A Reader Asked For My Help Escaping Toxic Wokeness And Finding Something More Meaningful

Can I help her? Can you?

Happy New Year! I hope you had an enjoyable evening on Tuesday, whatever that means to you.

Last month I got a really interesting, thoughtful note from a reader named Katie*, submitted via my Ask Me Anything post for paid subscribers. It’s hard to sum up but it’s basically about how to be alive and fulfilled in this very confusing world of ours, what with all the yelling, when you are an idealistic young person figuring out your identity.

The note has been bouncing around in my head ever since and I went pretty long and in-depth with my reply. I should say that the internet being the internet, you never know when someone is trying to put one over on you, and responding to a stranger with earnestness always brings a degree of risk. In this case, for what it’s worth, what Katie says about her name and current educational affiliation matches a *.edu email address that subscribed to this newsletter right before she posted her comment. That doesn’t really line up with the idea that this is some sort of troll job.

Since she used her full name in the comment itself, I did email Katie to offer her a chance to go anonymous and remove a mention of her school to avoid the (slight) chance of her receiving any backlash as a result of her note and my response to it — I said I’d just delete the comment and she could repost it without her name and affiliation. She turned down the offer and seemed fine with having her name stay in. (I’ll skip using her last name here in my reply.)

(* Update, 4/24/2020: Katie emailed me today, from the same *.edu account, saying she was nervous about the possibility that people would identify her as a result of this post, and asking me to either take it down or take her first name out of it. I quickly agreed to the latter — ‘Katie’ wasn’t the name originally used in this post but I’m replaced all uses of, erm, Katie’s real first name with that one. Out of an abundance of caution I deleted both the original AMA comment, which contained Katie’s full name, as well as the replies to that comment that mentioned her first name. So if your comment was deleted, that’s why. Then I realized I’m dumb and could have just deleted the comments but reposted them with the name swapped out [you can’t edit comments within Substack], so when it comes to the responses to this post, that’s what I did. You’ll see what I mean if you go down to the comments.)

Paid subscribers: You’ll see at the end of this post that I invite you to offer your own thoughts to Katie in the comments section. Please go for it if you’re so inclined — I bet many of you will have some extremely helpful ideas and suggestions.

[All links added by me, and I made some very very minor edits. Original is here. If your email client can’t handle the length of this post, read it here.]

Hi Jesse. I subscribed to you specifically to ask you a question, after just listening to the episode of Girls Chat you appeared on. I just wanted to first say that listening to you actually speak about trans people off the cuff painted a very different image of you than I had for so long. I truly did think you were one of the internet’s greatest monsters. So I can’t help but giggle that it’s come to this, and that I actually have a chance to communicate with you now.

I’m a young black trans woman, and for a majority of my online life, I have been hopelessly, embarrassingly, shamefully Woke. Every single major online Twitter culture beef, I was there in the trenches. I’ve cancelled with the best of them. I’ve devoted far too much time screaming about how awful white people are, how awful cis men are, how awful conservatives are, ESPECIALLY how awful TERFs are…

And finally, I am at a point where I look at myself and I can’t fucking stand what I’ve become. For the past year, I’ve been a fan of the podcast Cum Town, especially Nick Mullen. This led to be becoming a fan of Red Scare, and eventually podcasts like the even more woke-repellent Legion of Skanks. [These are all basically anti-PC lefty podcasts, though they vary in the particulars and I’m less familiar with Legion of Skanks.] It took me a very long time, but one day something snapped in me and I finally thought, “Wait a minute. Maybe… you can laugh at racist jokes without being racist.” From there it’s just been revelation after revelation, on a near-daily basis. I’ve been one of the people assured at the significantly low number of ‘detransitioners’ and the belief that the only people who care so much about them must hate trans people. Not anymore. Literally before typing this, I just read your post about Dave Chappelle, and googled what ‘heterodoxy’ meant. I, of course, was one of the people outraged about his standup specials, and I still find some of his trans jokes to be very boring stuff I was seeing on Twitter back in 2016. But I digress.

As I get ready to enter my 15th month of hormone replacement therapy (informed consent with no regrets, heh!) and start an MFA program at [her film school], I am plagued on a daily basis with my growing disillusionment with wokeness, cancel culture (which up until a month ago I insisted wasn’t real), and my true values. I struggle with my identity, and if I should even feel justified in feeling hurt when someone misgenders me. I struggle with the love and support I have for trans children and my desire to validate them and give them what I never got, against the growing evidence that watchful waiting [a protocol in which social transition is often delayed] is the best method for them. I struggle with the dawning realization that the culture I’ve significantly contributed to combined with the disingenuous malicious efforts of genuinely bad-faith actors will most likely lead to an even stronger pushback against the acceptance of trans people in the coming years. I struggle with my desire to be affirmed in my belief that I am a woman, and all the cis women that feel so strongly and emotionally that to affirm me would mean to render them invisible. I struggle with trying to be the “cool, not whiny, edgy trans girl that can take a joke.” And (this is the first time I think I've admitted this to another human being), I struggle with the realization that my Unbearable Wokeness might be partially a result of my growing up in a relatively well-off community as a light-skinned mixed-race person, separated from so much of the true lack of prosperity that destroys the lives of so many in my communities. I ask myself so often now, “How much of my outrage at any slight against people of color and the LGBT is out of a genuine empathy, and not a selfish, coddled, narcissistic obsession with affirmation and validation of my identity?”

