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November 6, 2010

Like an arrow or like a banana?
Posted by Abi Sutherland at 02:48 PM * 150 comments

My personal philosophical Giant’s Drink—the thing I think about a lot and never find a way to adequately address—is the tension between what people are and what they do (or say). I usually refer to it as Essentialism versus Phenomenology1.

It’s my belief that this contrast has become an intellectual minimal pair, a distinction with a difference, in the aftermath of the Victorian increase in social mobility. The tool to parse the difference is the acceptability of discrimination against someone on a given basis. Once some circumstances of one’s life could change, there emerged a difference between discriminating against them on variant and invariant grounds2. It’s taken some time to work through; even in 1950’s America, for instance, blatant racism was unremarkable in many parts of polite society.

But here we are now, in a culture where it is no longer acceptable to discriminate against people on the basis of what they are3. And yet the temptation remains, as long as we are human. No one has enough time to deal justly with everyone they run up against; prejudice and discrimination are low-energy ways of figuring out and fixing one’s place in the world, and using them in combination with immutable traits means one only makes a judgment once. We work hard to avoid doing these things, to find other ways of coping, because they’re easy.

One strategy is to focus on more mutable characteristics: the way people dress, the way they look at us and talk to us, the people they associate with. It’s certainly more flexible: to get another reaction, a person merely has to change their accidents rather than their essence.

Still, the easy impulse remains, and people blur the line in many ways. Patrick posted a link the other week about race and the recession from a British perspective. The article is going somewhere else, but it sideswipes what I’m talking about here on the way:

Today, in place of rigid schemas assigning people to races based on some supposed ‘bloodline’ or ancestry in an original human family - Aryan, Semitic or Hamitic as the case may be - we increasingly have a slightly less static, less schematic, but nonetheless essentialist hierarchy of cultures: we have moved from colour to culture, from body to belief…

And that shift has facilitated a certain amount of confusion about what racism is, and has provided an alibi not merely for anti-Muslim racism, but for more traditional forms of racism that single out, for example, young black men. The latter were the subject of a short screed by the Spectator’s in-house provocateur and shock-commentator Rod Liddle last year. The basis of his attack was that these men were responsible for the overwhelming majority of robberies, muggings and violent crimes in the capital. The statistics for convictions did not actually back this up […] However, the empirical claim was almost secondary. When challenged on his claim, Liddle explained that he wasn’t talking about ‘race’, but about ‘culture’. He suggested that there was a particular culture among these men that valued and encouraged anti-social attitudes and behaviors.

Of course, the deprecated cultures often turn out to have the very people in them that can’t be acceptably discriminated against on an essentialist basis. But even when they don’t, there’s an assumption that giving up one’s culture, one’s phenomenological characteristics, is easy—or even possible.4

I happen to disagree with this assumption, and the argument I’d use is the I coulda been a cheerleader argument. See, I was a geeky teenager, a little overweight and with bad skin. I read a lot of books and talked about weird things like Greek comedy and space travel. In theory, if I had started dieting in middle school, worn a lot of foundation (or makeup at all), stopped reading science fiction and ancient stuff, learned to converse in a manner more in tune with Seventeen magazine and made the right friends thereby, I could have been a cheerleader in high school.

But I would have had to abandon my values and the things I valued to do that. Those are the things that define me inside my head, the same way that my appearance defines me to others. They’re essential. And I couldn’t decide to do that at fifteen, sitting in the amphitheater watching the tryouts. I had to have decided that four or five years earlier. So it is with many phenomenological arguments: they require people to become something they don’t identify as truly themselves, and they require the process of transformation to have begun long since.

Where does phenomenon end and essence begin? Is there a simple bright line? I used to think so. I don’t any more.

The two places where I bump against this in my current intellectual life are both political: the implications of sexuality, and the tribal aspect of party affiliation.

In my adulthood, the vocabulary around sexuality has changed markedly, moving from a phenomenological assumption to an essentialist one. The distinction between heterosexuals and homosexuals5 is no longer “sexual preference”, but rather “sexual orientation”. But apart from the “God hates fags” gang, and the “this is your cross to bear, sucks to be you” crowd, that presents a problem, because essentialist discrimination is Not Cool anymore.

I think this is the argument that will finally win marriage equality among people who don’t know6 any gays. Here’s a video of what happens when phenomenological heterosexists are given an essentialist perspective. A certain proportion of the people shown will not retain the satori7, and others will find a phenomenological excuse to retain their bias. But what I see in the video is that the person on the street’s belief that essentialist discrimination is morally wrong is stronger than their xenophobia.

(The battle isn’t won yet. There’s plenty of essentialist distaste carefully disguised as phenomenological criticism, usually involving the word “lifestyle”. But note how much of it is deployed to prevent gays from living the same lifestyles as straights: marrying, adopting, serving in the armed forces.)

Political party affiliation is a messier and weirder thing. There’s a subset of people who think that party affiliation is a phenomenological manifestation (subject to change when someone gets mugged/loses their job8), but act as though it is essentialist. This is the source of much of the defensiveness around political dialog: the feeling that disagreeing with someone’s beliefs is tantamount to discriminating against them. Essence also influences phenomenon in the area of symbolic beliefs, which are markers of what people are masquerading as things they think are true.

This stuff gets everywhere. Is Deafness defined as something some people (don’t) do, or something they are? Should Asperger’s Syndrome be cured, or embraced as neurodiversity? Should felons be able to vote after they’ve finished their sentences? Should kids (or their mothers) avoid conspicuous differences to protect them from being teased? Is bullying something people do, or something they are?

Is anyone a stabber? Or do people just stab?


  1. Or, when I’m being less pretentious, noun versus verb. Feel free to suggest better terms.
  2. I’m talking about political and economic discrimination here. Forms of social discrimination (such as shunning), though closely related, are a distinct and slower-moving phenomenon.
  3. There are exceptions. Pedophiles, for instance.
  4. As was pointed out in the comments to my most recent entanglement with this issue, assimilation (phenomenological change) may not be possible if there is also a sufficiently visible essential difference. Then no change will ever be enough.
  5. The popular discussion has not yet absorbed anything more complex, like bisexuality. It will in time.
  6. that they know
  7. OK, probably just kensho
  8. I’m not doing a straight-up party equivalency thing here. But the impulse to tribal loyalty, applied to party politics, is pretty well universal across the political spectrum.

Comments on Like an arrow or like a banana?:
#1 ::: Will Shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 04:33 PM:

I've been wondering whether "race" is returning to its pre-17th century meaning of a group (which could be based on what you are--the race of women--or what you do--the race of poets), or if it's evolving into something new. When I get into discussions with antiracism theorists, they seem to use it in any way they wish, merging the 20th century meaning of racism with bigotry, nativism, xenophobia, or any prejudice other than the ones they have.

"Race" has even begun to include class: "African Americans see a widening gulf between the values of middle class and poor blacks, and nearly four-in-ten say that because of the diversity within their community, blacks can no longer be thought of as a single race.". The two black races are, by the traditional definitions, two classes, a black blue-collar class and a black white-collar class, or black morlocks and black eloi.)

Which raises the question of whether a class is indicated by what you do or what you are. Upper-class folks are fond of rationalizing their privilege by saying superior folks rise like scum on a pond. (Okay, that's not their metaphor, but you get the idea.)

If race simply means "stuff we're lumping together", maybe it's time to just talk about lumpism, lumpists, and lumpers.

And with that thought, I'm not sure whether it matters if we are what we do or if we do what we are.

But this does remind me of a favorite bit of graffiti:

“To be is to do” –Socrates.
“To do is to be” –Jean-Paul Sartre.
“Do be do be do” –Frank Sinatra.

#2 ::: B. Durbin ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 04:44 PM:

"Blacks can no longer be thought of as a single race."

Okay, first of all there's more genetic diversity in all of Africa than in, say, all of Europe. Not that I'd expect the writer of that article to have internalized that. (Not that that was the point, either...)

After all, according to that "diversity according to comics" particle that PNH linked to a bit back, Africa is one huge undifferentiated continent. *headdesk*

#3 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 04:52 PM:

This is the source of much of the defensiveness around political dialog: the feeling that disagreeing with someone’s beliefs is tantamount to discriminating against them. Essence also influences phenomenon in the area of symbolic beliefs, which are markers of what people are masquerading as things they think are true.

Abi, right here you put your finger smack in the middle of that which fuels my deepest urges to pound on the desk and yell that Someone is Wrong on the Internet. (Not you, you are absolutely spot on, even if I am pounding on the desk and yelling at the computer anyway.)

I need to go calm down and figure out what I mean.

#4 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 04:53 PM:

Will @1:

I'd like to state for clarity that we are not importing RaceFail and similar conflicts from other sites onto this thread. Which means that you will please back off of statements like they seem to use it in any way they wish and any prejudice other than the ones they have. If you cannot, please don't comment here, because assuming the bad faith of people who are not yet in the conversation is not productive of good discussion.

Race is a complex issue, merging physical appearance, ancestry, culture, class, context, and many other things. I'm treating it as an essentialist matter here, because the people who experience what they identify as racism tell me it is targeted at any or all of these elements of who they are. And they should know, just as I'm probably a lot clearer than you are about the various ways that sexism expresses itself.

I'm certainly not interested in, or qualified to, express an opinion about drifting meanings of the word. Right now, right here, it has an agreed meaning, which is no more about women or poets than it is about wines of the same flavor (another meaning from the 1600's).

#5 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 05:00 PM:

I think you've put your finger on one of the problems I have with AA -- that they take an essentialist view of alcoholism, where I tend to be more of a phenomenalist about it. The continual stating of "I am an alcoholic" is a clear internalization technique for essentialization. And the 12 step programs are a major part of many people's lives. To what extent is accepting essentialism there a direct path to accepting it in other situations? I don't know.

#6 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 05:14 PM:

abi... I read a lot of books and talked about weird things like Greek comedy and space travel. In theory, if I had (...), I could have been...

...not Abi Sutherland, that's for sure.

#7 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 05:20 PM:

Will, this thread is not going to be a space for you to press your various arguments about race and class.

If other people want discuss those issues, that's fine, and I'm not throwing you out of the conversation. But your particular track record at creating light rather than heat around these issues is not good. Please let a conversation develop around Abi's post, rather than around your agenda.

#8 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 05:32 PM:

Patrick, it's probably just as well that I couldn't figure out what the heck he was trying to say.

#9 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 05:43 PM:

Thinking more about this -- I've seen myself change in the ways I identify myself over time. Sometimes things that seem to have been an essential part of myself become no longer relevant to how I see myself. It takes years, and it's an organic change -- perhaps similar to the way that all the cells in my body get replaced every seven years or so, as the old wisdom says happens (though how that relates to the lack of possibility for regenerating nerves or limbs under current thought, I don't know).

There are aspects which are an integral part of who-I-am-now; those aspects can change. The number of committed homosexuals I know who have found wonderful partners of a different gender is a noticeable quantity. And the number of committed straight people who have had affairs with people of the same gender is also large. Does that mean those people aren't gay or straight? Or does it mean that a whole lot of people are bisexual, many more than actively identify as such? I made a political decision to identify as bisexual fairly early on (before I was actively sexual), even though I'm much more attracted to women than men as life partners (and I spent more years being a business partner with a gay man than I have partnered with any one woman). Which means that I actively believe the nature-and-nurture hypothesis, with each one taking a larger part in some individuals.

One problem is that a lot of people see markers as essential that the individual with the marker may not feel is essential to hir. The number of essentially different ways to classify a set is on the order of the factorial of the number of members in it, which means there are a Lot of ways to classify any group of factors which we might start to think would reflect who a person is, essentially. The best guess is that all humans except clones (identical siblings as a natural example) are genetically different, and we know that identical twins can often be told apart by people who know them. So genetics is not quite enough to find the essential characteristics of a person -- some amount of nurture is required. And no two people have precisely identical experiences of nurturing, so we don't have minimal pairs to look at there.

Going off to mull some more.

#10 ::: Will Shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 06:14 PM:

Abi, I would love to know what you think the "right here, right now" meaning is. Saladin Ahmed makes an interesting argument that muslims have been racialized in American discourse; I'm still pondering that. In the 21st century liberal capitalist sense of "race", obviously, it's true.

And there is an interesting question about whether a thing can best be known from within or without. A goldfish can't see its bowl.

But I digress. A last comment on the subject, if I understand it, before I go: it's clearly politer to describe people in terms of temporary states rather than permanent ones. And yet, carried to the logical extreme, that means we no longer need nouns of being.

#11 ::: Jay Lake ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 06:14 PM:

This is the source of much of the defensiveness around political dialog: the feeling that disagreeing with someone’s beliefs is tantamount to discriminating against them. Essence also influences phenomenon in the area of symbolic beliefs, which are markers of what people are masquerading as things they think are true.

All the more so when those beliefs have the imprimatur of "truth", for that value of truth endorsed in a religious context. We frequently see flatly stated claims of discrimination in the media today from believers who for various reasons good, bad or indifferent, are not being permitted to fully act on their beliefs in the public square.

#12 ::: Tatterbots ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 06:32 PM:

When I was a teenager I invented a word to describe people like me -- that is, people who were overwhelmingly interested in the same set of ideas I was. I won't repeat the word here, because I don't want it Googleable, but it was very definitely a noun; I didn't feel I could choose not to be an X or change the degree of Xness that seemed to be hard-wired into my brain. And giving it a name made it a more definite classification than it would have been otherwise.

