My best friend is transgender. A little while back, he gave an interview to someone (I’m not sure what the venue was) in which he made a statement similar to the following:
Transgender people just want to be left alone and live life on their own terms.
A perfectly reasonable sentiment, that; but almost immediately someone commented along the lines of “how dare you presume to speak for all transgender people!” A bit overblown, but it prompted a rather interesting conversation between my friend and I this past weekend. And then today, I read a post from JT Eberhard over at WWJTD who encountered similar criticism in a slightly different way on a post at the Skeptical Novice about using “that’s so gay” as an insult:
Turning gay into an epithet: not a good thing! Who could ever argue with that? I’m not sure who, because they commented anonymously, but someone did find a way to take issue…
JT’s deconstruction of the anonymous commenter’s response is excellent, but the basic idea is that the commenter thinks “that’s so gay” is not offensive because she and her other GLBT friends use it all the time, so how dare someone speak for all gay people?
My mind goes in two different directions on this. One has to do with the idea of what constitutes a statement of belief and what constitutes a statement of truth; I’ll talk about this in a future post. The other direction has to do with speaking on behalf of another person or group of people and what that entails.
Freedom To Marry’s website has a list of gay marriage FAQ’s; one of the answers contains the following statement:
Marriage matters to gay people in similar ways that it matters to everyone. Gay and lesbian couples want to get married to make a lifetime commitment to the person they love and to protect their families.
I suppose that’s a pretty decent general statement, but it sure as hell does not apply to me. I have a primary partner, but we’re open, and I certainly don’t need government recognition of my relationship(s) to signify a lifetime commitment to those I love. But I’m not going to gripe and say “how dare you make that statement! You don’t speak for me!” Instead, I’m going to get on my soapbox and explain my reasons. I am going to make a disagreeing statement. Because the person who wrote that was not “speaking for me”. That person was making a general statement that he thought to be true. He was wrong in his assessment, so I will take the opportunity to speak for myself.
We have a general tendency as humans to personalize any statement that we come across. (Am I speaking for all humans here? No!) When I make a statement that I believe to be true about a group of people I belong to, I am speaking about that group to the best of my ability. I do not presume to speak for that entire group, nor, I believe, does anyone else. Anyone who disagrees with my statement is free to say so, and we can discuss my statement on its own terms. But to take a simple declarative statement and say that someone is “speaking for” an entire group of people seems ludicrous to me.
Furthermore, let’s go back to that statement from Freedom To Marry from earlier. It’s actually ambiguous:
Gay and lesbian couples want to get married to make a lifetime commitment to the person they love and to protect their families.
You can actually read that statement in two different ways. Let’s modify it slightly to show them less ambiguously:
- All gay and lesbian couples want to get married to make a lifetime commitment to the person they love and to protect their families.
- There exist gay and lesbian couples who want to get married to make a lifetime commitment to the person they love and to protect their families.
It is quite likely that anyone who takes offense to this statement is assuming that the writer meant “all”, but the writer did not say “all”. But that brings me to the core of my point about this. Even if the writer had said “all gay couples want to get married”, they would not be speaking on behalf of all gay couples. They would be making a factually incorrect statement that is extremely easy to correct by commenting or, as I’m doing here, writing way too many words about an insignificant topic.
Words mean things. Words can hurt or offend. It is perfectly valid to take offense at offensive words. Let’s just not take it overboard and start getting offended at things people didn’t say.