Some ill thought out musings about identity

Up front warning: Please read this post carefully. I am exploring viewpoints, not espousing them.

Second up front warning: All of this is very amateurish thoughts on the subject. Other people have no doubt thought more deeply and more sensibly on the subject than I am.

Let me tell you about something that happened to me as a kid.

I was playing by myself in the garden. Running around, jumping, etc. Energetic “I’m too young to know about getting tired” kid stuff.

One of my jumps was… surprisingly high. Not like “Leaps tall buildings in a single bound” high, but still unreasonably so: Maybe a few times my height.

That was pretty cool, so clearly I needed to try it again.

After some practice, I found I could basically “push” off the ground, and it would give me a huge boost to my jump. It was an action that felt a little bit like extending your hands downwards and shoving, but not quite. I couldn’t get it to work reliably, and it had an annoying tendency to fail to work when I was nervous about it (e.g. when trying to show it to other people), but I could get it to work about one time in 5 normally.

Then something really cool happened. I was doing a particularly high jump, and at the top of it it felt like something in my push just caught, and rather than coming back down to earth I just kept going up. I found I could use the push to control my height and direction pretty easily, and pretty soon I was merrily flying around. This was exactly as awesome as you’d expect.

Obviously, none of this actually happened.

Or rather, it did happen, but I was asleep at the time. I got this dream a lot, it felt incredibly real, and it had extremely consistent rules and mechanisms for how it worked. It even came with its own built in explanation for why I couldn’t seem to do it when awake (that I couldn’t make it work reliably in the first place).

It’s not like I actually believed I could fly when I was awake. I knew the difference between dreams and reality. But you know that thing where you have an incredibly vivid dream about a mundane thing and you wake up and you’re not 100% sure if you’re remembering a dream or a reality until you’ve been awake for a bit longer and sorted the details out? It was a lot like that. There were a lot of mornings where I had to think hard to remember whether or not I could fly.

And, at some fundamental level, I still kinda believe that I can.

I mean, I know, physics. Also biology. Science in general is basically conspiring to ruin my fun here. I know with 100% certainty that I do not possess the ability to fly, but there’s still that nagging feeling that it’s there.

This feels fundamentally different from just fantasizing about being able to fly. I’d love to be able to teleport, or to read minds, or any one of a million super powers that comics have told us are totally a thing people can do, but there’s no sense that I should be able to (actually I have much the same feeling that I should be able to move things about with my mind, for much the same reasons. I similarily have no actual belief that I can do this). It’s not that I want to be able to fly, it’s that it feels like I should be able to fly.

Why do I bring this up?

Well, this all started with a discussion the other night with my friend, Kat Matfield (who is very good at forcing me to think about things).

I like to form mental models of how people I disagree with could think by seeing if I can imagine a way to adjust my beliefs to agree with them. This is not really intended to produce accurate mental models – I don’t need to make predictions off them, and I don’t expect predictions made off them to be correct. Their goal is to take a position that I cannot imagine a reasonable person holding and turn it into one I can imagine a reasonable person holding. It forces me to take them seriously, and thus means that if I need to engage with their beliefs there’s a better chance that I’ll actually try to understand where they’re coming from rather than just dismiss them out of hand.

The subject of Otherkin came up (I’ll get to how later), so naturally I felt the need to come up with a way in which their beliefs were plausible.

What are their beliefs? Well. It’s a collective term for people who believe they’re not actually human. Examples include people who believe they are elves and people who believe they are animals. Other related believes are multiples (who believe they are multiple people), fictives (who believe they are specific fictional characters) and factives (who believe they are specific other real people).

I can’t really figure out what would cause me to believe one of these things. However the flying thing feels analogous: It is (sortof) a belief about myself that does not correspond to physical reality.

This feels like a good starting point. If I can justify claiming that flying is part of my identity, I feel like otherkin and their ilk become plausible even without sharing their specific belief. Are flyingkin a thing? I don’t know. I don’t really care. The goal is a working analogy, not true versimilitude.

So let’s see where we can go with this.

I have this innate feeling that I can fly. Is it thus reasonable to say that being able to fly is part of my identity?

Well, no, because I don’t actually believe I can fly.

I can more or less imagine coming up with plausible excuses for that. Like maybe technology has stolen all the magic from the world or something, and that’s what’s stopping me from flying. But I don’t really believe that either, and I’ve trained myself well enough and know what belief in belief likes that I don’t have any real way of imagining believing that that current-me wouldn’t just label that belief “And then I became stupid”, which rather defeats the object of this experiment.

So instead I’m going to take a different tack and question the nature of identity.

Now lets talk about gender.

Suppose, for the moment, that gender reassignment surgery was physically impossible (or, less drastically, someone has a medical condition that prevents them from having it). Suppose they nevertheless consider themselves as being a different gender than the sex they were assigned at birth. Do we consider this valid?

Well, yes.

