Monday, November 17, 2014

How identity is like a democracy

This was cross-posted to The Asexual Agenda.  I always end up writing these essays which almost exclusively concern people in the asexual community, but I thought readers here might find it interesting since it applies to identity politics more generally.

Why do the kids these days have so many words and identity labels?

That's the question we ask year after year.  But isn't that funny?  If it's the same thing year after year, why does it seem like kids these days are especially bad about it?

It's certainly true that some years provide more fertile ground for words than others.  For example, there were a lot more new asexuality-related words in the years 2000-2010 than in the years 1990-2000.

But a lot of the perceived change is an illusion.  Previous generations also had lots of words and identity labels.  Some of those words became established, and now you take them for granted (eg hetero-/bi-/pan-/homo- romantic, gray-A, demisexual).  But for every successful word, there were a dozen unsuccessful words.  You don't see them anymore, because they died.

I can provide many examples, being on AVEN since 2009, and having read a lot of community history.  There were the "sensual" orientations, such as homosensual, etc.   There was primary and secondary romantic and sexual attraction (ugh).  There were all the alternatives for gray-A and demisexual.  There were the concepts of "gay asexual" or "straight asexual", which were synonyms for romantic orientation.  And a bunch of other terms that failed so quickly that they're hardly worth mentioning or remembering.

You might think of words as having definitions, a collection of necessary and sufficient conditions.  But first and foremost, words are tools.  We don't adopt words merely because they apply to us, we adopt them if we find them useful.

Here are some of the things identity labels are useful for:
  • Identifying something about yourself, so that you may better understand it.
  • Feeling like you share an experience with other people who also use the word.
  • A tag to collect similar discussion.
  • A way to communicate something about yourself.
  • A rallying call for a community or social movement.
Note that most of these things require that you are not the only person using the label.  You can't use an identity label to share experiences if no one else uses the label.  You can't communicate with it unless you're in a context where enough people understand it.  You can't organize a social movement unless a lot of people are on board.

That's why, when words become unpopular, they don't just die a little.  They die completely.  Most people just don't have a use for an unpopular label. 

Using an identity label is like voting for it.

When you adopt a word, you are saying, "This word is useful to me."  And you are also giving the word more power.  You are opening up new ways to use the word.  And this is a good thing, because it means that the best words, the ones that most people find useful, become the successful ones.  The ones that people do not find useful become unsuccessful.

Crucial to this process is the freedom to vote.  People need the freedom to determine if a label is useful to them, or if it is not useful to them, independently of whether the label technically describes them.  If people are required to use a word just because it describes them, then this would ruin the whole process and lead to the creation of bad terms that we all use but no one likes.

It's certainly acceptable to campaign for or against a word.  Many established words became successful because someone campaigned for them.  For example, "demisexual" originally had success because AVEN user OwlSaint campaigned relentlessly for it circa 2008.  And I've campaigned against words before, like the primary/secondary attraction mentioned earlier.

On the other hand, there are certain campaign strategies that seem unfair.  For example, it seems unfair to outright tell people, "You shouldn't use that word," or, "Sounds like you're ____," especially when you're saying it to baby aces who see you as an authority figure.  You should be teaching baby aces how to vote, not telling them which way to vote.

I also think it's unfair to go straight to the public and use new words in visibility efforts.  That's taking too many shortcuts, and you may just be advocating a word that will die later on.  But there is a large gray area here.  In my history of doing presentations, I've been far too conservative, hesitating to use words that later became much more popular.


Once a word becomes established, it may stick around for a long time.  But that doesn't mean that there is no longer anything to vote on. 

We also vote on the meanings of words.

The asexual community is especially prone to thinking that words have clear definitions with necessary and sufficient conditions, because that's the way the word "asexual" is usually presented.  In fact, this idea is widely rejected in cognitive science and philosophy of language.  Most words don't have necessary and sufficient conditions, they have "prototypes".  Whether something belongs to a class or not depends on how similar it is to the prototype.  Stereotypes are basically a kind of prototype, so when people complain about stereotypes, they're trying to broaden a word away from a particular prototype.

The result of all this, is that words can be fluid.  Definitions are attempts to pin down the meanings of words, which is an extremely useful thing to do.  But definitions are not the ultimate reality of what those words mean.

