Wednesday, June 21, 2017

On Labels

I wouldn't label myself an empiricist because of ignorance. I haven't tested my theory of what an empiricist is against how I behave in life, my all-too-human predisposition toward confirmation bias suggests to me that more often than not, I'm not an empiricist.

I do as a discipline rather than habit force myself to read shit that contradicts my point of view, and not from tokenistic sources but passionate ones. I would label myself a contrarian, and sometimes I actively try to contradict my own held beliefs, but I wouldn't label myself a 'meta-contrarian' where I try to not follow the people who don't follow the crowd. Those I would perhaps label as 'iconoclasts' because it amuses me to observe that most creative iconoclasts tend to trot out the same old shit that iconoclasts have been trotting out for decades.

No I simply try to find reasons to abandon my beliefs because I believe this is a semi-robust form of empiricism. I'm skeptical of my own knowledge these days. I frequently ask myself 'but what if I'm wrong?'

The starkest and most painful form of perspective taking I ever practiced was buying and attempting to read 'The White Massai' a reference which may be so dated that those who know me might say 'is that when you started appropriating African culture?' but no, I read the White Massai because at the time my recently former partner had followed more or less the exact same decision making process of the protagonist. I never finished it, namely because by chapter 4 or 5 the plan was going as well as I expected it to, and so I was simply feeling validated and saddened - if I'm going to be dumped, I want it not to be for an objectively hair brained scheme.

But I still follow this practice of perspective taking, albeit as we've moved from mass media to curated media, it's gotten harder to even hear of public intellectuals that hold contrary views to mine, even though they generally have hours of keynote speeches all over youtube.

So I found myself watching 'Dear White People' because Netflix promoted it with no algorithmic presumption of who I was and what I'd enjoy, simply because they'd made it and it was new. My visceral response to the first episode's narration told me I wasn't going to like this show. So I force fed myself it,

I came in ignorant, I didn't read reviews or look up what it was about. I didn't read an article on a ezine targeted at my in-group to check whether I should be watching it or not - nor I guess consult what Donald Trump's tweets had to say about it. It was simply on my TV and I watched it. What I learned from 'Dear White People' is probably close to, or akin to, nothing. I suspect the show suffers from the satire trap that Malcolm Gladwell so excellently dissected on his podcast that is much more worth listening to than continuing to read this.

But there's a scene in episode two about the gay black journalist character where he is asked by his sassy gay editor if his assumption that the character is gay is correct and that character says 'I don't really believe in accepting labels blah blah blah' And that was interesting, because I've come across this attitude. Later the same character meets a white guy at a party that identifies or labels himself 'bisexual' but appends virtually the exact same 'I don't really believe in accepting labels blah blah blah' statement to the end.

In fairness there is a character that advises the main gay dude to 'find your label', gentle advice that in hindsight is probably the stance I latched onto, but the premise of a character rejecting labels in what I assume is a quest to speak their truth is what interests me as I have seen this very sentiment play out in life.

However among the curious sensible people I know who have expressed similar 'I don't really define myself that way' etc. I also notice that we human beings are not very consistent on our aversion/embracing of labels. Which is curious.

There appears to be domains where people readily embrace self-labeling, people find it exciting and fun - from the 'which crying breakfast are you?' buzz feed quiz level stupid, to the somewhat vacuous Roman and Chinese zodiac signs, to practically useful personality tests like Myers-Briggs and it's derivatives and allegories (like the indegenous American leadership compass with different totems at the points, or any of the archetypes that Jung obsessed over) In these contexts of labeling people I've never experienced and find it hard to imagine the conversation 'you're an extrovert right?' 'Well I don't really subscribe to the labels of patriarchal western colonialist psychology...' though I can imagine a militant athiest type responding to 'You must be a Gemini' with 'Please don't insult me with that astrological poppycock.'

Indeed in my direct experience it seems limited to questions of sexuality, although I have read at a remove opinion and editorial that expressed a similar desire to reject labels regarding physical disability and mental health issues, and I guess if you go back far enough into the archives questions of sexuality used to be classified as mental health issues.

