I was having a conversation with a customer a while back, and they dropped the following truthbomb in my lap:
“The older I get, the more right-wing I become.”
Let’s not get bogged down with how this conversation came about. The short answer is that all my customers struggle to keep me on topic, I am made of tangents. A good submission wrestler will wait for an opponent to expose a limb and then perform movements like complex human origami to make said opponent submit. I leap on anecdotes, not limbs: you show a sliver of story and I’ll choke the life out of it rather than actually do my job.
This phrase has come back to me again and again, partly because it was never properly elaborated upon (there’s only so much information you can gather in a retail environment under selling circumstances) and partly because I see more and more that this may actually be true.
I have found myself having to delete or block people on social media whom I have known for years because I could no longer tolerate the ill-informed messages of hate they were spouting. Pick your topic, whether it’s race, religion, politics, sexual orientation or good old football sectarianism in the west of Scotland, and there’s a good chance I’ve had to alter my Facebook news feed to avoid toxic posts from people who would otherwise be considered peers. People I like can be pretty unlikeable, sometimes, and I’m sure they’d feel the same way about me.
Like most of you, I describe myself when looking in the mirror (be that literally in the mirror or when appraising your own actions) in cautiously modest terms. I’ll call myself things like “basically a good guy” or say I’m “live and let live”. My personal favourite is always “my heart’s in the right place”, which is really just an assertion that I’m being sustained by a cardiovascular system and not – as some of my friends believe – being kept alive by my liver so that we can search for more delicious wine in a horrible symbiotic relationship.
Remember that scene in the loading programme of The Matrix? Neo appears as Mr. Anderson while Morpheus talks him through the real history of the world. He describes Neo’s appearance as “‘residual self-image’. It is the mental projection of your digital self”. Well that’s you, me, and everybody. We have a residual self-image of who, ideally, we are and we all suffer from varying degrees of confirmation bias that reinforces that image.
I would, by and large, probably be described as a ‘liberal’ because my views tend to align with people who call themselves Liberals. I’m usually in the ‘pro’ camp for social reforms that give the appearance of new freedoms or new rights, and even when I truly hate something I try to see it from all angles to better understand it. In my residual self-image, I’m one of the good guys, the white hats, the knights who are shiny.
The truth is probably more laissez-faire than that.
I think – or think I think, if thinking thinking moves – that if no-one is being directly, physically hurt or oppressed by something then it can’t be all that bad. I think if someone likes a thing, or wants freedom to do a thing, and that thing makes them happy and doesn’t bring everyone else’s happiness down, then that’s okay by me. These are super simplifications, but they suffice.
In my grandiose moments – when my succubus liver holds sway and the wine is plentiful – I think of life as a grand pageant, and I want as many colourful characters in it as possible. Bring me your jesters and jugglers and fire breathers. Bring me your conservatives, your liberals, your independents. Bring me a car full of clowns and a dancing bear. Bring me gays, breeders, bisexuals and one of every creed and colour, thank you very much.
I’ve always been drawn to fringe characters. I want to know about that guy with the tattoos or that girl with the scars. I want to know about Wicca as much as I want to assassinate it, I want to know why you’d get that bit of you pierced, and I want to know why that song is everything. I also want to know about you if you’re obsessed with anything, whether it’s your dogs, your kids, your art, how much you can bench press; how to grow salad leaves, how much your break-up affected you and how to tame your dragon.
I make a point of saying pretty horrendous things in the company of friends and especially work colleagues, because I tell myself it’s self-aware. I like to believe no-one takes me seriously, because who would say that stuff? I say it, but I don’t believe any of it. I am not an arsehole, but I play one on TV.
So yeah, I think I’m a pretty open guy. If your shit doesn’t spill over into my immediate shit, and we can talk openly about the shit without fear of shit being thrown everywhere, then shit, man, we can be friends.
There is, of course, a ‘but’ to this. A ‘however’.
I found myself agreeing with Piers Morgan.
Take a second to recoil in horror at that sentence. I will. Rend your clothes and tear at your hair. Spit on the screen. Burn effigies. Make a voodoo doll. I’ll wait right here until you are ready to continue.