So for years after that I was on the lookout for other Xs. I found very few of them, but over time I identified rather more people who were X-like to varying degrees. I've also become a less dedicated X myself as my interests have broadened. If I'd known that back when I invented the word, I might have invented a verb instead of a noun. Then it would be easier to think "I don't X as much as I used to" rather than "Am I still an X or aren't I?" I seem to be stuck thinking of myself as "an X" and probably will for the rest of my life. And that probably has a large effect on what I do, or at least on what I write about.

#13 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 06:37 PM:

Will @10:
it's clearly politer to describe people in terms of temporary states rather than permanent ones. And yet, carried to the logical extreme, that means we no longer need nouns of being.

I would disagree. I'm perfectly fine with being described as a white heterosexual American woman, 5'6" tall—if those things are relevant to the context.

Tell people that* about me to find me in a crowd, and I'm fine with it. Tell them that to explain my performance as a software tester, and I'm going to look at you funny.

-----
* well, I'm not sure my sexual orientation is going to help

#14 ::: Dragoness Eclectic ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 06:42 PM:

I'll pick off the low-hanging fruit rather than tackling the tough subjects. Bullying is something you do, and can stop doing. People who won't stop doing it are called "bullies", but like most bad behavior, it's a choice.

I got calibrated out of being a bully back in 4th grade by the good Sisters teaching at St. Francis of Assisi Catholic School, many decades ago. Thank God for that--I've got many social interaction issues as an adult, and a truly volcanic temper, but being a bullying jerk isn't one of them.

#15 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 06:53 PM:

What you are.
What you do.

It's not easy when what you do is so much an extension of what you are and, to everybody else, "...it's just a job..."

#16 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 06:55 PM:

Tom Whitmore:

You say many interesting things there; I shall have to mull in my turn. Two subdivisions of essence really catch my attention:

- Essence created out of phenomenon. Not just AA...this rubs against that observation of Bruce Baugh's that the internet is inherently phenomenological. Basically, no one knows you're a dog, but if you bark enough, do you grow fur?

- Things that we consider immutable that might turn out not to be, such as sexual orientation or religion. And yet I'd say these things are essentials, things that we are rather than things that we do; they reach that deeply into our characters.

In some ways, this is like my "not a cheerleader" essentialism, but with the admission that people do change that profoundly. I'd still maintain that requiring people to make that kind of personal change to be judged differently is unrealistic.

(Perhaps there's another layer of essentialism: those who change and those who do not?)

#17 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 06:58 PM:

abi, 16: We all change. I'd say instead "those who grow and those who do not."

#18 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 07:03 PM:

Part of the confusion between essence and phenomenon is that a lot of the drive to discriminate is not based on distinctions that have been thought through consciously, but rather have been absorbed unconsciously in the course of being raised and educated in a particular place, time, and subculture. Then rationalizations based on statements of essentialism or phenomenalism are created or accepted from others to help justify the discriminations.

For example, in the US there is a nearly culture-wide acceptance of discrimination against people who don't meet a certain standard of beauty, especially those who are overweight. Based on what I've seen, this prejudice is almost universally picked up by children as young as 6, children who are much too young to internalize the notions of essentialism or phenomenology. Yet when older people, who presumably picked up the prejudice early, describe their reasoning for the prejudice, they talk about how obesity is a choice, based on lack of will power in dieting, or self-indulgence, or some other personality trait that is changeable.

That's why reasoning about discrimination is so hard for those who hold a given prejudice: the prejudice is antecedent to the conscious reasoning about it, and so arguing about the reasoning doesn't affect the acceptance of the prejudice.

#19 ::: Will Shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 07:19 PM:

Serge @15, you made me wonder why anyone would say their work is "just a job." I suspect it's to say they believe that what we do and what we do for money have different meanings, that the first is relevant to who we are and the second isn't.

Which must be one of those comforting lies we tell ourselves. I'm reminded of my favorite Upton Sinclair quote: "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!"

#20 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 07:27 PM:

Will, of course there are people whose work is just a job. Do you know anybody who grew up wanting to be a grocery clerk?

#21 ::: guthrie ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 07:28 PM:

When Serge #15 puts it:
What you are.
What you do.

and when Abi write - "Those are the things that define me inside my head, the same way that my appearance defines me to others"

It reminds me of the economic side, i.e. the social pressure coming from government/ rich people/ schools/ whatever is that you can have a good job and get rich if you play the game right, you just have to behave the proper way. Which immediately makes me go "no, I don't want to play your game" and get a bit huffy that my special individuality is somehow less worthy than that of others who just happen to have the right kind of personality and abilities to thrive in a commercial environment. (And who then seem to try and force the rest of us to be like them, thus violating our senses of selves and forcing a bigger gap between what we feel we are and what we do, which I imagine would make people feel more stressed and ill)

#22 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 07:32 PM:

Bruce Cohen #18: Excellent point... and just to underline it, recent research suggests that the current obesity epidemic may be linked to a viral infection....

General: This is/does distinction has been noted and sometimes exploited for a long time. The "So-Called War on Drugs" represents a dramatic example, where the drugs used by Hispanics and blacks were specifically targeted, and selective enforcement was and still is rampant. It's no accident that the SCWoD got started right after the Civil Rights movement made it unacceptable for the police to explicitly "keep the n*ggers in their place". (Not that they don't do a fair bit of that anyway, but now it's officially condemned.)

#23 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 07:46 PM:

Will @ 19... Actually, my team supervisor himself told me last week that what he does, he does to provide for his family and that's it. Which is why he doesn't quite understand why someone would be disappointed at the lack of appreciation by our higherups. I've come across that attitude enough to believe it's quite widespread. They do something for money, and they'll do it well, but its only purpose is the financial security that gives them the leeway to do what they really want to do, and which probably is what defines them. Meanwhile there are others who pour their whole selves in what they do because it fulfills what they are. Writers, for example.

#24 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 07:49 PM:

An additional, disconnected comment: Life is a verb! The difference between something alive and something dead is not in their composition, but in their activities (e.g. energy transformation, self-maintenance, growth/reproduction), or lack of same.

#25 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 08:04 PM:

guthrie @ 21... "no, I don't want to play your game"

Misfits probably fall into two categories: (1) those who do get the others's rules, but will not let the others shape them, (2) those who try to get the rules, but fail at trying to follow them because they don't really get them. Mind you, one misfit can be so because he/she belongs in both categories.

#26 ::: Will Shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 08:07 PM:

Texanne @20, do you believe that what you do, hour after hour, does not affect who you are? Or do you think it's possible to have a healthy form of dissociation?

#27 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 08:09 PM:

Will, when I say "this is just a job," I am *resisting* the idea that all I am is a grocery clerk. Do you understand what I mean? I don't believe that I'm the only person who uses that phrase with that meaning.

#28 ::: vcmw ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 08:21 PM:

My own personal way of looking at things about myself is to ask if they are axiomatic or derived. I guess I don't entirely trust that any emotional or intellectual aspect of my personality is "essential." This distrust comes from my own experience with mood, hormone, drug, and other chemically induced perceptual changes, as well as confrontations with my self as described to me in my own old journals and letters (and how sometimes those journals and letters conflict with each other, or with my own memory of how I felt at the time). And also from discussing aspects of who I am / what I do / how I am perceived (or who they are / what they do / how they are perceived / how they perceive themselves) with close friends and family who have known me a long time.

My feeling is that axiomatic aspects of myself are things that I either was taught by others at such a deep level that I completely internalized them or that I have built significant aspects of my life around. And derived things, obviously, are things which I have, well, derived from these other things.

But I have found that quite often you can get to a certain derived result from more than one axiomatic beginning. There are aspects of my character that I would classify as derived but which I have gone through significant mental arithmetic to retain when axiomatic bases in my life shifted.

#29 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 08:24 PM:

Jimmy Buffet said it best:

It's my job

In the middle of late last night I was sittin' on a curb
I didn't know what about but I was feeling quite disturbed
A street sweeper came whistlin' by
He was bouncin' every step
It seemed strange how good he felt
So I asked him while he swept

Chorus

He said "It's my job to be cleaning up this mess
And that's enough reason to go for me
It's my job to be better than the rest
And that makes the day for me"

Got an uncle who owns a bank he's a self made millionaire
He never had anyone to thank never had no one to care
He always to seemed kind of sad to me
So I asked him why that was

And he told me it's because in my contract there's a clause
That says "It's my job to worried half to death
And that's the thing people respect in me
It's my job but without it I'd be less
Than what I expect from me"

I've been lazy most all of my life
Writing songs and sleeping late
Any manual labor I've done is purely by mistake
If street sweepers can smile then

I've got no right to feel upset
But sometimes I still forget
Till the lights go on and the stage is set
And the song hits home and you feel that sweat

It's my job to be different than the rest
and that's enough reason to go for me
It's my job to be better than the best
and that's a tough break for me

It's my job to be cleaning up this mess
and that's enough reason to go for me
It's my job to be better than the best
and that makes the day for me

#30 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 08:56 PM:

abi @16 -- I couldn't agree with you more that attempting to impose change on someone else is a mug's game (my phrasing of what I read in what you said). It just doesn't work. And that's usually true whether the change is something the person says s/he wants or not. There are a lot of pressures to say that one wants to change a lot of behaviors, and the behavior of saying that one wants to change is much easier than changing most behaviors.

I've mentioned before in other threads the book Change or Die by Alan Deutschman, which uses the idea that people won't change if one tries to force them, and looks at what actually did work in people who have changed. It's a very interesting book. Here's a link to Deutschman talking about the book and New Year's resolutions.

#31 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 09:14 PM:

And again, abi @16 -- one doesn't have to look very far to find people who've changed their religious type, profoundly (what else is TNH's essay "God and Me" about?). I can only talk about her experience from an outsider's perspective (and I trust she will correct me if I'm wrong!), but I believe she went through a period of profound uncertainty about religion before deciding that Catholicism was the correct container to describe her belief within.

And I'm quite sure that she wouldn't have embraced Catholicism immediately upon leaving the Mormon Church: the essential nature of her belief wasn't ready to make a change that quickly. Eppur, si muove. I don't think I could convince her, or you, or anyone that my brand of agnosticism is Right; but it's right-for-me. I don't expect that to change; still, it might. What-it-is-that-is-I moves. I know that very profoundly. And I could no more have been a jock in high school than you a cheerleader; and that doesn't mean that in times during my life I've done the highly athletic thing of being a performance-oriented (Morris) dancer.

And a story of change hinges on that, too. When I started dancing, I had a deep seated belief that I couldn't play a musical instrument. It wasn't until over a year into dancing that someone told me that the bells on my ankles were actually a musical instrument. I faced, very consciously, a choice: I could either believe that I could play a musical instrument, or I could stop dancing. It took me several hours of looking at this problem before I decided that I was dancing well enough for me not to have to stop dancing, so I would have to be able to redefine myself as someone who could learn to play a musical instrument. I've since decided that I don't want to spend the necessary time to do it well. But that's a different kind of decision.

It's also hard for me to change the belief that I shouldn't talk so much here, but I'm trying.

#32 ::: SKapusniak ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 09:19 PM:

I'm going to think about beggars, since they're the unfortunate people I most encounter in my everyday life that I have a strong emotional reaction to, that I'm ashamed off.

The thing I notice is that for me stop myself from becoming someone I really wouldn't like, I actually have to guard against blaming them for that emotional reaction I have, and thus becoming resentful toward them for having caused it. It would be but a short step from this to conspiracy theories of them 'shoving the beggar lifestyle down my throat' to coin a phrase.

This is all utterly nuts of course, but I think it's the place where essentialism and phenomology step in, as explanations we tell ourselves for the emotions we really don't want to have. Coping mechanisms maybe. Essentialism says 'It is just the fundamental nature of beggars to beg, so any discomfort you feel is just the nature of the world.', phenomology says 'The beggars chose to beg in front of you, so any discomfort you're feeling is their fault.'

I not sure either of them are particularly helpful though.

Yes, I can use essentialism to cut out blaming the poor sod begging for my emotions, and sure, sometimes the phenomological explanation for my emotions is actually true (tho' not with beggars) and someone has found one of my buttons and is deliberately pushing it for all it's worth in order to hurt me, but that's your actually bullying scenario which fortunately doesn't apply most of the time.

Neither gets to the root, that of a particular emotional reaction being hooked up to a particular trigger in a way that doesn't do me or the person who accidentaly pulled it any good. To deal with that I'd need more stoicism or more zen, or more likely aversion therapy.

#33 ::: julia ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 09:33 PM:

I actually have a dog in this one, because I've spent time on both sides of the fence (although I've always thought of the first position as determinism rather than essentialism).

I was raised in a family of merry determinists, and steeped in the selective perception that encourages. Whatever you do which doesn't fit the role you're assigned is ignored, while whatever you do which just might fit is plugged into the existing narrative as fulfillment and confirmation. Under those conditions, it's almost a form of obedience to become exactly who everyone thinks you are.

Only at some point, I decided that my primary loyalties were to the people I cared about, and as long as I was going to be NotMe, I might as well be a NotMe I approve of.

So I've been working pretty hard at being someone I approve of, and if that's not who I actually am, it's conscious and I'm pretty determined about it, so it's something people can count on. If there's an essential difference between that and whatever Goodness is, the effect is roughly the same, and anything else is between me and whoever weighs my heart against a feather when this is all over.

do you believe that what you do, hour after hour, does not affect who you are? Or do you think it's possible to have a healthy form of dissociation?

What I do is do my job really, really well. I think that affects me deeply. What the company I work for does affects me practically not at all.

#34 ::: Mike Dixon ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 10:56 PM:

On the "just a job" sub-topic: what I do for a living is both just a job, and not. I'm fortunate in that what I get paid to do is something that I'm good at and enjoy. And yet I'd still say that "this is just a job".

