The problem of ignorance

I’ve been having a think recently about the problem of ignorance.

Eve Sedgwick points out in Epistemology of the Closet that the level and tone of a conversation is often set by the most ignorant. If two politicians are having a meeting, and the French politician speaks a bit of English, but the American politician speaks no French, the negotiations have to take place in English. Which means that the more ignorant person gets to speak elaborately in their own language, while making no effort to understand the other language, and the less ignorant person has to do all the work of trying to make themselves understood in a language that is not their own. Invariably, there will be times when such translations are imperfect: some French words and concepts don’t have a direct English equivalent, there may be cultural differences underpinning linguistic differences; and even a French person with excellent English may occasionally stumble over finding the correct word for what they are trying to say.

Speaking different languages is a very immediate example of ignorance, but clearly there are many other forms. If you’re at a party, and you’re introduced to a nuclear physicist and ask her about her work, she is probably going to have to do some work to explain what she does in terms you will understand. Again, the burden is on her, with her higher level of knowledge, to rework what she knows into something you can understand.

On any dimension of personal experience, people are experts in their own experiences. No-one knows more about what it is like to be me than I do, and no-one know more about what it is to be you than you do. I am more ignorant if we are talking about you, and you are more ignorant if we are talking about me. However, trans people invariably have some knowledge of cis people, cis experiences, the cis worldview. How can we not? We’ve lived all our lives in a society in which practically all information (including information about trans people) is produced by and for cis people. It is not entirely our own worldview. I am not cis. There are things about cis experience which do not speak to me, and do not resonate with my own experience, but which I have heard enough about to understand that they seem to be an important component of other people’s experiences. I am also familiar enough with the cis world to recognise that cis people are not all the same, and can have different opinions about things, even fundamental questions about identity and existence. Richard Dawkins and the Archbishop of Canterbury fundamentally disagree on many aspects of what it is to be human, but that does not mean that older white Oxbridge-educated cis men are not human. In contrast, many cis people are pretty ignorant about trans people. That’s not usually deliberate – up until relatively recently there was very limited media discussion, no information in schools, little or no specific guidance for professionals, and so on. Many cis people are actively and supportively trying to understand better. But there is still a backlog of ignorance, which includes a tendency to homogenise us, and to fail to recognise diversity of opinion within trans communities.

At the moment, particularly in the context of high levels of media scrutiny, this feels wearyingly restrictive on the conversations we as trans people want to have. Even the internal conversations we have amongst ourselves are prone to being hijacked by someone who blunders in and insists we explain ourselves and our experiences for them. To go back to the nuclear physicist at the party, imagine she and three of her colleagues are stood in the corner, quietly having a chat about their work, perhaps with a minor disagreement over some technicality and then someone else, with little understanding of the field, comes over and insists the physicists explain their work. Imagine the newcomer has had a couple of drinks, and is a bit belligerent, and takes overheard comments out of context, or misunderstands things. Imagine they insist that anything that can’t be explained to them in words of two syllables must be wrong or invalid. Imagine they keep going over and over the same trivial point, even though that has no relationship to what the physicists were actually trying to discuss. Imagine that they insist that the minor technical disagreement is proof that the entirety of modern nuclear physics is wrong and unproven. Imagine that the physicists’ attempts to simplify complex concepts for the sake of the outsider are seized upon, and then any further attempts to introduce nuance are pronounced to be inconsistent with what has already been said. Imagine that the physicists get bored of this, tell the newcomer to fuck off, and the newcomer spends the rest of the party complaining to everyone else present this is a violation of their free speech and they were only asking questions, and why are these physicists so hostile? That is what so many conversations about trans issues feel like at the moment.

As I say, many attempts to improve understanding are well-meaning. Reducing ignorance does require some work on the part of those with more knowledge. What is frustrating is when the dynamics are not recognised. If you are a cis person, asking a trans person to explain aspects of their experience to you, that is occurring because they understand their own experiences better than you do. If you do not understand what they are saying, that arises from your ignorance, or possibly from a difficulty in translating concepts, but not from their experience being invalid. And in asking someone to explain to you, you are asking someone to do work. People are allowed to say ‘no’ to that work. In social, informal contexts, such as parties, or the internet, people are allowed to say ‘Actually, I’ve come onto social media to chat with my friends, or to watch cat videos, or whatever else, and I don’t really want to spend my free time doing work for you.’ In professional or organisational settings (for example, you’ve asked a local trans organisation to come in and talk to staff, or to look over your equality policy),  you should be offering recompense for work, not expecting people to share their expertise for free. There also comes a point when ignorance is wilful. If you are asking questions and have made no attempt to discover whether those questions have been answered elsewhere, consider whether you’re asking someone to do unnecessary work, or work that you could and should do for yourself.

And finally: accept that trans people have diverse views and not every conversation about trans issues is a 101 for beginners. At the moment, it often doesn’t feel safe for trans people to have nuanced conversations and discussions about our own complex experiences. Even on our own blogs, or in social media chats with our friends, we are conscious that our words may be seized on, taken out of context, used as ‘proof’ of something we never said. Many trans people who want to improve social awareness are highly distrustful of the media, because there has been so much misrepresentation and wilful ignorance in the past. That atmosphere doesn’t further debate, it destroys it.

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