A Day at the Bookstore

A Day at the Bookstore

A few weeks ago I was brave enough to venture out to do some much needed grocery shopping.  I was even braver to take mass transit. In this pandemic most people who can avoid riding mass transit for reasons too obvious to mention here, leaving the trains and buses to those who, like me, have no other choice, or crazy people. This tends to make the riding of mass transit a bit hairier than it used to be.

My ride back from the store offered a particularly harrowing illustration of this. On the train I sat across from a noticeably unkempt and disheveled man, who was, well, crazy and belligerent. He started a White Supremacist rant with lavish use of the N-word, which he exclaimed as loudly as he could. There were, of course, several black men on this train, and they, of course, heard him.  No one could not hear him. Everyone, knowing he was obviously bonkers, tried to ignore him, but his hateful racism was just too loud. So, finally someone kicked him on the bottom of his right shoe, something a mother might do to signal to her unruly kid to settle down and, above all, be quiet. But, of course, this crazy man took the kick to be a most grievous and injurious assault and, hence, as an excuse to be even louder and even more racist. Angry exchanges of words followed, and I was frozen stiff.

Fortunately, the train’s operator intervened. She told the crazy man that she had called the cops.  He savagely protested his Free Speech rights, but the operator would have none of it. She said the cops would come any time now. This prompted the man to get off at the next stop. That man was nuts, but not that nuts, apparently.

The classical philosophical view of speech is that it is what distinguishes the Homo sapiens as a rational creature. Yelling racial slurs at the top of one’s lungs is hardly rational and, thus, cannot be classified as speech or at least not the kind of speech that is supposed to distinguish us from rabidly barking dogs.  

Nearly two years ago I was at a bookstore, a place I had frequented for decades. I fell into a conversation with one of the clerks about how Poetry Journals are sustained by Liberal Arts Colleges. The clerk noticed that I used a tone of disdain with “Liberal Arts” and asked why. So, I told him that I used to love “Liberal Arts”, but then the rehabilitation of Judith Butler happened. Thereupon I mentioned “gender identity nonsense”, and the clerk told me that he wasn’t going to let me deny the existence of transpeople who co-own the store and work at the store (none of whom were present at that time). I responded that just because I don’t accept one’s claim about who he is does not mean I deny his existence. I can, for example, accept the existence of someone while not accepting his claim that he’s, say, Napoleon. 

I was going to say after that that every time an attempt has been made to define ‘gender identity’ , the result has been really obvious circularity (e.g. “The term ‘gender identity’ means gender-related identity…” [Federal Equality Act] “Gender identity shall mean a person’s gender-related identity…” [Massachusetts]), but the clerk would not let me speak. Every time I tried to speak, he would talk over me with a silly chuckle. After several attempts by me to make my point, the chuckle vanished. He got very serious and said baldly, “You’re not going to say anything about ‘gender identity’. Not here.” 

I felt like I was being scolded as if I were a naughty little boy about to say a sniggering profanity aloud, and as a man of a certain age, I naturally resented this. A lot. So I promptly acted exactly like a naughty little boy, albeit without the sniggering. I unfortunately lost my cool, said in a raised voice, “F— you!”, flipped the clerk off, and stomped out.

Now I am known at the bookstore as someone who harasses transpeople and am, of course, banned.

I simply wanted to point out that the legal definitions of “gender identity” are circular.

Well, to be fair, the clerk did not know what I was going to point out because, well, he would not let me speak. But I had made it clear that I was going to critique an idea—in this case the concept of ‘gender identity’. I wasn’t going to attack a person. I was simply going to offer a criticism of the concept, using very simple logic to do so.

I have since made it clear to the staff of the bookstore what I was intending to say, but I am still banned. As far as the proprietors are concerned, what I was wanting to say was as menacing as barking out racial slurs, and the clerk was right to shut me up as that train operator was right to shut up that crazy man.

Some people will argue that I was debating the identity of others, and that’s simply savage violence against one’s very personhood and existence. Therefore, I was trying to violate a fundamental human right. But don’t we debate people’s identities all the time? For instance, Donald J. Trump’s identity as a stable genius was hotly debated (and that’s putting it very charitably). Were Trump’s fundamental human rights violated thereby? Some might counter that debating the identities of those in a persecuted minority is a lot different from disputing how a powerful narcissist wishes to identify himself. Maybe. 

Should we not then be allowed to debate the identity of the Jews as God’s Chosen People because they are historically a persecuted minority? There are still to this day people who identify as Greek Polytheists. They are, as can be imagined, a very tiny minority and are forbidden from doing their sacred rituals at the ancient temples. That’s a denial of their religious freedom and amounts to persecution. Does that mean we should not debate the existence of Zeus?

To be clear, I am in no way denying this bookstore’s staff’s right to have shut me up and to forbid me from entering their doors. Their store, their rules. That said, the reasons that they shut me up and banned me are disturbing. One would think that a bookstore that makes a point of commemorating Banned Books Weeks every year would be the last place to shut people up simply for wanting to present a dissenting perspective.

But what is really disturbing is that the bookstore’s owners and staff actually think that pointing out the circularity of the legal definitions of ‘gender identity’ amounts to irrational, barking hatred. And they are far from the only ones. I have lost a friend because of this incident. He refuses to have anything to do with me until I apologize for the “moral violence” I tried to inflict upon the good people at this bookstore.

How really, really simple and really, really obvious logic amounts to “moral violence” is surely beyond me.  I don’t even know what “moral violence” is. 

I do know this: if basic logic is going to be considered as no better than barking bigotry, then the purpose of speech is vain, and we might as well just grunt and, yes, bark at each other.  Then again I am probably being a Drama Queen. An isolated incident at one bookstore hardly harbingers a Global Downfall of Reason. Yes, that is true. I am probably just a whiny Drama Queen (I would prefer to identify as a Drama King, though). Then again, when I see the widespread acceptance of the demonstrable lunacies of Queer Theory among our brightest academics and the highest echelons of office, I can’t be so sure.

Nicky Coriand
I am on twitter at @NCoriand. I have a life beyond twitter. I eat, I sleep, I read, and I contemplate the Mystery of Being.

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