Let me unpack this a bit.

At a deep level, I consider employment to be a transitory thing. The idea of a job for life doesn't really exist in the field I'm in, and my impression is that it's not that common in most other fields either.

So as a result, the idea of building my identity around my current happenstance of employment just feels incredibly counter-intuitive. Who I am and what I do happen to overlap a lot at my current job, but that's only due to providence or good fortune.

If I lost my job tomorrow I'd certainly be unhappy, but it'd be because I like my job, not because I lost part of my identity. At the end of the day, it's still just a job.

#35 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 11:01 PM:

I distinguish between my job and my work. My job is what I do to make a living. My work is what I do that makes me me.

I don't have a job right now. But I always have my work.

#36 ::: ddb ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 11:02 PM:

"Essential nature" is a story we tell ourselves. I don't think there's any single bit of "essential" nature that somebody, somewhere, hasn't actually changed. Particularly when you get into head trauma, strokes, and migraines -- anything is possible.

(It's probably relevant for understanding the things I consider obvious here that I consider the "self" to be a construct that runs on the meat; there's tremendous evidence for that, and no convincing evidence for anything else. However, there's lots of behavior, let's start with consciousness itself, that we can hardly define, let alone explain in terms of the underlying processes, so there's plenty of room for understanding to change as we learn more.)

I think the appeal is in the search for stability and safety. We want a "good" man, a "strong" woman, a "wise" mentor, or something. There are cases, like forming a life-partnership, where you really, really want to feel confident about your partner's future behavior. If there isn't some level of "essential" unchangeable nature at the bottom of things, a lot of people have trouble feeling that confidence.

The divorce courts, criminal courts, psychology journals, and the like, suggest we are, at least, not very good at picking these people. While sometimes the mistake is obvious to by-standers, there are really a lot of cases where people do change enough to be "not the man I married". Some of these cases fall into "mental illness" categories as currently defined, but by no means all of them do.

#37 ::: Diatryma ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2010, 11:14 PM:

I refer to my current job as a kibblejob: it is to keep the cat in kibble while I find* a real job. I'm pretty good at it and I like it, but there isn't any real way for me to do it permanently, and... well, I said once that if the Universe wanted me to be a special-ed teacher, the time to tell me was seven years and two degrees ago.

Because what I am is a writer and biology nerd, not a special-ed teacher.

That has to be what I am, or else I spent all that time doing it for nothing.

On the roles people impose on us: one of the strangest dynamics I've noticed myself being part of was between me and another girl who was the weird one in most groups. We just kept trying to outdo each other. I eventually abandoned that group of friends-- was abandoned by them, also-- but I remember the tension as I tried to take my role as quirky and strange and she did the same. "Don't you make me be normal," we might as well have been saying, "I've worked too hard at weird for that."

At least then, and maybe now, what you are is a reward or consequence for what you do.


*lately, this means 'pretend to work on resume' and 'pretend to look for jobs' more than anything.

#38 ::: Emily H. ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 12:03 AM:

Essentialism is currently seen as the best defense that LGBT people have against bigotry; and yet I'm not sure that it's the right way to go, long-term. Once we establish that gay people are Just Born That Way, all we have to do is get good enough at genetic screening to ensure that people are no longer Just Born That Way.

More than that, though, I think there has to be room for people who aren't Just Born That Way. I've undergone a couple of major shifts in how I experienced sexuality over the years, and for the largest chunk of my post-puberty life I haven't been able to certainly state "I am X." "I feel this right now, I think this right now," yes; but something provisional, something subject to change. And I feel quite strongly that one shouldn't be free from bigotry only on the grounds of "I can't help it."

#39 ::: Devin ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 12:14 AM:

Come on Will, I thought you were a better commie than that! We're all here living under capitalism, is it any surprise that many of us are alienated from the meaning of our labor? "This is just a job" is a defense against that: it's a way of saying that even though this labor, right here, is alienating and meaningless (but I can't abandon it due to my debilitating need for food and shelter), I can still have meaning in my life, and meaningful labor even.

I don't take it to mean that what we do for money isn't relevant to who we are so much as that it's not overwhelmingly important. Right now I have two jobs: I'm a programmer and I'm a photo clerk. Six months ago, when I was full-time at the store, I was still a programmer. Photo clerk? That's just a job. I take some pride in it, but there are a lot of other parts of the job that I have to disassociate myself from to stay healthy and happy.

#40 ::: Matt Austern ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 12:30 AM:

This reminds me of a discussion I had with my 4 year old a month or two ago. Somehow we got onto the topic of what she wanted to be when she grew up, and she said she would be a mom. I told her that was fine, most people want to be parents someday, but she could be lots other things too: she could be a mom, and a mountain climber, and a scientist, and so on. No, she said: she would do lots of things, but she would only be a mom. Somehow she was making a very sharp distinction between what you do and what you are, but the details eluded me.

#41 ::: Earl Cooley III ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 01:02 AM:

The Banana of Time, by renowned anthropologist Dr. Magilla Gorilla.

#42 ::: Teka Lynn ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 01:13 AM:

How can I put this? I've been a fitting room associate at an off-price retail chain store for over sixteen years. I take great pride in running the best fitting room that I can, and I know that it's the best in the district, because I've been told so by higher-ups in corporate. Maybe even the region. I get annoyed when I'm seen as "less than" because my job is sometimes perceived as menial. It doesn't have to be.

However, if I defined myself ONLY as a fitting room associate, that would be absolutely soul-crushing. I sing in the local oratorio choir, I sometimes translate Portuguese poems for fun, I sometimes (shh!) write fanfic. Do any of these things define me more or less than my job in retail does?

#43 ::: Teka Lynn ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 01:14 AM:

How can I put this? I've been a fitting room associate at an off-price retail chain store for over sixteen years. I take great pride in running the best fitting room that I can, and I know that it's the best in the district, because I've been told so by higher-ups in corporate. Maybe even the region. I get annoyed when I'm seen as "less than" because my job is sometimes perceived as menial. It doesn't have to be.

However, if I defined myself ONLY as a fitting room associate, that would be absolutely soul-crushing. I sing in the local oratorio choir, I sometimes translate Portuguese poems for fun, I sometimes (shh!) write fanfic. Do any of these things define me more or less than my job in retail does?

#44 ::: Will Shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 01:20 AM:

Devin @39, full agreement that what we do, we should do as well as we can. Which, in the case of jobs that need to be sabotaged, means doing badly as well as we can.

I'm just objecting to the notion that we can do something without it affecting us. To me, the notion that an action, or a lack of action, is only a paycheck is much of the evil of capitalism.

But, yes, if dissociation is the only way to survive, take it.

Hmm. Maybe what I'm trying to say is that when you play a game, the game plays you. Maybe Churchill's smug saying-- “If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain.”--says that if you do something long enough, you'll become something different. Twenty years of the capitalism game can hone the brain and shrink the heart.

#45 ::: Matt McIrvin ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 01:44 AM:

This was the Calvinist/Arminian split in Protestantism, wasn't it? Calvinists thought whether you were saved or damned was essential, Arminians thought it was phenomenological. Lots of blood shed over that back in the day.

I can feel the Language Log people wincing already at "noun versus verb".

#46 ::: Mike Dixon ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 01:57 AM:

Will @44:

Speaking for myself, when I say "it's just a job" I'm not claiming to not be affected by my job. Rather, I'm trying to not let myself be defined by it. Work/life balance and all that.

#47 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 03:13 AM:

I'm fortunate enough to be working in the area of my avocation, but I've held plenty of jobs that I needed to pay the bills while I worked on getting to where I wanted to be next. Even at this point, where who I am is strongly identified with what I do (not only at work, but in my social life), I still believe that those parts of my life are something I created, because I decided I wanted to be a certain kind of person, and directed my efforts accordingly. I don't think I'm intrinsically any of those things; I can point to several turning points where I made conscious decisions to pursue this set of talents over other, equally viable alternatives.

#48 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 03:50 AM:

I'm not sure that the essentialist argument bails out gays and lesbians. I guess, if I hated myself, I'd fall into the "sucks to be you, your cross to bear" camp. Because it seems to me that sure -- certain things are immutable. But what really defines us is not that which we cannot change, but how we react to what we cannot change, and how we react to the reactions of others to what we cannot change.

I've been lucky, in my own life, to demonstrate firsthand the amazing capacity of the brain to heal, and reroute, and learn new ways of doing things. To me, that's hopeful. When I look at where the science in this area is headed, it feels like humans have an amazing ability to invent and reinvent ourselves, and that's really neat. But the immutable things don't go away. You can actively change your reaction to them, learn to work with them, or around them, or through them or despite them or because of them, depending on what works best for you in your specific situation. But they're still there, it's just you that changes, and your reactions.

So, first, I think the question of whether something is innate or changeable doesn't give enough credit to human beings, for their ability to adapt to adverse situations. I also think -- it's all discrimination, really. Whatever your basis, whether it's something the person can "change" or not. It's all equally not okay. (The "you could change it" argument gets used frequently against Catholics, I note, which may bias me against its validity.)

I happen to think that certain forms of discrimination -- such as avoiding convicted sex offenders, violent felons, or openly identified racists -- can be defensible. But I think such discrimination needs to be as narrow and carefully deliberate as possible. I think it's really easy to use too broad a brush, even with the best of intentions.

(Before anyone jumps on me about the high suicide rate among gays demonstrating how lots of people can't adapt -- I also think that there's a huge difference between adverse situations where people are supportive and genuinely looking for ways to understand and help you be okay, and adverse situations where people are focused on tearing you down, and threatening or punishing you for being different. I don't see how that kind of abuse is ever okay, whether it's based on your own choices or something you can't change.)

#49 ::: Gray Woodland ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 05:40 AM:

That is... about as fundamental a question as one can get. I don't think there's a bright line either. Philosophically I get by on something like phenomenalism-plus-privacy-ethics-plus-principle-of-charity, but it really is a tension rather than anything as static as a spectrum.

A first nibble: jobs, as an example of an identity that can pull strongly or weakly. When my great-grandfather was a miner, he was a miner in the same way that in other times and places he was a lumberjack or a ditch-digger - it was what he did to sustain himself and save up for the smallholding he really wanted, in the hamlet where he was born. But someone who was a miner in one of the old pit villages, where sons were expected to follow fathers down the mines, was surely a miner in a much stronger sense - there was a whole culture and notion of acceptable character packed into it.

So even among people who spend years mining and are good at it, there are miners and miners. And as I understand it, it's eminently possible - even likely - to be a miner, and to hate the pit like Hades.

One doesn't have to identify oneself as nothing but one's job, in order to identify oneself significantly according to one's job, and all the other things that getting on in that job necessarily or accidentally suggests.

Miner, bank clerk, programmer, scientist, executive, baker, shelf-stacker, politician, scientist, nurse, writer... they're not just different job-identities, they're different strengths and areas of job-identity too. And each intersects with all the other kinds of identity compatible with it.

This makes the question interesting indeed, but also extremely slippery and difficult to talk about.

#50 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 06:51 AM:

I frequently make a distinction between a job and a vocation. A vocation seems to me to be more essential; it's the product of who you are. It's what makes your inner self ring like a bell.

A job can allow one to pursue one's vocation within its confines. Or a job can give one the resources to pursue one's vocation outwith work hours. But I think people who have no space, either in job time or outside of it, have a pretty tough time of things.

#51 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 07:05 AM:

Tom @31:

one doesn't have to look very far to find people who've changed their religious type, profoundly

Indeed. Though I tend to think there's an essentiallist distinction in there, between what I call "natural theists" and "natural atheists".

In my experience, there are people who feel, deep down, that there is something bigger out there. Sometimes they grow up in a context that works with that feeling, but sometimes they don't. Sometimes they are content to leave it at that innate sense, but at another time they may feel driven to express it. Then they have to cast around, looking for the religion or theology that allows them to pursue that. Sometimes, as they grow and change, one religion or theology no longer works for them, and they leave and find another.

There are other people, natural atheists, who simply have not got this bent in their character. Some of them may be raised in a church, or may join a church for other reasons (social, political, marital, intellectual). But many of them, particularly now, simply live without religion.

(I also tend, without evidence, to think that the proportion of these two personalities has not changed over time; what's changed is the acceptability of not being religious. And, whilst I am both a natural theist and a member of an organized religion, I'm very much in favor of this change.)

It's also hard for me to change the belief that I shouldn't talk so much here, but I'm trying.

I would be very happy for you to change that belief. It's certainly not one I share, either in general or on this specific thread.

#52 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 07:10 AM:

abi @ 50... I frequently make a distinction between a job and a vocation. A vocation seems to me to be more essential; it's the product of who you are. It's what makes your inner self ring like a bell.

That's what I was trying to express, but, as expected, you said it much better.

#53 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 07:27 AM:

abi @51: I'm afraid I've been too well imbued with Twain in my writing mode: "It is better to be silent and have people think you're a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt." Still, can't stop the signal completely.

To be slightly more serious, I think there's a third category besides natural theists and natural atheists: natural agnostics. It may just be what my parents named me, but I'm convinced that I'm uncertain about whether there's one (or many) god (or God[s]). I don't think that I couldn't know (as I've said elsewhere, lots of people know things that aren't true); but I believe in Godel's proof more than I believe in anyone's description of God. I'm quite willing to believe that people describe their beliefs correctly, and not find the description enough to change my belief. And that includes the beliefs of atheists as well as theists.

Because I've also experienced bits of the numinous, and seen strange sights. I know, at that same level, that there's more in the universe (and even on earth) than I can possibly know to be true. It's important to me to accept that, as that's direct personal experience.

