Written by Ash Broom
I’ve been thinking a lot about the insult “LARPer” since I’m seeing it in trans spaces and communist spaces a lot. I hate it and I generally hear it from people I already hate. So I don’t think I’m gonna change anyone’s mind but here’s an essay about why it’s dumb:
So I think there’s 3 pieces to the LARPer analogy. 1) Your actions are inauthentic 2) The threats you are facing are imaginary 3) You look cringe. If you’ve called someone a LARPer for other reasons lmk.
First let’s talk about authenticity. It’s a dumb, over commodified concept that capitalism weaponizes against counter-cultural movements. That may sound like a post-modernist take but I’m actually coming from a Marxist dialectic and a Zen religious background.
So authenticity is essentially the brand identity of the real. In common usage it’s that inarticulable something that separates real from fake. Sure it can be used synonymously with real (a fake drivers license might be inauthentic, it’s realness being determined by an authoritative agency) but more often we’ll call something like a Gucci handbag or a story or even a person “authentic.”
The handbag’s authenticity comes from Gucci’s brand authority. You don’t actually know the material history of its construction, you just know that it has exactly the right label on it. The story’s authenticity comes from its ability to simulate the real lived experience of the consumer. This is so highly, highly subjective that I wonder why anyone ever tries to appeal to authenticity when arguing for a piece of art’s value. Politically it’s a useful concept only insofar as one can talk about minority representation being “inauthentic,” but even then one must contrast their own experience of oppression with the depiction of the story (all with the nuance that your experience of oppression is not universal). In both cases the epistemology (the ability to know what is true), is fuzzy and based mostly on subjective perception or vibes, which is why I call it a brand.
But for our purposes let’s focus on a person, or a person’s actions, as authentic vs. inauthentic. I think what most people mean by this is that a person’s thoughts, feelings, words, and actions are all in alignment. And listen, you’re more than willing to strive towards this ideal, but here’s where my Marxist side will point out that it is an idealist notion to say that this is how anyone should live. In terms of politics I care about the effects (not the motivations behind) words and actions; things with concrete effects on material reality. Also we can only evaluate the efficacy of political action if we accept it as a coherent attempt at political action. Dismissing it as LARPing, or any euphemism for fake activism, does nothing to expand our political understanding of history.
To say that an action is LARPing is to say that it is simulating reality without effecting real outcomes within it. It is closed off within a “magic circle” in game theory terms. For this to be true everyone has to be in on the fact that it’s a game. This is the only way to maintain the separation of the magic circle from reality. If even one person believes one is acting in earnest (including the person acting) then the action has at least the potential to affect the real world. Technically even if everyone involved treats something as a game it can have real world consequences (the role-player breaks an arm, social relationships are changed based on drama within the game, etc.) I struggled with Baudrillard, but if you wanna get a much more in-depth look at how simulations cross over into reality he has a whole book about it.
I brought up Zen earlier so let me come back to that, if only for the sake of my own beliefs. Zen has an interesting answer to the identity problem (our issue with what makes a person real): mu (usually translated as the ultimate negation). Basically nothing has an inherent unchanging nature (a soul, a constant, an identity). It is as empty as a hand reached out to shake. It’s emptiness is what gives it form and vice versa. We are reminded of this in most koans, but I find it especially clear in the 5 remembrances:
I am of the nature to grow old, grow ill, die, and be separated from all I love. My deeds are my only companions, the ground on which I stand, the womb from which I am sprung, etc..
In a very Butlerian sense there is nothing but the performance. No identity, just actions and reactions. This is how I explain my non-binariness to people: as an empty hand reached out to shake. It also means, for our conversation, that LARPing an identity is the same as performing the identity is the same as having the identity. There is no trans person, just a person in transition. I don’t give a damn about how anyone conceptualizes their gender, just how they wish to be treated. I don’t care if you have a medical diagnosis for gender dysphoria (I do too), I care how dysphoria affects the way you move through the world. I don’t care if your transition lasts ten minutes, ten years, or as long as this thing we call you is alive; that has no bearing on how I’m supposed to treat you right now. If “transtrenders” are treating gender like a game then guess what? Everyone’s playing the same game, you just have these weird house rules you demand others play with cause it’s made the game more comprehensible to you. Oh and heads up that whole paragraph was in bad faith. There is nothing you can say that will change my behavior.