I’m sorry it’s taking so long to get to the actual question. I want to do great things, and I think I have the potential, and miraculously, I’m getting close to having the access. I’ve resolved myself to read a lot more, with philosophy about the self, and society and history being the things most interesting to me. I want to be a lot smarter. I want to be someone who can be much better at logically and calmly arguing the things I believe. I want to be a lot better at being able to listen to people who hold radically different viewpoints from mine and not immediately think they are terrible people and my enemies. I want to strengthen my own creative work and inject it with truth and humanity, and not just feel-good, liberal wokepoints.

I guess I just want to ask you simply... Can you point me in the right direction? Can you suggest a place to look, something I read or listen to, or anything? And also, what would you suggest someone like me, with a body and a life like this, and such powerful, suffocating ambitions as mine do to help inject a little more sanity and goodness into this world, and maybe actually help change it for the better?

Thank you for taking the time to read this. -Katie

Thank you for writing it! I really mean it when I say your note has been bouncing around in my head for the last few weeks. There’s so much stuff here that I have so many thoughts about, so I’m going to go through piece by piece, if that’s all right. This will not be short!

Every single major online twitter culture beef, I was there in the trenches. I’ve cancelled with the best of them. I’ve devoted far too much time screaming about how awful white people are, how awful cis men are, how awful conservatives are, ESPECIALLY how awful TERFs are…

It sounds like you’re describing life in a toxic online social-justice community. Toxic SJ communities are, of course, no less toxic because they center around fundamentally worthy causes. One thing I’ve noticed about them is no one seems to be happy. When happiness does appear to manifest, it’s a strained, performative type of happiness.

Allow me my first of what are going to be several digressions. Earlier this week I got started on the latest “Fall of Civilizations” podcast, which is about the Aztecs. One of the many things the host, Paul M.M. Cooper, does masterfully is pick the right spots to zoom in a bit, to encourage listeners to really think, if only for a few minutes along what is an hours-long journey inside a particular civilization’s downfall, about some issue or moment.

One such moment in this podcast involves the Aztec practice of human sacrifice. Cooper treats the subject with sufficient care, given that, as he points out, human sacrifice was one of the rationales the Spaniards used to justify their plunder of the New World (the colonizing Spaniards were, of course, deeply concerned with human rights — real humanists, that lot). But human sacrifice did occur. A priest would stab someone to death with an obsidian dagger at the top of a pyramid and pull out their still-beating heart. Their blood would run down the steps of the pyramid and their body would be tossed down it, its parts fed to animals. Many people would watch; it was a big social and religious ritual.

Cooper invites us to imagine would it would be like to be in the crowd. What did the average member of this (in other ways) incredibly successful, astoundingly impressive civilization think of the practice? In all likelihood, he points out, there was a range of opinions, just as the Europeans of the era likely had a range of opinions on the very public executions that would take place thousands of miles from Tenochtitlan, in starkly different cultural settings.

It’s hard not to imagine some half-hearted cheers. At root, these grisly sacrifices, often perpetrated upon prisoners of war, were demonstrations of state power. This was, at the time, a powerful civilization that believed, as so many powerful civilizations do, that it had the power of the gods themselves on its side, and that it was important to stay in their good graces. So maybe you cheer a bit louder than you feel like cheering, because what are you going to do, not cheer? Deny the self-evident wonder and righteousness of what you’re witnessing? When the consequences of being a hated and defeated outgroup member are presently tumbling down those endless holy stairs, right toward you?

There is this stock response when people do what I’m doing now, when they put dysfunctional online social dynamics in the context of the really bad stuff from our human past — sacrifices or witch burnings or the Red Scare and so on. The response is incredulous outrage: How could you compare one to the other??? Then the indignant person shuts down and refuses to discuss the matter at hand. My theory is that when they chant the mantra You can’t compare them! loud and fast enough, it drowns out their own doubts; it allows them to avoid interrogating their own role in making the world a meaner and crueler place than it needs to be.

So, for the record:

WE KNOW THAT CALLOUT CULTURE ON TWITTER IS NOT LITERALLY THE SAME AS BURNING AN ACCUSED WITCH.

WE KNOW THAT CALLOUT CULTURE ON TWITTER IS NOT LITERALLY THE SAME AS BURNING AN ACCUSED WITCH.

WE KNOW THAT CALLOUT CULTURE ON TWITTER IS NOT LITERALLY THE SAME AS BURNING AN ACCUSED WITCH.

The whole point is that there are certain aspects of human nature that pop up again and again and again, in different forms at different times. One of them is in-group insecurity. Are you a member in good standing? Is someone else poised to overtake you in the local hierarchy? What can you do — must you do — to hang on? A huge amount of human social life is oriented toward determining and broadcasting people’s status — whether they’re in or out and just how in or out they are.

Toxic online social-justice communities are miserable places largely because they are fueled by stilted, superficial outrage, and because there is an accurate sense that if you say the wrong thing, all your friends will instantly throw you under the bus. Since so many members of these communities don’t know each other in real life, and in fact have no firm connection to one another other than explicitly stated political values, people naturally develop a rather insecure sense of in-group attachment — one premised almost entirely on avoiding wrongthink and on reciting the right parts of the liturgy at the right times.

In this light, the stuff that happens so frequently makes perfect sense. X, who is outside the community, says something offensive. People within the community start to get mad. They get madder and madder, because everyone is trying to leapfrog the last person’s level of madness. If you aren’t at least as mad as the last person who chimed in about X, it suggests that maybe you aren’t really dedicated to the cause. And the cause is always something deeply important, whether trans rights or migrant rights or whatever else. But in these communities, action and activism really are reduced to just performing as much outrage as possible. Often, on Twitter, this takes the form of a tweetstorm that starts something like this:

What [person] just did isn’t just about [what they did]. It’s about the whole broader context of this issue, and the whole way [outgroup members] have failed to treat us as humans. 1/35

You will then watch the author issue a grand, sweeping, multiple-knees-to-the-groin denouncement of X (always while assuring everyone that it isn’t really about X, but about the Broader Issues) that places the entire sweep of human cruelty on X’s shoulders, crushing them instantly. X has embodied every bad thing that has ever happened to anyone — every instance of injustice and folly.