And I have to go drive a friend to the airport, so I'm stopping for the moment.

#54 ::: tykewriter ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 08:21 AM:

abi @51

Dawkins' assertion that religion is somehow hard-wired into us* led me to wonder how he'd managed to override it. I had previously attributed this to his undoubted (pun intended) genius [/irony], although I was beginning to speculate along the lines you suggest. I too have come to believe that there are 'natural theists' (I am one, although only loosely attached to a religious organisation at present), and must therefore posit the existence of 'natural atheists'.

If a 'natural atheist' is subject to a society in which religion is de rigueur, and a 'natural theist' lives in a society in which atheism is enforced, and they are unable to leave their respective societies or work within them for change, then they are surely as oppressed as are victims of any other kind of oppression. They may fake it for the sake of expediency, but it can't be a comfortable feeling. Much worse than being a theist in a pub full of atheists, for instance. Or of course vice versa.


*if I've understood him correctly **
**which no doubt I haven't ***
***I've lost the pretty umbrella thingy after upgrading Ubuntu

#55 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 08:40 AM:

tykewriter @54:

I'm married to a natural atheist. It certainly does clarify a lot. He's also one in the eye for the "atheists can't be moral or ethical people" crowd.

(I confess that I'm inclined to find him rather neat overall.)

#56 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 08:42 AM:

tykewriter @ 54... Much worse than being a theist in a pub full of atheists

"A theist walks into a bar with a dog..."

#57 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 08:44 AM:

abi @ 55... I'm inclined to find him rather neat overall

Especially when he does that Cardassian-neck thing?

#58 ::: Rikibeth ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 09:11 AM:

I wonder if even the natural theist/natural atheist category is subject to change, or if specific trauma can do a number on it, or merely change the need for the degree of expression/participation in theism-based rituals.

Because, looking back at my life, it suggests I was a natural theist uncomfortable from a very early with my family-assigned religion, and I was drawn very strongly to another religious expression, and actively participated in it for approaching two decades.

And then, in the wake of 9/11, in my horror at the purported religious motives of the attackers, I began to feel as if religion was more pernicious than beneficial to humanity, and when I went to poke my sense of belief, all I got was XTC's "Dear God" and Depeche Mode's "Blasphemous Rumours." (I'm a creature of the 1980s. Deal with it.) And it stayed that way for a long time.

Nine years on, the horror reaction has diminished, and if I poke my sense of belief, I still find my chosen structure the most philosophically appealing of all the structures I've studied, and its tenets still influence my behavior. But my desire for active participation in explicitly religious ritual is still negligible.

Which is not to say I'm cutting myself off from experiences of the numinous. It's just that, for the last five years, I've gotten them (very reliably!) from rock concerts, not from Circle. Some people might argue that I'm making the performers into false idols (hey, there's a reason why we call them pop idols, right?) but I prefer to see the performers as a channel for the divine.

Huh. Okay. I guess I just answered my own question. I'm still a natural theist. I just shifted modes of worship again.

#59 ::: Will Shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 09:57 AM:

Tom @53, sometimes I merge those into two categories: those who are comfortable with doubt and those who prefer certainty.

Hmm. Another grouping that's appearing as people discuss this: those who hear categories and assume they exist as distinct groups, and those who see categories as regions on a scale.

The doing vs. being question made me think of Paul ("For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.") and James ("But someone will say, "You have faith, and I have works. Show me your faith without your works, and I will show you my faith by my works."). I'm not a Pauline Christian; I much prefer James.

But I also acknowledge that these are not distinct positions. Paul wants being to produce action. James is a little harder to pin down: he either thinks action will produce being, or he believes they proceed together, but in either case, his disagreement with Paul does not have to be seen as great.* Ultimately, they agree that deeds matter, that being involves doing.

* Well, unless you're one of those people who wants distinct categories. Then it's die, heretic, die!

#60 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 10:21 AM:

Rikibeth @ 58:

Which is not to say I'm cutting myself off from experiences of the numinous. It's just that, for the last five years, I've gotten them (very reliably!) from rock concerts, not from Circle.

Me, too, though I do find myself crying often during worship services.

However, when I'm getting off to (for instance) the Drive-By Truckers, whether they exist is not even a question.

#61 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 10:47 AM:

John A Arkansawyer @60:

However, when I'm getting off to (for instance) the Drive-By Truckers, whether they exist is not even a question.

You're crossing streams there; religion is not the same as theism. No one doubts that the Roman Catholic church exists, not even people who don't believe in God.

#62 ::: Vicki ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 11:20 AM:

Another aspect of "It's just a job" is that it's probably both more common, and more natural, to say and think that if you haven't had that job, or even kind of job, very long, and don't expect to stay there.

Twenty years on an assembly line, or as a paralegal, or any job is going to affect a person: though even then, it might feel inessential in the same way that some people don't deeply identify with where they live. Six weeks on an assembly line, followed by a month unloading groceries late at night, followed by ten hours/week in the school cafeteria around classes… isn't likely to leave a person identifying as "I am a factory worker" or "I am a stock clerk" or "I am a cafeteria worker." It might be "I am a student" or "I am going to be an accountant" or the identities might be "I am a woman, I am a country music fan, I am a tennis player, I am from Ohio, etc."

Sure, the job, even the short-term job, affects people. But we don't expect someone to identify as "I am a historian" because they're taking two history courses this semester, or introduce themselves primarily as knitters or cross-country runners because that's the current hobby.

#63 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 11:43 AM:

The nexus for all views of this proposition, pro, con, and in-between, is sex work.

The purchasers of sex work, no more than slave-owners, can handle the idea of it being merely a job to that allows one to survive. Thus we must have the Whore with the Heart of Gold meme, the Innate Depravity of Individual / Gender meme, etc. Which also leads to the Idea of Woman as Sex, rather than as Person.

Quite like slaveowners who cannot being enslaved -- the contented, feckless field hand with no worries or responsibilities, the loyal until death body servant, the grieving Quarters at the death of Master, etc.

The inner turmoil of people reduced by the surrounding society and community to what they do is what they are -- it's no wonder there are so many documented emotional breakdowns among sex workers and slaves. And with slaves what they do isn't necessarily who they legally are either. It's very difficult to negotiate these contradictory states of 'being' over which you have no control whatsoever, thus the commonality of mental breakdown.

Love, C.

#64 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 01:02 PM:

Tom Whitmore #9:

That raises the question of the nature of human sexuality and how plastic it is (the degree to which it can be stretched, moulded, and shaped; how individuals want to experiment; what we find sexually and emotionally attractive, and so forth). I suspect that that is a lot more complex than is generally thought.

I also suspect that there are differences between male and female sexuality. Does that mean that men and women are essentially different? I doubt it. I'm very suspicious of any claim to an essence. Is there a homunculus inside me that is more thoroughly me than the quotidian me?

#65 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 01:12 PM:

I still haven't figured out what I meant up at #3 so I'm going to jump on the jobs subthread instead.

I am an artist, in the broad sense of the term - my modes of expression (and skill sets therewith) vary broadly: poetry, prose, vocal or instrumental performance, music composition, cooking, painting, drawing, beadwork, photography, most of the textile crafts... I know I've forgotten a bunch of things I've fiddled with over the years. It is my nature and essence to take bits of stuff and make them into other, more intricate stuff, usually with some sort of order or meaning to it (even if that meaning is 'edible lunch' or 'I think this looks kind of cool.') This is a big part of my "am".

This also has very little to do with my job, which is (currently) low-level accounting clerk stuff (mostly data entry, some 'figure out what the problem is and whose problem it is and alert them to the needs-fixing'). At least, I would not say that I am an accounting clerk; that is merely what I do (for a living, at the moment.) The pay is okay and it's more interesting than, say, retail or call-center work, but the degree to which it expresses my identity is very limited.

Now the thing is, I've been at my current workplace for about three years now (perma-temp, it's kind of hard to explain how this happens) and one of the reasons I find satisfaction in doing the tasks I'm doing is that I find the (ostensible) mission of the organization in line with (some of) my personal religious and political values. So while I wouldn't say I am an accounting clerk, I could agree with the argument that I am a state government worker - in the sense that the department I work for (indirectly) is charged by law with executing functions of the government that I think are valuable and useful to the community as a whole - even though technically I'm not (because I'm temp.)

#66 ::: Jenavira ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 01:36 PM:

(De-lurking a little to ruminate aloud, since this is also something that I tend to think about a lot.)

I have found it most helpful to think of my capital-S Self as a construct, rather than a thing, which doesn't mean that a Self doesn't really exist as much as it means that my Self is something that I'm constantly working on. Sometimes that means it changes, like my slow acceptance that I actually do require real-world social contact in order to function happily as a human being, and sometimes it means that it strengthens over time, as I narrow down exactly what it is I want to be like and do my best to make that happen. But I've found that thinking of my Self as a work-in-progress takes away some of the trauma of major life changes (like, for instance, sitting around unemployed with a master's degree and student loans looming on the horizon).

I like Xopher's distinction (@35) between the work and the job. My work is to help people -- I get a great degree of satisfaction out of providing people with the information and resources they need to do what they need to do. That's the common thread between the job I have, the job I want, the volunteer work I do, the writing I do. The fact that the job is as a frequently-abused customer service drone...well, it's just a job, but at least it contributes to the work.

On another tangent, I also think that the difference between individuals as to what they consider to be part of their essential selves is extremely important, and potentially the source of a lot of conflict. I don't consider my sexuality very important to my concept of my Self at all, to the point where I tried to identify as asexual for a while and then just gave up because I couldn't make it fit but it didn't seem important enough to try. On the other hand, I consider my religion -- which I most definitely did choose -- to be a profoundly important part of my conception of Self, for all that's extremely unfashionable in my cultural group.

#67 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 02:10 PM:

Your last tangent, Jenavira @69, feels to me very much like what Fragano is saying at 64. And it leads to pulling together one concept I've had for a long time and another that's been nibbling at its edges.

First concept: Any discrete thing can be considered usefully as the intersection of all sets to which it belongs. That it is the intersection is trivially true (since one set it belongs to is the set consisting only of itself, it can't be something larger than that). That thinking this way is useful -- I've found it so for me, and I've seen others use something similar. Others find a different way more useful, perhaps, but that doesn't destroy its utility in some contexts.

Second idea: Set membership is a fuzzy concept. This has been implicit in how I describe the first one ("An orange is a lot of different things. It's a good source of vitamin C, an interesting subject for painting, a terrible doorstop, a mediocre substitute for a baseball [can't really hit it more than once, but you can throw it around a lot)..." and more depending on who I'm talking with. What sets it's useful-to-me to consider it belonging to at any given moment depends entirely on what use I want to make of it.

The question of what aspects of myself are essential, at the moment, is basically a question of how I'm wanting to use the concept of self. You want to use yourself religiously much more than you want to use yourself sexually (this is how I read your statement -- am I reading you correctly?). And utility is another internal measurement of individuals: I can't claim that your measure of utility is wrong. I can claim that it's different from mine, and that I think mine is more useful (to whom? to me, of course, though I may externalize that and claim it's more useful to "society", which is a whole other conversation).

And this ties into Will's comment back @59: sometimes class membership is clear, and sometimes it isn't. To deny that there are clear cases is as patently absurd as to deny that there is fuzziness. At the quantum-physical level, it's still not clear whether space/time is quantized or not (if one is, so is the other under the basic interpretations of Einsteinian thought, since they're linked by the speed of light). At the macro level, examples of each are easy to find. Whether we're uncomfortable with certainty or doubt, both exist (in the same way the Catholic Church exists, as abi points out).

Not done thinking on this. May never be.

#68 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 02:15 PM:

One factor that comes to mind as a potential small-scale test for "what I do (what I've been doing lately)" vs. "what I am (who I am)": how you react to a slur against the particular job/habit/occupation.

Five years ago I would have simply rolled my eyes at someone dismissing physical therapy as useless or oppressive. Now it drives my blood pressure right up. It's not that I didn't know how useful PT was five years ago (I'd been a patient multiple times by then, and so had my father); it's that I wasn't a PTA. My sense of purpose and self-worth is VERY STRONGLY tied to the job I've held for exactly three years today and practice only 20 hours a week.

#69 ::: Thena ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 02:35 PM:

Lila @68

I think you're onto something there - I laugh at (and regularly crack) jokes about "bean-counters" and "trolls down in accounting", but complaints about Those Damn Government Bureaucrats (particularly the kind invoking My Tax Dollars) set my teeth on edge.

(Usually doesn't help that I get the "My Tax Dollars" spew from other people whose livelihood also consists of Our Tax Dollars At Work -- I don't see how these people's heads fail to explode from the cognitive dissonance.)

#70 ::: Jenavira ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 02:50 PM:

Tom @ 67 - I wouldn't say you're wrong in your interpretation of my statement, but I don't think I've ever thought of it that way before. I tend to think of ruminations on the Self as more relevant to being rather than doing. That is to say, 'I am asexual' (a weak statement, one that I am more willing to agree with than defend) and 'I am a Pagan' (a strong statement, one that I will go to great lengths to argue about) seem to me to be very different statements than 'I have no sexual relationship and have no desire for one' and 'I practice Pagan rituals'.

But of course doing grows out of being, and influences being in its own turn, as Will has been saying. Paganism is often talked about as a religion of practice, and I would agree that I consider myself Pagan more on the basis of how I express my religious instincts than on what I believe. But I'm not sure if asexuality works the same way. If I develop a sexual relationship, even if I'm still not particularly interested in sex, am I still asexual? (This is one of the reasons why I don't consider my sexuality a particularly important part of my identity, because I really can't bring myself to care about the answer to that question.)

