The platonic and the Platonic

A post about not telling people what identity labels to use, and also classic philosophy.

Have you ever had that experience where you learn a new thing, and then afterward you find you’re seeing it everywhere?  For better or for worse, that’s what happened with me and my rhetorical theory class.

According to Plato — or (since the attribution is debatable and it’s an interesting subject but for these purposes I don’t want to get into that) what we might call the Platonic influence — there is a strict, sharp divide between Rhetoric and Truth, between appearance and reality, between how things seem and how things are.

This is still a prevailing strain of thought.  And it has its merits, to be sure.

At its extreme, though, the Platonic influence posits a difference between perception and actuality that makes a firm division between one’s internal experience, so to speak, and their True Nature.

Do you see where this is going?

Translated into ace terms, this would say that being asexual is something you Are or Are Not, and you may think you’re one thing or the other, but deep down there is always a Correct Answer to be uncovered or discerned.

Maybe that model works for some things, sometimes, but not for identities that are defined by nothing more than an internal experience.

That’s why, when it comes to these matters at least, I’m more partial to Nietzsche’s take, which I’m basing off of “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense.”  That’s where he says:

Every word immediately becomes a concept, inasmuch as it is not intended to serve as a reminder of the unique and wholly individualized original experience to which it owes its birth, but must at the same time fit innumerable, more or less similar cases—which means, strictly speaking, never equal—in other words, a lot of unequal cases. Every concept originates through our equating what is unequal. No leaf ever wholly equals another, and the concept “leaf” is formed through an arbitrary abstraction from these individual differences, through forgetting the distinctions; and now it gives rise to the idea that in nature there might be something besides the leaves which would be “leaf”—some kind of original form after which all leaves have been woven, marked, copied, colored, curled, and painted, but by unskilled hands, so that no copy turned out to be a correct, reliable, and faithful image of the original form.

The general, isolated idea of a “leaf” is an abstraction.  Asexuality, too, is an abstraction.  It’s a useful abstraction, but it’s still an abstraction.  There isn’t (and shouldn’t be) some perfect, original model of an Asexual Person that we must perfectly match ourselves against.

According to Nietzsche’s thinking, our own perceptions are all we can really know, and any accessible, knowable truth is, at best, tautological.  For instance:

If I make up the definition of a mammal, and then, after inspecting a camel, declare “look, a mammal” I have indeed brought a truth to light in this way, but it is a truth of limited value. That is to say, it is a thoroughly anthropomorphic truth which contains not a single point which would be “true in itself” or really and universally valid apart from man.

That is, a camel certainly fits the criteria for what a mammal is, but only because we made up the list of criteria for what a mammal is in the first place, and as a concept, it doesn’t really exist apart from us.  It’s a little abstract, as arguments go, but I think it makes more sense when applied to asexuality: the ace community’s definitions of what “asexual” means come from us; it’s a word chosen by human beings to describe a set of subjective experiences, and it doesn’t exist as some Fact About The World apart from human experience because it describes a human experience.  There is no way to separate True Absolute Asexuality from the muddy waters of human perception.  And that’s okay.

What the implications of this are, or what this tells us, is that telling someone else whether they’re asexual or not makes the opposite of sense, because there is no underlying absolute kernel of pure unquestionable essence to be unearthed beneath the level of mere consciousness.  That’s why, at a rational level, identifying as asexual has to be left to the individual.  That’s why we have to accept that only the questioning person themselves can decide what they are.  Because, literally, there is nothing to asexuality except our own experience of it.

This isn’t saying that asexuality doesn’t exist; this is saying that treating the asexual label as A Fact of Reality with its own independent existence rather than an arbitrary symbol that the community arrived at through consensus and derives its meaning through a social context of voluntary identification… is an act of denial in the face of our history.  The modern consensus definition of “asexual” does not preexist the asexual community, even if “a lack of sexual attraction” does.

I understand why my reader might balk at this argument.  To be clear: I agree with statements like “asexuality is not a choice” — but only to the extent that I view such statements as enthymemic.

What phrases like that are really saying, by my interpretation, is that the set of feelings and experiences (or lack thereof) to which we apply the name of “asexuality” are not, themselves, the product of conscious intent.

But deciding to apply that word “asexual” to describe it?  That’s a choice.  Identifying as asexual is a choice.  And while the community recognizes that, I’ve seen plenty of us sometimes imply a judgement (toward other people) that identifying as asexual can be a “right” choice or a “wrong” choice (for other people) — i.e. “some people are Real Asexuals and what you call yourself should correspond to what you Really are,” privileging the Platonic influence.  I see this happen a lot with advice blogs, and if you’ve been reading The Ace Theist for a while, you should already be aware of that whole mess.  Even setting that aside, though, it seems like there’s been a general trend in the ace community, now that we have a solidified definition, to treat our conception of asexuality — the original leaf, if you will — as immutable, fixed, and inherent to the label, rather than an approximation arrived at for the simplification of visibility efforts.  A lot of us our young.  A lot of us don’t know the history.

I’m not saying that essays on Acemases Past should be required reading.

What I’m trying to say is, I’d like to see less of the Platonic in our alphabet soup.

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