How often do we hear people say that someone is not a real Christian, Muslim, Jew, transgender person, or other type of person? This is particularly common when members of an identifiable group commit an act of violence. We hear, “oh, they aren’t real Christians” regularly in the current North American political climate. Please stop saying this. Doing so misses the point. The people engaging in these acts and hateful speech are Christians, Muslims, Jewish, or other group. When we use this language we usually do it because we want to distance ourselves from the act of violence being perpetrated. The problem is that it becomes insidious. When we do this it becomes all too easy to want to ignore our own harmful behaviours.
In the North American context the most common version of this is aimed at Christians. Progressives label conservatives this way and conservatives label progressives this way. Yet, both groups see themselves as Christians. They are not wrong. They have different interpretations of scripture, theology, and how they should be interpreted. In this battle of interpretations, the “Culture Wars” as evangelical conservatives have called it, harm is being done through the use of language and labels. The language used by progressives tends to be less full of hate and more along the lines of, “that’s a really messed up interpretation.” Whereas the conservative version is filled with hellfire and brimstone language that has, and continues to, harm many people.
In Jewish circles the idea of who is really Jewish is one that divides, again often on denominational lines. For many the idea that one has to practise a certain way is at the core of what it means to be Jewish. If one doesn’t, or has different practises one isn’t really Jewish. Recently I was visiting a progressive Reform synagogue while I was travelling. Overall it was a good experience. Yet, I had someone say to me, “What kind of Jewish name is Johnson?” The implication was that I could not be Jewish because my last name isn’t a stereotypically Jewish name.
Among transgender people we encounter people judging and saying, “they’re not really transgender.” More often than not this is said by those who consider there to be only one way to transition. The other way it is used is to exclude people from groups that want to stay as a clique for only those who are ‘acceptable’ trans people. Oddly enough, these groups are usually blindingly white, too. Funny that… What is particularly problematic about this line is that it is what transgender people have been hearing for decades from gatekeepers when seeking medical transition. The assumption is that we are faking and not really transgender and thus don’t get access to transition related care.
With these, and other, examples there may be a good intention behind saying that the person is not really of the group. In reality it is similar to saying , “not all…”, (a topic I discussed here: Not All Comments…) which invalidates the harm that is being done. I understand the desire to want to distance oneself from the crappy behaviour and harmful actions, I often feel it myself. Doing so, however, is a way in which we tend to pretend that it’s not really our problem because it is being done by others.
How can one word things differently?
There are a number of ways in which one can change the language used when talking about others who do not have the same definition of what it means to be part of a group. When referring to groups of Christians one possible way would be to say, “They are from a branch of Christianity that espouses very different values and interpretations. I do not agree and there is ample evidence refuting their position.” Think before speaking or typing and be creative in your use of language if you are able.
When talking about various ways in which people might be transgender just don’t go anywhere near saying the person is not really transgender. Just don’t. Really. And, do not ask them which way they are transgendering, it’s wrong on a number of levels, not least is that we aren’t transgendering. We all have our own journey of being transgender and strive to find what is best for each of us. If someone makes the choice to share about their journey with you that is their business. It’s up to them, and we do not have an inherent right to know what their experience is.
Most of all, pause and think before making statements. If someone is making you uncomfortable ask yourself why. Yes, I’ve said this before and I will say it again. Being uncomfortable is not a bad thing. When posting about issues take the time to think about concrete ways that people can strive to do better. We all make mistakes. Sometimes, like last night’s announcement of the Best Picture award, the mistake is rather public and embarassing. Other times it’s not so much. They happen. Apologize and move on, making amends if one has caused harm. Saying the person or group are not real transgender people, Christians, Jews, Canadians, Americans, or what have you, is a cop out. We can, and must, do better.