Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

In Defense of Labels

Every once in a while, I get into a discussion and one of two ideas about “labels” comes up,

  • That labels are bad, because each person is special in their own way, and so should not be constrained by some label.
  • That people ought to be free to redefine the meaning of labels as they see fit.

Both of these ideas are wrongheaded. Labels exist to facilitate communication; they allow us to fill in a lot of blanks with defaults that can still be overridden by other things we learn about the person. A label does not define someone—it merely provides a useful first-order approximation about some aspect of them.

If someone tells you that I am a liberal/progressive, it tells you a lot about me. It means that I probably won’t be picketing abortion clinics, voting against gay marriage, or demanding tax breaks for billionaires. But it won’t tell you whether I’m an atheist, a liberal christian, or someone who believes in the healing power of crystals—we can easily imagine any of those options. It might make my being a vegetarian a little more likely, but it doesn’t require that I not eat meat.

If a label doesn’t adequately describe me, the right option for me is to either not use it at all, or just add appropriate modifiers to it. For example, I often describe myself as “someone in a same-sex relationship” rather than as “a lesbian”. I think it fits me better. But I don’t mind if other people describe me as a lesbian, and will use it myself on occasion. I’m enough of a lesbian that the correlations outweigh the things that don’t fit (in particular, “lesbian” implies that I am attracted to women in general, rather than in love with one particular woman).

If a label doesn’t fit me perfectly, it certainly doesn’t mean that I need to change myself to fit a stereotype that matches the label. It just means that a bit more explaining is in order before someone knows what my deal is. But that is still less explaining than we’d have to do if we tried to have no labels at all. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I should try to redefine the label so that it either fits me better or so that I can reject it entirely. So, saying, “I’m not a lesbian because I don’t cruise lesbian bars”, or, “I’m not a lesbian because I’m not a Wiccan”, is foolish.

For labels (or any linguistic communication) to work, there has to be a rough consensus about what words mean. Over time, as a culture, we come to interpret words in particular ways, and it is the commonality of our understanding of what words mean that makes communication possible. The meanings can change, and new meanings can be added (so “gay” can go from “happy” to “attracted to the same sex”), but the stability of meaning over reasonable timeframes is what allows us to communicate meanings quickly. If I say that I’ve been crying and need a hug, it’s so much better if you don’t have to ask me what I mean by “crying” and what constitutes a “hug”.

Obviously, the meanings of words aren’t static, and so we’re all free to try to stretch existing words to fit new contexts or develop neologisms to where existing words fail. For example, “heterosexual” and “cissexual” are relatively new terms and both have proved useful alternatives to terms like “normal” that people might have used previously. But coining new words and changing the meanings of existing ones isn’t easy and often fails to get any traction—quite often rightly so.

If a male friend of your comes up to you and says, “I need to tell you, I’m gay”, and then it turns out that what he really meant was that he was happy and didn’t have a care in the world, you might very well tell him that he can take his attempt to redefine “gay” (reclaiming its old meaning) and shove it.

Likewise, if your friend says, “I saw a transhumanist yesterday”, and it turns out that he was actually talking about someone who changed their sex, it’s reasonable to point out that he’s a bit confused about terms. Sometimes people dig in when you do this, and he might argue that people who change their sex are transhumanists. But even if he can somehow make a tenuous argument that this is true, from the perspective of successful communication, he’s wrong—he has used the wrong word and that’s that.

Finally, because labels are part of consensus communication, we don’t get to completely control them. It’s one thing if the label doesn’t match up (e.g., calling me a “religious conservative” would be pretty ludicrous), but if the only problem I have with the label is that it oversimplifies who I am (e.g., that calling me a lesbian doesn’t capture every nuance about my sexuality), maybe the right thing for me to do is get over myself and realize that sometimes other people don’t have the time or inclination to write many words where one or two are sufficient for their needs.

It’s true that when it comes to how people understand me, there are some aspects I think should be more salient than others, and so if I’m introduced to someone new, the order of labels probably does matter, and usually there are many many labels that are frankly irrelevant and don’t come up at all. But these issues are independent of labels themselves, the same issues would apply if we were trying somehow to avoid labels entirely—arguably, the added long-windedness would make the situation worse.

In short, a label does not define me, it describes me in a useful, yet incomplete way. And people who think otherwise, well, I have a label for them…

Maybe False Dichotomies Are Born that Way?

This post is, in some sense, a counterpoint to my Binaries Aren’t Intrinsically Bad post because part of its message is that some binaries are intrinsically bad, but arguably it’s not a counterpoint at all, since those binaries are really two sides of related but different stories.

A false dichotomy is a situation where you lead people to believe that they have to see things in one of two ways, and that those are the only choices.  George Bush’s claim that “You’re either with us, or with the terrorists!” is one such example, where any middle ground is missing.  But it’s worth realizing that sometimes there isn’t a continuum that connects the two extremes that form the dichotomy. If I say, “Which is it, do you like cats, or are you a communist?”, the problem isn’t that I’ve left you with no middle ground, it’s that the idea of any sort of sensible “middle” between these two options is fundamentally flawed, because these two concepts are orthogonal—each can be true or false independent of the other.