There is never any talk of proportionality; there is never any fact-checking of the claims contained in those 35 tweets from within the community, because the last thing you wanna do, when someone is about to be stabbed in the heart atop the pyramid, is raise your hand and say, “Excuse me, but is this really what the gods want?”

And there I go again with the analogizing. But if you know anything about human psychology and sociology, it’s hard not to view these pathological communities as deeply human and deeply predictable. They’ve been around forever, in various forms. My conservative readers sometimes tell me there is no crueler space subjected to more stifling intragroup surveillance than certain small-town churches that pretend to radiate warmth and community. So this stuff exists in real life, of course, in plenty of other contexts.

But I still think there’s something particularly sad about toxic online communities which orbit around social-justice causes. Often, they attract people who don’t have a lot of other places to go. You see disproportionate numbers of folks from disempowered groups, or who are struggling with mental illness, or who, through no fault of their own, don’t have a lot of real-world friends. They stumble into these online communities, and initially feel a sense of warmth and welcoming and belonging, but soon realize that these are not healthy and nurturing spaces. (Sometimes, at least. Other times they turn into insufferable pricks just so they can fit in.)

What I’m saying is you’re not the first person to have reached out to me with these sorts of concerns, with a sense of exhaustion and a desire to find something better, even if you’re the first to have done so in such a bracing manner, using your real name publicly. I’ll never forget the DM conversation I had with a Twitter follower who thought he might be genderqueer but was terrified to come out because he saw how horrifically trans people in his own online, social-justice-oriented community were treated (as far as I know he still uses ‘he’ pronouns). Think about that for a moment: He was scared of coming out to the sort of community that advertises itself as being more open than any other to people like him. But it isn’t. Many of these communities are, at root, scams. I don’t know to what degree they’re intentional scams in the sense of certain types of bullies and people with untreated personality disorders taking over these spaces and using them to gain social power (which happens all the time), versus the natural result of a bunch of somewhat broken individuals coming together and mutually imbibing the potent twin toxins of online anonymity/pseudonymity and complete moral certainty, but either way, holy crap are the results ugly.

Anyway. You asked for specific recommendations of stuff to read or watch or do that may help you better figure all this and chart a path forward, and I’ll try to sprinkle my ramblings and ravings with such recommendations along the way. First, a very simple thing you can do is simply reach out to someone who is getting dragged and offer your support. It’s fine, and totally understandable, to do this privately. But it makes a big difference, and it can be short and sweet: I see what they’re doing to you, and it pisses me off — it’s really unfair and I’m sorry you’re going through that.

As for learning more about these dynamics, I have some reading suggestions. Freddie deBoer really described toxic SJ communities better than I ever could, in his must-read “Planet of Cops” essay:

The woke world is a world of snitches, informants, rats. Go to any space concerned with social justice and what will you find? Endless surveillance. Everybody is to be judged. Everyone is under suspicion. Everything you say is to be scoured, picked over, analyzed for any possible offense. Everyone’s a detective in the Division of Problematics, and they walk the beat 24/7. You search and search for someone Bad doing Bad Things, finding ways to indict writers and artists and ordinary people for something, anything. That movie that got popular? Give me a few hours and 800 words. I’ll get you your indictments. That’s what liberalism is, now — the search for baddies doing bad things, like little offense archaeologists, digging deeper and deeper to find out who’s Good and who’s Bad. I wonder why people run away from establishment progressivism in droves.

Also check out his essay on the backchannel dynamics going on in many of these spaces. And Michelle Goldberg’s deeply prescient 2014 article in The Nation on “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars.” In true toxic-SJ fashion, the response from some people to her piece, in which there’s no clear racial lumping with regard to who is perpetrating and who is victimized by online social dynamics, and which includes an anecdote about a white woman excoriating a black one for not being sufficiently woke, was: I can’t believe Michelle Goldberg is picking on women of color so cruelly! Sigh, sigh, sigh. And you should read Scott Alexander on this stuff — his blog Slate Star Codex is consistently excellent, and “I Can Tolerate Anything But The Outgroup” and “Sort By Controversial” (a short story) are good introductions to his thoughts on tribalism, online and off-.

I think you’d also enjoy “Exiting the Vampire Castle” by Mark Fisher, who, tragically, killed himself in 2017 at age 48. It’s funny, in retrospect, that Fisher cites the treatment of the British writer Owen Jones as evidence of the worsening of left-of-center online discourse, given that (in my opinion, at least) Jones has contributed significantly to its toxicity, but it’s still such a good essay that I go back to it over and over again:  

‘Left-wing’ Twitter can often be a miserable, dispiriting zone. Earlier this year, there were some high-profile twitterstorms, in which particular left-identifying figures were ‘called out’ and condemned. What these figures had said was sometimes objectionable; but nevertheless, the way in which they were personally vilified and hounded left a horrible residue: the stench of bad conscience and witch-hunting moralism. The reason I didn’t speak out on any of these incidents, I’m ashamed to say, was fear. The bullies were in another part of the playground. I didn’t want to attract their attention to me.