#71 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 03:00 PM:

Thena @ #69, the bean counters I worked with sneered at the Sales and Marketing people. Most of the time the sneering was at the S&M people's willingness to "give away the store" in order to close the deal. It was only when they could be persuaded that "those people" served a useful function (that of increasing the number of customers for the company's products) that they were willing to recognize their value.

#72 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 04:53 PM:

Jenavira @70 -- you're the one who gets to define whether you're asexual or not, even if you're in a sexual relationship. You could be putting up with the sex for any number of reasons -- it may be the only way to stay with a person who provides other amenities that you really like. I was involved with someone like that for a while, actually. And because you don't care about the answer to that question, my guess is that you'd find such a relationship possible. Lots of people put up with partners who are less than perfect in other ways, after all.

In any case, in my view -- it's your choice. And I'll learn more by being curious about your choices than by judging them. They might help me understand my own.

#73 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 05:49 PM:

abi @ 61: What makes the comparison interesting to me is I get my taste of the numinous (assuming it's really there and not simply in my mind) via purely material means without any reference beyond.

The question of the existence or not of some god or another is getting much less interesting. I suppose that's what happens when an atheist finds quarreling with theists empty of meaning.

#75 ::: salixulon ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 07:00 PM:

Tom @53: I believe in Godel's proof more than I believe in anyone's description of God.

Thanks for that! I have to find a good place to record this quote, because it nicely encapsulates an attitude I've held for some years.

(I'll add that I believe in Godel's proof more than I believe in anyone's argument that there is no God.)

#76 ::: Kip W ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 07:06 PM:

1) If I'm not doing something, I'm not sure who the heck I am. I've always defined myself by what I'm up to, I think, though not necessarily by my paying job. I didn't mind doing that when I had a gig, but otherwise, I was selling my time for money and occasionally enjoying it. These days, when I hardly ever seem to have work, I'm defining myself by my ongoing hobbies and my classes.

2) "“If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain.” "And if you're not King of the Forest at sixty, you have no courage." Thank you, whoever said that!

3) Said Plato "These things that we feel
Are not ontogenically real
But merely excrescences
Of numinous essences
Our senses can never reveal."
Thank you, National Observer!

#77 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 07:55 PM:

I have a great deal of ambivalence about the subject of essence, at least as it relates to this discussion, where we're talking about the nature of people.

On one hand, clearly there must be some categories that no human could possibly fit into ("taller than the Eiffel Tower" is one likely example), and some categories that all humans must fit into ("composed largely of eukaryotic cells" might work, depending on just how you account for the various microflora in the gut and elsewhere, but see how we've already got some fuzzyness around a category that would have been a no-brainer 50 years ago).

On the other hand, I have a real problem with applying the notion of "is a" to a human being unless its explicitly qualified by at least a specific moment in time. That's because people, like all other complex multicellular lifeforms on Earth, do not develop into a single state uniquely determined by their genes. Instead, the genes determine trajectories of development, which continue throughout the life of the person. These trajectories are also partly determined by the environment's effects on the person, but my primary point here is that the nature of a person constantly changes over the course of a lifetime in ways that are only partially controlled by the person's will, and only partially determined by heredity.

And on the gripping hand, people are multiplex beings, not far from what Greg Benford calls "anthology organisms" in some of his books. Our minds aren't single threads of consciousness (despite the illusions of existence of the homunculi behind our eyes), and our bodies consist of at least 4 different emergent systems that evolved separately and yet operate (to some extent) cooperatively. The very idea of being able to determine the "nature" of such a being at a level of detail that allows distinguishing between individuals' characteristics just by looking at externals seems highly unlikely.

On top of which, look how the categories keep changing too. As recently as a century ago I would not have been considered a member of the "White" race (I'm of Eastern European Jewish descent), today that's how the US Census wants to define me. FIfty years ago I was considered politically progressive; now, trying to see through the left-hand frame of the Overton Window I look like a revolutionary communist (slash nazi; guess how I react when someone says that?) to many.

#78 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 09:07 PM:

Abi@0, had I not been a math geek as a teenager, I wouldn't have been a high school cheerleader. You couldn't see my bad skin or underweight frame under the mascot suit, and my calculus teacher ran the cheerleaders... And @13, somebody at a con once asked me to point out my friend Hugh - "Oh, he's the large bearded guy over there who's dressed funny." The software tester who'd asked did look at me funny, but she did not hit me, because she' not a hitter, and I did point out which specific person he was.

Earl@41, Oook!

#79 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 09:49 PM:

salixulon @75: since Godel's proof is independent of the existence of (a) god, I couldn't agree with your addition more! The description of God I had in mind included the property of existence/nonexistence as one of the attributes possible.

Bruce Cohen @75: which leads us to the comment Bill Clinton's lawyer is famous for making: it depends on what "is" is. If "is" points to class-membership where classes are not necessarily exclusive entities, one can equally "be" many things, where "these properties are generally considered disjoint" becomes a stand-in for "these sets are necessarily disjoint" in common usage. "Male" and "Female" were seen as necessarily disjoint sets (in the superset of "humans") for a long time (even though historically there have been hermaphrodites back into classical times); people are now much more likely to admit to knowing people who don't fall into one or the other subset in a clear, unambiguous manner. If the statement "X is male" is taken to mean "X partakes of all the characteristics which my subset of people think are necessarily associated with the concept of 'male'", there are two essentially different types of falsification of the concept of "male": one is that X is not any of them ("No, X isn't male"); the other is that X is not at least one of the things I think is essential to being "male". The former moves X from "male" to "not-male (probably female)"; the latter says "male is not a well-defined concept in this classification system". Recognizing the existence of the latter type of falsification is very hard on some people's way of looking at the universe.

And that's part of the reason that taxonomy becomes, at some point in any discussion, an art rather than a science. And an example of why I believe that all classifications are only locally valid.

#80 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2010, 11:08 PM:

Abi was quoted in Pharyngula.
See comment #191

http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/11/survivor_pharyngula_the_anti-c.php#comments

Posted by: Pierce R. Butler | November 7, 2010 8:28 PM
Sastra & others chewing over the distinctions of what parts of "identity" are off-limits or open-season might appreciate Abi Sutherland's musings on the question at Making Light.

#81 ::: alex ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 09:07 AM:

I don't think anyone's said this, though it seems rather obvious, so forgive me if...

Doesn't the whole question of what 'identity' means depend to a great extent on what kind of 'community' you're trying to build with it?

Most human communities are discriminatory, because they're built to shape, preserve or validate a hierarchy of value - even if that value has 'tolerance' on the +side and 'discrimination' on the -side. Self-defined virtues are mere tools of discrimination in such cases. One need only tune into a space where left-leaning politics are discussed to see how vigorous [and verbally imaginative] egalitarians can be when denigrating those they oppose.

Until you find a community that is trying to construct its principle of inclusion around some ultra-capacious notion of pure personhood, you'll always be watching practices and identities being conflated and slung around as weapons.

If there is a way out, it probably has something to do with a very hard-edged and determined effort to define the boundaries of civil society in a way that is recognised as purely arbitrary, temporary, and situation/process-based. Because any effort to make it non-arbitrary, permanent and principle-based is, on the evidence of history, doomed.

#82 ::: Jenavira ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 09:12 AM:

Tom @72 - you're the one who gets to define whether you're asexual or not, even if you're in a sexual relationship.

Yes indeed. (And thank you; not everyone sees it that way.) What I'm getting at is that I'm not actually sure if asexuality (in my particular instance) is a phenomenological or essential definition. I'm not even sure if it's the right definition, so it seems impossible to predict how it might change. Which is, actually, one of the things that I very much like about the asexual community/movement -- they are very open to the idea of people identifying as asexual only for a while, or of it being a kind of catch-all definition for people who are working out what it means to be themselves. There's no one trying to police the definition of asexual, which I truly appreciate.

Also re: your 79, it's also important to remember that classifications are necessarily false to some degree: they're an oversimplification of the complexities of reality. They have to be, because anything less wouldn't be classifying people as anything other than each individual for themselves, which is hardly useful for drawing comparisons. But classifications don't occur naturally, they're a human construct, and while they might be based on naturally occurring characteristics, the fringe cases are always going to bother us.

#83 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 10:02 AM:

Jenavira @82: I think your "necessarily false to some degree" and my "only locally valid" point to the same aspect of classification. To draw in a mathematical analogy, a classification system is a mapping from many dimensions to few. Such a mapping must send certain dimensions to 0, which means that the information in those dimensions can't be recovered. (The set of dimensions this happens in is called the "kernel" -- a useful bit of jargon, IMO.) Martin Gardner once quoted a lovely bit from Lewis Carroll (from one of the Sylvie and Bruno books) about a country that developed a map that was more and more detailed, until it became an exact one-to-one version. Unfortunately, they couldn't spread it out because it would block the sun and get in everyone's way; so now they use the country as the map for itself, and it works quite as well.

I think that for some people, asexuality is a phenomenological definition, for some it's an essential one; and for some, apparently like you, it's a borderline case. And such borderline cases are very useful for helping refine a classification system, which is one of the more interesting forms of navel-gazing.

#84 ::: paul ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 12:38 PM:

Where essentialism vesus non-essentialism (be vs do) gets you somewhere, I think, is where the valences of the things done are potentially different from the valence of the identity they ostensibly add up to. Which depends crucially on the hangups and prejudices of the onlookers.

That's one reason I think that the essentialistish arguments about sexual orientation are ultimately a blind alley: they only work when trying to convince people whose attitudes toward sex and personal relationships aren't deeply broken in other ways.

Of course, this works in many directions. Consider my old friend K, who is a philosopher, a very nice, thoughtful person, and a deeply kind and moral individual. He also does work, for a very nice paycheck, that regularly throws hundreds, sometimes thousands of people out of work, impoverishing them and stripping their dignity, with the sole goal of enriching his firm's clients and the firm itself.

#85 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 03:17 PM:

Will, #19: There are a surprising number of people who do appear to define themselves by their jobs. Ask them to describe themselves, and the first thing they say is what they do for a living.

Back when I was a computer programmer, I did for the most part enjoy what I did in that capacity, but it was by no means the central core of my identity. I was fannish, and a contradancer, and an SCAer, and a book-lover, and I had 2 cats. Oh, yes, and I was a computer programmer. The job wasn't my life; it was what I did to fund my life. And I see that Mike did a better job of describing this @ #34.

Tom, #31: I have a story similar to yours. I am one of those people with no talent for drawing whatsoever, to the extent that one of my definitions for visual art is, "Could I do that? If I could, then it's not art." And yet... in a box in the attic, along with various other bits of flotsam from my high-school and college days, there's a sketchbook from the one and only art class I ever took. In it, there are some sketches that flatly amaze me to look at, mostly studies of some random item such as a section of dead tree branch. I see those things, and I know that I must have done them, but I have no memory of the process and I know I couldn't do anything like that now. My creativity expresses itself in other ways.

Will, #44: Citing that Churchill quote, when you yourself stand as a direct refutation to it (surely you aren't claiming to be brainless?), strikes me as an odd way to defend your position.

Lila, #68: FWIW, I'd be right in there with you arguing with someone dissing the value of PT. It gave me back the use of my hand after I broke my wrist (I can even still play guitar, although not quite as comfortably as before), and of my arm after the shoulder surgery. Without it, I'd be half-crippled.

Linkmeister, #71: The usual complaint about Sales & Marketing people around here is that their willingness to blithely say whatever the customer wants to hear in order to close the sale (even if the product CANNOT in fact do what they're promising) may add to short-term profits, but in the long run is going to negatively affect the company's bottom line and customer base. IOW, they are not doing their job as you define it here.

Abi: While I did enjoy the "When did you choose to be straight?" video, I can say from experience that this tactic will fail at least as often as it succeeds. The answer you get from a lot of people (although generally they don't phrase it in exactly these terms) is, "I didn't need to. Being straight is the default condition for humans, as created by God. It's only people who choose to go against God's will who have to make a decision about it."

And then there was the completely WTF conversation I had with one cow-orker, who was convinced that BOTH "gay" and "straight" were choices, and moreover, that they were specifically defined by who you chose to have sex with. So it was meaningless to say that a virgin was either gay or straight, because they hadn't made that choice yet. Lest this sound more accepting than it was, the underpinning of the argument was still that being gay was the WRONG choice, as commanded by God.

#86 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 04:52 PM:

Lee @ #85, you write "in the long run [saying whatever the customer wants to hear] is going to negatively affect the company's bottom line and customer base. IOW, they are not doing their job as you define it here."

Most of us knew that. Unfortunately, the company owner was a Sales and Marketing guy himself. We decided refraining from expressing that too frequently was choosing the better part of valor, particularly after being slapped down in managers' meetings a few times.

#87 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 06:50 PM:

Tom Whitmore @ 79 & 83:
And that's part of the reason that taxonomy becomes, at some point in any discussion, an art rather than a science. And an example of why I believe that all classifications are only locally valid. ...
And such borderline cases are very useful for helping refine a classification system, which is one of the more interesting forms of navel-gazing.

As long as you recognize the artificiality of any classification system (a thematic map is most especially not the territory), they can be immensely useful. As a retired ontological engineer0, I can attest to the usefulness of a well-thought-out taxonomy when trying to create a set of objects which work together to achieve some purpose1.

That may be a crucial difference between people who accept others wherever possible and people who accept or reject others based on arbitrary rules: if you've had to look at the effects of using different rules to find that the rules really are arbitrary and the details are not terribly important, you're a lot less willing to accept any rules without some good reason2.

