The ‘Cis-’ Slur and the War on Normality
Progressives want the power to police norms.
It is no secret that everything has been politicized over the past ten years. Things that formerly eluded notice or comment—that is, normal things—have not only become objects of discussion, but issues of contention. Indeed, normalcy is a primary target of the left. They hate it. Anything ordinary, routine, or typical—anything normal—must be denigrated. This is because progressives rightly understand that norms and broadly accepted social conventions wield a certain coercive power.
Everyone wants to be liked and accepted, and being normal is a great way to do that. As long as norms exist, then, people will be inclined to yield to them. But from the perspective of leftism, this is precisely the problem; the cultural force of norms threatens the absolute, unfettered freedom of individuals to “live their best lives.” Personal sovereignty is the god of the progressive pantheon, and shared ideas of what is normal only inhibit the various forms of gratification that constitute the ritual worship of the self.
Unfortunately for the left, though, the existence of norms cannot be avoided. Don’t misunderstand: a particular norm can be destroyed or replaced by a new norm. But we must have norms because they are a natural byproduct of life in society. They are, in some sense, a necessary precondition for civilization: Order is the effect of norms. Thus, because no cultural revolution could ever eliminate norms, revolutionaries set themselves to the reinvention of them. The first step in this process is to make norms strange, alien, and unfamiliar. This is achieved by giving names to behaviors, beliefs, and practices whose normative power is so thoroughly established that we usually don’t even talk about them.
Still, although the left professes to abhor normative power, their claims are disingenuous. They don’t hate all norms—just the current ones. Their goal isn’t to liberate us from the force of all norms. It is to destroy our norms and replace them with their norms. They pursue this goal precisely because they need to harness normative power to compel the new behaviors and values that will realize their utopian vision.
Nowhere is this hypocrisy more evident than in the new prominence of the prefix “cis-.” Many readers may be unfamiliar with this term—especially if they are over 40 and don’t spend a lot of time near a university campus. “Cis-” is often attached to a few other words. Leftists talk about “cisgender” people, including “cis-men” and “cis-women.” What does it mean? “Cis-” simply means that your internal, subjective experience of your sexual identity aligns with the objective biological and anatomical realities of your sexual identity. Were you born with a penis? If you were, are you comfortable existing as a man? If so, congratulations: You are a “cis-man.” Have ovaries? If that’s OK with you because you also feel like a woman, then you’re a “cis-woman.”
If you’re still puzzled, that is understandable. Why, you might be thinking, do we need a special term to refer to such a normal phenomenon—an experience that upwards of 99 percent of the global population shares? Well, the norm here must be given a name precisely because it has been so completely unremarkable and uncontroversial for so long. After all, leftists will quickly remind us that nearly 1 percent of people don’t have the feeling that their internal sense of themselves aligns with the biological reality of their sex. These people have “gender dysphoria.” This makes them victims—an oppressed minority. Who victimized them? Nature, it seems. But people like you and me—“cis-gendered” people—compound their suffering.
The supposed “normality” of our aligned experience of sexual identity might convey that gender dysphoria is “abnormal.” Of course, gender dysphoria is abnormal: The number of people who experience it is vanishingly small. For progressives, though, that is all the more reason that the norm must be demolished. The 99 percent of people who are generally comfortable in their bodies enjoy a “privilege” that the 1 percent don’t, and that is an intolerable injustice. In the left’s view, the smaller the minority, the more vulnerable they are. And the more vulnerable a minority is, the more draconian the state’s effort to mitigate their suffering must be. I don’t make the rules. That’s just what Social Justice© requires.
A just society, then, will work to “dismantle” the idea that gender dysphoria is abnormal. The best way to dissolve any norm is to make it alien and unfamiliar. This is achieved by giving it a name (something that it never had before) so that the norm can become a topic of conversation (something it never was before). As recently as a few years ago, we never had to talk about the alignment of your biological sex with your internal sense of yourself: it was so common, so ordinary, and so normal that it wasn’t worthy of public consideration.
But once it has a name, once you become aware that you are, in fact, “cis-gender”—well, then the process of dismantling the norm has begun in earnest. Only after the “cis-gendered” people recognize their shared experience of a totally banal phenomenon (feeling like you are, in fact, the sex that you are) can they become conscious of their status as a majoritarian identity group. Once they are aware of their membership in such a group, they can then come to recognize the “privileges” it bestows upon them. After learning to view themselves as beneficiaries of undeserved privilege, their resulting guilt can be exploited to hasten the demolition of the norm in question.