Fisher also neatly captures the (non-)logic of toxic SJ spaces when he explains, of a controversy involving the comedian and actor and activist Russell Brand, “In the febrile McCarthyite atmosphere fermented by the moralising left, remarks that could be construed as sexist mean that Brand is a sexist, which also meant that he is a misogynist. Cut and dried, finished, condemned.” Of course it’s important to recognize the difference when someone famous like Brand or Chappelle is being dragged in this manner, since at the end of the day, they are not vulnerable in the way less powerful people are, but the same (non-)logic applies to Brand that applies to random victims of online drive-bys in toxic communities: If you said something that could be construed as *-ist, and people notice and decide to make a whole thing of it, then henceforth you are *-ist. That’s the end of the story. Your mask has slipped — that’s your new identity. (Also, even if you can console yourself by diving into a swimming pool full of money, it’s still not fun to see a bunch of people try to trash your reputation in a performatively over-the-top way.)

Okay, one other excerpt from another good piece of writing before moving on. This is from Wil Wheaton, an actor best known for a role on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” and an online social-justice stalwart in every sense of the word. If he knows who I am, he probably (thinks he) hates me, I can say with some certainty given who his online friends are.

Quick backstory: Someone built an alternative to Twitter known as Mastodon, because they thought Twitter had too much harassment delivered at the hands of conservative and alt-right trolls. Many SJ folks made the switch, Wheaton among them, but, as he later recounted (archived here), it didn’t go so hot:

I thought that if I left Twitter, I could find a new social network that would give it some competition (Twitter’s monopoly on the social space is a big reason it can ignore people who are abused and harassed, while punishing people for reporting their attackers), so I fired up this account I made at Mastodon a long time ago.

I thought I’d find something different. I thought I’d find a smaller community that was more like Twitter was way back in 2008 or 2009. Cat pictures! Jokes! Links to interesting things that we found in the backwaters of the internet! Interaction with friends we just haven’t met, yet! What I found was … not that.

I found a harsh reality that I’m still trying to process: thousands of people who don’t know me, who have never interacted with me, who internalized a series of lies about me, who were never willing to give me a chance. I was harassed from the minute I made my account, and though I expected the “shut up wesley”s and “go fuck yourself”s to taper off after a day or so, it never did. And even though I never broke any rules on the server I joined […] one of its admins told me they were suspending my account, because they got 60 (!) reports overnight about my account, and they didn’t want to deal with the drama.

That last bit really sums it up, doesn’t it? “We can’t figure out what you did wrong, but boy are a lot of people mad, and therefore we’re suspending you, because if you didn’t do anything wrong, why would so many people be mad?”

But what did Wil Wheaton actually do? It’s unclear! At some point it was determined he was a transphobe, I guess for using the wrong blocklist on Twitter and accidentally blocking some trans people as a result. That’s the closest I’ve ever gotten to even understanding the ‘allegations.’ So, as a result, the harassment he received from his fellow progressives was so severe he had to leave social media for his own well-being. People decided whatever he’s accused of having done was transphobic, and, as per the (non-)logic concisely described by Fisher above, thereafter he just was a transphobe. Doesn’t matter that there’s no evidence he ever did anything remotely transphobic.

The way he sums this all up is fairly poignant, and nicely captures the frustration of getting caught in the insatiable maw of one of these toxic communities. After pointing out that he’s lucky to be in a position where he can just log off and ignore this stuff in a way many people don’t have the luxury of doing, he writes:

I’m done with social media. Maybe I just don’t fit into whatever the social media world is. I mean, the people who are all over the various Mastodon instances made it really clear that I wasn’t welcome there (with a handful of notable, joyful, exceptions, mostly related to my first baby steps into painting), and it seems as if I was just unwelcome because … I’m me? I guess? Like, I know that I’m not a transphobe, but holy shit that lie just won’t die, and right now as I am writing this, someone at Mastodon is telling me that I am, because people said so, and I should apologize to them. I mean, how am I supposed to respond to that, when it happens over and over and over again? “You’ve been lied to about me. Please give me a chance” just doesn’t seem like a viable way forward with people who are, for whatever reason, very, very angry. And these people seem to have an idea of me in their head that doesn’t fit with the idea of myself that I have in my head. It’s honestly caused me to rethink a lot of stuff. Like, am I really the terrible person they say I am? I don’t think I am, but I’m doing my best to listen, and when I say, “please stop yelling at me and let’s have a conversation that I can grow from” I get yelled at for “tone policing” and honestly I just get exhausted and throw up my hands. Maybe I’m not this person they tell me I am, but I represent that person in their heads, and they treat me accordingly? This is one of those times when my mental illness makes it very hard for me to know what’s objective reality and what’s just in my head.

This is what these toxic communities do. They chew people up and spit them out, miserable and disoriented and frustrated that no one will give them a genuine chance to defend themselves. Of course, the people doing the masticating are themselves miserable, a lot of the time. It isn’t just that they’re performatively sacrificing others to shore up their own status, though there’s certainly plenty of that; often they too are dealing with serious pain, and being Too Online, and lashing out at others, feels like a salve. And for every Wil Wheaton — a famous person who can write about what happened to them — there are many others who go poof, who just disappear from the little bit of community they had and who don’t really have other places to turn.

Wait, I lied — one more recommendation: I thought Robyn Kanner captured these dynamics nicely, both in her New York Times column calling for a bit more kindness online, an in an on-stage conversation she had with my friend Katie Herzog in Brooklyn last spring for the podcast “Conversations With People Who Hate Me” (the recording of which I am told will finally be online in the next month or so). In that conversation, Kanner revealed that when she was at her most Online, and most invested in cancelling whoever ‘deserved’ it on a given day, she was dealing with serious alcohol issues, and was extremely miserable. She has been far less online since sobering up, and now looks back on that period a bit wincingly.