When it comes to identity, whether it is sexual orientation or gender identity, some people feel compelled to wonder, “Are you born that way, or is it a choice?”  Most people seem to accept that as a valid question to ask, but I would argue that it’s not—it’s a false dichotomy, and one of the second kind where there isn’t even a middle ground: these are two unrelated propositions, and, worse, the true underlying question, whether we can (or should) change who we are to avoid perturbing other people, is barely addressed at all. To understand why, let’s first ask the same question about some tamer topics and see how it holds up there.

Suppose that at some point growing up I had a bad experience with a particular food, let’s say peppermint liqueur, and now even just the smell of it turns my stomach—to actually drink it would make me gag. It would be absurd to imagine that I have made a conscious choice to gag on peppermint liqueur.  Who on earth would want that experience for themselves, with all of its potential for awkward social situations? You’d be a crazy masochist to want that.  So it seems reasonable for me to say, “I didn’t choose to be a peppermint liqueur gagger”, but it would be absurd to imagine that I was born to gag on peppermint liqueur (and pretty crazy to go searching for a gene to blame it on).

But just because something wasn’t preordained at birth doesn’t mean it is a thing that I can easily change. Maybe I can hide it a little, but whatever causes me to react in this way seems to be locked-in somehow, outside the reach of my will (and, for the sake of our thought experiment, we’ll suppose that no presently known therapy can change it either, even though that might not be true for some food aversions).  Thus, I have a trait that I didn’t actively choose, and I can’t seem to change, even though it isn’t a trait I was born with.

So, “I didn’t choose it and I can’t seem to change it” doesn’t necessarily imply “I was born that way”.  What about the other direction, does “I was born that way” imply “I can’t change it”? I would say obviously not—let’s do a simple example for that one…

There are some people who are born with imperfect looking teeth.  Sure, they were born that way, but their biology is not their destiny.  Orthodontists will happily straighten those teeth for a fee and they’ll be on their way, dental predestiny averted.

The fact that our biology does not always predetermine our fate does not mean that we can always override the cards that biology deals us, or that on those occasions when we can override it, that doing so is necessarily easy enough to be worth our effort.  Inborn or acquired, a trait we have may prove to be beyond our capacity to change by effort of will alone.

But the fact that we can’t change a trait we have at will does not mean that the traits that make up our identities are locked into a fixed, immutable state.

It seems reasonable to assume that at least some of the traits that make up our identities are driven by slow-moving, tectonic forces (themselves driven by deep undercurrents), manifesting as subtle gradual movement in a particular direction, with, of course, the potential for an occasional earthshaking jolt.  We may be no more able to control these aspects of ourselves than the populations of Australia and Hawaii can stop their land masses from drifting towards each other.

The LGBT community, with its embrace of the “born that way” side of the false “born that way or chose it” dichotomy often seems unsure of how to rationalize the experience of women who embrace lesbian sexuality later in life.  To avoid the idea that lesbian women could just choose to turn straight again, they are forced to try to fit the experience of these women into the “born that way” narrative by retconning it, rather than admitting that someone’s identity can evolve, unbidden.

Despite its obvious flaws, the “born that way” narrative remains ascendent. I think the idea of biological predestination lets people feel better.  They can say “I was always going to be gay/trans/right handed/Mormon/an asshole/an introvert/whatever, so there’s nothing I could have done.”  It’s one of those nice, clean, pat answers people like. Sure, it reduces a complex phenomenon to an easy answer; sure, it’s incoherent; and, as we have seen, the second half doesn’t even necessarily follow from the first; but in my experience, most people generally don’t require consistency or logical correctness from the things they believe; they’re looking for comfort and validation.  In a hostile world, they want to be absolved and be told that their present situation is not their fault.

(Actually, that’s oddly dualistic view of things; to say that you and your biology are two separate entities, and that we can lay blame with one rather than the other.  It’s almost like a murder trial where the killer asks to be absolved because it wasn’t he who committed the crime, it was his hand.)

In my model, I say that my identity is what it is because of an unfathomably complex tangle of innate proclivities, acquired traits, external forces, and a healthy dollop of random chance, stirred gently by a poorly understood feedback loop. That explanation is probably less satisfying for some, but for me, it makes more sense, and I like the idea that I am, at least in part, responsible for making me the person that I am, even if I don’t always understand how I did it.

With my understanding, it is at least conceivable that had I made different choices, I might have become a quite different person.   This view is pretty heretical in gay and trans communities, because it implies that there could be courses of action you might take, or have taken, that might affect your chances of ending up gay or trans.

I agree that this explanation might be more politically awkward, but if that explanation turns out to be the true one, truth should really win out over political expediency.  And, really, so what?

This dichotomy exists largely because of people of a conservative/religious persuasion who want to vilify “otherness”. Their mantra is “those people are different from us, but they could chose to conform if they wanted”.  You don’t have to say you’re at the mercy of biological predestiny to refute that—it’s sufficient to say that you’re unable to change your identity by any effort of will.  But frankly, why should I even be willing to try to change my identity by an effort of will to placate these douchebags?  The real response to people who vilify otherness and desire conformity is, “Screw you! It takes all sorts to make a world.”