The Bad Faith Artist
What do we do with the sins of gender critical, Qanon, and MAGA internet harassment?
Imagine, if you will, a politics in which a limited increase in freedom for some children would justify killing to preserve the social order. It’s hardly atypical of politics that take children as their object, unfortunately. And reluctant as I am to reprint a death threat, there’s something to the grammar of one I received recently that holds my attention:
If someone gave Josh Worley’s child puberty blockers without his consent, he would, apparently, be therefore justified in mak[ing] them disappear. The fictional person who could be killed for this, it turns out, is actually me, who, guilty of a hypothetical act that I did not commit or even advocate committing, is therefore vile, mentally disturbed, and a piece of subhuman garbage. These facts regarding me having been confirmed for something imagined, but not actually done, to his child—which we cannot be certain is a real person, either, given that Josh refers to “my child” in the generic, rather than “my son” or “my daughter,” as we might imagine such people as wont to do—then in any just society I would be forbidden from coming into any proximity of a child, he concludes. Presumably since Josh does not think that we live in any just society of his imagining, he therefore genuinely hope[s]that I consider suicide to prevent this hypothetical chain of events that, you will recall, has not happened.
I invite you to take seriously the grammar of this threat, rather than give Josh the pleasure of alarm or fear. I have found that power is rarely shy (Josh was happy to provide his full name, after all); when you ask someone in a position to do harm enabled by structural protections to tell you, plainly, what he means, he will rarely pass up the opportunity to speak. Such explains the hundreds of threats to my life, calls for my imprisonment, and claims that I am demonic or satanic for having tweeted that trans children ought to be able to access puberty blockers without parental consent. It was, by my critical and political standards, a very conservative claim on my part. A juridical one, even, as there are many places where minors can access contraceptives and sexual healthcare without parental consent. This legal exception carved out to the medical age of consent is one I’d like to see extended to trans youth. It would be merely a form of harm reduction, nothing like justice.
But tell that to the alliance of MAGAs, proud boys, right wing evangelicals, and TERFs that spent an entire internet attention cycle threatening me, and will no doubt do so again. They are undertaking something troublingly effective in this pattern of trying to drive trans people out of public-facing speaking positions, though I don’t mean we ought to engage them on their terms.
There’s also an entire book to be written about the extreme hypersexualization of children and accompanying fantasies of deadly violence, punishment, and rape that joins Qanon to gender critical feminists on the internet. That so many adults, sitting alone behind their computers, feel the urge to invoke grooming, child abuse, and pedophilia to characterize the proposal that trans youth merely have the option to seek out medical care if they wish it, is a powerful reflection of their structural pedophilia, something that necessitates ritually enacting violence against fantasized predators to displace the truth of their desire. To manage their own fascination, fear, and desire for controlling children through the regulation of their vulnerable, sexualized bodies, they project these attributes onto a figure like me, a trans woman of color, who is the literal contrary of a predator. This is intentional. Very often, it is the structure of transphobia, especially when it is directed at trans femmes and trans femmes of color, as Gayle Salamon has pointed out. By assigning aggression and harm to the figure who actually is subject to it, a very powerful alibi is produced.
The irony is hardly lost on me, someone who actually has experienced childhood sexual abuse that was never seen as a problem by the adults at my school because of the structural vulnerability attached to my trans femininity in that institution.
The Qanon/MAGA/TERF internet ensures, by so spectacularly conjuring a fantasized version of violence and sexual harm against children, that absolutely nothing will be done about the actual systemic, widespread sexual vulnerability of young people, let alone the sexual violence, abuse, and assault that young trans people are routinely exposed to in order to survive. Never mind the generalized sexualization of children and the widespread fact that it is family, adults in positions of trust, and peers who are responsible for the vast majority of sexual abuse of children, not the fantasy stranger-predator. These people will, in Freud’s old adage, not only fantasize that “a child is being beaten,” but they must ravenously consume these injured and hurt children who do not exist so that real children in the world can be subject to violence and even eradication to protect the social order from which they benefit—but that they admit is harmful, albeit indirectly. A child is always being eaten—consumed—this way, by these people. A whole metabolic economy of disposable kids.
These crusaders against trans children are, in other words, acting in bad faith.
It’s not like me to do this, but I read some Sartre this morning. Bad faith is a key concept for him, something he argues attends the human condition. I don’t really care about that, but I do appreciate that Sartre, in the 1940s, made the observation that sincerity and bad faith are not really antagonistic positions, but are rather fundamentally similar (Being and Nothingness, 65). Sartre is also emphatic that bad faith is not the same thing as lying. This is important because there are still far too many efforts made to persuade TERFs, gender criticals, Qanons and MAGAs that they are mistaken, or that their account of reality only needs a new set of facts that will reform them into reasonable subjects. It’s a tired fantasy of its own. And it seems, to me, to play right into their hands, for it involves giving them attention and reinforcing their point of view as false consciousness, which is excellent for the bad faith artist. “The true problem of bad faith stems evidently from the fact that bad faith is faith,” explains Sartre. “It cannot be either a cynical lie or certainty…the essential problem of bad faith is a problem of belief” (67). You cannot argue with bad faith, for you are arguing with, well, faith, not reason. There can be no gotcha moment. “The decision to be in bad faith does not dare to speak its name,” says Sartre, “it believes itself and does not believe itself in bad faith; it believes itself and does not believe itself in good faith,” either (68, emphasis added).
If Sartre is right about bad faith and we cannot seek to remedy it through our own fantasy of corrective reason, then where does this leave trans people and those who love and care for them, worried about the slate of extremist state legislative bills targeting trans youth, or the shallowest neoliberal pro-trans politics of an Oreo tweet that are apparently the only mainstream response? They’re all in bad faith, after all. I’m not an existentialist philosopher, so I don’t think Sartre of all people has an answer, but I do find it telling that he ends his chapter of Being and Nothingness on bad faith by pointing out that “in bad faith there is no cynical lie nor knowing preparation for deceitful concepts. But the first act of bad faith is to flee what it can not flee, to flee what it is” (70).
I have felt incalculable rage at how trans people are effectively shut out of mainstream speaking platforms in this moment of massive attack, despite our supposed “cultural visibility.” The New York Times, leading the way, does not interview a single trans person for coverage of significant political issues. There are still precious few publishing routes for trans writers outside of fiction and poetry. And while cultural warriors like Graham Linehan—who admitted to a UK House of Lords committee yesterday that his obsession with attacking trans women had cost him his marriage—whine in bad faith about being canceled and rake in huge sums of cash for it on platforms like Substack, they gleefully work to harass trans people out of our remaining self-published platforms, including social media. I find it unimaginably frustrating that one of the things we apparently have to do in response is not engage them, not talk about their harassment and threats, in order to avoid giving them attention. I get the point, but are we to then simply keep consuming, quietly, their rhetoric—a thousand tiny poison pills? It will surely lead to the same result, satisfying them: burning out and deleting our accounts.
I’m sick of it. I’m not willing to do that. The bad faith artists need to be named for what they are—what they are fleeing.
I’ll return to something I wrote in Histories of the Transgender Child: children don’t belong to adults. Children are not naturally private property to be possessed, by anyone. They must be forcibly entrapped by adults to be held in vulnerability. We can choose to stop doing that, collectively, at any time.