Author Archives: Rachel Williams

Review – Transgressive by Rachel Anne Williams

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Book Launch – Transgressive: A Trans Woman on Gender, Feminism, and Politics

 

“Taking unerring aim at the patriarchal transphobia that saturates our lives, Williams’ piercing insights and vivid personal accounts capture the heartbreak and the hope of existing in this world as a transgender human being.” Author: Zinnia Jones, creator of Gender Analysis

“Rachel Williams’ Transgressive should be required reading for human beings. Her skillful interweaving of autobiography and theory not only radically improves our understanding of sex and gender, but also manifests kindness and wisdom on every page. I have never been as entertained by something so fundamentally helpful.” Author: Jon Cogburn, Louisiana State University Department of Philosophy, author of Garcian Meditations and (with Mark Silcox) Philosophy Through Video Games

“Williams writes with exceptional clarity and candor about some intellectually and emotionally difficult subjects, and somehow she manages to do so in a voice that is equal parts confident and modest. It would be hard to exaggerate how much I learned from this remarkable collection of essays.” Author: Christopher Heath Wellman, Professor of Philosophy at Washington University in St. Louis

I am so excited for my book to launch on May 21st, 2019! This has been a long time coming. I’ve poured my heart and soul into this book and I hope it starts many new conserversations in the discourse surrounding trans identities.

The book is a collection of 40 short essays about everything from trans feminism, the metaphysics of gender, to autobiographical notes about my own transition. What does it mean to be transgender in modern America? How do passing politics affect internalized transphobia? How can feminism be made more intersectional? Do trans women have male privilege? I tackle all these questions and so much more.

The book will be sold on Amazon, in bookstores, and other sellers starting on May 21st!

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Support me on Patreon!

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https://www.patreon.com/transphilosopher

Hey everybody! I am really excited to announce that I am working on a book:

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It’s going to be a collection of the best essays from this website, heavily revised, along with whole new essays keeping in the same blog-style format. Topics include gender, queer studies, intersectional feminism, trans phenomenology, gender critical feminism, the psychology of gender, and much more!

In order to afford the publishing and marketing costs, please consider supporting me on Patreon with $5/month. Not only will this help me get my book to a wider audience, it will support me in writing more content for this site! If you appreciate what I do here on Transphilosopher, becoming a Patron is the best way to support me as a writer.

Thank you so much to all my readers for supporting trans philosophy!

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“That’s so crazy!”: Ableism, Madness, and the Politics of Perfect Language

sam-manns-358058-unsplash.jpg(Photo by Sam Manns on Unsplash)

Ableism is akin to racism and sexism but instead of skin color and sex it’s about people with disabilities.

Ableist language devalues people with physical and mental disabilities. A common example is when someone says “That’s r*tarded.”, meaning “That’s dumb.” (which, of course, is another ableist term). This is widely considered to be problematic language.

But the language I want to discuss for this post involves things like “That’s crazy!” or “That’s insane!”, meaning “That’s ridiculous!” The standard argument is that these terms, like the r-slur, serve to devalue and further stigmatize people with mental conditions like schizophrenia.

I haven’t really talked about this publicly a whole lot but I have been diagnosed with various sub-types of schizophrenia over the years. I think the most recent diagnosis was something like “brief episodic psychosis”. It’s a long story I need to write up sometime, but needless to say: I am a certified “crazy person” and have a very real and personal connection to the concept of “insanity”.

With that said, I personally have no problems with phrases like “That’s crazy.”

Here’s why.

Mental Metaphors

There is good reason to think metaphor is at the heart of human cognition. Mental metaphors are especially important to everyday human life and the conversations we have with each other. We talk about ideas as objects and the mind as a container. Ideas can go “over” our heads, we can “hold” an idea “in” our mind, we can “turn” a memory over, etc., etc. The physical world of concrete action serves as a metaphorical landscape out of which we sculpt our thoughts about the world and how we communicate our inner life. George Lakoff and Mark Johnson are famous for elucidating how this works in books like Philosophy in the Flesh: the Embodied Mind & its Challenge to Western Thought.

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On the flipside, the mental life itself can serve as a powerful foundation for generating metaphors of its own. More specifically, I tend to think that metaphors surrounding normal/abnormal cognition function are integral to how we tend to think about the world. Phrases like “That’s crazy” work so well to mean things like “ridiculous” because the possibility of our mind losing connection with reality is a well-known phenomenon and makes possible a sense of things being so fantastic as to be unreal, a ridiculous break from our expectations. “That touchdown was crazy!” “The ending to Inception was so insane.”