Trans* is not dependent on gender reassignment. We (well, many of us) have accepted that gender is a social construct distinct from sex, and that your gender is a matter of personal choice. Many people who identify as a gender which is distinct from the sex they were assigned at birth have not and will never have reassignment surgery, and that’s fine.

I’m treading on eggshells a little bit here, so I just want to remind you to read carefully again. The above is what I believe. Nothing that follows should be taken to mean otherwise (even the later bits where I start to explore how one might disagree with this point of view).

Now… here’s the thing. The fact that we have decided that gender and sex are distinct things is itself a social construct. Neither “gender” nor “sex” are real things. They are fairly fuzzy and complicated labels for things, and historically they are labels which have had the same meaning.

When we decided to split “gender” from “sex” we took a label that included a mix of roughly correlated social, mental and physical traits and split it into two labels. One covered the mental and social traits (who you are and how you present), one covering the physical one (the implementation details of your body).

And not everyone is on board with this split. Many people just don’t understand that it’s a thing, many people actively disagree with it (more on the latter later).

The result is that if you talk to one of these people and say “I am male”, they hear a much larger set of implications (including “I have a penis”) than you might have intended to convey.

Is it possible that we’re in the same boat as this person? That if I were to say “I am a flying person” and you were to hear this as “I can literally fly. Wheee!” it would be the same as if I were to say “I am male” and you were to hear this as “I have a penis”? (It happens that you would have reached a correct conclusion in the latter case, but that doesn’t make the inference valid).

If the ability to fly in some way feels part of me, and we have already accepted that identity is a concept that is only loosely connected to the physical concepts from which it appears to originate, is it unreasonable of me to say “I identify as a flying person”? Or it is unreasonable of you to reject that?

To be honest, I don’t know. In practice, I can’t shake the feeling that anyone who tells me that being able to fly is part of their identity is just making shit up. But I’m aware that “making shit up” is also what many trans people are accused of, so I feel like I should at the very least treat that reaction as a warning sign to be questioned.

In the interests of disclosure: I have met someone in the past who believed she was a fairy. I don’t know if she identified as otherkin or had come to the conclusion independently. I (think I) stopped short of being a complete asshole about it, but I was certainly rather less charitable than I might have been about it.

I should also say that I rather expect all this beautiful theorising to be ruined by the arrival of actual otherkin telling me that no they literally believe that elves are a real thing and they have magical powers. I draw the line at seeing empirically false viewpoints.

I actually came at this line of reasoning from the other side: Trying to get inside the heads of people who do not accept the validity of trans people.

To a certain extent, all of the above can be regarded as a reductio ad absurdum for transgender. It’s very easy to see how (possibly just by finding myriad actual examples of people doing this. I haven’t actually looked, but I’m sure someone has done it for real) someone could make the slippery slope argument “If you accept that gender identity is a different thing from physical sex, it’s only a few short steps from allowing people to believe they’re elves!”

I don’t buy this argument. As I’m fond of saying, the problem with slippery slope arguments is that once you start accepting them you open yourself up to accepting all sorts of other fallacies too.

But it’s easy to perceive this as a sort of sliding scale, where at the one end you’ve got people who don’t acknowledge that identity is fluid enough to support your gender being a distinct thing from your physical sex and at the other end you have people who believe thinking you’re an elf is totally OK.

And if the elf example doesn’t do it for you, it’s likely that some more extreme example does. Consider someone who is a factive (they believe they are another real person) who tells you that they really identify as being you. Yes, you personally. They just feel such a connection, it’s as if you’re one person. I don’t know about you, but my answer would pretty much be “No, you’re not. Fuck right off and don’t come back”. Or imagine a cis straight white guy telling you that sure they’ve got all this privilege and all, but they really identify as being a trans black lesbian. It’s hard not to react to that by thinking the person in question is a bit of an asshole.

The point I’m making is that there’s a line to draw. This line is probably fuzzy and movable, and there are going to be some massive gray areas but you’re probably drawing it somewhere. Once you’ve accepted that it’s not so hard to imagine how you might draw the line in some different place.

A thing to note is that “a different place” does not necessary mean that there is a single linear scale. One person might think that multiples are fine, but fictives and people who think they’re elves are just way too out there, but anything where you’re identifying as a real thing is OK. Another person might go “Well, I don’t get it, but if it makes you happy that’s cool” to fictives and otherkin but go “No, sorry. You are not transracial. You’re just being an asshole”. The space of identities is murky and complicated and a lot more than a single scale from more extreme to less extreme.

For me the boundary is basically defined by three things, in order of decreasing importance:

  1. Are you causing harm to you or others?
  2. Do you believe things which are empirically false?
  3. Can I take your claim seriously? (I’m not proud of this one and don’t really think it should be a factor, but in practice it ends up being one anyway)

The empirically false thing requires some further refinement.