Again: This stuff does not offer lasting happiness or fulfillment. I’m glad you’re on your way out.

Sorry that turned into a bit of a rant. Let’s move on:

And finally, I am at a point where I look at myself and I can’t fucking stand what I’ve become. For the past year, I’ve been a fan of the podcast Cum Town, especially Nick Mullen. This led to be becoming a fan of Red Scare, and eventually podcasts like the even more woke-repellent Legion of Skanks. It took me a very long time, but one day something snapped in me and I finally thought “Wait a minute. Maybe… you can laugh at racist jokes without being racist.” From there it’s just been revelation after revelation, on a near-daily basis. I’ve been one of the people assured at the significantly low number of ‘detransitioners’ and the belief that the only people who care so much about them must hate trans people. Not anymore. Literally before typing this, I just read your post about Dave Chappelle, and googled what ‘heterodoxy’ meant. I, of course was one of the people outraged about his stand up specials, and I still find some of his trans jokes to be very boring stuff I was seeing on twitter back in 2016. But I digress.

I hope you’re not too hard on yourself about any of this. For all the above-stated reasons, it’s completely natural to be drawn to certain types of communities at certain points in your life, and to then grow out of them and/or realize they just aren’t for you.

But I do think the cognitive flexibility you’re exhibiting here is important — You can laugh at racist jokes without being racist, and so forth. So much of the misery and finger-pointing I see in toxic communities comes from really rigid, Manichean thinking. Either you’re the good sort of person who denounces the book wholeheartedly and joins in its burning, or the bad sort of person who refuses to take part. Once the accusations have ratcheted up, there’s no compromise and no discussion.

Thankfully, this isn’t how most people think. Most people are capable of laughing at offensive or edgy jokes without endorsing some broader ‘message’ allegedly embedded within them, or at least are capable of watching other people laugh at those jokes without making wild and unwarranted claims about what this reveals about their politics. It’s perfectly reasonable to say you think Dave Chappelle’s jokes about trans people are stale or offensive or whatever else without embracing some sort of fundamentalist anti-Chappelle stance. And in fact, that’s part of the reason why Chappelle still sells out his shows and is immensely popular, and why any night of the week you can go to the Comedy Cellar here in New York and hear people laugh uproariously at countless jokes that would get the comics ‘cancelled’ on Twitter. It is unlikely that the audience members paying to see this material have zero qualms about any of the jokes — they’re just not the sorts of people determined to look for every opportunity to get pissed off and offended.

But because rigid, manichean thinking is infiltrating journalism and cultural criticism more and more, we all witnessed this bizarre dynamic in which many outlets were pretending that his latest special represented some shocking departure for Chappelle, a true indicator that he had shifted jarringly from Good to Bad (the only two categories there are), despite the fact that, as I wrote, he had always trafficked in offensive material.

Anyway, this was one of many points in your note where I just sorta nodded and thought to myself, This person seems to be figuring stuff out. It’s healthy to have the response of “I think this was a bit stupid or offensive, but it’s also not the end of the world.” In fact, you need to be capable of this response or 1) the world will drive you crazy, and 2) you will often end up wasting time and energy by focusing on trivial stuff.

As I get ready to enter my 15th month of hormone replacement therapy (informed consent with no regrets, heh!) and start an MFA program at [school], I am plagued on a daily basis with my growing disillusionment with wokeness, cancel culture (which up until a month ago I insisted wasn’t real), and my true values. I struggle with my identity, and if I should even feel justified in feeling hurt when someone misgenders me. I struggle with the love and support I have for trans children and my desire to validate them and give them what I never got, against the growing evidence that watchful waiting is the best method for them. I struggle with the dawning realization that the culture I’ve significantly contributed to combined with the disingenuous malicious efforts of genuinely bad-faith actors will most likely lead to an even stronger pushback against the acceptance of trans people in the coming years. I struggle with my desire to be affirmed in my belief that I am a woman, and all the cis women that feel so strongly and emotionally that to affirm me would mean to render them invisible. I struggle with trying to be the “cool, not whiny, edgy trans girl that can take a joke.” And (this is the first time I think I've admitted this to another human being), I struggle with the realization that my Unbearable Wokeness might be partially a result of my growing up in a relatively well-off community as a light-skinned mixed race person, separated from so much of the true lack of prosperity that destroys the lives of so many in my communities. I ask myself so often now, “How much of my outrage at any slight against people of color and the LGBT is out of a genuine empathy, and not a selfish, coddled, narcissistic obsession with affirmation and validation of my identity?”

It goes without saying, but I’m very happy to hear you have access to HRT, which (obviously) a lot of trans people don’t, and that it is working out for you. From what I have heard it is very hard to describe to a person without gender dysphoria the sort of relief that going on hormones can bring with it. 

I should point out that I’m not sure there’s “growing evidence” watchful waiting is the best approach for trans and gender nonconforming kids — I think there’s real debate here. My understanding is that the Amsterdam clinic that pioneered the watchful waiting approach is going to be publishing some more stuff in the future that might give us further data. Meanwhile, there’s a cohort of trans kids being followed by Kristina Olson and her colleagues here in the States who transitioned early, which is a very different approach, so as the years pass we’ll know more about them, too. I don’t think any of the findings on the horizon will answer the question of childhood transition dispositively — but we will know more, at least. In the meantime, the adults in the Amsterdam cohort who have since transitioned appear to be doing quite well, which does complicate the idea that you’re automatically doing permanent harm to a TGNC child if you don’t let them socially transition, as long as you’re treating them well otherwise, not shaming them for their play and dress preferences, providing other support, and so on. This stuff is immensely complicated. In a sense, the Dutch clinic had a head start on publishing good data, but I hope more and more clinics will start doing so. There’s such a real lack of solid information here, and that’s partly why the conversation entails so much screaming and recrimination.

