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Identity III: the language of things

  • Posted on October 4, 2015 at 7:41 pm

I have gone back to school. Last week I was in college for adult language learning, my first German class. I jumped in mid-way, because I have some ability, a small vocabulary and not enough for much meaningful conversation. And so I tend to work out different ways of saying things, using the words I do know. It must sound very odd. I also find that in German, the words for transgender, transvestite and transsexual are not used or available in the same way as in English. Maybe as I learn, joining online German trans groups could help me understand better. The trans people will be very much like me, but with a language and vocabulary to express and describe themselves, somewhat different. Language is a big barrier to clear self-description across language boundaries.

Is my identity limited by language, given that language follows concept? I can’t find words for a concept that does not yet exist. I can invent them, as new concepts arise, and this happens all the time. Language in turn creates an environment of meaning. It doesn’t describe facts, it expresses interpretation. Snow is snow, but in the Scots language there are 421 words for it. The reason? To give more meaning to the experience so it can be shared more accurately. It is still crystalline water, white, pretty, and blocks roads. I am not Scottish, so I wouldn’t understand many of the words, and would be unable to communicate the state of the day’s snow clearly. If I was belligerently English I could insist that snow was snow and that was enough: stop confusing things!

I find the same with gender language. Male/man/boy, female/woman/girl are like snow. Sometimes I speak with another (cis) woman I know, and we arrive at me saying: ‘but I wasn’t born a boy!’ Their response reveals a lack of vocabulary. Of course I was born a boy and I changed. But changed what? Sex or gender, neither or both? All I know is that I was born with male reproductive physiology and a female sense of self, reflected in my behaviour and sense of belonging. The difficulty of naming ‘what’ I was/am then becomes a difficulty of accepting my authentic identity. I changed a physical part of myself, but I didn’t change myself. I need not even have done that, had I been happy to continue as I was. So what do we call a man with a vagina or a woman with a penis? We can refuse the identity, block it out, and insist that man and woman are defined by external genitalia, stay blind to intersex conditions and variety, and continue with the difficulties. In this way we steal anyone’s identity and agency for no better reason than that our words have failed to keep pace with concepts. And a large proportion of people and cultures and governments and ministries indeed are stuck right here.

Language divides everything

Look at the surface of a river, watch the spray, get in close to the spray, the surface of a droplet, the evaporation of water molecules from it, zoom right in on the molecules and see the subatomic particles in their statistical clouds among those of the atoms and molecules of various gases comprising the air, work out where the oxygen atoms or ions really belong, zoom out and see the moist air currents, as part of the gaseous mass through which you are looking at the water and tell me: where does the ‘river’ become the ‘air’, or the air the river? Perhaps the air without the river wouldn’t be the same, and the river in a vacuum would simply have evaporated away. By all means swim in the river, breathe the air, paddle your kayak, or photograph or paint it – but be careful that your idea of identity isn’t a definition of reality that you insist on imposing on others, instead of observing with a readiness for surprise.

When does she become he? As I was thinking about my arguments on identity, this article came up, and it plays the same mind game as the river. Testosterone and oestrogen, cholesterol and progesterone are similar molecules, but make significant changes to our bodies, especially before birth and consequently again at puberty. We may or may not be chromosomaly sensitive to them, or produce the ‘right’ quantities. There is no way of telling gender by looking at any one of us, any more than you can decide where the river and the air meet or divide. With such complexity, why do we confer identity on people, for the convenience of our language? The article says very well what I was going to write, so I won’t repeat it, other than to encourage you to read it. Like the river picture above, it simply picks apart each characteristic that gets used to define male or female, and shows it to be insufficient through variety. The conclusion is that the organ that best defines gender is the brain.

Brain, or mind?

