DRMacIver's Notebook

Book Review: Trans Like Me

Book Review: Trans Like Me

This book is very good and I think you should read it.

(I am tempted to leave the review at that, but there's interesting stuff in the book that I want to discuss).

This book is patiently but insistently written. It clearly spells out what the trans experience is like, and it pulls no punches in doing so, but even when CN's frustration with the world was palpable in their writing I never got the sense that they were frustrated with the reader. It was always "this is how the world is and how it looks to us, I wish to help you get up to speed on a shared understanding of that".

That view of the world is at times very personal, and coloured and shaped by CN's particular experience of the world as a nonbinary person in a particular time, place, and context. I don't think it could be otherwise, and they make no pretence that it is. They do their best to round it out by referring to the works and experiences of other trans people, and their best is very good. It is necessarily not "definitive", but no view is. I think this book nevertheless gives a valuable and balanced view that most people (especially people who are not already knowledgeable about trans issues) would benefit from reading.

A while ago I asked about good books about gender to recommend to cishet people, and didn't get any very satisfying answers, but I think this book is a good answer to that question. Perhaps it would look different to a reader who was actively transphobic, and such a reader would feel like the book was dripping with judgement of them, but I don't think so. CN is remarkably restrained in that regard. It always feels like they are saying "This is what they (you) are doing and this is how it is hurting us". There are remarkably few places in which I felt like the message was "this is why they are bad people".

The book will doubtless look different again to trans readers. I believe it would be helpful, especially for people who are just coming to terms with their identity and are thus not necessarily well versed in trans issues themselves, but it's hard for me to accurately say. I did do some careful googling to make sure that I wasn't about to recommend a book about the trans experience that trans people hated, and as far as I can tell the reception from trans readers has been generally very positive.

What did I, personally, get out of the book?

Well it wasn't news to me that these things happened. I found the description of dysphoria quite helpful - I vaguely understood what dysphoria was, and had heard people experiencing it describe it before, but CN describes their experience of it very clearly in a way that I think helped me to understand a bit better.

Beyond that the specifics were mostly things I already knew, with a few useful details added.

I tweeted the following paragraph from it (page 130 in my copy, in the chapter "Are trans people real?"):

I had, and most likely still have, a tendency toward didacticism. It made me feel superior, when most of my world told me I was wrong. I am so thankful to all the people who have helped me to unlearn the defense of believing my particular truth to be universal. They taught me to really listen to other people, and to accept the limits of my own knowledge. I have never really liked putting my self into words. Listening taught me that the labels that confined me could liberate others. That the right answer for one person could become the wrong answer for another, and that all we could do was lend support in our shared individuality.

This paragraph resonated particularly strongly for me. As a cis man I do not share CN's particular experiences, but this part I feel very personally.

The most important take home from this for me was CN's framing of how this all fits together, and that as a result of that this was an extremely good book on practical epistemic justice (I don't think this is something CN consciously knew they were writing, but perhaps that's what makes it such a good book on the subject). This is actually the context in which it was recommended to me. I'm not sure I would have consciously picked up on this without that context, but it's a very useful framing of the book.

Epistemic Justice is justice towards people in their role as epistemic actors - people who reason and know about the world, and participate in a community of knowledge. The concept comes from Miranda Fricker's book "Epistemic Justice, power and the ethics of knowing", although honestly I'd probably recommend just reading "A Cautionary Tale: On Limiting Epistemic Oppression" by Kristie Dotson. It builds on Fricker's work, contains some useful concepts that the book does not, and corrects some limitations in the book's view. It's also much shorter and easier to read.

Part of why I recommend the paper over Fricker's work is that it focuses on what I think is the more powerful of the two concepts in Fricker's work and expands upon it. Fricker introduces two concepts of epistemic injustice: Testimonial and hermeneutical. Testimonial injustice is the discounting of a person's testimony based on who they are rather than what they say. This problem is prevalent, real, and very serious, but I think it is already well known (among its targets) that this happens, and I think it is obviously bad even without the framework of epistemic injustice in which to place it. This is not to diminish it as a problem, only to say that I don't think that the view of epistemic justice is that helpful in framing it.

The two other types of epistemic injustice described in Dotson and Fricker's work are hermeneutical and contributory injustice. In order to explain those I need to tell you what a hermeneutical resource is.

Hermeneutics is the study of interpretation. In the context of epistemic injustice what we are specifically interested in is interpretation of the world, so the tools of interpretation are the tools that we use to construct narrative and meaning that helps us understand the world around us. A hermeneutical resource is one of these tools - for example a word that describes a concept. The idea of being nonbinary for example is a hermeneutical resource.

A hermeneutical injustice is an injustice done to someone by denying them the hermeneutical resources that they require in order to understand their experience. Growing up as a nonbinary person who has been denied the concept of nonbinary is a hermeneutical injustice. The fact that you had a hermeneutical injustice done to you without having the concept of hermeneutical injustice to explain how it harmed you is also a hermeneutical injustice.

A third type of epistemic injustice, proposed by Dotson as an example that Fricker missed, is contributory injustice. A contributory injustice is a refusal to add other people's hermeneutical resources to your own, which denies them the ability to participate as equals in your culture of knowledge. Imagine (you probably don't have to imagine) someone who refuses to accept the concept of nonbinary as valid. This is a contributory injustice (and a dick move) - they are refusing to acknowledge the validity of a hermeneutical resource that you use to interpret the world.

Much of "Trans Like Me" can be read as a very hands on account of the contributory and hermeneutical injustices done to trans people, alongside a fourth type of epistemic injustice that I'm not aware of being discussed in the philosophy community that CN refers to as the production of ignorance. The production of ignorance occurs when you don't just deny people the hermeneutical resources they require to interpret the world, but you provide them with ones that will cause them to interpret the world in a way that is incorrect or harmful. The mainstream media's presentation of trans rights reliably engages in the production of ignorance, with biased and outright transphobic stories that cause people to paint the experience of trans people in a very different light than is warranted.

As I said, I don't think this view of the book as a book about epistemic injustice is intended, but I think it is a very powerful way of reading it, and doing so has certainly improved my understanding about both the trans experience and epistemic justice, and I am very grateful to CN for that opportunity.