Category Archives: rambling nonsense

More on labels and identity

I’m heading to Nine Worlds later today, which means that instead of getting ready I’m procrastinating by thinking about anything other than the fact that I’m about to spend nearly three solid days surrounded by a very large number of near strangers and having to function socially in their presence.

This caused me to think about the you are not your labels post again and reminded me that I had promised a follow up to clarify my position on some things. I still don’t have a total follow up, but some of my thoughts on the subject crystallized while I was thinking about them in the shower (the shower is a wonderful place for composing thoughts), and I thought I’d write them down while they were in my head.

Identities are important

Apparently one of the vibes I gave off in that post was the standard “privileged person complains about identity politics because it’s so divisive“.

Allow me to state categorically: Fuck that. Identity is super important.

Often when something is described as “divisive” what is meant is “I hold this opinion. You hold that opinion. Therefore you are being divisive by holding a different opinion to me”.

Implicit in “Identity politics are so divisive” is “But aren’t we all the same really?”. It’s very easy to think we’re all the same if the dominant narrative of society is that everyone is like you (note: This is true even if you’re not actually in the majority. Witness the “male as default” thing despite the fact that men are a slight minority). Identity politics is only divisive if you hold the opinion that everyone should act like the default.

So, yeah. My point was in no way intended to diminish peoples’ identities. I apologize if it sounded that way. Identities are important and we should talk about them more, not less.

Labels are important

Labels are super useful.

As well as just the basic fact that language is basically our species’ hat – it’s most of how we actually get things done – labels serve a lot of useful functions.

When you’ve named something you’ve acknowledged that it’s a thing that happens reasonably commonly. When there’s a word for something you get to go “Hey! I’m not alone! There are other people like me!”. This can be really helpful – a lot of people think there is something wrong with them because they’re different from everyone else right up until the point where they discover that there are all sorts of other people like them (I don’t necessarily think it’s a good thing that we need other people like us to feel comfortable with our identity, but it’s a thing that happens whether I like it or not and I’m certainly not going to judge people for needing it).

It’s also useful in group formation. Having groups is useful – it gives you more force when fighting for equality because you can share a voice, it surrounds you with people who understand your problems, etc. It’s much easier to form a group around a concept when you have a label for that concept.

I personally don’t feel strongly about any of my labels, but that’s a personal choice which I wouldn’t especially encourage others to follow. It’s just how I work.

So, labels are great. I encourage you to use them freely and happily, should you desire to do so.

Labels are not identities

Hopefully I’ve now convinced you that the reason I think my point that you are not your labels is important is not because I think either labels or identities are unimportant.

In fact, the reason I think this matters is precisely because they both are so important.

The key thing is that they’re important in different ways. They’re highly connected, and both feed into each other, but they are distinct things which are important for distinct reasons. Sometimes the difference is subtle, sometimes it’s really not.

But what happens when you conflate them is that that difference is erased, and the way you treat each is distorted to match the way you treat the other. If you consider a label a part of your identity you may get very angry and judgmental about other peoples’ usage of it. If you consider your identity a part of your labels, you may get a form of impostor syndrome where you have a platonic ideal of what that label looks like and feel terrible about yourself for not matching that platonic ideal.

This is the key point I was trying to get at which I don’t seem to have adequately conveyed last time. It’s not that labels don’t matter or that identities don’t matter, it’s that the difference between the two does matter.

I may have more to say on the subject at some future date, but that’s all I’ve got for now. Hope it helped clarify my position.

This entry was posted in Feminism, life, Open sourcing my brain, rambling nonsense on by .

You are not your labels

I had a conversation with my friend Kat ages ago. It went something like this:

Me: People are weird about labels.

Kat: No, you’re weird about labels.

It’s a fair cop. When I react differently to something than 90% of people, it’s fair to say that I’m weird rather than they are.

This is a post about how I feel about labels, and how I think peoples’ interactions with them are unhealthy. I especially owe a discussion of this in the context of sexuality, but that’s mostly because that’s the context in which this came up and I owe a larger explanation of my opinion on the subject than I could fit in a sequence of 140 character soundbytes. It may take a little while to get to that part of the post, so be patient.

