Regarding “Generation Wars”: some reflections upon reading the recent Jack Halberstam essay

From Whipping Girl:

By Julia Serano
Sunday, July 13, 2014

Jack Halberstam recently published an essay called You Are Triggering me! The Neo-Liberal Rhetoric of Harm, Danger and Trauma, and it’s been making waves on the activist internets over the last week. It felt like a bit of a “kitchen sink” article to me, in that it discussed a plethora of different matters (including Monty Python, historical debates between second- and third-wave feminisms, current controversies surrounding the word “tranny,” the recent proliferation of trigger warnings, supposed connections between expressions of trauma and neoliberalism, safe spaces, “It Gets Better” campaigns, and concerns about millennials being hypersensitive) and attempted to weave them into one nice neat coherent narrative. This narrative could be summarized as follows:

queer & trans culture and politics circa the 1990’s was strong, progressive, and fun!

whereas queer & trans culture and politics circa the 2010’s is frail, conservative, and a killjoy.

While Halberstam’s essay made a few points that are certainly worthy of further exploration and discussion, it also overreached in a number of ways, especially in its attempts to shoehorn a potpourri of recent events and trends into the aforementioned overarching narrative. Some concerns that I have about the essay have been addressed by others here and here and here and here (sorry, original posting of that response was here) and here.

I generally do not respond to every essay that I disagree with on the Internet (as that would be a full time job!). But I wanted to add a few thoughts to this discussion because, while the essay in question is uniquely “Halberstamian” in its style and themes, the overarching narrative that holds the piece together is remarkably similar to the one recently forwarded by Andrea James, and resembles recent comments made by RuPaul. Indeed, it seems as if queer and trans folks who came of age around the 1990’s (ostensibly my generation, give or take a few years) are increasingly invoking this as the “go-to” narrative to explain why a younger generation of queer and trans activists behave the way that they do. And I think that the assumptions that prop up this narrative are in dire need of unpacking.

on having to walk uphill, both ways, in a foot of snow, everyday, on your way to school, back when you used to be a kid

I think that a useful place to start is with the “four Yorkshire men” Monty Python sketch that Halberstam invokes as a metaphor for the “hardship competitions…among the triggered generation” (which is to say, how young people today are supposedly constantly complaining about how hurt and oppressed they are by relatively minor things, such as “a cultural event, a painting, a play, a speech, a casual use of slang, a characterization, a caricature and so on”).

Now personally, I always understood that Monty Python sketch as making fun of how people, as they get older, tend to glorify their own past: imagining the hardships they faced as being especially challenging or severe, thereby allowing them to self-conceptualize themselves as being especially resourceful, righteous, cunning, and perseverant for having survived despite overwhelming odds. And this human tendency has historically enabled older generations to outright dismiss younger generations as being misguided, or especially soft (because “they have it so much easier than we did”), and so on.

The notion that queer and trans people of my generation were somehow stoic and resilient, whereas the younger generation of queer and trans people are a bunch of oversensitive crybabies seems to be quite a stretch. I can attest to the fact that we too complained about how oppressed we were, and we often expressed our hurt feelings in public, and we often became outraged about particular language choices or media depictions that we found problematic. The main difference is that we (in glorifying our own past) tend to believe that the causes that we fought for were righteous and justified, whereas the younger generation’s causes and concerns may seem misguided and frivolous to us.

One blatant example of this sort of hypocrisy can be found in RuPaul, who with one hand dismisses concerns of a younger generation of activists who find the word “tranny” problematic, while with the other hand types angry Tweets at people who use the word “faggot” (which he considers to be a “derogatory slur”). The logic here is totally inconsistent. Such actions only make sense if he (and those who agree with him) privileges political stances taken by his own generational cohort over those taken by a newer generation.

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