What identity claims must we go along with?

If you’re going to ask people to accept extraordinary claims about yourself, then accept the extraordinary amount of effort it will take them to do so.

Out of empathy, civility, and basic standards of respect and decency, if I met someone who identified as something different from what was on his birth certificate, at the very least I’d put my mind into the mode of treating his claimed identity as genuine for the moment, and then I’d take things from there, as if I was in an improv sketch.

But beneath the surface, where I could be honest with myself, and after the interaction was over, it’s possible I’d be somewhere between perplexed and infuriated. Not because I’m afraid of or disgusted by people who are outside my society’s cultural norms, but because when people make unusual identity claims they tend to hog all the expectation of empathy for themselves without expecting to return any of it back–like when your spouse rolls over in bed and takes the sheets and comforter with her. (Not that my wife ever does this of course.)

For example, I think it’s OK to ask people to at least try to wrap their minds around your assertion that you are three female robot tigers trapped in a man’s body, but you surely know that most people who meet you will find your identity claim anywhere from implausible to ridiculous or even abhorrent. Rather than accuse those people of hatred and closed-mindedness, and rather than get uncomfortable or offended when they ask you sharp-ended questions about it, you should figure out how to set doubters at ease, and learn how to talk about your identity in a way people will be more likely to accept. Or you might discover that you can’t, in which case you have the option to innovate a way to keep your unusual identity to yourself and present to others in a more conventional way. Everything else is going to generate unnecessary conflict (which I suppose is OK if that’s what you want to do, but then don’t complain about it).

Speaking of closed-mindedness though, how open to unusual identities do our minds really need to be? There is plenty of social value in being able to say “I don’t think you are what you claim,” and even to punish those whose identity claims turn out to be fanciful or otherwise fabricated.

For one thing, children often envision themselves as animals or other entities besides themselves, and we humor them in this imaginative play, but this stops being cute as they grow nearer to puberty. It’s important that we have a mechanism by which to guide them toward maturity and away from clinging to their fantasies. For society to work properly, it needs sober adults. If this mechanism sweeps up a few false negatives here and there it is still worthwhile for a society to have.

For another thing, most groups are protective about their membership and all it entails. Some feminist women have clashed with male-to-female transgendered people for that kind of reason, and look at how black people responded to Rachel Dolezal.

And, no-limits acceptance of identities clutters society’s machinery and its affordances, and can even grind society’s functioning to a halt. Imagine if the government actually granted sovereignty to so-called “sovereign citizens”: millions of people could claim to be sovereign citizens and then go around breaking laws with impunity.

Therefore to some degree, the culture we live in has a legitimate say in our identities. It isn’t all just “muh individualism”. The maligned cultural norms pigeon-holing you–into being just a singular male or female human who’s straight or gay or bi, this or that, and whatever else–these cultural norms are in fact somewhat authoritative whether you like it or not.

Identity claims cannot be falsified, since identity is a phenomenon of the mind. So where do we draw the line? Claiming to be another species? Multiple people in one body? Another race? Another gender? People who simply draw the line before any of these and say “you are what your birth certificate says” (often adding “unless doctors or science can prove otherwise”) are steering clear of what is potentially a big ontological mess; they are not necessarily irrational or seething with hatred.

Am I missing anything important in my analysis?


5 thoughts on “What identity claims must we go along with?

  1. You don’t think that “I am a cat” would be a false identity-claim?
    The addition of “-ish”, accompanied by the substraction of the article “a”, might produce unfalsifiable claims: “I am cat-ish,”, “I am man-ish”, “I am woman-ish” … (i.e. feline, masculine, feminine), but then these would no longer be identity-claims. On the other hand, Putin’s claim to masculinity would be much more plausible or convincing or whatever than, say, Scarlett Johanssen’s (if she were to claim masculinity). This additional plausibility suggests that hard-to-define truth-conditions are hovering somewhere in the background.
    (Of course, sometimes “I am X-ish” can be an identity-claim, as in “I am Jewish” or “I am Polish”; here any disagreements can be resolved through the addition of qualifiers such as “halachically,” “half- … by blood,” “with regard to my citizenship-status,” etc.)

    • I’d guess that adults who identify as cats usually don’t say “I’m a cat” but instead believe they are cat consciousnesses trapped in human bodies or some such thing.

  2. Right — that would indeed be an unfalsifiable claim. Same with “I am a female soul trapped in a male body.” Sorry — I was being dense.

  3. “Anima est tantumodo omnia,” said Aquinas, or as Taliesin said,

    I HAVE been in a multitude of shapes,
    Before I assumed a consistent form.
    I have been a sword, narrow, variegated,
    I will believe when it is apparent.
    I have been a tear in the air,
    I have been the dullest of stars.
    I have been a word among letters,
    I have been a book in the origin.
    I have been the light of lanterns,
    A year and a half.
    I have been a continuing bridge,
    Over three score rivers.
    I have been a course, I have been an eagle.
    I have been a coracle in the seas:
    I have been compliant in the banquet.
    I have been a drop in a shower;
    I have been a sword in the grasp of the hand
    I have been a shield in battle.
    I have been a string in a harp,
    Disguised for nine years.
    in water, in foam.
    I have been sponge in the fire,
    I have been wood in the covert.”

    The important thing is not to get your soul stuck as only one thing, especially if your body cannot back it up. It would be a narrow and tragic, but functional, existence if I were only an inventory manager. If I needed to live as a woman, or a high school student, or emperor of France–i can shut my eyes and go there, but if I try to live it out in the world I would get into trouble.

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