Before I proceed, I need to add the sort of disclaimer I usually do when writing about feminist topics:

I’m sitting here with a massive amount of privilege. I’m white, middle-class, cis, male, able-bodied, mostly neurotypical and a sufficiently close approximation to straight that I’ve probably just outed myself to a whole bunch of people I know by not just including “straight” here (I don’t think my parents read this blog but if they do, oops).

I think I’ve adjusted for that. I’m reasonably confident of what I’m going to say here, mostly because it’s a general principle rather than one that pertains to any specific axis of my privilege.

But while this perspective doesn’t make me wrong, what it does do is make it a whole hell of a lot easier to practice what I preach. I’m about to go on a long explanation about the effects of labels and how you shouldn’t get so attached to yours. It’s pretty easy to say labels aren’t important if most of the ones applied to you are ones you’re unlikely to ever be challenged on, and I pretty much fit the societal narrative of “this is what a normal person looks and acts like” (until I open my mouth and start ranting about some abstract philosophical point or telling people they should be picking things at random, but even that nicely pigeonholes into “geek”, which isn’t exactly a rarity these days).

So if you read this and go “Yeah, I get where you’re coming from, but my labels are really important to me because reasons, so they’re absolutely a fundamental part of my identity”, that’s cool. I totally get why they might be. I mean, I still think all the things I’m about to say hold true, but it’s pretty hard to go through life without some negative impacts and these are far from the worst. Besides which, I don’t know your situation and even if I did I don’t have any moral authority to tell you what to do. This is merely how I think the world works, and how I try to behave in response to it.

Second disclaimer I implicitly consider attached to all my blog posts but feel I should reiterate here: I’m totally not an expert on this. If I’m wrong, call me on it. Please.

OK. Disclaimer over.

Let me tell you how my thoughts on this subject started.

As a kid, I was diagnosed with Dyspraxia. I still have trouble understanding exactly what this is supposed to mean, and my experience of it as a kid doesn’t match all that well with the wiki article, but for me what this meant was:

  • I was really clumsy
  • There was about a 60 point difference in my IQ depending on whether I took the test orally or written (oral was higher).

Dyspraxia is apparently not something you get better from, but I seem to have taken a pretty good shot at it. I’m still pretty clumsy (though less so), but when I retested as a teen I’d basically closed the IQ gap. If you care, I think this is mostly because I have a really active internal monologue which I use as a coping strategy (pretty much all my writing I’m basically talking through in my head. I imagine that’s normal to a greater or lesser degree, so I’ve no real idea if this is just something you learn to do as an adult that I wasn’t very good at as a kid or what, but there you go).

The details of my dyspraxia aside, why is this relevant?

Because it gave kid-me a very nice inside view on how labels work.

As far as I was concerned, “dyspraxic” was not a thing I was. I mean I acknowledged the actual empirical details of it – I was definitely clumsy, and sure I was way better at some mental things than others, but wasn’t that normal? People are good at different stuff. You learn to be better at the bits you care about, you learn to do without the bits you don’t. That’s how it works, right?

To my parents and school though, this was a seriously big deal. David was no longer this weird little kid who was obviously super bright (not to mention ever so charming and modest) but wasn’t good at stuff, he was dyspraxic. It made sense now! Dyspraxia is totally a thing, and we can take these steps to help the dyspraxic kid.

Except… it’s not really a thing. What it is is a collection of loosely interacting phenomena and spectra which all seem to be more or less related. You’re not just binary dyspraxic or not, you express different variations of it, you express it to varying degrees, you express different bits of it to varying degrees. They’re are as many forms of dyspraxia as there are dyspraxics. Sure, we have a label, and we have a lot in common related to that label, but really it’s just a large corner of the weird and varied landscape of what people are like.

But despite the fact that it doesn’t refer to any one easily isolatable thing and despite the fact that I didn’t really feel any attachment to the label, it still proved very useful to the people around me.


Well because that’s one of the main things language is for.

When we use words, we’re not expressing some absolute nature of the universe. What we’re doing is conveying enough information to be useful.

Consider two colours. They’re both green. Are they the same colour? No. One is this green, the other is this green. When we cut up colours into words, we’re taking what is quite literally a spectrum and chopping it up into discrete chunks.

Why do we do this?

Well, there are two main reasons, and you can see them both in my dyspraxic example.

