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"I Don't Think You Exist" Often Means "You Shouldn't Exist"
Denying identities is often meant to justify genocide.
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In my piece today at Public Notice, I wrote about the Republican push for trans genocide. I quoted Michael Knowles of the Daily Wire, who in one article argued “transgender people is not a real ontological category. It's not a legitimate category of being.” I suggested that this was genocidal rhetoric.
In comments, there was some confusion and pushback about this. People pointed out that if you don’t believe trans people exist, you logically can’t set out to murder them. If you don’t believe in a group, why would you bother to try to wipe out that group? It doesn’t make sense.
And yet, there are many examples in which “you don’t exist” has been a prelude to stigma and violence. Queer people are often told by homophobes that their identities are just a “lifestyle choice”—fake, superficial, easily discarded. Antisemities will sometimes denigrate Jewish people by calling them “fake Jews.” For fascists, Jewish identity was not “real”; Jewish people were considered to be deceivers cut off from true authentic ethnic identity, “the implication being that Jews had no real culture and that Judaism was not a fitting medium for human self-realization” as one commenter explains.
Another recent example is Ukrainian national identity. Putin claims that Ukraine doesn’t exist as a nation, and that historically it and Russia are continuous. The tactic here is unusually transparent; by claiming that there is no Ukraine, Putin justifies invading Ukraine, wiping it out, and making it part of Russia. After all, from his perspective, Ukrainian is Russia, and Ukrainians claiming otherwise are lying rebels, who should be executed as traitors anyway.
In all these cases, when bigots deny that an identity exists, they’re eliding the is/ought distinction. When Knowles says that trans identity isn’t real, he means that he isn’t going to recognize it, and that no else should recognize it either. “Trans people aren’t real” is also meant as an indictment; if trans people don’t exist, then anyone who says they are trans is a liar and a deceiver, who can’t be trusted and who should be punished. For Knowles, “trangenderism” is the ideology that trans people exist and that they should be treated with respect. Knowles, in condemning transgenderism, is asserting his right to hurt trans people.
When you say an identity doesn’t exist, you aren’t saying you’re going to ignore that identity or those who hold it. What you’re saying is that the people who hold that identity have no standing you need to recognize, and that you can therefore do whatever you want to them—force them out of public life, withhold medical treatment, take their children, exterminate them. Denial of trans identity is not an alternative to genocide; it’s part and parcel of a genocidal program.
Again, you can very reasonably argue that this doesn't make logical sense. An identity that doesn't exist should be an identity that doesn't bother you. You can't hate someone who isn't there.
If fascists were arguing in good faith, these rebuttals might be effective. But fascists are not arguing in good faith; if you take their statements at face value, you're going to be duped. For fascists, the only logic is the logic of hate and genocide. Fascists say things in order to target and isolate marginalized people and justify violence against them. if some of their statements are contradictory, they don’t care, as long as they advance the goals of purity and violence. That’s why debating fascists is largely pointless; you can’t debate someone who has no commitment to truth or logic.
Delegitimizing someone's identity is a prelude to destroying them. When transphobes say, "trans people don't exist," they're really saying, "trans people are not human," and/or "trans people should not exist." They are not expressing moderation, much less indifference, though they may want you to think they are. Don't be fooled.
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