0. Every since I read "The Fuller Memorandum", I've been envious of Dr. Mo O'Brien, who has the job title "Combat Epistemologist". Maybe I could come back from retirement as a "Combat Ontologist", once I figure out exactly what that is. Maybe it's someone who creates and destroys things in battle?

1. Since purpose is solely an attribute of living organisms, it's necessarily relative to the organism that acts on the purpose; any taxonomy that's created for that purpose is thus also relative to that purpose and that organism.

2. A reason better than "because I (or the high priest or the holy scripture) says so, so there".

#88 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 07:09 PM:

Lee, #85, I've never been able to draw, so I took the class (based on the book) Drawing on the Right Side of Your Brain by the author at the Smithsonian. Turns out I still can't draw; she couldn't figure out why.

#89 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2010, 11:56 PM:

Bruce Cohen @87: agreeing completely. The world is too complex to deal with without classifying things (which is why the Dadaist concept of 'pataphysics was so clearly absurd). I merely think that refining classifications is a task which has no set end-point (because all classifications are either incomplete or inconsistent if they're complex enough to be useful -- a fairly simple consequence of Godel's theorem).

I wouldn't quite say that "purpose is solely an attribute of living organisms," though. I'd say that attribution of purpose is only something that living organisms can do. That may be hairsplitting (lengthwise tetracapillotomy) but it feels important to me.

#90 ::: will shetterly ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 02:02 AM:

Lee, I've been thinking about clever people lately. One thought is that they can be extraordinarily clever and still be prisoners of the systems that produced them. (This is why it's easy for me to forgive folks who have not transcended their social indoctrination.) Churchill was a creation of his world. He had a limited understanding of how morality evolves, but he sensed that if you pursue capitalism for twenty years, you'll be changed: his statement is all about doing and being. He just didn't grasp that the being which his preferred doing would create would not be admirable to folks who had kept their hearts.

#91 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 01:40 PM:

re 64: ???!?!???!!????

Of all the differences we can talk about here between people-as-class-members, that between men and women is the only one which we can not only call an essential difference, but we can spell out down to the chromosome as to where that difference lies. The problem (since we're using Aristotlean language) is in the realization of that difference in the accidents of individual men and women. The typical fallacy in comparing classes of people is that variation within classes tends to reach (and rather often exceeds) the difference between the medians of the classes, so that when we aren't talking about the differences in sexual plumbing (and some other more subtle physiological differences) we're talking about a comparison between two broadly spread and heavily overlapping bell curves. In that context I personally don't find the comparisons that striking, because the chances are good that a pair of individuals randomly picked from the two classes will defy the stereotypes.

The converse of this is that I get really uncomfortable when I meet an insistence that all sexual relationships are more or less alike. I don't see how this notion can be made to work without taking infertile relationships as the norm and fertile relationships as a more or less trivial variation. Leaving aside the biological imperative to reproduce1, the reality is that a child, even a potential child, is a profoundly relationship-changing thing. A relationship which lives in anticipation/peril of producing a child is engaged in some very basic and powerful emotional forces which I have to think produce something of a different color from a relationship from which childbearing is excluded.2

1 by which I mean the continuation of the species requires it, not that any particular couple have to produce offspring

2 I'm not ignoring adoption or fostering here, but these establish a parental relationship quite divorced from any sexual relationship. After all, a celibate couple could still adopt.

#92 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 02:04 PM:

My friend Matt has a button: "I am more committed to truth, than to consistency."

#93 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 02:37 PM:

Jacque @92: A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.

Actually, I thought it was the consistency of custard with a bit of pastry thrown in.

#94 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 02:50 PM:

C Wingate @91:

Men and women are very separate classes as long as you ignore the edge cases: intersex people, people with non-standard chromosomal patterns (I have two friends who are neither XX nor XY), transgender people. These are real human beings you're ignoring. Not nice.

The converse of this is that I get really uncomfortable when I meet an insistence that all sexual relationships are more or less alike.

Alike is not the same as equal. I don't even think all monogamous heterosexual monocultural monolinguistic sexual relationships between people of approximately the same age are alike. How could they be? People aren't alike, not singly, and certainly not in pairs.

So what?

I don't see how this notion can be made to work without taking infertile relationships as the norm and fertile relationships as a more or less trivial variation.

Why is one thing the norm and the other the variation? Seriously, why? Are there other things that you consider norm vs variation? Age similarity? Linguistic and cultural similarity? Similar social class? Race? Why or why not?

A relationship which lives in anticipation/peril of producing a child is engaged in some very basic and powerful emotional forces which I have to think produce something of a different color from a relationship from which childbearing is excluded.

Indeed. So does a relationship where one member is of a sufficiently different age than another that one will die sooner. So does a relationship where one member has been abused. Every relationship is different, and has a different color.

The most important thing about my marriage is not that Tab Y went into Slot X twice in a set of circumstances that led to babies. What goes on in bed is only the tiniest fraction of a small piece of what it means to be in a lifelong committed relationship, which is only one of the ways that human beings relate to one another in emotionally significant and intimate ways.

Why does that have to bake your noodle so very much?

#95 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 03:31 PM:

Jenavira @66: thinking of my Self as a work-in-progress

Hum, hrm. I actually have a thought. ("Don't scare it! It's in a strange place." "Quiet, you.")

The core of my conflict with my mother when I was a kid was that, any time she could detect it, she would do her level best to root out and eradicate my True Self. She Didn't Approve. I think she thought she was just trying to disabuse me of unhealthy thoughts, beliefs, and ideas, but those thoughts, beliefs, and ideas were (are) so intrinsic to Who I Am that it felt like ongoing attempted psychic murder.

Iguanacon ('78 Worldcon) blew the top of my head off, because, for the first time in my life, I could be among company, and be who I really was.

More recently, I've encountered a life coach who, while I like a number of his ideas and find them useful, is not somebody I am able to follow with any real enthusiasm, because the core of his model, nearly as I can tell, is the effort to "become who you want to be."

For me, I already am me, my process is uncovering that and being more fully and clearly MySelf. His process seems geared to pull me away to being somebody else.

On the other hand, I consider my religion -- which I most definitely did choose

Heh. I find that I'm with the Campus Crusade for Cthulhu: "It found me" (in the words of the old bumper sticker). Reading Starhawk's Spiral Dance, I finally could put a name to it: "Oh, that's what I am!"*

While I may change the words and metaphors I use to describe it depending on the audience, I can no more change my "religion" than I can change the color of my eyes.

*And will somebody please tell Margot Adler to put out a new edition of Drawing Down the Moon? I'd love to read it, but the typesetting in the standard edition is hopelessly borked.

#96 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 04:01 PM:

Abi, an abnormal human is still a human. I think this would easier if you would stop taking such an adversarial reading of what I'm saying on these issues, because one cannot make a coherent and short argument by stepping up to all the edge cases, and it is inevitably annoying to be assigned intent for having done so. Anyway, people with abnormal chromosome patterns are essentially different, in the nice precise technical sense of the word. You blew right on by my mention of "accidents", but it applies even more so in this context and in those with abnormal sexual development.1 The point I'm trying to get at is not that the essential differences are all-determining; it's that there does come a point at which physiology manifests itself irreducibly no matter how much we try to "equalize" it over. We need to live somewhere between the extremes of "everything arises from the essential differences" and "people have no essential differences", because both positions are false. As I said, most of the time the accidental differences between people are what are important, so in practice I'm a lot closer to the second position. But I'm not all the way there.

"Alike is not the same as equal": true, but then, what is "equal"? Is it anything greater than equality of legal standing? After all, the rest of your response could lead to an argument that no relationships are equal because there is no similitude on which to base that equality.

Lots of things do color a relationship, and many of them are more or less trivial and (again I'm using the technical sense) accidental even when they dominate the relationship. Biologically, though, childbearing and childrearing are connected to the essence of sexuality in a way that all these other things are not. We can create a divorce between them, but but the overwhelming majority of humans through time and in in all places did not and do not. From a statistical point of view, the norm is sexual relationships and a social covenant forming the context of parenthood. I specifically exclude the sense of "norm" that implies an obligation to do so, and I wish you'd switch to a different term so I don't have to keep raising that distinction.

What's ironic, Abi, is that in your last sentence you are entirely consistent with my point!2 It's not the sex that makes the difference; it's the family. When you say "lifelong committed relationship", everything that goes on in the (I hope lifelong) covenanted relationship with my wife is carried out under the obligations we have towards our children. They are not accessories to our relationship; they are participants in it. Everything changed with our first son's birth,3 and nothing will ever be quite the same between my wife and I as it was before he was conceived.

If you want to take evolutionary psychology seriously (which I'm not sure I want to), the reason we have the institution of marriage is because it fosters the having of offspring who go on to have their own offspring and so on through the centuries. It just seems really weird to me to continually talk about marriage while doggedly ignoring the reality that a marriage with kids in it is a profoundly different beast than one that does not have them. We can go on to talk about equality at great length (and to be brief, part of the justification for such equality is that most marriages go through two childless periods) but any such equality has to bridge over what is, in the end, and essential difference.

1 and please please please skip the screed about how I'm condemning or otherwise belittling people by calling them abnormal. Please recall that I have an abnormal son of my own.

2 except that "tab A/slot B" stuff, which trivializes the content of sexual relationships.

3 well, everything changed first when we bought a house, but that's a financial marriage of a different color.

#97 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 04:09 PM:

re myself: To shortcut one round of this discussion: I understand the need to make homosexual marriages/unions/whatever-you-want-to-call-them equal to the age-old type under the law. The unintended consequence is that in establishing that equality, they get the millenia-of-recorded-history accumulated baggage along with the de jure recognition of their relationships.

#98 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 04:23 PM:

Marilee @88 Do you still have any of the drawings you made?

#99 ::: Raphael ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 04:24 PM:

It's a very minor point, and it's two days late, but for the record:

Will Shetterly @44, "Maybe Churchill's smug saying-- “If you're not a liberal at twenty you have no heart, if you're not a conservative at forty you have no brain.”--says that if you do something long enough, you'll become something different. Twenty years of the capitalism game can hone the brain and shrink the heart."

Churchill was a Conservative Party activist at twenty, and an active and well-known politician in the Liberal Party at forty. (He switched back later.) Also, in his day, in the UK, "Liberal" had still mostly the old-school proto-libertarian meaning, so if he had talked about left-wing views like that, he wouldn't have used "Liberal" as an acronym for "leftist". (I don't know where that quote is originally from, or what he original exact wording was; I've seen it attributed to Clemenceau, but that might be equally apocryphal.)

#100 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 05:22 PM:

The unintended consequence is that in establishing that equality, they get the millennia-of-recorded-history accumulated baggage along with the de jure recognition of their relationships.

And this makes those marriages different from everyone else's marriages how?

#101 ::: albatross ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 06:01 PM:

PJ:

I think it makes those marriages alike, in the sense that having your pair-bond called "marriage" imports a whole big set of cultural and legal and moral and religious assumptions. That's what I as C Wingate's point there.

On the other end of that, many long-term couples don't get married, pretty explicitly to avoid importing that set of assumptions.

#102 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 06:40 PM:

Mine is more that these are people who want the cultural and legal 'baggage' that comes with marriage. Because it's privilege.

#103 ::: Joel Polowin ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 06:58 PM:

A number of years ago, my mother asked me how I would answer if someone asked me "What are you?" I struggled with the question for a moment, and told her that I couldn't answer it without context -- that I was many things: a human being, a scientist, a programmer, a science fiction fan, and on and on. She seemed pleased; she told me that many people define themselves solely by what work they do.

Now, I think that if someone asked me that question without being willing to provide context, I'd say that I am myself, defined by example. (I've seen too many stupid Vorlon quibbles.)

#104 ::: Allan Beatty ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 10:42 PM:

C Wingate at # 91: "The typical fallacy in comparing classes of people is that variation within classes tends to reach (and rather often exceeds) the difference between the medians of the classes, so that when we aren't talking about the differences in sexual plumbing (and some other more subtle physiological differences) we're talking about a comparison between two broadly spread and heavily overlapping bell curves."

Vive les différences!

#105 ::: C. Wingate ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 10:44 PM:

re 102: It isn't all privilege, and believing otherwise is going to lead to a lot of unhappiness and disruption.

#106 ::: TexAnne ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 10:52 PM:

C. Wingate: Did you just say that gays are better off without the heartaches of legal divorce?

#107 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 09, 2010, 10:58 PM:

C. Wingate, #105: Yeah, you need to unpack that a bit -- because as stated, it sounds like you're playing word games with the various definitions of "privilege".

#108 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 01:20 AM:

C Wingate @96:
I think this would easier if you would stop taking such an adversarial reading of what I'm saying on these issues, because one cannot make a coherent and short argument by stepping up to all the edge cases, and it is inevitably annoying to be assigned intent for having done so.

Well, when you come into a discussion with a couple of quite significant of strawmen that no one in the thread was discussing, set them up, and commence whacking, it's hard not to see you as somewhat overly agenda-driven. Particularly when, your comment 97 notwithstanding, they're part of a whole paragraph of anti-marriage equality talking points, disgorged verbatim.

Strawmen:
1. an insistence that all sexual relationships are more or less alike

No one in the entire thread was even remotely talking about "sexual relationships being more or less alike" before you set out to disprove it.

Now you're running down the "equal" track. I'd say "equal in entitlement to legal recognition and societal tolerance". In other words, protect relationships with legal force and respect the right of consenting adults to do what they choose.

2. taking infertile relationships as the norm and fertile relationships as a more or less trivial variation.