I will say this gives the truscum argument that “you haven’t transitioned anything but your pronouns” some credence. If I’m saying that the transition is all behavior and material reality, then I am discounting your feelings about your own gender. Just cause I have no way of knowing if they’re “authentic” or not and I don’t really care. But 4 things: 1) language is an important site where gender exists. If someone changes the way they wish to be addressed, they are changing their gender in a meaningful way. Language contains so much of our socio-cultural content. 2) My journey took about 3 years of presenting ostensibly male while using they/them pronouns. Then euphoria and safety convinced me to explore hormones, around-the-clock feminine presentation, voice training, and surgeries. Not projecting my journey onto anyone, you are exactly where you’re supposed to be on your gender path (hopefully), but I know that I needed that space and community before I found the bravery to make myself happy with my presentation. 3) if we’re gonna be proper Marxists about this then let’s remember that social constructs like gender are part of the dialectic. If someone’s feelings do inform the way they present (which again even I, Mx. Authentic-Feelings-Are-Unknowable-And Irrelevant, admit is kinda true for me) then their social content gives them basis in material reality. 4) gender policing someone else does nothing to reduce harm to anyone else. Those are the stakes of this game btw: murder, suicide, harassment, genocide, etc.. We’ll get into respectability politics later but for now let’s just ask if the way we are interacting with people increases or decreases net total material harm.
Aaaaanyway, let’s talk murder, suicide, harassment, genocide, etc.. Because I think one of the more common statements behind calling someone a LARPer is “you act like your struggle is more serious than it is.” I’m not sure where the audacity to assume you know another’s struggle better than they do even comes from, so this may be hard to argue against. But basically I’m defining struggle within a Marxist/Sociological/Buddhist framework. There’s 1) How class antagonisms effect one’s daily material reality 2) How identification within a class effects one’s political reality and 3) How greed (I want more of x), aversion (I want less of y), and ignorance (I want a to be b) create suffering and what steps you’re taking to combat that. Sorry, I know I rely on lists a lot, I blame my Buddhist upbringing.
So our first and most Marxist definition of struggle is cool because it requires hard data and the scientific method. Does a person fit into a coherent class of people and does their existence in that class affect their material reality? By material reality I mean employability, likelihood of experiencing violence, ownership of the fruits of one’s own labor, etc.. Quantifiable quality of life needs. We all have various intersections of class identity which we have very little control over (unless we can pretend to be members of a dominant class) and which manifest differently under different conditions. But that doesn’t mean any of it is subjective. What is subjective is your ability to take in the experience of others as concrete data. Hopefully you do or your skepticism is just lazy solipsism. By this definition oppression and the struggle for rights isn’t about abstract concepts like “human dignity” or even “personal autonomy” (both of which I value but recognize as vestiges of an idealist worldview). It’s about using science to engineer a world where social structures make life “objectively better” (quantitative changes in material conditions leads to qualitative changes in social conditions).
To bring this into more concrete terms I can look at my own struggles. I am personally invested in dismantling transphobic ideologies and systems of power because my entire work history involves education and carpentry, both fields which I am at a disadvantage in getting hired if the employer finds out I am transgender. Currently even admitting that I am non-binary, is a political statement (not “could be seen as”, is. My existence in the public sphere requires a political/ideological structure in place which accounts for me). I am personally invested in dismantling capitalism because I experience alienation from my labor. The things I do for a large portion of my day do very little to improve the lives of a small number of people and if I had ownership of my labor I know I could fix that. The intersection of my trans and working class identity reminds me that I am a couple bad months and one big enough fight with my family away from being homeless. I am personally invested in the political advancement of the mentally ill, because currently my medication, individual therapy, ketamine treatment, group therapy, and intensive outpatient treatment takes up a large portion of the money I do make and the time I would otherwise be able to improve my conditions.
Therefore, when evaluating the political threats faced by a supposed LARPer, there is a way to look at the whole thing objectively. Are their material conditions negatively impacted by another political agent? Is there a material incentive for the opposing political agent to continue oppressing them? Is there historical evidence that this oppressive power will use violence to maintain its material incentive? To what extent? With all this in mind one can determine if the supposed LARPer is acting in rational preemptive defense, overreacting based on reactionary assumptions, or even targeting another oppressed class based on anti-solidarity ideology.