The first is communication. You don’t want to have to give your whole life story in order to have a basic interaction. Instead, you present a simplification of the truth and then drill down into the details if and when necessary. For example, I will often tell people I’m vegetarian when it’s context appropriate, despite the reality being way more complicated. Language is by its nature imprecise, and that’s what makes it work.

The second is prediction. It’s easy to learn simple rules – if I ask you if two colours go together and one of them is green and the other is purple, you’re probably going to say no regardless of which green and which purple I’ve chosen. It’s not an ironclad rule, but it’s pretty likely. Similarly, if I tell you I’m dyspraxic there are certain things that you can do to adjust my education to help me out (apparently. I didn’t find them very helpful as a kid, but I may just have been being a bit of a bratty kid).

So labels are seriously useful.

But here’s the key thing: Being useful doesn’t make them true. They are a way of looking at the world, not a feature of the world.

And sometimes that way of looking at the world breaks down and you have to fix it up.

Suppose you’ve currently got a very simplistic view of gender. There are men, and there women, and those are all the genders there are. You’re merrily carrying on your life safe in your worldview. Then someone comes along and they say “Excuse me, but what about me? I’m kinda a bit of both”. s’cool. You knew those words were just approximations to reality. As a good, responsible, human being you update your worldview and accept them. Another person comes along and tells you that they’re neither. No problem.

The problem comes when you start to take these labels too seriously. By their nature, approximations are for using when they work and discarding when they don’t.

Supposing I were to consider being a man a really integral part of my identity – I don’t just mean what I look like, or my body identity, but the whole baggage and social constructs around it and everything. I’m now very invested in this as a real thing – it’s part of who I am.

Now suppose a trans man comes along and tells me that he’s a man. Sure, he happens not to have a penis, but that doesn’t stop him being a man.

Where previously I could have just gone “Oh, cool. Sorry, my previous approximations to the world don’t work so well here. Let me update them”, now he’s a threat to my identity. I don’t identify as someone with a penis, I identify as A MAN, and I have bundled my penis in with a whole host of other ideas like liking beer and action movies. By claiming that you can be a man without having a penis, he has now eroded at something I perceive as an integral part of myself, and that makes me much less likely to be accepting of him. I’ve held too tightly to my view of the world, and he’s the one who got caught in the crossfire.

Obviously the above is mostly naive idealism. I don’t really think that that if everyone perfectly followed the advice in this post we’d all be wonderful and inclusive. Sure would be nice if it were true though. Also I don’t think that labels are the sole source of transphobia (there are plenty, and many of the others are a lot darker). This is more… how transphobia could arise amongst otherwise well intentioned people.

But I think a lot of biphobia actually does arise this way. Not all of it by any means, but I’d be astonished if it weren’t a large contributor.

We’ve two sides, gay and straight. Each has quite a lot invested in that label, and because they’ve formed lines along those labels they’ve got the whole baggage coming in along with it. While you can express aspects of the label more or less strongly (see “straight-acting”. Sigh), you’ve at the very least likely bundled “Is attracted to (gender)” in with “Is not attracted to (other gender)” in with your identity when you pulled in the label.

Then you have the bisexual (or pansexual if you prefer) people in the middle going “Hey, what about me? I like men and women. That’s cool, right?”

And unfortunately it’s really not cool. We’ve taken this whole complicated configuration of the world and boiled it down to “I’m straight” or “I’m gay”, and firmly associated our identities with those amorphous blobs of ideas, so when you come into the middle of it and go “Hey, I’m like you except for this thing you’ve very strongly identified as not being”, you’re now chipping away at our identity.

When you look at it this way it’s… understandable how a lot of this behaviour arrives. Not desirable, not excusable, forgivable given change perhaps, but certainly understandable. Imagine how you feel when your identity is threatened, when people deny your experiences. It’s really very unpleasant – it’s at best hurtful, and when done en masse it can be downright soul destroying.

When you do that to someone just by existing, it’s not surprising their reactions to you are a bit hostile.

The solution here is of course not that you should stop existing. Nor is it to deny your nature.

The solution is that people should stop being so weird about labels.

Keep using them by all means. They’re wonderfully useful things. We couldn’t function as a society without them.

Just… maybe think twice about letting them into your identity. Your labels are how you describe yourself, not who you are. Sometimes you’ll discover that those descriptions aren’t working out so well, or that they need to be far more inclusive than you thought they were. Try not to fight it. It’s how labels are supposed to work.