I asked why we have to make a norm and a variation. I still want to know that. Why does our model of relationships have to be structured as though there is a norm and a variation?

And the idea that "infertile relationships are the norm" rather than fertile ones comes out of, I can only guess, a discussion with a very different pattern of thinking than here. It's certainly not the norm in society right now, as many childless people here will tell you with some vexation (see the On moving to Bolivia Particle). If you're going to argue that the norm is going to change, it might be useful if you showed your work on how that comes about. Because as you yourself point out, even with gays allowed to marry, the numbers and the culture are still with fertile or potentially fertile relationships sitting in the comfortable majority.

On the subject of gender presentation, what you said was:

that between men and women is the only one which we can not only call an essential difference, but we can spell out down to the chromosome as to where that difference lies. The *problem* (since we're using Aristotlean language) is in the realization of that difference in the accidents of individual men and women.

I cited three examples of classes of people who differ, either in accident or essence, from that statement. A model of humanity that excludes all three is definitionally incomplete, in my book.

1. Intersex people are people who present with both male and female accidents, right down to the plumbing. Depending on the context in which the accidents are being evaluated, I could cite some highly androgenous people I have known, since unless they're naked, you can't determine by visible accident what they are.
2. Non-standard chromosomal patterns. I have friends who do not have the ordinary sex chromosome configurations. One presents as male, the other as female, but the point is, those people don't fit into neat chromosomal boxes. This is similar to, but not the same as, for instance Down's Syndrome, which does not have an effect on gender.
3. Transgender people, whose wetware doesn't match their hardware. Maybe you want to say, "they're in a box, even if it's the wrong one," in which case, fine, for the purposes of this argument.

Onward.

What's ironic, Abi, is that in your last sentence you are entirely consistent with my point!

Except that you privilege your particular form of relationship, that of a fertile partnership, above others. I do not. Quite explicitly do not, though I'm in the same sort of relationship myself. I've seen enough of other sorts of relationships that are (in my particular dialect) channels of grace, that I don't agree that there is one and only one sort that is special, and should be privileged above all others.

The point I'm trying to get at is not that the essential differences are all-determining; it's that there does come a point at which physiology manifests itself irreducibly no matter how much we try to "equalize" it over. We need to live somewhere between the extremes of "everything arises from the essential differences" and "people have no essential differences", because both positions are false. As I said, most of the time the accidental differences between people are what are important, so in practice I'm a lot closer to the second position. But I'm not all the way there.

An excellent and interesting point, which would have been much more effective had it been not been set in the midst of a bunch of talking points.

If you're asking why these musings of yours tend to go wrong, it's because you're kind of prone to doing this. You have something you want to discuss, but you set it in the midst of something sufficiently obnoxious and offensive that half the people who would be interested in talking about it write you off as an out and out jerk. Then whoever feels they can't let the obnoxious and offensive stuff stand steps in, and you feel attacked.

Try using less...pointed examples, maybe? Or not, in this case, attaching a screed about the special character of fertile sex (for all that you're complaining that what I said trivializes the content of sexual relationships, you're the one who talked about how only fertile relationships have that special color. I thought that...not trivialized, but understated the complex importance of sexual relationships, and committed relationships in general).

It just seems really weird to me to continually talk about marriage while doggedly ignoring the reality that a marriage with kids in it is a profoundly different beast than one that does not have them. e can go on to talk about equality at great length (and to be brief, part of the justification for such equality is that most marriages go through two childless periods) but any such equality has to bridge over what is, in the end, and essential difference.

Again with the talking points! That's a very different thing than a marriage where the kids are the offspring of both parents. Many gay couples have kids, either by adoption, from previous heterosexual relationships, from artificial insemination. If you want to differentiate between couples with children and couples without children, run with it. But the mix of heterosexual and homosexual doesn't end up where the law puts it.

And if, as the whole "color of the relationship" thing implies, you want to separate out marriages that "might have children", then you're far, far further into people's bedrooms than I would ever want to go.

(Actually, this whole discussion is farther into many places than I think it's needful to go. I may not respond in this much detail in future.)

#109 ::: chris ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 08:28 AM:

I asked why we have to make a norm and a variation. I still want to know that. Why does our model of relationships have to be structured as though there is a norm and a variation?

Essentialism? The belief that categories can be reduced to a "typical" example, other examples that are pretty much like the typical example, and maybe some assorted deviants practically defines essentialism, doesn't it?

Then, if you also believe in the immutability of essences, any individual phenomenon (or person) in that category can become one of the deviants and wriggle around a little, but they can't cross the boundary of the category, because that would be changing their essence. Cue the surprise when they walk through the boundary as if it wasn't there -- because it isn't, it's only in the categorizer's mind.

And thus people fail to understand human growth, evolution, and many other processes of incremental change that can add up to a whole lot. As well as not being able to define what a heap is.

I'm a radical anti-essentialist. Essentialism is putting the cart of our own convenient mental constructs (i.e. categories) before the horse of actual people, things, and processes that exist in the actual universe. There are no essences, only labels, and actual people and things don't always obey the label you put on them five minutes ago. Tough luck. And if you have trouble finding an appropriate label in the first place, *revise your damned labeling system* and don't try to redraw the territory to fit the map.

#110 ::: Serge ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 09:32 AM:

chris @ 109... if you have trouble finding an appropriate label in the first place, *revise your damned labeling system* and don't try to redraw the territory to fit the map

Or...

"If allowing exceptions to the rules will lead to Chaos, then let's change the rules."

#111 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 12:47 PM:

abi @108: relationships that are (in my particular dialect) channels of grace

I made sufficient meaning of this phrase to parse your comment satisfactorily in context. But it is a very evocative turn of phrase, and I want to know more of your thinking about this idea. Please expand and describe!

Thank you, that is all.

#112 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 01:33 PM:

chris @109:

The belief that categories can be reduced to a "typical" example, other examples that are pretty much like the typical example, and maybe some assorted deviants practically defines essentialism, doesn't it?

Not as I define it; not as I've been using it here. Not at all.

What I'm getting at with essentialism is the notion that there is some definitional part of who we are that is not determined by what we do. In the words of one famous philosopher, "I yam what I yam."*

That doesn't require a single natural essence of which everyone—or even a large number of people—partakes. It doesn't even require a finite number of essences; people can be more than one thing at once. It's really about mutability, not fitting in or categorization.

There are no essences, only labels, and actual people and things don't always obey the label you put on them five minutes ago. Tough luck.

An essentialist would say it depends if the label/expected behavior describes the key element of the essence labeled, or is peripheral to it.

Frex, the category "homosexual" has traditionally been labeled as having the attribute "unwilling to commit to permanent relationships". It turns out that that label isn't true; some gays march in the streets for the right to have their permanent relationships protected by law. That doesn't change the essence of them being homosexual†; that essence is about the people whom they love, not whether or not they form permanent relationships.

-----
* then he washed his spinach
† obRestofThread, to the extent that it is essential

#113 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 02:37 PM:

Jacque @111:

Channels of grace. Hm. How to describe? How to translate from the complex and layered set of definitions and assumptions that go with that word within my religious tradition?

Basically, grace is the effect of the fire hose of God's love being pointed at you. It makes you a better person. It makes you want to be one, and it makes it easy for you to follow that desire. But you can't earn it, and, apart from a few circumstances*, you can't predict when it's going to hit. There are states of mind and life that put you in a better position to run with it if you do get the fire hose pointed your way, but you really do not get to choose when it hits.

As the song goes, it's amazing stuff.

A good secular translation of the term would probably be "undeserved, unexpected and transformative wonderfulness", as long as you remember that it can be as wonderful as a roller coaster or a bungee jump, rather than as wonderful as an ice cream cone on a hot day.

Some relationships transform the people in them, make them better human beings. The good ones do that. And I've seen enough nonstandard ones that do that I can't pretend that grace is an reserved for heterosexual pairings.

-----
*the technical term for those circumstances is "sacraments"

#114 ::: lorax ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 04:43 PM:

C. Wingate @91:

A relationship which lives in anticipation/peril of producing a child is engaged in some very basic and powerful emotional forces which I have to think produce something of a different color from a relationship from which childbearing is excluded.

So where do you put my wife and I, when we were trying desparately to have a kid that would be biologically one of ours (an endeavor that ultimately failed for reasons unrelated to the fact that we're both women?) Among my dear friends I count a lesbian couple with two kids (one biological kid from each mom) and several straight couples with adopted children. Which of these do you consider to have "lived in peril/anticipation of producing a child?"

If you haven't actually gone through trying to have kids via means other than, as Abi puts it, "Tab A / Slot B", you should perhaps refrain from speculating on the emotional content of such attempts, or their effects on a relationship.

#115 ::: Constance ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 05:02 PM:

C. Wingate @91

Total insult to our marriage. Which celebrated its 30 anniversary this year. In which no children were ever envisioned. Yet constantly people comment on how close we are tied, how our lives mesh, how our marriage produces these 'products' that enough people have demonstrated have value that we are awed and humbled, and which, would never have happened without this marriage of us.

Love, c.

#116 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 05:53 PM:

I've never had kids. My brothers have. And I do agree that having kids makes a serious difference, logistically and otherwise. That doesn't mean that childless relationships aren't potentially as deep, as complex, as interesting as ones with children; just that there's a different center to them.

Chosen family is family. Raising children is raising children. The genders of the people involved may have an effect, but (IMO) it's a lot less than the basic effect of doing the work, having the relationship, and being there. The primary reason I support gay marriage is my gay friends who report that their families treat them differently (and better) when they can say their married, as compared to how they were treated before the marriage.

What's difficult to understand about this?

#117 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 06:46 PM:

abi @113: Okay, cool. I almost correctly deduced what you meant. The conceptualization that came into my mind at seeing that turn of phrase was more "pointed through you" than your "pointed at you." I'll wager both can equally apply. Possibly even simultaneously.

Hm. Thinking about it more, are you saying that you (abi in particular) experience "channel of grace" as being on the receiving end of God's love?

#118 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 06:57 PM:

Well now, are we talking about "relationships" or about "families"? They're not the same conversation. But I'll make the question even harder by asking why either one of those conversations has to be about couples? Who determines what these categories are, and where their borders lie? I think the answer is that every one who believes in essentialism tries to define the categories they use, and none of them are in a rationally privileged position to do so.

There's no reason why any definition of human relations needs to be declared by some official source and applied by force of law or custom to all those who claim the relation. Let's talk about marriage for a second. Why does there need to be a definition of marriage in law? Why can't there just be a definition of the legal consequences of calling someone your "partner", and standard ways to declare that and to undeclare it? It depends greatly on the purpose of the definition, doesn't it?

Legal definitions are not essential categories; if they were the US wouldn't be saddled with 50 different state legal systems and 50 different sets of lawyers. Confusing the two causes great harm to people (often intentionally).

#119 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 07:51 PM:

For what it's worth, I follow Michael Warner's argument that marriage is inherent discriminatory on the basis of people's intimate lives, and that gay marriage is thus a bad idea. The better route for Warner (I agree with this, too) is to take the state out of the marriage business for everyone as France has. Want a civil union, go to the state; want a marriage, go to the church.

The French system is quite interesting. You can get something much like a traditional marriage there, and something much like a common law marriage. You can also get a civil union, in which the two being married can be same sex, different sex, or, for that matter, elderly sibling with the need to care for one another's health and finances.

Of course, that's not happening in Our Fair Country, so I support gay marriage since abolishing straight marriage isn't happening any time soon, but it's not my favored solution.

#120 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 07:56 PM:

Marriage privileges people who like each other. What about people who can't stand each other? Where are there rights?

Needless to say, tongue inserted firmly into cheek.

#121 ::: Steve C. ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 07:56 PM:

And I can't spell properly after a glass of Shiraz, apparently. Their.

#122 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 08:12 PM:

Oh, I thought you were spelling it the way people who make equally ridiculous arguments (What about siblings marrying? Next you'll be able to marry your dog!) were likely to spell it. But blame it on the Shiraz if you want; I'm sure many of them blame it on the Night Train whatever they're drinking.

#123 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 08:23 PM:

Bruce Cohen @118: expanding the conversation to include polyamory doesn't make it harder for me at all. I'm in favor of it.

There may not be any reason why any definition of human relations needs to be declared by some official source, but we live in a society where this happens. In the long run, I'd like to change that fact. In the short run, I'll work to change it in ways that actually work.

There are poly friends in my family. That they're in my family means I'll fight for their right to be poly, and to express who they are in their own particular way. If they want marriage: I'll support them (and work to prevent what they want being perverted by others). If what they want triggers me being squicked -- I'll talk with them and try to figure out who's right. Sometimes my squick is right; sometimes it isn't. I can only separate the two by conversation.

#124 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 08:30 PM:

I ought to light a candle to St Jude.

I'm going to try to explain why I thought C Wingate's comment made sense.

It's like this. One of the big differences between driving and riding a bike is that when riding a bike, I don't need to consider that I might accidentally kill someone. Now, there are lots of similarities (I can get to work either way) and lots of within-category differences (from one perspective, a semi and a car are as different as a bike and a car--but there's an underlying default that I have to worry about in one case, and don't in the other. (I could probably kill someone with my bike, but I'd have to try.)

I took C Wingate to be saying something similar. Relationships where "what if she gets pregnant" is a necessary consideration, rather than something that would require planning, have one factor--a pretty significant one both personally and socially--that is different.

#125 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 08:33 PM:

SamChevre: don't forget to promise publication.

One that makes a difference, yes. One that ought to be grounds for a legal distinction, no.