In particular, there is always a lot of negotiation of the boundaries between words.  For example, if you experience just a tiny bit of sexual attraction, how much is needed to push you from asexual to gray-A?  If you yourself are on that boundary, that's for you to decide!

Just as we need the freedom to vote on which words to use, we also need the freedom to vote on what they mean.  Therefore, people should feel free to use a word even if by your preferred definition, that word does not describe them.  This allows us, as a community, to negotiate what are the best meanings for existing words.

This democratic process is the way that our language has been created.  Please continue voting!


miller said...

There's been a long-term movement among many people in disability-related fields to always use "people first" language with regards to disabilities. "People first" advocates insist on saying "person with ______" instead of "_______ person". While I recognize the value of reframing the label, I know some people who are blind who hate the idea of being awkwardly referred to as a "person with blindness". Some well-intentioned sighted people will sometimes refer to people who are totally blind as a "person who is visually challenged". For someone who is totally blind, that phrasing is not only awkward, but inaccurate.

There's also a bit of a division between those who are newly experiencing vision loss, and those who have been blind or visually impaired for years. Those first coming to terms with a loss of vision may be much less likely to embrace the most straightforward terms, while those who have been blind or visually impaired for many years will often embrace the simpler terminology, because to them it's no longer seen as a pejorative term, but rather a term connoting a community of support, friendship, and political allegiance (at least within a certain set of specific issues).

In general, I go by the rule that the individual being labelled gets to choose their own label. I may have my own opinions, but it doesn't matter what I think unless the label is being applied to me.

A couple links of interest:

Another variation on the politics of labels is the controversy over the use of the term "illegal immigrant" and the AP's decision (a good decision, in my opinion) to strike that term from it's style guide because of the fact that a *person* cannot be illegal, only a person's actions can be illegal:

miller said...

In general it seems like the whole issue of labels is greatly complicated when some of the labels are considered pejorative. I recently read a (very long) piece by Julia Serano where she talks about the "activist language merry-go-round", wherein activists constantly adopt new terms, which get pejorized because society doesn't like the people who are referred to by the terms. What you say about blind terminology reminded me of that.

miller said...

Thanks for that link. It was a long post, but well worth the read. I also appreciated the comment at the bottom comparing this to the process of language development in labeling those with intellectual disabilities (the terminology of choice moving from "mental retardation" to "developmental disability" to "intellectual disability").

Even the word for "disability" itself has been contentious. The term "handicapped" is almost never used anymore by anyone except those who are unaware that it is no longer the accepted term. As far as I can tell, the term "differently abled" was a brief fad, and has mostly died out.

Going back to your idea of identity as a democracy, while usage is one means of selection, a better overall metaphor is evolution. In the essay you linked, Julia Serano points out that sometimes the reasons for which some terms become acceptable and others fall into disfavor can be "accidents of history," which reminds me a bit of something Stephen Jay Gould often said about the process of evolution.

As with evolution, there can also be geographic regions or individual communities or sub-cultures where one term fares better, while in other regions it does not.

And yet, amidst the seemingly arbitrary choices, there are some choices that don't simply react to pejorative histories in a perpetual "activist language merry-go-round," but which instead help to clarify a general understanding of a given topic. For example, "mental retardation" was the wrong term to use, not only because of the rise of the pejorative use of the term "retard", but because the term promotes a basic misunderstanding of intellectual disabilities in that it implies slowness, which is ultimately an oversimplification.

Another example of this is the evolution of the term for PTSD, that was the subject of a recent episode of RadioLab:

If I had to sum up what I think it takes for a term to survive (besides the important factor of luck), I would say, it's the balance of brevity, clarity and accuracy.

miller said...

A couple other thoughts about this...

It is impossible to follow my rule about respecting the wishes of the individual who is labeled if one wishes to speak of a an entire group of people. Ultimately, we are forced to vote in many situations. If I sense that there is in-group controversy about the use of a label, I'll try to at least make reference to the most popular labels that are widely used within that community.