When is “crazy”-language problematic?

One of the ways things go wrong is when we use “crazy” to stereotype groups of people e.g. “bitches be crazy”, which is not only misogynistic but also ableist insofar as it’s using “crazy” with a negative connotation as “irrationally emotional”.

But how is this all that different from watching some crazy stunt on youtube and saying “woah – that flip was crazy!”? I think the latter is less problematic insofar as it as basically saying “this stunt made me question my sense of reality” rather than the former, which is saying “women are irrational” which is not only false but actively harmful to a whole group of people who have historically been harmfully stereotyped as being too emotional to partake in the life of a citizen.

Another way “crazy”-language goes wrong is when we use popularized conceptions of, e.g., schizophrenia, to explain violent behavior like when someone says “I don’t know why he shot all those people – he was just crazy!” In this example, they’re not just saying “The situation was ridiculous” or “The situation violated my expectations of reality”. Instead, it’s saying the behavior can be explained by appealing to a condition like schizophrenia, a false explanation which is definitely harmful (people with schizophrenia are, in fact, more likely to be victims of violence).

Is it even possible to split the difference between “good” and “bad” usages of “crazy” language? Maybe we should just take the safe side and eradicate all usages of the term because if we’re not sure of the possible harm we should just not use the language at all.

But I think the quest for perfect language is difficult to achieve. To eradicate all ableism is difficult because so much of our language depends on unconscious body and action schemas involving “normal” human function.

 

ewan-robertson-208059-unsplash(Photo by Ewan Robertson on Unsplash)

Seeing Is Believing

Consider the schemas involving visual metaphors in the English language:

“I see what you mean.”

“She is a visionary leader.”

“Could you shed some light on that for me?”

The examples are endless. But all of these are arguably based on blindness metaphors in the same way that “crazy”-language is based on metaphors involving disabilities involving psychic breaks with reality.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with wanting to educate people about ableism and remove problematic terms and phrases from our public vocabulary. The problem, however, is always going to be two-fold: defining the boundaries of acceptable use and running up against practical limits on removing “primary” metaphors from language.

Primary metaphors are the so-called “building blocks” of our cognitive life and are formed through our basic embodied interaction with the concrete world.

As it happens, being able to see is the statistically normal embodied interaction with the world and we can see this in our language and thought (no pun intended). That, of course, says nothing about the moral value of blind persons and their unique way of being-in-the-world. But in my opinion trying to eradicate the “seeing = understanding” metaphor from our language completely is a Sisyphean task.

I think the same holds true of some aspects of “crazy”-language, especially the connection between “ridiculous” and “crazy”.  That also seems Sisyphean. What seems more tractionable is things like saying “that person is such a schizo.”

But when someone says “I am crazy about her” to mean “The amount I love her is ridiculous”, I personally am not bothered by it partly because I believe it would be nearly futile to try to remove that powerful set of metaphors from our normal conception of reality.

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The Politics of Perfect Language

But here’s the rub: maybe other people who have also been diagnosed with a “crazy” disease like schizophrenia do care? I never want to invalidate how other people feel about language use: just like I am not bothered by some aspects of “crazy”-language maybe some people are and that’s just that.

So this post is not about giving able-bodied people license to just start using ableist language willy-nilly. I am not here to generalize a prescription for all language use. I don’t believe I have that kind of moral authority. But what I am doing is trying to give an explanation of why I personally have not exercised “crazy” from my vocabulary as a synonym for “ridiculous” in everyday language.

In the end, I believe the quest to make our language and thought more in line with our values should be about the ways we consciously speak and think about ability and disability. Often our unconscious minds are just jerks and usually brimming with implicit bias. Eradicating that is difficult – it’s literally out of our conscious control.What we do have control of our own conscious thoughts (that’s why they’re conscious!). And I believe it is these thoughts that serve best as grounds for assigning moral responsibility, especially insofar as our conscious beliefs inform the actions we take that may or may not actively harm others.

And of course I am against ableism just like I am against any other form of discrimination. But the quest to remove some metaphors from our language and thought faces steep hurdles. Which is of course not an argument against trying it anymore than the difficulty of eradicating racism is a reason to stop trying eradicating racism. But I think that the amount of mental effort allies take sniping at each other about removing metaphors from language could maybe be used more productively engaging in educational efforts about the actual nature of what it’s like living with mental illness.