The most readily accessible empathic space for a labels that push one outside of the mainstream and into otherness that I have is being left-handed. Although the wikipedia page on left handedness has some depressing and heartbreaking statistics, in the era I lived in I really only had some primary school teachers old enough to have a hangover from when you trained kids out of left handedness, and field hockey doesn't do left-handed sticks so I never got into it. Other than that though, my left-handedness is really only salient to me, and like a horoscope I sometimes believe it connects me mystically to prominent lefties of history like Da Vinci. It is not uncommon in my experience to have work colleagues around me for years that never bother to notice that I'm left handed, despite left-handedness making one a minority virtually anywhere but Ned Flanders' 'Leftorium' it is only slightly less rare for being left-handed to be of any practical consequence.

Any empathy I can muster with people whose sexuality deviates greatly from heterosexual, or what it is like to live in our age with a visible disability becomes a thought experiment for me. And while I could conceivably hire a wheelchair and live in it for a day, I'm not going to. Nor am I going to actually put the mental energy into running the experiment in my imagination. It is probably better to just read editorial on disability like the series the New York Times ran last year or the year before, or the japanese comic 'Real' to emphatically identify that way.

Thus my personal experience is devoid of any desire or practical motivation to reject or avoid labeling. In most of the contexts, the spaces I move through, desire to reject a label is bizarre to me. That bizareness is what makes it so fascinating. Sure in my school days (primary and secondary) I can understand that one might want to reject the label of being gay for example but this was most likely a pragmatic question of personal safety, akin to people might wanting to deny their Jewishness in the face of Gestapo inspectors knocking doors in Amsterdam this wasn't the intellectual rejection of a label coupled with an expectation that your community or greater society would carry your own bespoke/couture definition of self.

My understanding, which is not necessarily accurate, is that among those who seek to reject labels is a desire to not have their entire personality defined in the eyes of new acquaintances by what is just one aspect of themselves. Albeit the experience of having a nuanced personality simplified or lumped into one aspect is probably universal, just that there's a heirarchy and it is perhaps more desirable to receive the mainstream treatment of being reduced to your occupation, than reduced to your sexuality.

That I can understand, wrap my head around and indeed respect in the quest for personal dignity and just treatment. One's sexuality has little relevance to a job interview. (although it may be useful to know in sex work, but if Gay porn pays better and you're a gender conformist dude who isn't into dudes but willing to suck a dick for money, it shouldn't be a basis for discrimination, and casting agents should simply evaluate you on your dick size, body fat percentage and ability to sustain an erection)

But when I put myself in the shoes of the Bisexual white dude at the party talking to the gay black dude, or the gay editor talking to the gay black dude in Dear White People, and to be clear I'm just myself a white heterosexual male. How would I respond? Not just invoking my privelege, but let's go a step further and invoke white-male impugnity - I do not expect any real consequences to impact on my life based on what I say or do. So for some reason the question of sexuality has come up and this guy has stated 'I don't really believe in these labels...' to be purely and simply an agitator I would ask 'so you believe in anxiety?' hoping that this dude would bite the hook and allow me to monologue at him.

Given the context we aren't talking questions of personal safety, or professional advancement, but physically intimate relationships. I can't know but I'm pretty convinced that almost everyone in the presence of attraction to somebody experiences a natural degree of anxiety contemplating the possibility of rejection. People feel vulnerable, there's an interesting sideline about anticipatory pleasure - the greater the fantasy of the person attracted the greater the risk of rejection is to them. However I can draw on personal experience from very heterosexual situations that things that stand in the way of attempting to initiate a physically intimate relationship in the face of risk of rejection are questions of ambiguity.

Is the person single or not? They talk a lot about some 'Steve' dude, is that their boyfriend or their brother? are they fixated on someone they cannot obtain? have they processed the grief of their last relationship? Does their filial piety prevent them from dating someone of your ethnicity lest they upset their conservative parents? These are stressful forms of ambiguity that have nothing to do with sexuality, albeit if someone is bisexual the number of Steve-dude characters might multiply.