However, if I’m being honest, these personal struggles rarely affect me as much as my second definition of political struggle. I don’t only have an individual identity (and assuming you aren’t a sociopath or a pathological narcissist you don’t either). I also have a communal identity as a trans person, a working class person, a mentally ill person, an American, a human. When I see conditions get so bad for members of my community that they have an increased rate of suicide, when I read about members of my community being killed, when I study the history of genocide and recognize patterns manifesting against members of my community, when members of my community become targets of discriminatory legislation; it hurts me. I think that’s a reasonable reaction.
I don’t resent this communal identification either. It allows me to share in the euphoric joy of my community’s victories. It gives me a sense of history and meaning to my struggle. It creates a bond that makes political action (action which is by definition done by and for groups of people) possible. I bring this up because my uncle recently couldn’t comprehend why I would shoulder the burden of an entire community’s suffering. There are so many forces which preach individuality, especially here in the U.S., that I wonder if for some this level of empathy comes across as delusional. I think the most insidious and anti-political version of this is that you can only help others after you’ve helped yourself. If you are in the middle of being oppressed, genocided, and/or exploited there is no amount of self-help which will improve your material conditions to the point that you can comfortably engage in politics. We’ll talk later about how that’s the most unBuddhist thing I’ve written in this whole essay.
Once again we have a way to evaluate if someone’s struggling with a real opponent. Even if we used the previous test to determine that this person was facing no negative impacts on their material conditions as a result of their political identity, do they rightfully identify with an oppressed group? This is probably closer to my own struggle. My material conditions are perhaps more stable than I previously implied. I’m healthy, white, able-bodied, male-passing, and Californian enough to be able to comfortably hold down work. That fight with my family would have to be pretty explosive to undo the good will we’ve accrued over the years. So no, my political fury and despair are not because I’m role-playing an activist and I’ve gotten in character. If the unprosecuted murder of a single trans woman was the only bad thing that happened to us last year, my rage would still be justified.
The last definition of struggle is mostly there to remind the reader that this is a Marxist/Buddhist essay and the Marxists are not the only thinkers with an understanding of suffering. If we’re going to call people LARPer’s let’s evaluate all the reasons they might be engaging in political action. Let’s look at all the reasons they believe they are suffering. Let’s question the very premise I just put forward about political identity justifying political engagement and see if we can still make sense of the “well-off” engaging in politics. That being said, I frequently struggle to make my Buddhist side and my Marxist side work together.
I’m too Marxist for Buddhist spaces because I believe that the bodhisattva vow (specifically the part about “saving all sentient beings”) demands that we fight for social justice. I believe that the fully enlightened historical Buddha did not have the class consciousness to prevent him from oppressing women (specifically for creating so many rules around female monks in order to more fully oppress their sexuality). I believe that without a political conscious every form of Buddhism has upheld feudalism, late stage capitalism, and most famously fascism. To paraphrase Angel Kyodo Williams, I believe no-self also means no-political-self which is impossible when the world politicizes you through material force. This directly contradicts the key Buddhist teaching that the Buddha-way is a way to be free from suffering regardless of the material conditions, dominant political ideology, place within the cycle of samsara (or the cycle of oppression for that matter). Maybe it was enough for one drop-out prince, but I’m a Mahayanist so I don’t get to be free from suffering until you all are too. And if the teaching of “upaya” or “skillful means” (my favorite cop-out in Buddhism) doesn’t allow for enlightenment through political liberation then it’s a pretty impotent concept if you ask me.
I’m also too Buddhist for Marxist spaces. I believe that without understanding greed, aversion, and ignorance every revolution will fail to eliminate suffering and therefore cycle back into endless reactionary counter-revolution. I believe that Marx’s dialectic is a failure to capture material reality without an understanding of no-self and therefore cannot be used to accurately evaluate a scientific theory of human history. I believe religion (including Buddhism) has done more for mutual aide, liberatory consciousness, and awareness of suffering than any political movement in history. And I’m sorry, Mao might genuinely be the greatest ML thinker to ever live, I will never know because I simply can’t get past the fact that he committed genocide against Buddhism (a religion famous for assimilating under new political regimes really well).