Piers Stefan Pughe-Morgan represents to me the insane dichotomy of the British relationship with its press. He would, under other circumstances, be dismissed or vilified as a preacher of hate. As a journalist he was tied up in phone hacking, as a public figure and television host he appears to be the equivalent of poking shit with a stick. He and the other fetid sump of British upper middle-class bile, Katie Hopkins, seem to be universally reviled and yet eminently employable. They come under that weird label of ‘media personality’ wherein we acknowledge that they are just The Worst, but we give them a microphone and a platform and a lot of money and tell them to have at it.
I am not comfortable sharing oxygen or a continental landmass with this man, but somehow his recent media circus – in the ancient Roman metaphor of lions and Christians, not ringmasters and elephants – made me sit up in my seat and got the cogs in my head spinning. Of course the cogs in my head are missing a few teeth, and that is why I’m discussing a May news story in July.
The particular topic where my preciously held good guy self-image crashed into Piers’ embrace was gender identity.
At this point it would be customary to list my credentials as a good guy. It’s like a pre-emptive apology.
I have, in my life, only known two trans people, back in the days before ‘trans’ was part of the everyday vocabulary. One was a partner of a friend who, after they broke up, went through gender reassignment surgery. The whys and wherefores are none of my business, but she became he and to the best of my knowledge this is a Very Good Thing.
The second was someone who worked in the same place as me, and the only reason I knew about it is Human Resources felt compelled to issue a memo asking for our sensitivity during the transition period. We were asked to respect choices and be patient while this man went through some awkward in-between stages, and we were informed of the name he had chosen for his new/true self. His story was not a Very Good Thing and tragically ended in a suicide.
This is faint context, but it’s what I have to draw on. I approached both situations the same way. This was new information about someone I vaguely knew. It represented a new paradigm, people were doing something I had never previously considered for reasons I could not ever fully appreciate. I was interested, yes, but my priorities in those days were a tight rotation of struggling to cover bills and getting drunk as often as I could with people I liked. The kind of choices made by people who felt trapped in the wrong skin were beyond me, my life was blissfully narrow.
The last three paragraphs are meant to establish that really, truly, I am all about living and letting live. I don’t really know how else to be. Stuff happens to other people, you just sort of selfishly get on with your own thing unless called upon to get involved. As a consequence I have never felt compelled or impelled to have any strong views on transsexual people or their struggles. I don’t have the right set of skills to opinionate.
But the adage holds true: opinions are like arseholes. We all have one. And to twist that metaphor further, some opinions come attached to arseholes.
Enter Piers Morgan.
Recently Piers has been attacking the trans community under a variety of guises. He is incredulous while being insensitive. He is stupefied and stupid. He asks if he can identify as an elephant, or a black non-binary, and he rails against Emma Watson being in favour of gender neutral awards ceremonies.
My schedule doesn’t allow me to watch morning television (barring endless CBeebies), but the internet does a very good job of bringing this nonsense to my door nonetheless.
On May 17th, ITV’s Good Morning Britain aired an interview between Piers – with his unhappy Salacious B.Crumb, Susanna Reid (who was baited away from the same job at Auntie Beeb and must surely view her salary as hazard pay) – and a couple who identify as trans non-binary. They were ostensibly on the show to promote a new book and, implicitly, to operate as foils who may educate the bullish Morgan to new enlightenment.
When the headlines and Facebook Shares began to roll in, I was intrigued because “trans non-binary” was a new definition to my eyes and ears. It sounded very progressive, very futuristic. Whilst I knew we were talking about ‘binary’ in the strictly English definition of ‘opposites’, it still conjured images of computer language, 1 and 0, the dialect of a base 2 system.
I watched the interview.
Things got off to a bad start for me when the couple were introduced as Fox and Owl.
As things progressed, I realised I was going to struggle further if I ever had to describe this interview because so many convenient labels I take for granted were getting shredded up. Fox appeared male, but had arrived in the world as female. Owl was the reverse. And they rejected the notions of either sex, so would probably be offended to be referred to as ‘he’ or ‘she’.