Okay, so: All those struggles you mentioned about your identity, and about your conflicting feelings on some really important subjects… isn’t that just part of the process of becoming who you’re going to be? I don’t mean to sound too light or breezy about it, but smart and thoughtful people don’t walk around every day enjoying the heady high of perfect certitude. (Leave that to the clergy and the demagogues.)

For example, you write that you struggle with the question of “if I should even feel justified in feeling hurt when someone misgenders me.” 

On the one hand, that’s a healthier view than “When I am misgendered I am going to be devastated by it.” There’s a reason Shit happens is such a common expression. And there’s something going on in the culture now where you really can accrue a certain type of capital by broadcasting as much brokenness and hurt as possible.

This is not — notnotnotnot — just a trans thing. I’m Jewish, and back in 2015 or so, there was what felt like a wave of really bad anti-Semitism on Twitter. Idiot moron fuckfaces would send Jewish journalists memes involving Auschwitz and so on. I didn’t blame my fellow Jewish journalists who were initially freaked out by this, of course — it’s unpleasant! — but what annoyed me was the tendency to pretend that the sky was falling, that there was no way to just ignore what were, at the end of the day, a bunch of pathetic internet trolls with no platform and no way to get the attention of relatively famous people other than sending them the most horrific stuff imaginable (and it turned out most of this content was being published by a small group of obsessives, not some giant new wave of haters). But, again, I think we are trained by the culture to be fragile sometimes: HELP, I AM BEING INTERNET HATE-CRIMED really does bring certain benefits and attention.

Now, everything’s a spectrum, right? There is a subset of Jewish journalists for whom the harassment was so insane, and included so many threats of violence, and of course they were fully justified in speaking out and being scared. But there were also some of us who, in my opinion, emboldened the channer idiots by overreacting to their nonsense. It is very easy to block and report someone on Twitter.

Not a perfect analogy, but so it goes, in a sense, for misgendering and other painful quotidian insults. I cannot speak from personal experience, but I am guessing being misgendered can really hurt, especially when it’s done willfully and maliciously. But ideally, especially as you become more confident in your identity and more used to going out in the world as the person you want to be, when it happens, it won’t sting as much. You’ll get used to it a little, and better at brushing it off. To be clear, this isn’t a very satisfying thing for me to say! I’d much rather say, “Soon, no one will misgender anyone anymore.” I’d also like it to be the case that depressed 14-year-olds in Ohio basements will stop sending Holocaust memes to every Goldberg they can find on Twitter. And having a unicorn would be nice, too. But the world is far from perfect and healthy, successful, happy people find ways to adapt, to realize that shit happens. It can mean punching a pillow once in awhile, or finding those two friends who you know you can vent to over drinks whenever you need to, but the point is that you’re on the right track in understanding that you have some agency here.

I would just gently suggest that the question of “feeling justified” in having this or that reaction to being misgendered might not be the right framing. While I do think everyone has some ability, over time, to develop a thicker skin and to gain a better and more adult sense of what matters and to learn to laugh off the stuff that doesn’t — a process that can involve some combination of simply growing older or therapy or meditation or meds or whatever else — it’s not an overnight thing. In the moment I hope you give yourself permission to feel whatever you’re feeling. We can’t control our feelings as they scream their arrival. I got the same sense of guilt or uncertainty about your own responses to life in that line about being the “cool, not whiny, edgy trans girl that can take a joke.” Sure, but don’t feel obligated to take the joke! Plenty of jokes are cruel and mean and bad and not funny.

I’ve always found the concept of metacognition — thinking about your own thinking — to usefully explain what it’s like to be a neurotic person (which I am). Partially because I do it way too much. I’ll meet someone and have a viscerally negative reaction to them and my thinking will spiral a bit: Jesus Christ, you’re such a jerk. Why do you judge people so quickly? You’ve been doing this forever and it’s just not a compassionate way to be. Why not give this guy a chance? That’s thinking about thinking. And metacognition can hurt and take as much of a toll on someone as the thing being thought about itself. Giving yourself ‘permission’ to have certain thoughts and feelings is really, really, REALLY important. Seems simple, but isn’t.

While I have never been able to stick with meditation, I do love one of its core insights, which is that you can just let yourself think and feel stuff without getting mired in quicksand. In a meditation setting, you train yourself to be a bit more disengaged from your own head by just sitting there and noticing, but not reacting to, any thoughts that float by. Without judgement. It’s a really useful exercise. Or, if you want a more psychological approach, look into cognitive-behavioral principles, which have a similar goal. Once you have started to understand terms like catastrophizing and mind-reading, you’ll notice certain cognitive habits in yourself, and noticing is the first step.

What does it mean to “feel justified” being offended or hurt by someone else’s remark, anyway? Is there any objective standard by which you can decide when it’s ‘okay’ to feel offended and when you should try to be that edgy cool trans girl who can take a joke? Probably not, right? Isn’t it just a matter of building experience out in the world, of experimenting with different types of people in different types of settings, spending a bit of time figuring out what makes you upset and why, and going from there? And as you work through this process, again, I hope you give yourself full permission to freak out for “no reason,” at least a few times a year, if and when that should happen to occur (and as long as you’re not hurting others in the process of freaking out, of course). It takes some time to figure out who you are and what your limits are and who and what you want to surround yourself with, and that is going to be an occasionally turbulent process. Just don’t worry too much about fitting any particular sort of template — worry about finding a way to be that feels authentic to you and brings you as much joy and as little tsuris as possible. And again, try not to beat yourself up along the way! Keep the metacognition reined in, if possible. 