This entry was posted in Feminism, life, Open sourcing my brain, rambling nonsense on by .

The cult of the giant global brain on moral philosophy

No conclusion in this post, more a series of observations leading up to a question:

  1. We should behave in a moral manner
  2. Ideally, we should behave in an effective moral manner
  3. As one of the great moral philosophers of our time said, “with great power comes great responsibility”
  4. So the more powerful we are, the more we should feel obligated to behave in a moral manner
  5. If we have strong influence over a powerful entity, it may be more effective for us to influence their moral behaviour than it is to act more morally ourselves
  6. Further, if we have the ability to give more power to an entity we believe will act morally than we are capable of exerting ourself, this will have greater beneficial consequences than acting ourself will
  7. Groups are more powerful than individuals

So my question is this: At what level should we seek to maximize our moral efficacy? The larger the group, the more effective it is, but the weaker our influence over it. And how much should we trade off our individual moral agency for group efficacy if we believe the group will behave in a moral manner?

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An amusing financial instrument for creating a common currency

After my manifesto, I started thinking about the relationship between the new hippy socialist utopia, the EU, and exchange rates.

This got me thinking:

  1. I like common currencies as a way of creating common economic zones, shared trade, etc. They’re not essential but they’re nice
  2. But individual countries and governments need their fiat currencies, otherwise they’re kinda fucked. Witness, recent history
  3. The ideal scenario is that you would be able to use either the local or the common currency in each country. Or at least that certain classes of things would accept either
  4. But how can you create a shared common currency without linking it to governments?

After some (read: 5 minutes) pondering I came up with what I think is a neat solution. You can create a common currency which is naturally linked to the local currencies and has an effectively unlimited supply as a sort of financial instrument. Further, you can do this without requiring a central organisation to administer the currency (although you will probably want to have recognised organisations who are allowed to print paper versions of it).

Suppose we have some collection of countries who want to define a common currency. They each have their own local currencies. We can define a shared unit of currency, which we will call a Credit, as a promise to play a game.

How does this game work? Simple. You pay me one credit. I now pick a country from this set uniformly at random (according to some prescribed and verifiable randomization mechanism). I pay you one unit of that country’s local currency.

A credit is simply a commitment to this contract. Anyone can issue one, and it is subject to local contract law.

However I do not expect that in practice many people would play that game. In reality, the credit has a unique exchange rate defined for it: The worth of one credit in a given currency is the average value of the worth of one unit of currency in each of the countries in the union. If the original set of exchange rates is arbitrage free then so is this new set.

Edit: I’ve just noticed that a much more sensible way to do this is to not have the randomization at all and simply to commit to paying this exchange rate in some subset of the currencies. It’s simpler to just have the contract to be a commitment to pay that average exchange rate for any currency in the union.

Edit 2: On second thoughts, I’ve flip flopped. I think the randomization serves a useful goal after all, because it decouples the contract from the foreign exchange market, which although it roughly follows the simplified model of having a set of consistent exchange rates, that’s not how it really works and pretending that it is ties you to a central exchange. I think in practice you will rarely find you want to employ the randomization, but I think it serves an important theoretical benefit.

It might open interesting options for time based arbitrage – I’m not sure – but I don’t think so. In general you would expect the credit to be more stable than its constituent currencies because the rate of change is averaged, which damps out small fluctuations.

How do you deal with changes to the union?

Well you can do it in two ways. The first is that you can just let it revalue the currency. If your union is large enough this can’t go too badly wrong – e.g. at the 27 member states of the EU, the worst case scenario for adding a new member is that they contribute a 0 value currency, at which point your currency drops 3.6%. Much larger fluctuations in exchange rate are common.

Another solution is that you can version the credit. So rather than committing to a credit for the entire union, you commit to a credit for the union as it was at this date and time. Issuers of physical currency will then have to make sure they create a new distinct currency look for each change to the union and encourage people to sell them old versions of the currency at the exchange rate with the new one. This is not a terrible solution over all.

Note that although it lacks a paper currency, you can use this right now. You might want to get a lawyer to draft up the contracts, but it’s completely workable on a contract basis. Also if you can’t design on a set of countries, just use all of them! Instant global currency.