One was called Fox. One was called Owl. We were one Snake away from having all the antagonists from Donaldson and Scheffler’s The Gruffalo, and the churlish part of my nature suspects the Snake may be an oppressive male symbol of domination or somesuch.
I want to give Fox and Owl their due respect. They are an attractive couple and eloquent to boot, seemingly reluctant to even rise to the ample bait on offer. From the little reading I’ve done online, they represent a quandary in the increasingly visible trans movement: apparently it’s controversial to some trans people to have two trans people fall in love, who knew?
Piers was on particularly combative form, but the two expressed grace under fire. Fox gave a polished product placement for the book early on, and then the two presented considered answers to some shitty questions. I doubt this was their first media rodeo.
If I had simply read an account of the interview rather than watched it, my internal judge would have found in favour of Fox and Owl because Piers Morgan is such a cartoonishly hateful figure. I’d have been delighted to see him skewered on the horns of reason by a young couple on the bleeding edge of the future. Men are women. Women are men. Both are neither. We are all they. The couple will one day be replaced by the triple and on and on and on, here comes the wave of the future, Piers, surf’s up.
Despite Piers’ best efforts to draw fire, I found myself fighting hard not to loathe Fox and Owl. Thankfully, no-one dwelled on why they had ditched their birth names for Carnivora and Strigiformes: it became clear that Fox and Owl’s bag was identity, and redefining it. My trans experience prior to this saw the people transitioning choose the most generic names from the opposite gender that I could imagine. Fox and Owl are renouncing the naming conventions and traditions that we institutionalised humans don’t even question. To Fox and Owl, we are all sheep.
This became the point where I found myself stood with at least one foot in what I thought was the wrong camp.
I’m going to use the pronoun ‘they’ from here on in, because I’ve been led to believe that it’s less offensive than ‘he’ or ‘she’ and because I’m a little lost without it.
Fox began by explaining that they were “assigned” female at birth, and went on to say they began the transitioning process after an unhappy adolescence but balked when they realised that going from female to male was simply exchanging one set of expectations for another. Owl elaborated that they felt that gender identification was a construct our society had made up. Both seemed to have real discomfort with the gender they arrived with and the perceived expectations, both seemed to feel exchanging gender was not enough as it brought with it new societal pressures and expectations and both had decided to opt out of the whole damn system.
And I – grateful you have read this far – lost all sympathy.
I feel Fox and Owl are a wonderful example of something a teacher one told me, mid-telling off:
Just because you can do a thing doesn’t mean you should do a thing.
I am not criticising their individual choice to transition from male to female and vice-versa. I openly applaud them being a semi-controversial couple within their own community because I don’t see them as anything other than reverse heterosexuals, and surely that’s a missed trick. I became a man, and found I loved a woman. I became a woman, and found a man to love. We’re either/neither, we’re gaysexual, heterogay, homostraight, bigenital, omnicurious, pioneers of penis and venturers of vagina. Okay, the last one was a stretch.
What Fox and Owl have done, in their own words, is “denounce the idea of being called a man or a woman, so non-binary is an identity on its own”. And that suggests a colossal arrogance.
Gender, just gender, is a biological human fact. Gender identity is just a name, when you strip it back to the essentials. This one has an outy bit, this one is male. This one has inny bits, this one is a female. I appreciate there are expectations that come with either label, and they’ll vary widely from region to region, country to country, but the broad strokes are the same. Boys are one half, girls are the other half, on a purely biological basis. That’s the binary.
I say this as the unmanliest of men who ever manned manfully: the expectations can seem crippling. Like this sport. Do this thing. Drink this, not that. Have this skill. Don’t cry. If you do a thing that deviates from what the pack deems appropriate, you will be called gay (which has nothing to do with your sexual orientation in this case, but is just an assertion that you are lesser because you do not do what society thinks a guy must do, guyfully).
In so far as this is true, I can get Fox and Owl’s argument. Gender brings stereotypes because that is how we, the pack, are wired. We want shorthand. We want news bites. We want assumption.