As for “all the cis women that feel so strongly and emotionally that to affirm me would mean to render them invisible,” I think that this ties into that whole thing about certain aspects of the world being beyond your control, and how crappy that lack of control can feel. There are definitely some cis women who feel this way, strongly. I’m not sure how many there are, and in my own experiences they’re overrepresented online. I don’t think you really have much power here other than to present yourself as a human who can’t really live in the world in any other way, not meaningfully, and to ask them to respect you and to treat you decently, even if they aren’t fully on board in some more abstract or intellectual or political sense. If they say ‘no’ to that, what are you going to do? 

This is related to the whole pushback/blowback thing. Part of what frustrates me is that if you hear individual trans people tell their stories, it’s very, very difficult to not feel empathy for them, to not root for them and to not want them to have all the care and support they need. The median trans person is not asking for very much. I’ve been open about the fact that I think there are some edge cases in which biological sex does matter more than gender identity, and might trump it in a given decision-making context — I don’t want to pretend otherwise — but in 99% of day-to-day cases, I just don’t think anyone is really sacrificing anything to treat trans people the way they want to be treated. If a woman feels she is being rendered invisible by you, that is a shaky sense of her own womanhood.

But I do think the overheated rhetoric that is reigning online and in some corners of journalism and activism makes it harder to understand people at the individual level. For so many individuals, their exposure to these issues comes not in the form of encountering real individuals with real lives, worth valuing, but online screaming, and slogans that don’t always make sense, and claims that don’t stand up to much scrutiny, and heaping truckloads of profoundly morally charged judgement. Any group that is newly asserting its rights is going to go through a period like this, when it’s figuring out what the messaging should be, and during which a small set of truly out-there and radical attention-getters are able to, well, get attention. So I think, and hope, that when you encounter people who seem to view you as a threat, they’re not really responding to you qua you, but to some of the wackier stuff going on right now, including some of the witch-hunt dynamics from which you are fleeing. I hope that if these people got to know you personally, and heard your story, they’d feel less threatened. (I also think all of this will be easier in 10 or 20 years — not to compare directly, but think about the gay rights movement at the peak of the AIDS crisis versus now.)

That said, I could definitely be wrong. I could be overstating the impact of the dumpster-fire online culture wars. I’m sure there’s a lot of deeply personal animosity here too, a lot of transphobia that can’t be explained away. There isn’t a solution, though, to people who refuse to treat you with dignity after being given the opportunity to get to know you and your story. All you can do is steer clear of them and seek out people who have more empathy. But give them a chance, if it doesn’t take too much of a toll to do so — to a lot of people, this stuff is new and takes some patience and explaining.  

As for your point about class — “I struggle with the realization that my Unbearable Wokeness might be partially a result of my growing up in a relatively well-off community as a light-skinned mixed race person, separated from so much of the true lack of prosperity that destroys the lives of so many in my communities” — damn do I think this is an important insight. I’ve been banging this drum over and over and over, trying to explain that so much of the mainstream discourse around identity and oppression and power really is obsessed with the concerns of privileged people. In my Chappelle newsletter, I mentioned the example of Dictionary.com announcing that it would henceforth be capitalizing the word ‘black,’ because “it can be seen as dismissive, disrespectful, and dehumanizing” not to. I stand by my question at the time: “What kind of a neurotic, catastrophizing nerd would possibly think this, and how many academic degrees did they rack up before they came to this conclusion?”

So I think you’re right that some of the stuff you’ve spent time worrying about is only tangentially, at best, related to the material well-being of those who are struggling to survive and thrive. It’s very easy to get distracted by the shiny minutiae endlessly produced and hoarded and discussed by over-educated people who have never had trouble paying rent (to be clear, I’m in this category!). There’s always some new bit of lingo, some new rule of etiquette, some new cudgel to use to hit the insufficiently woke over the head with. And what I find so pernicious about what’s going on now is the way privileged people are confidently claiming to speak for those who are enduring real struggles. You would think the most important issues in the world are which jokes Dave Chappelle made, or whether ‘black’ is capitalized, or South Park’s offensiveness, or whether enough men are going to see “Little Women.” I don’t want to overstate this — of course there are also journalists and commentators from all sorts of different socioeconomic backgrounds who do focus on what matters — but this feels like a trend, perhaps because of the collapse of journalism and the extent to which it’s now mostly a field for rich kids.

Your concerns about this might be hinting at a way forward, though. You’re in school for filmmaking, and you’re black and trans, and you’re tired of focusing on bullshit that doesn’t really matter. So I feel like one answer to several of your questions is “Find cool people who are working on the issues that resonate with you, and simply get to know them.” You’re in Los Angeles. Within just a few square miles of you are probably all sorts of fascinating people who never go on Twitter, but who are scrapping and clawing to drag the world a millimeter or two closer to justice. They should be easy enough to seek out, right? And many of these people lack any sort of attention or spotlight, and don’t seek it out because they don’t want it or don’t know how to find it. 

One of my favorite books from last year was Chris Arnade’s Dignity: Seeking Respect in Back Row America, which I interviewed him about here. All Arnade did was travel around the country and hang out in a bunch of McDonald’s and talk to struggling people and take photos of them. It isn’t poverty porn, and there is no condescension to it — all his subjects come across as full-blown humans. It strikes me as a very important, very time-consuming and resource-intensive sort of journalism. So even just documenting the lives of people who struggle is valuable.