#126 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 08:42 PM:

I'm not at all certain that what should make a legal difference is determinable without reference to religious or quasi-religious considerations. (Any question of "what good ought to be sought" or even "what is and isn't good" is IMO functionally religious--it can't be neutrally determined.)

#127 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 08:53 PM:

Jacque, #98, yep, they're in a folder out in the storeroom.

#128 ::: OtterB ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 09:04 PM:

Okay, that caused a thread-hopping double take. Over on the gears-on-your-staff thread, Janet Brennan Croft @266 said, in admiration of the truly epic spam Can't we have simple infinite-length posts around here?

And then I came over here, and Marilee @127 said yep, they're in a folder out in the storeroom.

And my head spun for a moment. And I wondered how BIG a folder it needed to be.

#129 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 09:22 PM:

Bruce, #118: While I know this isn't how you mean it, a form of that argument is pretty much the exact one used by many people on the anti-gay-marriage side to support "separate-but-equal" things like "civil unions" for gays, while the term "marriage" continues to be applied solely to het couples.

The problem here, of course, is that the term itself is privileged -- all those hundreds of automatically-conferred legal and social benefits, all the "baggage" that C. Wingate refers to above, those are NOT going to be automatically assumed to be equally applicable to a "civil union". This is why the pro-gay-marriage side is insisting that it must be called marriage. The next step beyond that will be opening it up to non-traditional relationships that include more than 2 people... and when it gets to that point, we're going to have to go thru this whole brouhaha all over again, because once again, if (frex) a polyfamily doesn't get to define itself as "we're all married to each other," then we're back to separate-but-equal again.

SamChevre, #124: Yes, I think we all got that part. The problem is that there was also some subtext which seemed to be claiming that marriages with children (specifically, with children produced by the Tab A/Slot B method) were somehow more real than those without.

#130 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 09:36 PM:

Lee @129 -- we are the chorus, and we agree. Support doesn't always come in e-mail.

#131 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 10, 2010, 09:50 PM:

SamChevre 126: I'm not at all certain that what should make a legal difference is determinable without reference to religious or quasi-religious considerations.

If you can't make a cogent argument that it should make a legal difference without reference to religious considerations, then at least in the United States it shouldn't make a legal difference. That's called Separation of Church and State. What's the compelling state interest here? How does making the legal distinction help society, or the failure to make it harm it? Absent those, it's just plain old homophobia.

Not quite sure what you mean by "quasi-religious." I suspect I'd make the same argument there, but I'd hesitate until I'm sure exactly what you mean.

(Any question of "what good ought to be sought" or even "what is and isn't good" is IMO functionally religious--it can't be neutrally determined.)

Not true. There's science for these things. Are children materially harmed by being raised in gay households? (They aren't.) Does gay marriage lead to economic chaos? (No, it promotes economic stability, according to The Economist.) Does marriage equality harm the "institution of marriage" in any concrete way? (Not that anyone has been able to describe coherently, no.) Are children adopted by same-sex couples better off or worse off than they would be if they stayed in the foster care system? (Debatable only if you think exposure to evoll sodomites trumps all criteria of economic, emotional, social, and educational well-being.)

#132 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 05:13 AM:

Marilee @127: yep, they're in a folder out in the storeroom.

I would be curious to see them. (I'm a hopeless process junkie. I'm eternally fascinated by how brains function, especially where function manifests in perception and expression.)

#133 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 06:39 AM:

There's science for these things. Are children materially harmed by being raised in gay households?...

My point comes a step prior. I maintain that there's no neutral answer to "Are those the right questions?"

#134 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 07:04 AM:

SamChevre @133 -- then how would you have us ask questions? Questions, indeed, aren't entirely neutral; given that, is neutrality worth striving for, or can we agree that some questions are neutral enough to be worth asking? And if we can't agree on that, what can we agree on?

#135 ::: John A Arkansawyer ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 07:26 AM:

Lee @ 129: That default privileging of the term "marriage" is yet another good reason to completely take the state out of the marriage business. While people talk about the sacredness of marriage and all that, what turns out to be determinative for a lot them is the state privileges granted to people who have mutually continent sex lives.

Again, I know that's not coming any time soon. I'm willing to temporize by supporting gay marriage. But marriage itself is the institution which privileges certain sex lives and certain arrangements of one's intimate behavior, and it's marriage which needs to be deprivileged. None of this will happen under today's society, which is another good reason for more thorough change.

I'm surely not doing Warner's arguments justice, and probably have my own ideas leaking in, so: The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Marriage, and the Ethics of Queer Life.

#136 ::: SamChevre ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 08:01 AM:

Tom Whitmore @ 134

I think that gets back to abi's original post. Figuring out in any individual case what the important questions are is hard and (IMO) non-neutral. Figuring out what the appropriate class of questions is in general is harder and less neutral.

In my opinion (which I think is well-founded, but then I would) the best available answer is to have as few general questions as possible. That's why I lean very libertarian politically, but very socially conservative personally and socially--I think if the state isn't involved, societies at whatever the appropriate scale is can ask the questions that they think are the right ones.

#137 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 12:06 PM:

SamChevre @136: I can understand that viewpoint, and I take a very different tack from the same information. I like looking at general questions. It helps me frame which specific questions I want to ask. In a time-limited frame, specific questions are all that can be answered (This person in front of me has blood spurting from a wound, it's pulsing, what do I do now? [direct pressure, stat!]); as the time frame gets larger, less specific questions become more important (Should I try to cross the street now, or wait for the light?). General questions have their place. So do specific ones. Privileging either one a priori misses the value of context.

And, as you say -- of course I think I'm right about this.

#138 ::: Jeremy Leader ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 01:24 PM:

I think it's worth pointing out that we've seen two distinct uses of the term "essential" here.

There's the idea of "essential" as opposed to "phenomenological", when dealing with an individual. That is, is something about that individual part of who they *are*, or what they *do*. Even that idea has several shadings: doing vs. being, and permanent vs. impermanent. Note that this idea of "essential" can be applied (or rejected) in the context of a single unique individual, without any consideration of other individuals or groups.

Then there's the idea of "essential" when categorizing individuals into groups. This is where we talk about "differences between groups" and "differences within groups", to use statistical language. Something is "essential" to a given group of individuals when having that characteristic defines those individuals as belonging to that group. Such a characteristic might not be "essential" in the individual sense described above; for example, "walking on the sidewalk" is "essential" (in the 2nd sense) to the group "people walking on the sidewalk", even though it's definitely a "doing" rather than a "being", and definitely more a temporary state than a permanent one, and in no way "essential" (1st sense) to those individuals.

#139 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 02:24 PM:

Jacque @117:

I'll wager both can equally apply. Possibly even simultaneously.

Yep.

...are you saying that you (abi in particular) experience "channel of grace" as being on the receiving end of God's love?

I'd like to hand the mike over to my friend St Francis for this one.

O Divine Master,
grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled, as to console;
to be understood, as to understand;
to be loved, as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive.
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to Eternal Life.

And suddenly this Spanish lady has come onstage and snagged the mike from Francis! "Hey Francis, Imma let you finish, but first I gotta say..."

Christ has no body now on earth but yours,
no hands but yours,
no feet but yours,
yours are the eyes through which Christ's compassion is to look out to the earth,
yours are the feet by which He is to go about doing good
and yours are the hands by which He is to bless us now.

If I can (yank) just (tug) get (pull) the microphone back from them, what my saintly posse is trying to explain is that there is no more powerful way to receive grace than to be the one to give it to someone else. And though grace comes from God, it comes to us through human hands.

That's not just some rarified theological smoke-blowing, either. Not only is it observable reality—nothing makes a person feel so good as making someone they care about feel good—it's particularly cogent in the context of marriage. I observed long ago that if you're really yoked together, there are no win/lose scenarios, where one person in the partnership comes out ahead. Either you both win, or you both lose. You grow or shrivel together.

#140 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 03:29 PM:

Little did Kanye West know that "I'mma let you finish" would instantaneously become a part of pop culture when he said it.

(Had he known, would he have rehearsed it?)

#141 ::: Bruce Cohen (Speaker to Managers) ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 06:17 PM:

SamChevre @ 136:

I think if the state isn't involved, societies at whatever the appropriate scale

Are you really saying that the state and the society it exists in are completely disjoint, so much so that one can be totally uninvolved in something which the other completely determines? I'm sorry, that makes no sense to me at all; I see the state and society as entangled parts of a larger composite.

#142 ::: KayTei ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 07:35 PM:

On the marriage question -- I wish we could stop looking at marriage so hard, and start looking at adult interdependencies. We live with my mother, who is dying of cancer. We lived, while she was alive, with my aunt, who was disabled, and who recently passed away from cancer. For me, these relationships were no less complex, mutual, permanent, and fraught than my marriage to my husband. For ill or disabled, substitute elderly, destitute, loving, and/or any of a number of other, individual reasons.

In contrast, I'll stop short of arguing we should have had legal recognition of the relationship, for any of the down-on-their-luck friends we've provided with shelter and support over the years. A good thing to do, but we parted ways when they were ready to, without grief on either side.

There's a middle ground I think is extremely variable.

But it means that children aren't the only thing I think needs to be recognized. If I had to say, it's something more like -- the financial, and emotional interdependencies, and opportunity costs from decisions that are made based on the other person being there to pick up a different part of the household responsibilities. Frex, partners in marriage where one partner didn't work for 20 years, where that partner is at a disadvantage finding a job after a divorce, but if they had not taken the role of full-time homemaker while married, could have pursued an entirely different, more profitable career path -- that creates an ongoing obligation after the marriage dissolves, hence alimony. Kids are another of those opportunity cost choices -- The decision to have children in a stable relationship with negotiated roles for caretaking and support of said children creates an ongoing obligation after the marriage dissolves.

I think the focus on marriage and kids causes us to overlook a lot of other real-life situations that deserve, in my opinion, equal attention. And protection, for partners on both sides of the equation, because such relationships have the potential to have very uneven power structures -- another way in which they are similar to marriage.

I wish they'd stop calling it marriage in the laws, too. Because I think it creates a roadblock to acknowledging a far broader societal need.

#143 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: November 11, 2010, 09:10 PM:

Jacque, #132, I think the paper is too big for the scanner, but I'll see what I can do. Maybe next week.

#144 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 15, 2010, 06:16 PM:

abi @139:

::sigh:: ::dreamy smile:: Eloquent and elegant response, as always.

I observed long ago that if you're really yoked together, there are no win/lose scenarios, where one person in the partnership comes out ahead. Either you both win, or you both lose. You grow or shrivel together.

Sing it! Last-but-one relationship I had, I tried to convey this idea. Failed utterly. Which is why that relationship is past tense.

One gets the sense that you, like, study this stuff.

#145 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 06:58 PM:

Jacque, #132, I took this class at the Smithsonian by the author of the book Drawing on the Right Side of Your Brain. She had forms where we were supposed to exactly follow her lines and circles and so forth and I wasn't really bad at that, but then we had to exactly copy an owl, a vase, and a vase and teapot. I could see that the owl wasn't very good, so that's why there's two owls. The bottom branch is missing (didn't quite fit the scanner). owls, vase (missing branches & part of my name because of scanner), and the teapot and vase (the top is actually the top of the paper, but the right bottom side is not in the scanner).

However, there are things I can design and make: pink zebras, desk set, blister pearl, forgotten garden, rocket purse on loom (I have that strung continuously so I can just pull from one end to the other and the purse comes together) and finished rocket purse with 3D rocket on zipper pull, the fates (a neckpiece), turtle top + turtle bottom + turtle side (made for Mary Kay), travel picture case, O Beautiful purse bottom + inside + for spacious skies, for amber waves of grain, for purple mountain majesty, above the fruited plain + America, America, ... and crown thy good with brotherhood (the interlocked tiles) from sea to shining sea, plaid amulet (also continuously loomed), pinwheel bracelet, morning glory salt & pepper, world eyes, rocket & dragon zipper pulls (for Jo's Z when he was young), and stars bag/necklace.

Obviously, nobody wants to look at all of those; they're some of my favorites

#146 ::: heresiarch ::: (view all by) ::: November 19, 2010, 08:21 PM:

abi @ lots: I wonder if this topic sips deep the giant's drink not so much because of the distinction between essence and phenomenon, but more because of the tricky tangled nature of human identity. Identity is simultaneously a deep part of who we are and a name for the slot we fit into in society; it's the hinge that mediates that relationship, maybe. But people are fractally complex and identity can only capture a tiny fraction of that complexity--so what determines which bits of that fractal mass are incidental and which are bone-deep foundations for who we are (and how other people see us)?

Will Shetterly @ a few: I feel that you're missing the way in which alienation from labor is not just a product of capitalist subsumption but can also be a defensive reaction against that process--it can act like a cyst, sealing the infection away from the rest of the organism.

#147 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 11:23 AM:

Marilee @145: Oh...my Those are lovely. My personal favorite is the desk set.

Clearly, no eye-hand coordination issues here!

It's odd that Edwards wasn't able to convey her model to you. I suspect a teaching error. While her "right side" model describes very well what I do when I draw (and the process I went through to get there), I have no clue how effective she is as a teacher. Two entirely different skill sets.

#148 ::: Marilee ::: (view all by) ::: November 23, 2010, 10:04 PM:

Jacque, #147, thanks, Jacque! The other people in the class did well, so maybe she and I just had different ideas of learning.

#149 ::: [المزعج ذهب] ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2011, 11:28 AM:

[188.236.207.178 أرسلت من]

#150 ::: joann sees definite spam ::: (view all by) ::: April 24, 2011, 11:41 AM:

It's Arabic and the link is to a games site. Three strikes and he's out?

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