to acknowledge Mary Daly's perpetuation of the institutionalized hatred of trans women. In response, Adams tweeted: "Mary Daly, I acknowledge the role Mary Daly had in creating the space in the 1970s to help us imagine worlds w/out oppression." And, "to not acknowledge Mary Daly's brilliance & influence would be intellectually dishonest. Why would u take it as proof of more"

These tweets help reveal just what little energy Adams is truly willing to invest in opposing transphobia: none. While Adams "acknowledge[s] Mary Daly's brilliance & influence," she outright refuses to acknowledge even in the least the hateful legacy Daly's "brilliance & influence" has had regarding trans people, especially women. Instead Adams claims Daly "creat[ed] the space in the 1970s to help us imagine worlds w/out oppression." Obviously "us" doesn't include trans women like myself, or trans people more generally. Daly and the feminists influenced by her did just the opposite. Daly and her supporters successfully worked to dismantle what little space trans women had to help imagine a world without oppression. Adams' "us" speaks volumes about her compliance with cis supremacy, cissexism, and cis privilege. "Us" assumes an essential reality that makes the very existence trans women an impossibility. Transphobia is found in the day-to-day execution and perpetuation of the social structure consisting of cis supremacy, cissexism, and cis privilege, and this is exactly what Adams is doing.

This is how systems of oppression work. Adams doesn't have to intend "harm or disrespect" for something to be classified as transphobic. And given Adams' cis privileged view of the world, it should almost be expected that Adams remembers her transphobic actions differently. It wasn't Adams' existence and womanhood that was being invalidated in her public exchange, it was Ross'. The very fact that Adams obviously takes cis supremacy, cissexism, and cis privilege for granted virtually guarantees that she won't be affected by the interaction in the same way that Ross was. This is in and of itself a result of her transphobia. The fact that Adams doesn't even seem to take Ross seriously, not recognizing Ross as an identifiable individual or that Ross' account of the conversation was given as a keynote speech, seems to reinforce Adams own sense of general superiority. The "conversation" that took place between Adams and Ross was more than a just a mere interpersonal event, it was a politically relevant incident that can tells us volumes about the material and experiential reality of transphobia and its collective and social implications for our society, as opposed to the purely rhetorical and abstract claims of "anthropomorphism" that Adams would much rather distract us with.