Great, now that I’ve burned the two bridges that were keeping me afloat, let me explain that little detour. The reason I actually wanted to bring up a Buddhist understanding of struggle against suffering is because as a Mahayana Buddhist I really do think that none of us are free until we all are. So even if you don’t buy that I’m oppressed in any way, you think the rhetoric around trans genocide is over-dramatic (which let me clear is an ahistorical, heavily sheltered, and generally untenable position), you think group identification is a delusion (or even greater evidence of role-playing); I can still make the argument that I am suffering and that I am seriously invested in alleviating that suffering and that my ideological opponents are invested in my continued suffering.
That last bit might not be clear… Capitalists have a vested interest in keeping me greedy (the more I want the more I spend). Transphobes have a vested interest in keeping me averse (the less of their hate/violence I want to experience the more willing I am to bend to their will). The government has a vested interest in keeping me ignorant (the more time I spend daydreaming about a better world the less time I spend evaluating and working within the material conditions of this one). In reality it’s all a bit more complicated cause it’s not so much my opponents that oppress me as it is delusional attachments, bad karma, and the fallacy of the continuous; but all that is undeniably manifested materially by oppressive systems of power.
The last reason that people call other people LARPers is that it’s a pretty universally agreed upon “cringe” behavior and they find an aspect of the LARPer’s behavior or identity really cringe. First of all let me say as unsympathetically as possible, that is how a 13-year-old envisions politics. I’m all for childlike innocence but those overly concerned with dividing human behavior into “cringe” and “based” desperately need to grow the fuck up. People are dying, you unserious sociopaths. Cringe is a deeply subjective category, a brand word with no material/scientific/coherently ideological basis. If you base any part of your life on avoiding behaviors you think are cringe or on being called cringe you have the moral backbone of a jellyfish with crippling social anxiety. As soon as you stop worrying about being cringe you will discover a freedom you never thought possible. It’s the “red pill” where the matrix is “misanthropes tell you how to behave.”
Now for the biggest “that being said…” ever. Like it or not we do live in a brand culture and cringe is still brand poison for nearly all of us. While it’s actually quite easy to reframe what you see as cringe if you think about it for any amount of time (and I highly recommend you use this natural human ability to reduce that word to meaninglessness), all of us have behaviors and traits we find so repulsive that we have a physical, stomach-churning response to. For some people that’s demanding attention (a potentially outsized request for what is genuinely a human need), for others that’s misogynistic violence. These are in no way equatable and if you have a stronger cringe response to someone wearing something loud and inappropriate to a protest than to the 40% of cops who self-report to beating their wives, then it’s worth evaluating why you’re letting your cringe response make any ethical determination.
However, when I look at my own political awakening, I have to admit I only made empathy a key tenant of my politics because I met some people who valued empathy whom I also happened to find really cool. Maybe the Japanese government in the late 90’s was right and coolness does directly translate into soft power. In a brand culture where there is the constant specter of your own brand determining your social value, coolness can seem as important to obtain as love. Marxism may say that giving into the brand culture reinforces the ideological stranglehold capitalist hegemony already has around our behavior. Buddhism may say that a “brand” is a capitalist replacement for a soul (an illusory image of you that is somehow less and more than real you could ever hope to be) and that thinking of yourself as a brand is a direct path to suffering. “Gender ideology” (not actually a thing but it’s a funny way to ironically talk about modern feminism) may accurately point out that any cishetero-patriarchal society will primarily equate coolness with anything that reinforces the qualitative distinction between masculine and feminine. However, my feelings will always tell me that I need to be cool.
Maybe that’s a battle that needs to be had at the intersection of feelings, ideology, and language; all of which form The Brand Culture. In reality this stopped being about that one truscum who called me and my friend LARPers like one sentence in. This is a shameless attempt to get even one person to understand the way I think, cause I’ve felt like a lot of people haven’t been understanding me lately. I was honestly more bothered by that same truscum calling me a post-modernist like they knew anything about my worldview. I was honestly more bothered by the endless repetition of the phrase “gender ideology.” Talk to a trans person about their understanding of gender, you will find it is far from a hive mind. Most of us are as idiosyncratic as non-binary Buddhist Marxists. But for real, stop calling people LARPers. I’ve met real LARPers. They’re dope.
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