The implication for the anatomists might still be that instead of examining a baby’s genitals, we routinely scan its brain. Surely the brain structures give a better hint, if the argument is right? Maybe; maybe not. Suppose you scan the infant brain, and compare the result (probably ambiguous for many or most) with chromosomes from various and several parts of the body (in case of mosaicism) for Xs and Ys, and add an SRY gene test for androgen insensitivity? Would that help? The consequence could be babies with penises being declared ‘probably female’, those with vaginas ‘probably male’, a lot of question marks, and perhaps still a majority being quite conclusive. But for what purpose?

The elusive element remains the mind. The mind we still think of as being centred in the brain, and this may be right or wrong, but however mechanistically we think of mind-as-consequence, we are a long way from scanning a brain to find the mind. Thoughts and intentions, yes, but the origins of these, no. Is sense of identity a brain thing or a mind thing, or, as the river and air, not clearly divisible and dependent on both, and on culture, society, philosophy, and therefore ultimately, available language?

Identity, definition, what you are as distinct from where you are, may not be a thing, a word, but you still know what you are you in the midst of whatever everything else is (including that you are neither, or not solely, male nor female).

Be careful. You might not be right!

So be very careful not to limit another person’s identity by your own language limitations. And if I say I was born a girl, fight the instinct to say: ‘but you did have a …’.

Something I wrote quite a while ago says it nicely in far fewer words:

Origins of identity

  • Posted on August 31, 2013 at 4:26 pm

Some thoughts towards gender identity and essentialism.

Are we born without identity? Where does it come from? Do we make it? Is it inherent? Is it made by others? We assume so much that we know what we mean by ‘identity’ that we share a common idea. I wonder.

I don’t want to be academic about this. Academic is OK, but it gets tied up in its own words sometimes, and always has the danger of building foundations on the work of others that isn’t. What are intellectual foundations? Even Newton’s laws of motion are provisional and conditional. Psychoanalysis is built as much on best-fit and presumption as truly scientific principles, and even science is in some respects a philosophy. So forgive me if this all seems less than rigorous. I’m just thinking.

The problem of language

We can only meaningfully communicate ideas by using language. I write, you read, we communicate. Well, that’s our intention. I write clearly, you read carefully and thoughtfully and we come to an understanding. I write carelessly, and/or you read cursorily, and we misunderstand each other.

What happens inside our minds? How can we think about ourselves without using language? We analyse ourselves, have internal conversations, rehearse dialogue with others, and all and only using language. Sometimes we make words up, use a misunderstood word, or use words with adopted meaning or subtexts, and still understand ourselves. But if we speak these words to others, we are misunderstood. So can we misunderstand ourselves too? Of course we can. Language also binds us, but can be our only means of explanation, because ideas have no other expression.

Tell me about your childhood …

Have you ever wondered what you thought, about yourself, life, others, anything, before you had language? What did a food you recognised as likeable mean inside a mind without words? What did you think about that look in your mother’s eyes that made everything alright? Was it just a feeling? And as you learned language, what did that add to your experience? What did it feel like when your words weren’t right and you knew you weren’t being understood? And then when you learned enough to say things that were rewarded and understood well enough?

Later, as you learned the right words and the right way to say things, and then the best time to say them, how did it feel to realise that your self-expression only worked when it fitted in with that of others?

And then, as you found acceptance and rejection as a consequence of self-expression, how did you experience the difference between sense of true self, and being what was expected? And as behaviours become those that made you fit, be ‘normal’, acceptable, likeable – lovable? Were you, indeed, left with a good, secure sense of self at all? To varying degrees we have all struggled with this.

Language, as much as learned behaviours, is responsible for dissonance between sense of self and living according to others’ expectations. This is not to say that having social mores, shared ethics and ways of integrating as a society is bad! I am only offering an introduction to sense of self, to identity and authenticity, and the role of language.