I dunno. Like I said, I am not generally in the business of making sweeping normative claims of any kind. So I could totally be wrong about the utilitarian calculus involved in removing certain metaphors from our language. But I at least wanted to open a dialogue on this topic. I am open to hearing the opinions of other “crazies” like myself.

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Lust, Loss, and the Logic of Love – Valentine’s Edition

 

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Many people have bitter feelings surrounding Valentine’s day. And I don’t think it’s just due to the jaded corporatism surrounding the strong social pressure to spend lavishly to show your love. Rather, I think part of the frustration comes from a deep cynicism in our culture surrounding the topic of romantic love itself – the issue at the core then is not the corporatism but the very nature of love as a mental state.

Romance continues to be a popular genre but it’s often treated as a form of escapism because in the regular world most people seem to be skeptical about love as an emotion worthy of guiding major life decisions. Many people have been burned before and have thus, quite appropriately, become jaded about the whole idea of, e.g., grand and romantic gestures early in the stages of a relationship.

For example, when a newly in love couple announces they are engaged after only 2 months of dating, my guess is that most people would be polite and congratulate the couple but secretly think “Oh boy, that’s doomed to failure”. The feeling of doom comes from the general opinion in our society that love is irrational and any major life decision done in the grips of New Relationship Energy (NRE) is not done on firm epistemic ground.

Love and logic are often pitted against each other as opposites. People think it is risky to fall so strongly in love because you end up making rash decisions. But rashness doesn’t of course refer to just the short time-frame nor is it merely about how things happen to turn out: it essentially implies a decision made without enough evidence to rationally decide. We can always get lucky, of course, but the massive risk implies irrationality built into love-dominated decisions. And that’s what people say about this type of love: “You’ve only known each other for three weeks! How could you possibly [insert action]?”

And I think we all understand this skepticism at some core level – there is a sense in which it’s quite obvious that love is a biased decision making vector. From the outside perspective it’s easy to look at a couple in love and see them as being swept up in an irrational delusion that they will be together forever. We all know the statistics about divorce. I have certainly had skeptical thoughts about other couples – so I don’t fault people for having those thoughts towards me when I am in the grips of love.

But this raises the essential epistemic issue: we can’t ignore our own standpoints when making decisions. From the inside, everything makes sense. This creates a phenomenological sense of isolation akin to the Facebook algorithm bubbles we all live in: we will never break through the private barrier of mental life and understand the full context of someone else’s decision. Hell, we stand pretty much zero chance of properly understanding the scope of even our own decisions. So why would we expect to have any sense of why a couple actually decided to U-haul? This is why our own individual standpoints, histories, values, beliefs, and emotions must be accounted for in terms of accessing the rationality of decisions done under NRE.

You can never truly know the full set of information someone is utilizing to make a decision in the “throes” of love. When communicating to others “why” you two have decided to, e.g., move-in together, it becomes impossible to convey the full scope of relevant information in a digestable format. You end up just gushing out a soundbite like “we’re just crazy about each other”. Or at least that’s how it comes off to someone else: crazy.

Coming back to risk, there are individual differences in how much risk-tolerance each of us is comfortable with. There are also different kinds of risk: emotional risk, physical risk, financial risk, etc. These all interact with each other in complex ways. But just like in the investing world where some people are comfortable being highly leveraged, some people are ok taking great relationship risks in order to help bring about an even greater reward. What’s the possible max pay out? A life of happiness. Sounds great doesn’t it? What kind of risk is that worth?

But of course the best situation is where there is a low risk and a massive reward i.e. little downside, big upside. With relationships this can happen where there is liquidity to the relationship. This is often facilitated by neither party coming into the relationship out of a sense of pragmatic desperation. So here you can make an investment where, if things go sour, it won’t be the end of the world, but if things go well, it could make a massive positive change in the direction of your life. This is the sweet spot.

So according to the sketch of standpoint epistemology I just laid out, it is fully possible for a decision dripping with NRE to be fully rational according to a mutually beneficial rational alignment of values that can only be fully assessed by the two relevant parties.

Sounds romantic doesn’t it?

Happy Valentine’s Day!

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U-hauling, Radical Vulnerability, and the Existential Feels of Queer, Poly Love

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Question: What did the lesbian bring on her second date?
Answer: A U-haul

Queer women are known for a phenomenon called “U-hauling” which is basically falling in love pretty much instantly and quickly setting in motion a Complete Entanglement, physically, financially, domestically, emotionally, etc.

