How identity is like a democracy

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!

About Siggy

Siggy is a physics grad student in the U.S. He is gay gray-A, and makes amateur attempts at asexual activism. His interests include godlessness, scientific skepticism, and math. While not working or blogging, he plays video and board games with his boyfriend, and folds colored squares.
This entry was posted in asexual identity, Community, Language. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to How identity is like a democracy

  1. meagoing says:

    I wish this post had been around years earlier. I spent years feeling like something was wrong with me because I didn’t feel I fit properly with the labels I had known. It was only after a lot of research and finally finishing an English degree that I learned the fluidity of language and have now found the labels that make me feel like I fit somewhere. This post helps me feel like I wasn’t alone in my fears of the wrong label and offending those who did fit those labels perfectly.

  2. Cath says:

    I’m new here. Could you explain why the primary/secondary concept is problematic? I’ve found it really helpful as a springboard to explain demi, though I usually progress immediately to pointing out that it’s a false binary and is in reality yet another spectrum…

    • Siggy says:

      I didn’t say it was problematic. I just didn’t like it as a concept. Note that today’s primary/secondary distinction is rather different from what it was back then. It was part of what was known as Rabger’s model–although it’s no longer called that because Rabger felt it was an inaccurate representation of what they proposed. I didn’t like the so-called Rabger’s model because a) it was overly specific and rigid, and b) it was popular primarily because it was proposed when the AVENwiki was first formed, and therefore got on the AVENwiki.

      But this feels like rehashing arguments that are no longer relevant, and perhaps never were all that relevant except in my mind.

  3. Jo says:

    Re: freedom to vote – I feel like there are some groups of people who, to go with the democracy metaphor, still go by the literal form of Greek democracy. Lots of people think it’s the best thing ever, but forget that actually, only male, full-blooded Athenian citizens over 30 could actually participate in the democracy. Women? Slaves? Kids? Migrants? Young people? All not allowed to vote. In the modern world, this is the sort of democracy we get when people from outside the ace community (people in positions of privilege) tell us what words we can and can’t use.

    I don’t know if that actually made sense, it just jumped into my mind. (Basically, I just have this terrible classicist-knee-jerk reaction when people talk about democracy. :P)

    • Siggy says:

      Arguably we’re trying to achieve inequality in the opposite direction, where the only people who have power over a label are those who choose to use it. Which is fine. Makes sense. Sort of like how the people who vote on city policies are residents of that city, rather than people living the next state over.

  4. I try not to use “new” words in the work that I do, not because I’m afraid that the words will go out of style in a season or two, but because unnecessary jargon can be confusing. I’m already talking about something that people don’t really understand, argot isn’t going to help.

    While we’re on the topic of language, I’ll have to cast my vote against the phrase “baby ace”. It seems belittling and condescending. I know that if someone had used it to describe me when I was first figuring things out, I would have been offended and I would not have wanted to stick around. I’ve seen it used before, and every time it just feels wrong. There was some Google+ discussion thing that I think David Jay was trying to set up sometime last year, and it was called “Baby Aces” and had pictures of actual babies on the meeting invite, and that completely turned me away from the entire thing.

    • Siggy says:

      Noted. “Baby aces” is a term that’s been around for a while, and I think I took it from Sci. The first alternative that comes to mind is “newbie aces”.

      • Sciatrix says:

        It probably was me, yeah–it’s a term I sometimes use affectionately in spaces where people are handling new people, but would absolutely never use TO or in front of a person new to asexuality for…. pretty much the reason you describe, redbeard. (…I especially cannot imagine using actual babies on a discussion space for people new to asexuality. Eesh.) It definitely has no place in 101 space or education work.

        I’m really sorry you felt condescended to!

  5. emhjorth says:

    Reblogged this on queer deer and commented:
    Labels are something very dear to me – here is a very good post about them.

  6. Jacky V. says:

    Wow, thanks for this post! I am a newbie, just learned about the term grey asexual today and, after looking around to see what that implies, it seems to suit me very well. It feels useful, so it has my vote 🙂

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