I recently had a bit of an argument with one of my best friends.
We were talking about sexuality, specifically. And, while I was mulling over the conversation a bit later, I realized something: We weren’t arguing over sexuality itself, but rather over the difference between a state and an identity: We were arguing over using the verb “to be”.
Let me explain a bit more. Basically, when someone says the “are” a certain thing, or someone says so and so “is” a certain thing, they are using a kind of mental shorthand. They aren’t saying that this is all they will ever be, or that this is all they ever were. They are saying that, in this moment, they fit the description of that thing.
Examples: Saying “Sally is boring.” We aren’t presupposing nothing interesting can ever really come from Sally. We aren’t saying that she is worthless, or a stick in the mud, from her birth until her death. What we are really saying is that we find her boring, in this moment. We are saying she is interested in things which we consider boring, or are uninterested in. Or, that she is uninterested in the things we enjoy.
Saying it that way is more difficult (and takes longer), but it is much more precise. It makes more sense, because it doesn’t write off Sally forever… And it even shows that her “being boring” might be on You, and not on her.
Another Example: “Stan is a Scientist.” That isn’t to say Stan doesn’t take science seriously. But in this thought experiment, at least, all Stan has is his work in Science: Not his husband, not his rock collection, not his love of romantic poetry or extensive prowess concerning Euro-style board games. We know that he studies science, but not which area he specializes in (Mycology), nor what exactly he does in that field (experimental hybrid research).
Worse, though: Most of us would have some preconceptions about Stan as a person. Scientists tend to be considered intelligent, single-minded, and social outcasts on the surface, whereas Stan is definitely more creative, observant, and sociable. Some people might think him an Atheist (He is a practicing Buddhist), others might assume he works for a university (He is a full partner in a start up).
One final example: “Beth is Demisexual.” This is a touchy one, and I by no means am trying to imply that people should do anything they don’t want to do… Nor am I trying to say that Your sexual identity is wrong in any way (particularly if Your name is Beth… this is just an example to illustrate the point I am getting at).
Saying something like this, especially about someone else, is two things at once: It is a quick way to assign a certain set of preferences and lifestyle choices to a person based around a definition and a stereotype. And it is a way to judge any choices the person might make in the future, and hold their past and future up to scrutiny based on that definition and stereotype.
Let me explain these individually. The first point ties into the point I made with Stan: Basically, giving someone an epithet means assigning them a lot of things, based on history, prejudice, and the personal experience whoever is involved has with the epithet. When it is something as personal and individual as sexuality, using a term like that can be a simple way to denote a general idea of how one person might express their sexuality, who they might be interested in, and even what they might be willing to talk about on a more intellectual or platonic level.
I want to draw attention to my use of the term “might” in the previous paragraph. That, in essence, is the point I am hoping to drive home here: The labels we use (even granular ones like demisexual, sapiosexual, or pansexual) are only sufficient to describe people up to a point- and though I am using sexuality as my example here, that is (by far) not the only place that this distinction exists. After the labels are used, to truly understand the reason they use that label is by talking to them about it.
That’s not to say that labels are bad, or wrong, or insufficient: For some people, they work perfectly and give them a sense of camaraderie that a longer description might not. For others, they are perfectly accurate in their entirety, and nothing more really needs to be said. And if either one of those describes You, that’s great! I’m not trying to say there is anything wrong with that.
What I’m trying to say is that, in my life, I’ve run across people who used this label or that label, but with some differences here or there… And that is great, too. There is nothing wrong with that, either… But had I just accepted the original statement, that Beth was a demisexual, I would never have learned that she is only really comfortable getting physically intimate with women, too. I would have simply assumed that all of the general aspects of demisexuality applied to her, and I would have been wrong.
In speaking, labels offer a simple way to paint in broad strokes about something, especially when You don’t know much about them… or don’t want to get too into a subject. In writing, it is oftentimes better to simply leave the label out entirely (except in dialogue, of course), and just give an evidenced, colorful definition. It is a classic case of Show, don’t Tell.
This brings me to my second point:
I’ve seen examples of people being held under scrutiny because their actions didn’t quite mesh with the words they’d used to describe themselves (inside and outside the scope of sexuality, for the record). As a pedant, I can understand how that might be a bit annoying, but I find the practice of shaming someone for being themselves to be even more annoying than incorrect verbiage. Whether or not they are behaving appropriately according to the letter of the definition is really immaterial; they obviously felt it was right at some point, or they wouldn’t have described themselves in that way.
In short, and to reiterate the above, putting people into boxes against their will is a bad thing… and keeping them there against their will is even worse.
To close, I just want to reaffirm here that this essay was not really about sexuality, per se. It was about the verb “is”, and it’s limiting factors (for many things, including sexuality) in the English language. I tried my best to make the examples inclusive, and I hope I have not hurt anyone’s feelings or tread on anyone’s identities with any of them. If I have, I apologize, and I’m more than willing to retract or amend any such faux pas, once it is brought to my attention (comments below).
The verb “is” is such an issue that people have tried to remove it entirely from the English Language. I am not suggesting that that is the way to go, nor am I even suggesting that it is a good idea to begin with… But it’s worth noting that people have done it.
When I’ve discussed things as of late, I’ve tried my best to avoid the word “is” as much as possible. It’s led me to think about interesting ideas that I’d otherwise have taken for granted, redefine how I view certain ideals and concepts, and even reconsider some of my own longstanding positions on various things.
You should give it a try. At the very least, it is a good thought experiment. (Or rather, it might provoke a different point of view in your daily life).Categories: writing
Tags: language  explanation  thought experiment