In contrast, the stereotype for gay men is the tacit imposition to “not catch feels”. So why do queer women fall in love so hard and practically sprint up the relationship escalator whereas queer men tend to engage in more casual poly networks (at least according to well-known stereotypes)?

I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently because I have found myself radically in love with a girl I met…uh…three days ago? And of course the feeling is reciprocated because she is also a very gay woman and while quite new to lesbian dating is falling right in line with every stereotype. I too am a living breathing embodiment of this stereotype – especially since I just got out of a fairly serious relationship…three days ago.

I am a big advocate of thinking “coincidence” is an adequate explanation in more instances than commonly believed because the universe is often random and if you get enough people together in a room someone is bound to flip a coin heads ten times in a row. Series of relationships strung together can be just as random as starting/stopping a relationship only a few times a year.

But I have been toying with a tentative hypothesis to explain why queer women and not queer men have the stereotype of U-hauling. The story is something like this. Queer women are already on the margins of society both culturally and morally. While the tide is definitely turning there is SO MUCH hatred out there and queer women around the world get harassed and violently assaulted or even murdered on a regular basis in virtue of being queer. This process of marginalization leads to a radical vulnerability. Note: I am explicitly using “queer” and not “lesbian” because I don’t want to erase the experiences of bi/pan women.

But that’s half the equation. The other variable is the style of communication common among women. It involves deep honesty, sharing our vulnerabilities, trauma, insecurities, fears, but also our dreams and hopes and what makes us capable of still laughing in the grip of patriarchy.

As someone who has lived on both sides of the gender spectrum it is undeniable to me that there is a communication style more commonly used by women and this style facilities an openness that I think is hard for men steeped in machismo-culture to achieve. The “masc-for-masc” trend in cis gay male culture is indicative of the fact that gay men are men and in my humble opinion men and women tend to have much different communication styles.

But why is that? It’d be naive to think hormones have nothing to do with it. Most women are estrogen dominant, and again, speaking from personal experience, the emotional valences work differently and work towards facilitating a more intense resolution of conflict. Those who have lived with both Testosterone-dominance and Estrogen-dominance often report that on T they are more numb. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on the person. But for me the lack of numbness has led to an overall more soft and empathic response to conflict that has fundamentally changed my communication style especially in relationships

And of course, it’s not just a one-directional causality for hormones. Reductive and overly simplistic models of behavior are just that: ideal models. But socialization and learning are definitely playing a role in shaping the gender gap in communication style. But this is of course a classic chicken-and-egg question aka the old nature vs nurture chestnut. But as everyone knows the answer is both unhelpful but also the only real Truth: it is nature through nurture and nurture through nature. It is both. Interacting. In a very complex manner. Everything else is just details.

Having said that I want to turn to another cultural stereotype within the lesbian community and that is the high emphasis on monogamy culture. By that I mean emphasizing things like Soulmates, Eternal love, the One and Only, My Everything, Us vs the World, etc., etc. You can see monogamy culture working in the U-haul phenomenon because it is the sense that you suddenly have found your True Lesbian Lover that is going to satisfy all your needs until the day you die and you need to Lock That Shit Down as fast as possible otherwise it could possibly fall through your hands and you’ll die lonely and gay.

As someone who puts a high personal value on ethical nonmonogamy I am simultaneously drawn to monogamy culture and repulsed by it. I feel the temptation to use very possessive language and draw up mental entitlements to my partner’s feelings, thoughts, and behavior. But my belief in something akin to relationship anarchy makes me naturally skeptical of formal hierarchy in relationships including boundaries on what we allow ourselves to experience or not experience. Which is not to say I am against the idea of having a nesting partner(s). I am almost certainly someone who has a very strong nest-building instinct. But nesting is different from hierarchy and it is different from monogamy culture. Nesting is about mutually beneficial living arrangements but monogamy culture is about setting up toxic boundaries on our emotional openness.

And of course, I am talking about monogamy culture and not two rational and consenting adults entering into a healthy monogamous relationship which is totally possible (but maybe for less people than one might assume based on the culture we live in). Monogamy culture is toxic but monogamy itself doesn’t have to be so long as there is still radical honesty, communication, vulnerability, and empathy.

At the end of the day, U-hauling exists because queer women often spend their lives looking for something they didn’t know existed until they have their first queer relationship. As someone who has dated straight women and queer women, there is a subtle difference in virtue of relating to the shared trauma of marginalization. That background serves to make genuine connection that much more cherished and leads to the rapid emotional escalation common to lesbians and bi/pan women.

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