And in the context of a bar or party or nightclub or even in the context of a workplace conversation that is clearly not professional but interpersonal, the question of a sexuality label is pragmatic. Presuming you like most people are yearning in some part of your soul for the unconditional love of at least one other human being who is not your mother, why would you introduce ambiguity at this point? Somebody in these contexts that asks you 'are you gay?' is for one thing presuming you are familiar with the currency of such a label, and for the most part is asking 'would you put a dick in your mouth for fun?' as preamble to some future riskier question like 'would you like to put my dick in your mouth?' or 'would you like to put your dick in my mouth?' and lest we all forget John Cleese's sex education scene from the meaning of life, there's no need to stampede toward the penis, there's nothing wrong with a kiss. And I guess depending on what that person is searching for or interested in, the question may be preamble to 'would you ever walk along a waterfront hand in hand with me while we tell each other about our day?'

Responding to this question with 'I don't really subscribe to these labels' is a non-answer, which yes, may be diplomatic in a job interview to handle an inappropriate question, but simply leaves the question asked ambiguous in its practical repercussions. And increasing or introducing ambiguity in intimate settings by default will increase the anxiety. This isn't to say my relationship advice is that if you don't 'find your label' you'll never get laid, never be kissed etc. Just that it doesn't help. Only the kind of confidence that sees non-answers as 'well... he didn't say no' will risk making a move on you, and those that have the more reasonable level of confidence that notice 'he didn't say yes' will hesitate maybe try and collect more data, probably take it personally and have a good chance of withdrawing all together.

You may not like that for most people you meet the most interesting thing about you is your sexuality, but it wont change the fact that it is important practical information regarding a question almost everybody is obsessed with. I'm also prepared to to make a value statement and say that any characterisation of yourself that effectively tells people 'I won't tell you if you can ever catch me, but you can keep chasing me' is cruel and self indulgent. I have caught myself enjoying the indulgences of ambiguity - maintaining the interest of people I have no real interest in is a gratifying exercise in my sense of control, but cruel nonetheless. Like a dragon hoarding gold, even though I've never come across a fairytale or work of fantasy where a dragon makes a commercial transaction. Furthermore as a statement of my values, I believe that the kind of people that take an active interest in us, are more important to consider the well-being of than our reaction to the majority of people that take a passing, perhaps voyeuristic interest in us, even if that is more frequent and to our overall detriment.

But labels are more interesting and fascinating source of human inconsistency than questions of whether this will go into that.

Consider the author bio. Information that traditionally might tell us who wrote the opinions we've just read that might be helpful in establishing whether the author has a credible domain of expertise. Here's some info I read in an author bio recently:

"They are a writer, poet, artist, witch, tarot reader, zinester, rebel scholar, and community educator. She is a nonbinary queer bisexual femme, sober alcoholic, and practitioner of trauma magic."

I'm confused by the simultaneous use of 'They' and 'She' and the article was about a persons lived experience, so the only person unqualified to present their opinions on life would not be a person at all but an algorithm, so this might be an example of somebody relishing and enjoying the fun of labels. But for the arguments sake of here and now, let's suppose that this information is supposed to be informative.

Technical aside, in strict formal reasoning, who a speaker is should have no bearing on their argument. If someone as reputably unreliable and uninformed as Donald Trump were to say 'renewable energies offer an opportunity to build a new economy and a better future for those we will leave this earth' we shouldn't suddenly become opposed to renewable energy because he said it.

However, as a counter example let's consider this Author bio information:

"Professor of Psychology and Marketing at the University of Texas at Austin. He got his Sc.B. in Cognitive Science from Brown and his Ph.D. in Psychology from the University of Illinois."

I just pulled this off the second article on, today. This information is useful to the reader because the subject matter of the article steps into a domain of expertise. To be clear, formal reasoning permits a non-expert in say, psychology to make valid psychological observations, however our attention is a finite resource, whereby we may wish to employ some criteria as to who to listen to in a marketplace of ideas. Socrates placed an onus on people to put thought and effort into their beliefs in order to hold them, and information in a bio that informs us this person has put effort into formulating their opinions allows us to decide to listen to them, and also may be useful in deciding to defer to them. So the above author bio excerpt focuses on qualifications in broad but defined fields issued by physical institutions. Regardless of what you think on the quality of tertiary institutions, these particular institutions, your skepticism of the validity of psychology, or indeed science - it tells you the specifics of the expertise this author brings to his comments. Thus if he was dispensing financial advice this bio is as good as no bio at all, but if he is describing what marketers actually think and what theories of psychology they are attempting to exploit, he may be particularly insightful on the subject.