What would the effects of widespread use of such an instrument based currency be? I don’t know. I like how stable the exchange rate is, and it certainly seems like a more sensible choice than bit coin.

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A sketchy and overly simplistic theory of moral change

This is another post inspired by a conversation with Paul Crowley.

Up front warning: The morality described herein is a very hippy left wing morality. If you subscribe to any form of consequentialism you’re probably going to at least find it compatible with your own. If you think Some Victimless Crimes Are Just Plain Wrong Dammit you’re probably not. Or rather, you may agree with most of what I have to say but think there are other highly important things too.

I hate trolley problems.

Or rather, I think peoples’ responses to trolley problems are an interesting thing to study empirically. I just think they’re a lousy way to approach morality.

Why? Well, fundamentally, I don’t think most failures of morality are failures of moral reasoning. I think morality is fundamentally much less complex than we want to believe it to be, and I think most reasonable moral commandments can reasonably be summed up as “You’re hurting people. Do less of that”.

That’s not to say that this is the be all and the end all of morality, or that there are no tricky moral dilemmas. Obviously it’s not and there are. I just think that they are tricky because they are unusual, and that most failures of morality happen long before we reach anything that complicated, and simply boil down to the fact that you are hurting people and should do less of that. I also think that trying to convince ourself that morality is a complex thing which we don’t understand is more of an excuse to fail to act morally (“Look! It’s hard! What would you do with this trolley?!”) than it is a true attempt to understand how we should act.

If you honestly find yourself in a situation where the rule doesn’t apply, then apply your complicated theory of moral philosophy. In the meantime: You’re hurting people. Do less of that.

Generally speaking, I feel people are pretty good at understanding this rule, and that if they don’t understand this rule then it is very unlikely that after a period of careful reflection and self-contemplation they will go “Oh! Right! I’m being a bad person. I should not do that, huh?”. A carefully argued case for why they should be a good person is also rather unlikely to work.

And yet people can clearly change their morality and become better people. If not individuals, at least societies can – many things we once did we now recognise as morally awful. Many things we currently do the next generation will probably recognise as awful.

So given that I believe self-reflection and argument don’t work, what does actually work?

I think most moral failings boil down to three basic issues:

  1. I don’t understand that I am hurting people
  2. I don’t believe that I am hurting people
  3. I don’t care that I am hurting people

And I think there is a fairly easy litmus test to see which of the three categories you find yourself in.

If someone says “When you do X, it hurts me because Y”, how do you respond?

If you say “Oh, shit. Sorry. I had no idea. I’ll stop doing X then!” then you did not understand.

If you say “Yeah, right. You obviously made that up” then you do not believe you are hurting people.

If you say “Oh well. I’m going to keep doing X” then you do not care that you are hurting people.

Let me set something straight right now: These are all acceptable answers.

I’ll take it as read that an apology and a promise to do better is acceptable.

“When you support gay rights, it disrupts my connection to god and makes my inner angel cry” – “Yeah, right”

“When you support the government taxing me, it makes me sad” “Oh well. I’m going to keep supporting the government taxing you”

I don’t intend to defend these points. Only to point out that these are cases where I will react that way, and I think it is OK to do so.

The interesting thing about these three is that the forces which change them are all different.

In particular, only the first is amenable to reason. You can present evidence, you can present arguments, and at the end of it they will have a new understanding of the world and realise that their previous behaviour hurt people and hopefully will fix it. This is what I referred to previously as the moral argument for rationality.

How do you change the third? In a word: diversity. You know that thing that sometimes happens where some politician’s child comes out as gay and all of a sudden they’re all “Oh, right! Gays are people!” and they about face on gay marriage? That’s moral change brought about by a change of caring. Suddenly the group of people you are hurting has a human face and you actually have to care about them.

How do you affect change of belief? I don’t know. From the inside, my approach is to simply bias towards believing people. I’m not saying I always believe people when they say I’m hurting them (I pretty much apply a “No, you’re just being a bit of a dick and exploiting the rules I’ve precommitted to” get out clause for all rules of social interaction), but I’m far more likely to than not. From the outside? I think it’s much the same as caring: People will believe when people they have reason to trust put forth the argument.

In short, I believe that arguments don’t change morals, people do, and I think that sitting around contemplating trolley problems will achieve much less moral change than exposing yourself to a variety of different people and seeing how your actions affect them.

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