But to reject the whole of gender identity as a “social construct” is the equivalent of blaming your mother for how badly you can dance. You don’t like how things are when you hit the dancefloor, nothing feels comfortable and it has to be someone’s fault, you love music, surely you should have rhythm.
Gender was not constructed by society, gender just is. You’re one. You’re the other one. And holy shit, guys, what a time to be alive where you can switch teams if you don’t feel comfortable. That is just awesome.
Gender is not “assigned”. We are not pigeon-holing children by identifying them based on the sex organs they come out with. These are what gamers may call ‘base stats’. On the character creation screen, nature chose a chromosome set up.
Fox and Owl want us to accept the old meme: “Don’t hate the player, hate the game.” They want us to believe that they are enlightened because they have renounced the status quo, and they demand that we acknowledge their new terms. They have seceded in the hope of succeeding.
I don’t buy the argument they are selling. Owl says: “I sort of denounce the idea of being a man or a woman. A non-binary is an identity on its own outside of this binary”. Why? Because you say so? With your wishy-washy, not-quite-committed “sort of”?
It is truly a situation worthy of sympathy if these two people could not find true happiness in either of the two available sexes, but I just don’t buy that. I think Fox and Owl, with their non-conformist naming conventions and their refusal to accept labels, are simply being contrary. This may have begun as a gender confusion issue, but they’ve politicised it. They strike me as the worst kind of middle-class semi-intellectuals.
There is a contempt for all of us in what they say and how they say it. They don’t want to exist in a binary which, until they came along, I never even knew I was a part of. They want us to recognise this new language, and this new non-gender, because they were unhappy. We need to change, because they’ve changed.
They are not beautiful new chimeras.
I don’t think Fox or Owl ever had a teacher who said “Just because you can do a thing, doesn’t mean you should do a thing”.
This brings me back to my increasingly right-wing customer.
All of the thoughts and feelings that Fox and Owl have elicited in me are at war with the image I have of myself. But I also believe I am not wrong, or at least not entirely. I have a pretty well-developed bullshit filter, and too much of Fox and Owl’s agenda reeks to high heavens. Where they are concerned, I think I’m just calling a spade a spade (or a non-shovel tool which rejects the patriarchal misogynistic hierarchy of gardening).
I have always regarded the so-called right-wing as being based on fear. Their views are always espoused in terms of us versus them, protect our interests by being strong or striking first, appealing to the lowest common denominator or stirring up irrational feelings. But it’s all most simply couched in terms of fear. These are fearful animals, lashing out.
I listen to the language of this new non-binary dialogue, and I see support for it online. Following this interview I read that a Canadian parent (another they) has succeeded in having their child’s birth certificate be issued without a disclosed gender. They want their child to discover their gender organically, innately, without the impositions of society’s expectations. The lawyer who won this case has a name that rejects capital letters. She may as well have an emoji instead of a name.
I’m sure there’s a very clever reason for all of this, but it all just smacks to be of this same contrarianism. I am rejecting these things I find oppressive because it’s my right. Don’t question me, that’s just more oppression. If you oppress me, you’re just another entitled white male from the old guard.
I exaggerate, but not by much. I start to worry that my upbringing, my capacity to learn or grow, my levels of tolerance, are not up to the task of discussing trans non-binary rights. I start to fear that I am falling out of step with society, that maybe I am the one who is wrong. As will no doubt have happened in places in this blog already, fear mainly manifests itself as sarcasm, but it’s really just me being irrational. Fear does that.
It happens to us all. We get older. Things move on and at some point we get left behind. That is frightening.
I somehow, in that residual self-image of myself, thought I may be above all that. I was more enlightened, better read, more open-minded. I would move with the times. Yet with Fox and Owl’s appearance, I found the first time where a new thing appeared that I didn’t agree with.
The voice of reason, who said some of the things I was already thinking – albeit in more asinine terms – was the voice of fear. The voice of fear made me feel slightly less wrong. Slightly less out of step. The voice of fear. The voice of Piers Morgan.
So do we get more right wing as we get older?
I think Owl said it best.
I think “sort of”.