“I believe I should be able to fly” is not an empirically false statement, regardless of whether it is impossible for me to acquire the ability to do so. “I believe I can fly” is one, and is likely to be dangerous. Similarly “I believe I have a penis” may be an empirically false statement (though is probably none of your business if we’re having an argument about it! Also, it’s been pointed out to me that due to deformities and intersex conditions, it literally may be a matter of debate as to whether or not what a given person has counts as a penis), but “I believe I should have a penis” is not one.

This then leads to the interesting consequence that you may hear a statement as an empirical prediction when it is not one. If you hear “I am a man” as “I have a penis”, you may be hearing a statement you believe to be empirically false but which is in fact not because you are using a different definition of terms from the person making the claim. Care is required.

That aside, there is a single overarching thing which trumps all of these:

Is this a situation in which it’s OK for me to express an opinion on this?

This doesn’t affect what my opinion is, but it may affect how I express it. I am not the identity police. I am an opinionated know-it-all, so I probably err on the side of expressing an opinion where I shouldn’t, but if it’s someone I don’t know very well then making a judgment about whether they’re causing harm to themselves or others is rather tricky. For all I know their beliefs about their identity are a coping mechanism that is preventing them from doing far more destructive things and simply blundering in, flailing around and going “I know you believe you’re an elf, but have you considered science?” is going to cause far more harm than good. I may also be a poor judge of harm. Some people think trans people cause themselves harm by not accepting their “real” (i.e. assigned) gender. I know they’re wrong, but how do I know I don’t have similar misconceptions?

At the same time, seeing obvious harm and going “Nope, none of my business”, is not cool either. Sometimes interventions are needed, and sometimes people close to the situation are too close to see it, so this is another grey area.

I like to end my articles on solid, punchy, conclusions, but I don’t really have one here. Identity is complicated, and these were some of my thoughts on the subject. Please don’t shout at me, but please do correct me if I’ve got something horribly wrong or am deeply misguided.

This entry was posted in Feminism, life, rambling nonsense on by .

6 thoughts on “Some ill thought out musings about identity

  1. John

    Wow. Firstly about the dreams. I’ve had similarly graphically realistic dreams about flying and being able to leap almost infinitely long distances forward. It led me down the whole “That felt so real that it is almost intrinsically a part of my identity as my most deeply-held values” thing.

    As I continued to read your article, I started to think about religion, specifically people “of faith”. As a (small-a*) atheist, I have trouble understanding how educated, “worldly” people can believe literally in the existence of god(s). I understand it for those who have been raised in a religious environment and have never been exposed (or been interested in) the scientific counter. But I just can’t get my head around how many seemingly extremely well-read, intelligent, clear-thinking, rational sciencey-types state a belief in a god. It simply makes my head spin. I end up assuming that it must be something lacking on my part in terms of being able to get outside my own belief system, as it is the only thing that stops me puzzling about it,

    But now I’m wondering if these people have faith in the same way that you believe in flying. It kind of fits, although many of these people still seem to have a more literal interpretation of their faith. I don’t know. Maybe it’s another kind of separation/orthogonality of concepts – splitting “belief in science as the deciding source of knowledge of the world” from “faith in the existence of… ummm.. something else”?

    So no shouting from me, just flashes of recognition!

    *By “small-a” atheist I mean that my best guess is that there supernatural entities do not exist. I decided not to wimp out and call myself agnostic, as I have made a decision about what I think is true. However I don’t identify with the aggressive form of atheism that seeks to evangelise and ridicule anybody of faith. I do agree with much of what they say, but am uneasy with the hairy-chested, almost bullying tone they often use. Maybe I just don’t have the stomach for the fight!

    1. david Post author

      I think there are similarities with religion, but I’m not entirely sure what they are and they’re definiely not total. Certainly a lot of religion seems to be more about identity than belief, but there’s an element to it which really is about belief which I feel is distinct from the whole “I believe I can fly” thing. I tend to model it as having a stronger desire for meaning and cause than I posess.

      I think the flying dreams thing is quite a common one, which is part of why I picked it as an example (it is also entirely true).

      I pretty much agree with you on the atheism front. My a is maybe slightly larger, as I do tend to pick arguments with people whose beliefs are empirically false (e.g. I’ll argue about homeopathy or astrology) as opposed to merely unverifiable.

  2. Matías

    “It is the case that X” is a proposition that can be subjected to verification. “I believe it is the case that X” is not. Empiricists would like doxastic modalities to go away, but it is actually free: anyone can assert a belief in anything at all, and rationality is not a categorical imperative (luckily). Saying that a belief in fairies is “empirically false” does not make sense to me.

    1. david Post author

      That’s because you’re (deliberately?) misinterpreting the meaning of it. Saying that a belief in a statement (e.g. the existence of fairies) is empirically false is not saying that “I believe this statement” is empirically false, it’s saying that the statement itself is empirically false.

  3. Pingback: Come join the cult of the giant global brain | David R. MacIver

  4. Pingback: Best of | David R. MacIver

Comments are closed.