Anyway, you’re in a position where you really could make a difference and figure out a way to pay forward some of the good luck you were born into. Did your class position likely influence the communities you were initially drawn to and the causes (or ‘causes’) you took up? Sure, but whatever: In the long run, you get to decide who you are and what you value and what work you want to do, and it sounds like you’re only just getting started. So: Find cool people doing interesting work, get to know them, and in the process figure out if there’s a core set of issues that really animate you the most, that jump into your brain when you’re supposed to be doing other stuff. Of course, the nice thing about being a filmmaker is, if you’re lucky enough to establish yourself to the point where you have some flexibility, you can jump around from project to project, so there’s no need to pigeonhole yourself, especially early on.

Let’s conclude with the last, and maybe more important (at least practically speaking) part of your note: 

I’m sorry it’s taking so long to get to the actual question. I want to do great things, and I think I have the potential, and miraculously, I’m getting close to having the access. I’ve resolved myself to read a lot more, with philosophy about the self, and society and history being the things most interesting to me. I want to be a lot smarter. I want to be someone who can be much better at logically and calmly arguing the things I believe. I want to be a lot better at being able to listen to people who hold radically different viewpoints from mine and not immediately think they are terrible people and my enemies. I want to strengthen my own creative work and inject it with truth and humanity, and not just feel-good, liberal wokepoints.

I guess I just want to ask you simply... Can you point me in the right direction? Can you suggest a place I look, something I read or listen to, or anything? And also, what would you suggest someone like me, with a body and a life like this, and such powerful, suffocating ambitions as mine do to help inject a little more sanity and goodness into this world, and maybe actually help change it for the better?

Again: It really sounds like you’re on the right track. Your level of cognitive flexibility and lack of certitude and ability to see in shades of grey, right off the bat, give you a tremendous advantage over a lot of other people. So, as I think you’re suggesting, it’s partly just a matter of gaining a little bit more experience (especially because it sounds like you’re starting a pretty new chapter as an openly trans woman) and meeting the right people and reading everything you can that might be helpful.

I do think that if you’re coming off a period of woke exhaustion, you want to be careful to “keep your eyes on the prize” in the sense of understanding that there really is a tremendous amount of work to be done to make our country and world better and fairer. Not that I sense there is much of a threat of this happening to you, but just in case: You don’t want to jump from the knee-jerk condemnation of the online wokeocracy into the knee-jerk condemnation of anti-SJWism, which I view as a superficial and silly and pernicious ideology in its own right, but a seductive one for people who spend too much time online.

So, off the top of my head, some books I’d recommend on race and poverty stuff in general, in case you haven’t yet come across them: The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, The Origins of the Urban Crisis by Thomas Sugrue, Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America by James Forman Jr., Black Silent Majority: The Rockefeller Drug Laws and the Politics of Punishment by Michael Javen Fortner, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond, and the aforementioned Dignity by Arnade.

If you want to find other online progressives and lefties who are concerned about the identitarian turn in the culture, I find StupidPol to be pretty smart and entertaining (no, I am not endorsing every single post on there). Adolph Reed and John McWhorter have written thoughtful critiques of contemporary antiracism, and Kelefah Sanneh’s New Yorker book review essay on “The Fight To Redefine Racism” is a must-read on that front as well.

There’s no area where I think the left is screwing up more badly right now than in its theories about what motivates other people, and what could possibly persuade them to change their minds. There’s a remarkable level of ignorance about human psychology, because everyone wants it to be the case that conservatives believe what they believe simply because they are fundamentally evil or broken. That’s partly why I find the Forman and Fortner books above so useful: they help debunk the notion that when it comes to mass incarceration, it’s Goodhearted Liberals And People Of Color on the one hand and Reactionary White Conservatives on the other. No: Things are a lot more complicated — and less satisfying from an in-group/out-group perspective — than that, even if, of course, there’s a kernel of truth there.

To the extent I’ve overcome some of my own ignorance of human nature, it’s in large part thanks to the work of scholars like Jon Haidt (on the moral foundations that motivate humans to believe certain things, and the backwards reasoning often used to arrive at moral beliefs — I am grossed out by X viscerally, so X must be morally wrong, and so forth), Dan Kahan (who argues that people hold the beliefs they hold largely because of how those beliefs fit into their social identities, not because they have carefully weighed the evidence), and Betsy Levy Paluck (who has shown that one of the more promising ways to change behavior is to understand that people are motivated, at root, by their social networks and local social norms, and who has also done work showing how little evidence there is underlying many diversity-training efforts). I think this study of an intervention geared at reducing people’s fears of trans people using the bathrooms that match up with their gender identities is a wonderful example of how these insights can be applied in a real-world setting. (You’ll notice that there is very little calling-out or dragging involved.)

Oh, and Thinking, Fast and Slow by Danny Kahneman is an immensely important book for understanding human cognition and behavior, though ignore the part where he tells you to believe in social priming studies. You also might find this article, in which I summarize a bunch of research suggesting liberals and conservatives aren’t quite as different as people have long argued, to be useful.

I think that’s all I got, but let’s extend your query to my subscribers, who are a smart bunch: Readers, if you have any suggestions for Katie on any front, please reply in the comments. Thanks again for writing, Katie — I’m very glad you wrote what you wrote. And for what it’s worth, if I had to guess I’d say you’re going to do some pretty awesome stuff.

-Jesse


Questions? Comments? Complaints that this wasn’t nearly long enough, that you wanted 10,000 more words? I’m at singalminded@gmail.com or on Twitter at @jessesingal.