Ask me anything

I’ve been chatting with Common Space editor and Sunday Herald columnist Angela Haggerty about a recent barney in Scottish political twitter: some of it has descended into a trans/anti-trans argument where everybody’s shouting at everybody else and nobody’s listening to anybody. As she wrote on Twitter, wishing people would “please stop ripping each other apart”:

Asking questions, even stupid ones, doesn’t make a person transphobic.

She’s absolutely right, of course. But unfortunately “just asking questions”, or JAQing off as it’s also known, is a known tactic of arseholes such as Glenn Beck and the alt-right. As a result, some trans people / trans allies see a trans-related argument, assume that that’s what they’re seeing and go in with all guns blazing.

As RationalWiki explains:

Just asking questions (also known as JAQ-ing off) is a way of attempting to make wild accusations acceptable (and hopefully not legally actionable) by framing them as questions rather than statements. It shifts the burden of proof to one’s opponent — rather than laboriously having to prove that all politicians are reptoid scum, one can pull out one single odd piece of evidence and force the opponent to explain why the evidence is wrong.

The tactic is closely related to loaded questions or leading questions (which are usually employed when using it), Gish Gallops (when asking a huge number of rapid-fire questions without regard for the answers) and Argumentum ad nauseam (when asking the same question over and over in an attempt to overwhelm refutations).

These tactics are all used repeatedly by anti-feminist trolls, far-right trolls and anti-LGBT trolls too.

The sheer volume of it means that more often than not, when people are just asking questions of feminists, of activists or of ordinary LGBT people they aren’t doing it out of curiosity. The questions are statements disguised as questions, moves in a game that’s been planned and played a thousand times, key words and phrases repeated again and again.

It usually goes a bit like this:

Troll: Why are you silencing women?
Trans person: Er, we’re not. Actually it’s trans people who are be–
Troll: Why do you support women being murdered?
Trans person: Eh? I don–
Troll: Why do you hate women so much?

It’s frustrating and infuriating, not least because if you get wound up by the aggressive idiocy of it all and respond angrily you’re the one who comes across as an unreasonable hothead.

And equally frustrating and infuriating, it can mean you interpret a genuine question as something with malign intent, coming across once again as an unreasonable hothead and this time losing a potential ally.

Maybe the answer is to realise that when the trolls move in, the opportunity to make any kind of sense has already moved on. As Haggerty suggested to me:

Ignore the trolls and bigots, make the positive points, don’t get pulled into arguments, build relationships with people who show a willingness to listen. That’s leading by example and can have a strong impact.

It’s good advice. I have no time for trolls, I mute the JAQ lot on Twitter and I’ve come to realise that arguing however nicely with bigots is the proverbial pig wrestling: you just get dirty and the pig likes it.

But over the last couple of weeks I’ve also had several conversations with people who don’t know much about trans stuff, who knew about trans men but not trans women, who had questions about name changes etc… all of them just asking questions, but genuine questions. Those conversations were interesting, educational (for me!) and often really, really funny.

If you’re a genuine person with genuine questions you can ask me anything about anything. Especially if you buy me a drink first.