Why do the kids these days have so many words and identity labels?
That’s the question we ask year after year. But isn’t that funny? If it’s the same thing year after year, why does it seem like kids these days are especially bad about it?
It’s certainly true that some years provide more fertile ground for words than others. For example, there were a lot more new asexuality-related words in the years 2000-2010 than in the years 1990-2000.
But a lot of the perceived change is an illusion. Previous generations also had lots of words and identity labels. Some of those words became established, and now you take them for granted (eg hetero-/bi-/pan-/homo- romantic, gray-A, demisexual). But for every successful word, there were a dozen unsuccessful words. You don’t see them anymore, because they died.
I can provide many examples, being on AVEN since 2009, and having read a lot of community history. There were the “sensual” orientations, such as homosensual, etc. There was primary and secondary romantic and sexual attraction (ugh). There were all the alternatives for gray-A and demisexual. There were the concepts of “gay asexual” or “straight asexual”, which were synonyms for romantic orientation. And a bunch of other terms that failed so quickly that they’re hardly worth mentioning or remembering.
You might think of words as having definitions, a collection of necessary and sufficient conditions. But first and foremost, words are tools. We don’t adopt words merely because they apply to us, we adopt them if we find them useful.
Here are some of the things identity labels are useful for:
- Identifying something about yourself, so that you may better understand it.
- Feeling like you share an experience with other people who also use the word.
- A tag to collect similar discussion.
- A way to communicate something about yourself.
- A rallying call for a community or social movement.
Note that most of these things require that you are not the only person using the label. You can’t use an identity label to share experiences if no one else uses the label. You can’t communicate with it unless you’re in a context where enough people understand it. You can’t organize a social movement unless a lot of people are on board.
That’s why, when words become unpopular, they don’t just die a little. They die completely. Most people just don’t have a use for an unpopular label.
Using an identity label is like voting for it.
When you adopt a word, you are saying, “This word is useful to me.” And you are also giving the word more power. You are opening up new ways to use the word. And this is a good thing, because it means that the best words, the ones that most people find useful, become the successful ones. The ones that people do not find useful become unsuccessful.
Crucial to this process is the freedom to vote. People need the freedom to determine if a label is useful to them, or if it is not useful to them, independently of whether the label technically describes them. If people are required to use a word just because it describes them, then this would ruin the whole process and lead to the creation of bad terms that we all use but no one likes.
It’s certainly acceptable to campaign for or against a word. Many established words became successful because someone campaigned for them. For example, “demisexual” originally had success because AVEN user OwlSaint campaigned relentlessly for it circa 2008. And I’ve campaigned against words before, like the primary/secondary attraction mentioned earlier.
On the other hand, there are certain campaign strategies that seem unfair. For example, it seems unfair to outright tell people, “You shouldn’t use that word,” or, “Sounds like you’re ____,” especially when you’re saying it to baby aces who see you as an authority figure. You should be teaching baby aces how to vote, not telling them which way to vote.
I also think it’s unfair to go straight to the public and use new words in visibility efforts. That’s taking too many shortcuts, and you may just be advocating a word that will die later on. But there is a large gray area here. In my history of doing presentations, I’ve been far too conservative, hesitating to use words that later became much more popular.
Once a word becomes established, it may stick around for a long time. But that doesn’t mean that there is no longer anything to vote on.
We also vote on the meanings of words.
The asexual community is especially prone to thinking that words have clear definitions with necessary and sufficient conditions, because that’s the way the word “asexual” is usually presented. In fact, this idea is widely rejected in cognitive science and philosophy of language. Most words don’t have necessary and sufficient conditions, they have “prototypes”. Whether something belongs to a class or not depends on how similar it is to the prototype. Stereotypes are basically a kind of prototype, so when people complain about stereotypes, they’re trying to broaden a word away from a particular prototype.
The result of all this, is that words can be fluid. Definitions are attempts to pin down the meanings of words, which is an extremely useful thing to do. But definitions are not the ultimate reality of what those words mean.
In particular, there is always a lot of negotiation of the boundaries between words. For example, if you experience just a tiny bit of sexual attraction, how much is needed to push you from asexual to gray-A? If you yourself are on that boundary, that’s for you to decide!
Just as we need the freedom to vote on which words to use, we also need the freedom to vote on what they mean. Therefore, people should feel free to use a word even if by your preferred definition, that word does not describe them. This allows us, as a community, to negotiate what are the best meanings for existing words.
This democratic process is the way that our language has been created. Please continue voting!