Sunday, January 07, 2007

Card Me

A post by Ampersand on feminist anti-transsexual arguments reminds of something I've been kind of curious about: "Cards." Not as in playing cards, or even Magic Cards (though both are very interesting), but as in "you're playing the X Card," where X is usually some identity group or ism (race card, anti-Semitism card, etc..). Sometimes it is expressed directly as such, but generally it comes in the form of a whine: "Even the mildest criticism of [targeted group] gets labeled as [prejudice against that group]. I'm being silenced!" Amp cites to a quote found here on trans-issues that exemplifies:
Here, my experience, again, is, if someone offers a differing view of transgender issues than the one you hold...then that person gets immediately labeled "transphobic." At that point, the discussion really ends. There's nothing more to be said.

I've also noticed this same dynamic occurring regarding Jewish issues as well. This Matthew Yglesias post set off a flurry of commenters talking about how, despite not being anti-Semitic at all!, their perfectly rational and mild criticisms of Israel got them labeled as the next coming of the Inquisition. Stop playing the anti-Semite card, I'm trying to have a serious conversation here!

I'm mildly intrigued by such conversations, mostly because I find the race parallel fascinating. I think the original manifestation of all such "card" analysis is the "race card." I'm going to push the trans-issue to the side for now (because I don't know enough about the internal fissures in feminism here), but what's interesting about the "race card" versus the "anti-Semite card" is that it is mostly conservatives who complain about the former, and liberals who complain about the latter.

Since the race card discussion has been around longer, the conversation has gotten more sophisticated, and liberals now have a few stock answers to the "race card" complaint. But before we get into them, I want to observe that the card complaint does have a grain of truth to it. As a society, we have not yet mapped out the terrain by which one can simultaneously be in solidarity with and criticize a historically marginalized group (Jews, Blacks, gays, whomever). That isn't to say it's impossible, or every critique is immediately met with a hail of "isms." It just means that, in my estimation, most people are unclear about what will set off a landmine, and in that sense do feel quite constrained in their discussions on the matter. This is problematic, and something that needs to addressed.

That being said, I still believe that illegitimate applications of the "race card" (claiming racism to stifle legitimate criticism) pale in comparison to illegitimate cries of the "race card card" (saying someone is playing the race card to subvert real analysis of possible racist undertones or tropes in the original statement). The race card card typically trumps the race card. Liberals would argue that those who are so quick to disclaim they are not a racist ("I'm not a racist, but....") may need to look a little bit more carefully at what and how they are arguing. A bit of self-reflection goes a long way here.

Surprising nobody, I'm completely onboard with the liberal position here. We can concede that you're not secretly pining for the reinstitution of slavery, while still trying to inform you that their might be racist undertones to an argument--ones you might not even be aware of. Furthermore, we'd argue that the bare fact that most Blacks perceive a given line of attack as racist or hostile to their people is powerful (not controlling, but powerful) evidence that it is--or at least that you have to consider the prospect, rather than dismiss it out of hand.

In other words, I believe that when it comes to race, people need to be a bit more humble when someone points out that many in the targeted group would perceive a given line as racist. Great. I think many liberals are onboard with me so far. But what about anti-Semitism? Why isn't the same standard applied? Rather than retreating into a defensive shell and loudly proclaiming how not anti-Semitic you are (to be clear, I don't think most liberal voices challenging Israel are plotting the next Holocaust in a dark room), why not take a step back and ask yourselves why the critique is being made? If your answer is, "because the Zionists have taken over and dominate public discussion of Israel," perhaps its time to re-read that sentence and blink at what you're saying. The point isn't to deny that we're still somewhat feeling out how to have these discussions. The point is to demonstrate that liberals probably should be a bit leery that--to many Jewish ears--they sound precisely like Ann Coulter on Affirmative Action when the subject turns to anti-Semitism in Israel/Palestine debates.

Liberals have done stellar work in deconstructing the manner in which identity cards are played in the public discourse. I just wish that they would apply their lessons to my people as well.


carpeicthus said...

Great post.

Anonymous said...

Tangenital to the main point of your post, I think that a lot of people get called out on being transphobic because the vast majority of people are, no bones about it, appallingly ignorant of trans issues, and I include the majority of the self-identified queer population in that claim. As an indicator of how acceptable it is in comparison to other biases, compare the outcry in response to a blatantly racist comment or even a blatantly homophobic comment to the ease with which someone could toss off a comment like, "Sex change surgery? That's so disgusting."

Anonymous said...

I just wish that they would apply their lessons to my people as well.

Lack of discussion by the American people about the actions undertaken by "your" people endanger the American people. Sorry if we insist on talking about "your" people like this. Hth.