So, if you are a cultural revolutionary who is raging against current norms regarding sexual identity, the best thing you can do is start smearing your opponents with the term “cis-." But what if they don’t know what the hell you are talking about, when you call them “cis-men,” for example? Well, all the better. That helps you paint them as benighted rubes even more effectively. They are so backwards that they aren’t even aware of their bigotry. This gives you an opportunity. When you awaken them to their privilege, maybe they will be embarrassed enough to use your terminology (and thus, validate it) instead of telling you the truth. This truth, of course, is that “cisgender” is a made-up concept, a rhetorical vehicle for advancing an ideology rather than a legitimate descriptor of an existential reality.
In short, “cis-” is really a slur. It is a means to pathologize an unremarkable characteristic in order to demonize the person to whom it is applied. No one except a gender studies professor or a crazed leftist ever self-identifies as “cis-gender.” Oddly, there is a “cis-gender” flag, but you’ve probably never seen it anywhere. That’s because claiming to have “cis pride” would only be understood as an ironic commentary that tries to belittle sexual minorities. In other words, the term is almost always applied to an unwitting spectator by their ideological opponents.
This essay, for example, is a prime example of “cis privilege”—many progressives who read it will dismiss my points by noting that it is merely the flawed perspective of a “cis-man.” Or even worse: a “cis white man”! By applying these labels, my critics implicitly call me an oppressor and a bigot: not just someone who benefits from the privilege that is allegedly attached to normative power of my sexual identity, but someone who makes light of the injustice and the suffering of those who deviate from the unjust norm. Conveniently, since “cis-” purports to be a neutral descriptor of a scientific reality, the people who fling this slur can pretend it isn’t meant as one. But we know better.
In fact, their usage of the “cis-” slur unwittingly exposes some uncomfortable truths about what the activists believe. Specifically, it shows that they don’t really mean what they say when it comes to gender identity. For example, when leftists repeat the popular mantra that “trans-women are women,” they imply that the only important criterion in validating a person’s sexual identity is their internal sentiment: that is, the question of how that person “feels on the inside” determines whether that identity is “authentic.” If someone says “I am a woman” (and means it), then nothing—not their XY chromosomes, not their penis, not their beard, and not their personal appearance to others—can disqualify that claim.
This is what they mean when they say “Trans-women are women”: Personal identity is wholly derived from the standpoint of the self, rather than its audience. But when activists smear their opponents with the term “cis-”—opponents who never claimed to be such—they indicate that they don’t really believe that the individual has the final say on their public identity. Otherwise, why would those activists feel comfortable calling me a “cis-man” when I have never identified myself in that way? One is left to wonder, how would someone fare if they referred to another person as “non-binary” when that person never laid claim to that label? Far worse, I imagine, than the radicals who so casually apply the “cis-” slur to people they barely know.
Get daily emails in your inbox
How do we explain this apparent hypocrisy? Only by recourse to another one that it exposes. It seems that, despite their insistence to the contrary, the sexual revolutionaries do believe it is possible to reliably determine the sexual identity of a stranger simply by assessing their visual appearance and behavior. Why else would they be so sure in applying the label of “cis-” to people they barely know? Of course, they make this judgment by looking for the norms that a particular person affirms with their self-presentation and demeanor. Wearing a dress? Have breasts? Higher voice? Smaller build? You’re probably a woman (unless there are competing indicators that suggest otherwise), and activists on the left apparently consider those characteristics to be sufficient evidence that you feel like a woman “on the inside.”
How strange, then, that these norms they use to judge others—these stereotypes, if you will—are precisely the ones they are attempting to demolish. This destructive impulse is the reason they insist that everyone puts their “preferred pronouns” in their email signatures: to comply with this demand affirms the left’s disingenuous contention that traditional, visual norms regarding sexual identity cannot reliably tell us anything about someone’s sex. Ultimately, their casual, confident judgments of who is “cis-male,” “cis-female,” heterosexual, and et cetera, leave no doubt: Secretly, they do recognize the validity of the norms they want to destroy, and thus, they don’t seriously believe the new norms they want to put in their place. They don’t really believe that the individual has total sovereignty in determining their sexual identity, and they don’t really believe that visual signifiers won’t allow reliable assessments of sex and gender.
The power to police the norms—norms they don’t even believe in—is their real goal. In other words, the gender activists know that their “truths” are false, and our truths are true. Their ongoing denial of this (in light of so much evidence) reveals them as the agents of cultural chaos that we know them to be. The next time someone calls you “cis-gendered,” consider asking them: “How do you know?” They can’t answer this question honestly, but in attempting to do so, they may catch a momentary glimpse of their hypocrisy. And that might be the best way to defend the good norms that have served us for so long.