Tell me about this “dehumanizing” of which you speak

The CBC ran a story on a transgender man who was offended by a local theatre because it used the word “tranny” in their production of Shrek. He said the use of the word “tranny” in reference to transgender people was “dehumanizing.”

I couldn’t help but think of that scene from Princess Bride..

So if that word does not mean “what you think it means,” then what does “dehumanizing” actually mean? Well, according to

to deprive of human qualities or attributes; divest of individuality

It seems self-evident the man’s complaint was not that he was being divested of individuality, so the first part of the definition seems most likely. Somehow use of the word “tranny” deprives transgender people of human qualities or attributes.

That’s an interesting claim, let’s consider it. The first, and most obvious, question that comes to mind is, “what does it mean to be human?” Or, to leverage the dictionary’s definition, what are the qualities and attributes that define a human?

I’m not going to attempt to answer that question. Rather, I want us to take yet another step back and ask an even more fundamental question.

Is there one universal set of qualities and attributes that are essential in order to be “human?” For instances, can we agree that the plastic and metal device on my desk that includes a keyboard, a mousepad and a monitor is not “human?” And can we also agree that if it has two legs, two arms, walks upright, reproduces sexually and can speak in one or more languages then it probably is “human?”

More importantly than this, though, is the fact that if such a definition exists – a universal set of qualities and attributes that are essential to “humans” – then those qualities and attributes remain true whether a person knows about them, believes them, or not. I’m not here to provide some checklist, I’m just asking if such a checklist exists.

But this question raises an interesting dilemma for the queer community. Historically the queer community has gone out of its way to denounce any kind of universal declarations in a variety of very “human” areas of life. The entire movement is fundamentally dependent on the blurring the lines. What is “marriage?” Let’s redefine it. What is “family?” Let’s redefine it. What is “gender” let’s redefine it.

(Note: I am not claiming these redefinitions started with the queer movement, but they sure as heck didn’t slow down with them!)

Each of these redefinitions cut closer and closer to the heart of what a “human” really is. And the more blurred these definitions became, necessarily, the more blurred the entire concept of “human” became.

If we accept that the definition of “human” is – to put it mildly – malleable, then their protest of “dehumanizing” is rather deflated. After all, how can you deprive something of qualities or attributes if the qualities and attributes that define it are up for grabs? If there is no checklist then it cannot be said that the theatre deprived anybody of qualities and attributes on the non-existent checklist.

On the other hand, suppose there is some universal definition of “human.” Suppose there are qualities and attributes inherent to every human being. Then the charge of “dehumanizing,” at least conceptually, has force. But then we cannot help but note that the entire queer movement rests on broadened and blurred, not narrowed and clarified, definitions. Why? Because clarity and narrow definitions are necessarily exclusive by their very nature, and the queer movement actively opposes exclusivity.

After all, if “human” necessarily means having certain qualities and attributes, then lacking those qualities and attributes necessarily makes one “not human;” an unacceptably intolerant conclusion. We are not to draw distinctions, but to treat all as equal, right?

On the one hand, if the queer community wishes to remove barriers, boundaries and definitions then it can hardly go about calling things “dehumanizing” for that would imply there is a difference between “human” and “not human.” Such intolerance – in the form of some metaphysical checklist – would never be tolerated.

On the other hand, if they would like their charge of “dehumanizing” to actually carry force, then they will have to acknowledge that there are, in fact, qualities and attributes that differentiate “human” from “not human,” and those qualities and attributes are universal and non-malleable. But that certainly does not align well with the ethos of the movement.

It could be argued that a plethora of other words might apply to that choice of language in the play – perhaps “insensitive,” “unwise,” “politically incorrect” – but the use of the word “dehumanizing” from the queer community comes across like the pot calling the kettle black.