The bottom line is, if you give me too few words to describe myself, I have no internal alternatives to understand myself, once my mind is working in terms of language and ideas. What if the best words to use are just the least wrong ones? I can also have novel ideas, but again, I can only share them by using a common language. Together we can reconstruct language and vocabulary to suit new ideas better, but I can’t do this on my own, least of all just about myself! We can imagine a knowledge that is retained without language – animals do it all the time by learning in addition to instinct, but how do we distinguish intuition-about-self from ideas, when both end up expressed in language?

What is sense of self, once I try to explain it to myself? Because then I am explaining it as an idea as if to you. And how much, in reality, do I create a sense of self that concurs with social convenience, accepting compromise because it is more expressible, or indeed more understood or comfortable?

I am me, only because you are you?

Supposing you were abandoned at birth on a remote island, surviving with the co-operation of animals from whom you gained safety, food and warmth. They would not speak to you, though you would learn their licks and growls, and interpret their behaviours. In this context, with only your instincts, how would you describe your identity? Would you need to in any way at all?

Or would your language centres in your brain kick in, and you would develop a language of your own? (I am sure that long and worthy books and articles have been written about this, and I’m not about to undertake a research project!) But even so, that language would have no communication value other than with yourself for future internal discourse and value in memory. And then, imagine you are discovered. What questions might those first ones be (that you would not understand)?

’What is your name?’

’How long have you lived here?’

’What country do you come from?’

’What is your tribe?’

’Are you a man or a woman?’

I dropped the last one in because, like all the others it is referential, but it would never be asked. This is something that humans have a habit of deciding for others, not for themselves. Living alone, maybe you picked something up from your animal friends, but that would only be that your bits were like those bits: a baby me might grow/not grow inside me.

I see identity therefore as being referential: I am only this/that because by being compared with you, I know I am the same or different in these ways. I don’t need ‘identity’ except in reference to you. Identity is only a locator. I don’t need to describe myself to myself, only as a means to show commonality and difference within a place or among a group. We use identity to distance ourselves, as much as to find inclusion. It is a mask on self that ensures comfortable location, sufficient inclusion, and acceptance. But identity is not ‘who we are’.

A return to ‘what’ and ‘who’ and relating

It seems ages ago that I started to realise and write about only being loved for what I am, not for who, and as divorce comes to conclusion in the next few weeks, this is the thick black line inscribed under my marriage. Insofar as I can fairly understand it, I was loved for what I made my wife: a respectable married and normal woman, healing in many ways a childhood of dislocation of identity. I was the ordinary man putting a lot right, creating success and normality. In a number of ways, I believe that I was a missing part in her self-perception, her referential identity.

So imagine my diagnosis: that from birth my innate being was indeed female. To love me, it was said, would now require lesbian love, and my love was surplus to requirement, if it was to be properly understood as a female love. (Well, it always was, but that was masked by my identity.) She could only ‘respond’ to the right identity, the right outward form, not to the self, the person, expressed through an identity that had to be the right one.

So this is an interesting place to be in, and an interesting realisation. I (who) am not the same as my identity (what). So why do I get so hung up on ‘identity’? Gender is more about sense of self than about identity. It only becomes dysphoria in reference to other people. An identity is thrust upon us, and it isn’t right. I don’t have a problem with self, with intuition, with pure awareness. I have a problem when people tell me that my sense of self doesn’t fit, and that I cannot be what I say I am.

Identity is about recognition. Others locate you, and feel more secure with their location of you than your own. The trouble is, the observer says ‘man’ (with parts present) and I say ‘woman’ (with parts missing). The whole process of observation takes place through language with its building blocks of ideas. How can I express adequately my sense of self, without using a shared construct, when even the word ‘woman’ is in contention? So I have a need to be recognised in line with my pre-language self-perception, and therefore I have a need to create, shape, and present an identity that corrects what others perceive.

And the real bottom line is, on what basis might someone love me again? By liking my ‘identity’? By being comfortable not just with it, but with it in the presence of others? Because they are only what they want to be seen as, with reference to me? How can I find that one person who says ‘fuck the identity, I love you?

When I do, they will understand this essay.