Now what about the label 'He' what does that inform me, the reader of his qualifications to comment on what? Nothing, I imagine whoever wrote the bio was simply following a convention of English known as 'gendered pronouns' it informs us that the author is what we might call, 'male' a 'man', a 'guy' a 'dude', a 'douche', a 'bastard' an 'arsehole' etc. Which is not to say that I or you are not subconsciously biased towards male medical practitioners and authority figures. It may well indeed be the case that due to prevalent stereotypes there's an unconscious inclination to consider 'his' advice more reassuring than 'her' advice even if they turn out to be the exact same advice.

I can no longer recall where I heard the anecdote, but apparently there used to be a widely held belief that women couldn't play the violin as well as men. Even though there was a consensus that music was about the sound, it took an apparently very long time before somebody managed to get orchestra's to hold blind auditions where they couldn't see who was playing, and through this innovation women were finally able to get violin chairs in orchestras.

So yes, regardless of Gender, you probably have unconscious bias for and against genders in different contexts. I do, I think. But this doesn't diminish the fact that these bias' are irrational and thus form no basis for accepting or rejecting the intrinsic argument.

So why in the case of the other author bio, is so much information dedicated to labeling a gender identity?

I don't know. And you can probably guess my prejudice against a resume of writer, poet, tarot reader, witch... rebel scholar etc. and if not, it would be my recognition that I hold all those exact qualifications and so do you. Conceding that if they were to inform me that the carpenter was a major arcana of the Ethiopian tarot deck I'd have to go verify, I don't know that off hand.

That sentence made the copy and paste cutoff because it uses 'They' where the next sentence uses 'She' to perform the same grammatical function - adding to the confusion. So what to make of the heady label brew of 'nonbinary queer bisexual femme' this set of labels has no informational value as to whether to pay attention or ignore a formal argument made by the speaker unless the argument is restricted to 'this is what life is like for a nonbinary queer bisexual femme' being the catchall, and I guess any subdivision of.

I'm going to assert something I can't possibly prove. That this author bio, is meant to be informative. That if it was changed to 'He is a writer, poet, artist, tarot reader, witch, zinester, rebel scholar and community educator.  He is a straight male, sober alcoholic and practitioner of trauma magic.' your impression of the article would be changed. Your impression of the rest of the bio would possibly be changed. Furthermore, including the word 'male' becomes redundant as the conventional use of the pronoun 'he' implies that piece of information without any further clarification. I guess in this context though gender role biases might assert themselves and the reader might think 'A witch? He must be a trans-man...'

Both cited author bios effectively relish the same joy of labels, the subtext is 'don't worry reader, they're cool, they are one of us.' They are argumentatively equivalent in that regard. You should listen to them because they have been approved for our target audience.

I would argue my prejudice that there is a meaningful difference between people relishing labels that are distributed and fiercely guarded by bureaucratic institutions, whom administer flawed but quite transparent tests to validate membership to the club, have cumbersome and expensive processes to advance up the tiers of rank and are regulated to ensure that the opportunity to join is ostensibly if not practically open to all versus a collection of like minded people adopting their own lingo and jargon to identify ingroup vs outgroup members and allocating prestige and rank based on how unlike a member is to people they don't identify with.

One is professional, the other cool kids deciding intellectualism is cool.

In 1996 Ewan McGregor's Rentboy character uttered this somewhat accurate onscreen prophecy: "One thousand years from now, there won't be any guys and there won't be any girls, just wankers. Sounds all right to me."

The somewhat inaccurate parts were that it only took 20 years, and 'any'. There are certainly scenes where guys and girls are unwelcome labels because they aren't nuanced enough, they lump gender in with sex, they are very proletariat, like domestic beer in a six pack of aluminium cans. While it may not get you kicked out of a party to be seen with one, it certainly might impact on whether you'll be invited back again.

So? So what if it's a fad or a fashion, let the kids be trendy and enjoy themselves. At the turn of the century the bravados of youth flexed their intellectual muscle by talking at length about religion as a social construct, now they talk about gender as a social construct. Why can't I sit back and let gender queer people enjoy the relative freedom, attention and accommodation of being currently in vogue?

Maybe I can.