When people dig their heels in and refuse to accept or even tolerate words that are unfamiliar to them, you may have noticed there’s a pattern to which sorts of vocabularies they’re prohibiting expansions to.
With few exceptions, if people unfamiliar with the terms see me talking about indifference curves, marginal cost curves, diminishing marginal utility, transaction costs, and other jargon from microeconomic theory, I can still count on them to see me as somewhat knowledgeable in that area and to respect that these terms mean something worthwhile, despite the fact that the terms themselves may seem alien and inscrutable.
Granted, there’s varied levels of skepticism toward economics as a field and its validity unto itself, but I’ve never encountered people reacting with the same kind of passionate, vitriolic indignation to unfamiliar economic terms as they regularly do toward unfamiliar terms for gender and sexual identities.*
This is a post about changing the way we approach unfamiliar identity labels, and a brief look why it’s something we should do, if only in the name of making sense.
*I especially like this comparison because the difference between reactions to LGBT+ terminology and reactions to the terminology of finance (not the same thing as economics, but still) is a painful illustration of how allocations of cultural legitimacy are correlated with allocations of social power, and if anything, what little I know of the subject makes it evident that finance has deliberately built itself an elaborate, obfuscating fort of jargon meant to baffle and hoodwink outsiders in order to maintain the impassable moat around its filthy, lucrative circlejerk. You want to complain about people making up all kinds of nonsensical neologism BS? Complain about the guys who crashed our economy. There’s a lot we could say about this. But I digress.
Even when strong emotion isn’t part of the reaction, I still see people treating unfamiliar identities with suspicion, drawing or implying the existence of a line between valid, legitimate, “real”, recognized identities and the morally-repugnant, unsubstantiated, scorn-worthy “making stuff up”.
While I understand the impulse to draw this line, I take issue with categorizing labels on the basis of familiarity alone — as though the worthiness or validity of a word is related to whether or not you’ve heard it before. On a semi-related note, I also take issue with using demographics as a bar of entry, as though a given identity needs to be present in more than X number of people in order to achieve label-worthy status (but also cannot exceed X percent of the population without losing said status).
Whether or not a term has Big Official Recognition and an established history from venerable origins should not be important in determining whether it’s “a thing”. Rather than scrutinizing unfamiliar terms for arbitrary measures of validity, we should instead be examining the unquestioned assumption at play here: that just because something is not in regular usage, it should have no usage at all — or the more common a word is, the more respect-worthy it is — or that widespread, sanctioned Big Official Recognition is necessary in all cases, just to talk about how you’re feeling. People are going to have a lot of “that’s not a thing” reactions to how I might describe my gender, for example, specifically because they haven’t had it already drilled into their heads that this particular thing is a thing, which is tiresome and ridiculous. The current, established approach to unfamiliar identity labels is “I haven’t heard of it, therefore it can’t be real.”
Which implies its inverse: “If it were real, I would have heard of it.”
This attitude, the attitude of automatic scorn for the unfamiliar and the tacit linking of familiarity with legitimacy, rests on the presumption that all that can exist, all that does exist, is already known by the individual — that they have already gathered every single piece of valid information in the universe, that all data points have been collected, that all possibilities have been quantified, that every single variation of humanity has already been observed. It is, at its bare bones, a pompous claim of omniscience.
Rather lacking in scientific curiosity, if you ask me.
So what this post is about, ultimately, is the current social climate posing the communicative equivalent of high transaction costs on any effort to discuss unfamiliar ideas when it comes to the realms of gender and sexuality, because that subject area is an anxiety-ridden one where everyone’s got their guard up trying to fend off the specter of fakers and liars (whose existence I have never been particularly worried about, by the way). What I’m proposing instead is that we rework our frameworks of acceptance, that we reshape our standards of legitimacy on the basis of other criteria, and that we alter our approach to the new and unfamiliar. The common method, that of determining legitimacy based on familiarity, is untenable and ridiculous.
In its place, I would suggest an approach that is investigative, not defensive. One that, upon encountering something unfamiliar, asks questions rather than presumes. One that instead of saying “I haven’t heard of that before, it must be fake,” says, “I haven’t heard of that before, can you explain what you’re using it to mean?”
I recognize that the reason people react defensively is that, often times, they are defending something — in a network of privileges and oppressions, as these things often are, positioning yourself in a space that doesn’t already have a square drawn around it is always a threat to something. I’m most sympathetic to the people in oppressed groups who perceive such-and-such identity as an oppressor’s invasive attempt to worm their way into your safe space… although, as a gray-a, I take such concerns with a grain of salt. Given the way biases skew toward assuming the hegemonic norm and the fact that deviations are not rewarded, I’m more concerned about the baby being thrown out with the bathwater (at least for the most part).
So while promoting recognition of specific identities is all well and good (and fantastic and necessary), my goals don’t end at promoting acceptance for the identities I’m already aware of because I want “I haven’t heard that before” to stop being used in the construction of a weapon to shut people down.
I also recognize that my interest in writing this post may be a byproduct of the tendency of aces to redraw and recreate the models that don’t work for them — and the familiarity = legitimacy model of acceptance definitely doesn’t work for us much of the time. If there were a cultural shift toward thinking more with the curious approach I recommend, it would be helpful for ace education/coming out moments as well as for potentially reducing hostility toward other uncommon or oft-unmentioned identities of all stripes, not just the ones that I myself can name and explain.
I don’t have high hopes of this going anywhere, for the record. People are terrible. Not many are going to see this post or ever encounter this idea, either. I’m aware of that, and so I’m going to be bored if you warn me to lower my expectations. But I also wanted to put out there why I don’t think it’s enough to just vet and approve individual, specific identity labels for legitimacy. Human nature is an infinite universe of possibilities, and while I support specific awareness efforts 100%, I also want people to come at the whole subject of gender and sexuality from a new angle, so that folks don’t have to bite their tongues or plow through a whole justification spiel, paying mental and emotional transaction costs, for every single instance of ignorance. You shouldn’t expect other people to pay a penalty just because you haven’t heard a word before.
Long story short, it would be cool if people would respond to things they hadn’t previously heard of in a way that didn’t involve coming up with weird BS to justify themselves refusing an expansion of vocabulary.