On the other hand, connecting this discussion to your most recent post and more generally to the theme of confrontation, argument, and the various approaches to persuasion, sometimes people intentionally use unwelcome labels for their opponents as a way to advance their outlook on a given topic. I'm thinking now of the abortion debate, and how abortion rights proponents often call themselves "Pro-Choice" while calling their opponents "Anti-Choice", and how abortion rights opponents often call themselves "Pro-Life" while calling their opponents "Anti-Life". Even the self-labels in this debate have implicit oppositional meanings, and so it could be argued that my respectful approach to labeling in this highly charged political context inevitably frames the debate in a manner that influences the outcome of the debate.

To be more concrete, my approach of respecting the wishes of the group being labeled would lead me to call abortion rights proponents "Pro-Choice", and at the same time, it would lead me to call abortion rights opponents "Pro-Life". But I have to ask, how honest are these labels? How fair are their implied oppositional meanings? Without even getting into my position on this issue (which is tangential and irrelevant to the present discussion) I would argue that in this case, the respectful approach is not a neutral approach, and the only way to be fair is to use more honest terms which might not be the preferred self-label for either group.

This is, of course, reflected in decisions by most media outlets to abandon the use of these terms except in quotes from people interviewed:

miller said...

My post here is mostly in response to asexual identity politics, where the primary uses of labels are listed in my bullet points. In that context, the primary objections to labels are aesthetic, such as whether a label highlights an important distinction or not. There will be difficulties expanding these ideas to other areas of application, and I appreciate your thoughts on what those difficulties are.

Personally I have no problem referring to pro-choicers and pro-lifers. I feel those labels adequately represent what the respective groups see as the relevant consideration. While biased labeling seems a little unfair, it happens about equally on all sides and doesn't seem to cause any significant harm. Although it should be said that unlike NPR, I'm not committed to any sort of ideal of being unbiased.

I can think of some other examples where people's preferred labels have implicit oppositional meanings. For example, some agnostics call themselves that basically because they have stereotypes of atheists as dogmatic or arrogant. Labels like "skeptic" or "rationalist" are also a bit problematic in that they imply their opponents are not rational (an unintended implication when I use those terms). My general feeling is that unless it's really blatant, the identity terms are fine. It's more the attitudes of the people under the identity that I might disagree with.

miller said...

I understand, and I agree with most of what you've just said, although I think you're underestimating the importance of how labels shape a debate.

For what it's worth, I call myself an agnostic, but not because of any stereotype I have about atheists. I just feel it's a more appropriate term to describe my outlook. Knowing my views, many atheists (and theists) would want to label me as an atheist, and knowing their views, I would tend to identify many atheists (as well as many theists) as agnostics. But in the end, while labels are important in terms of shaping views and attitudes, it's the views and attitudes that are more important, and what people actually do as a result of those views and attitudes that is ultimately most important.

miller said...

I don't think I'm downplaying the importance of labels. Rather, I'm advocating the general rule that labels are controlled by their adopters, whether the labels are important or not. For example, The "pro-life" label gives prolifers some degree of political advantage. But there's not much I can or should do about that. That is to say, I could question their supposed value of life, and I can call them pejorative terms, but I can't really take their self-identity away.

Just yesterday some people in the local atheist group recounted telling some agnostics that they were really atheists. To me, that's crossing a line from rejecting a certain view into trying to control people's identities. And rather than being an effective political tactic, it strikes me as petty. I think the atheist movement in general is not very savvy about identity politics.

miller said...

It's funny, I started out making that argument in my first post on this thread, and yet I've found myself moving away from that position as I think about broader applications.

I agree with the general rule of avoiding petty name-calling of one's opponents, but I don't agree that that means necessarily adopting their own terms for themselves, because I think these terms can sometimes be coercive and unfair.

If you frame the abortion debate as being between "Life" and "Choice," (channelling George Lakoff here), then "Life" will always win. After all, how could someone being able to choose something possibly be more important than a person's life? While I would never call someone "anti-choice," I do reserve the right to call them an "abortion opponent" instead of using the term "pro-life". I could see and respect arguments for rejecting the use of terms such as "Pro-Choice" or, since you bring it up, "Rationalist," although I guess I have to admit, while I don't expect my opponents to accept my self-label, I don't mind the idea of being a little bit coercive in my choice of self-label.