Does anyone else get tired of labels?

Political, Prosaic, Pulpit

I’m thinking ideologies and religions and politics and genders and all that stuff, but maybe some shopping labels too. I mean we wouldn’t need traffic light nutritional guidelines if all the food was in its freshly farmed or slaughtered form, or prepared by a trustworthy authority that’s not trying to pump us full of tasty tasty fats and sizzling stimulating sugars. Bastards.

I’ve been spending some time trying to work out what femininity is, and I’ve mostly been avoiding the masculine. I know enough already, I figure. But really, all you learn in research is that both terms are unhelpful. They’re social groupings that just don’t matter. I mean, grand scheme don’t matter. Like sure walking down the street right now reading this on your phone, or maybe sat at home listening to a loved one do something in the next room, or lying in bed listening to some filthy Lou Reed…then maybe it matters a little bit. But still not really. It’s not an important part of who you are, it’s just a filter that other people will try and feed you through, if and when they can. It’s not something you have to participate in.

I do it for fun, sometimes. I make myself a science experiment, probably way too obviously. I become the shy girl or boy walking into that club, that bar, that coffee place for the first time. That lecture hall, that fashion outlet, that library. I make myself look ‘interesting’ and do ‘interesting’ things, and I wait for people to respond. Sometimes I get real chats – people who find and love the opportunity to sincerely be themselves with another individual. Sometimes I get fake come-ons, brusque and lustful slurps of kisses or coffees, raised eyebrows, scowls, or timid and tender requests for books to borrow, seats to steal.

The identities I put on are not identities, they’re labels, uniforms. And I find it really…sad, that we have to act this way, or that we choose to act this way. That we get lost in posturing.

So much of what I read about masculine and feminine identity, for example, comes down to physical features and behaviours. But it’s like trying to say someone is bald – that semi-famous philosophical problem – how many hairs does it take? Because clearly you can be called bald even if you have some hair. It’s a vaguery of quantity and presentation that seems to defy conventional logic: the point at which someone becomes bald is relative to who’s looking, or who’s wearing or not wearing the hair. But mainly who’s looking I guess. It’s not so important to the one with the hair, they just feel more or less of a breeze. They probably don’t have much need for a name for how they look. They have other words, pictures, sounds, for their experience, what they think, how they feel.

So with masculinity and femininity – it’s a vague labelling to help other people understand who you are, and how they see you. It matters to them whether you walk how they want or have the curves they want, or the muscles they need you to have, the job they want you to work. In a sense, therefore, it’s not something you need to worry about at all. It doesn’t matter to you, you just have to be yourself and, hey, why not enjoy being yourself while you’re there? So what if someone else doesn’t like it? If they’re not involved in your life in any meaningful way, it shouldn’t matter. If they are involved in your life seriously…then why aren’t they taking you seriously?

Okay, sometimes being yourself will get you into trouble with the onlookers. They can imprison you, harm you, bully you. Sometimes. Basic line of defence there is the same: fuck them. You’ve got one life being you, so don’t let anyone shit that up. Being yourself can hurt but unselving is worse. The middle ground is, I guess, hiding in the labels people like without adopting them. The safe place, maybe, mostly, is that. Understanding the labels other people use, that you probably also have to use, remembering that a label is just that. Remember the you behind that peelable sticker. Behind that loose dust jacket.

Identity is something far more personal, and so far more nebulous than label. No name can fully describe, no traits, no long videos, books, audio recordings, nothing can quite encapsulate it fully except you having yours, you being you. And heck it’s something you can’t avoid. Unselving just hurts worst, it doesn’t actually break you. You continue being you, and having been you.

Sometimes I think labels are a way of people escaping their own totality. I’ve done a lot over the years I’m unhappy about, and that stuff doesn’t go away with time. Forgetting it for a while doesn’t wash it out of history. But hey, that doesn’t determine who I have to be, what I have to do, how I have to feel. It’s stuff I have to come to terms with, and carry on in spite of. And hiding, pretending, putting it off…that’s just running away from creaks in the floorboards, rustles in hedgerows, the call of the Moon. Life is something you have to live, you know. It’s weirdly self-fulfilling like that. All it asks is that you get properly involved in being…and being you.

Now, maybe I can’t make this properly engage with the debate on “identity issues/politics” but that’s because I don’t like having to be part of that warzone. I’m peaceful, I want happy, functioning folk, not holy corpses. Most of any debate seems to have become people demanding obedience and adherence from people who demanded that from them, because people demanded that from them, because people demanded that from them…ad nauseam. It’s a minefield in which most any opinion is wrong for someone. I just wish we could get back to the reality…you don’t need to have such a strong opinion about someone else’s life. Beyond wanting them not to shit on you, they’re really not your problem. And most people don’t want to shit on you. Scat porn is relatively exclusive like that.

It’s so frustrating as politics descends into nonsensical exchanges of buzzwords that have lost all meaning, discussions of gender, sexuality, patriarchy, identity, dissolve into a mess of offended males and females fighting for their right for other people to call them male or female…and that we seem to be unable to say “rape is wrong” and have everyone understand. We seem unable to say “racism is wrong” and have everyone understand. “War is wrong. Violence is wrong.” Or worse, we know these things are wrong, but in despair we suffer or indulge them anyway, the incomprehensible spewing mess of our existence drowning so many fractured minds…

I think we’re ordering. I think bit by bit humanity is helping itself to calm down and recognise a fair and universal understanding almost beyond description, but well within grasp. And on the one hand it’s so beautiful to feel that hope, more, that knowledge. But on the other, I am human and I am impatient.

Ten

Prosaic, Pulpit

On Gender, Sexuality, Identity, Mental Health

If you ever get the chance to sit on the bench at the top of Pump Hill in Loughton, Essex, you’re going to see something interesting: you’re going to see humanity spread out over miles running from forest through hamlet through town, finishing up in the bright lights and tall towers of London, the spires of Crystal Palace, the dome we now call the O2. Human society is a surprisingly complicated mesh of contrasting attitudes and cultures, and that’s what you’ll see looking out over the spread from Essex into London. So many different details all acting more or less coherently as part of one societal web. It’s mad good.

I went to a chat last night about John Perceval, son of the only assassinated British Prime Minister. John was notable for ending up in a lunatic asylum claiming he was a prophet from God. After he was eventually released from the asylum, he campaigned to improve conditions for all like patients across the country. This was a time when women could be declared mad for thinking, anyone could be declared mad for talking about democracy, and the equivalent of psychiatry was conducted by sadistic quacks more mentally deranged than many of their patients. It was a time of radicalism and unrest across Britain, some would say reaching a peak in the death of Spencer Perceval, PM. Anyway the author holding the chat was Robin Holton, and he had this pretty perceptive comment to make on mental health: that it’s not so much a problem within one individual as it is a problem between individuals. The common theme among many mentally ill people is a form of loneliness or isolation, either literally, or in their lack of empathy, even despite a kind of gregariousness or charisma.

And that just seemed to link up mental illness to identity generally – the sense that it’s something defined by relationships with others. I mention it because so much of what is now largely termed “identity politics” is actually a fundamental element of our existence: interactions with others. That’s the simplistic core often deliberately ignored by critics and pundits. I don’t know about you reader, but I find that a great deal of commentary on issues of mental health, sexual orientation, gender orientation, is unselved. It’s taken away from people, from society, and turned into specific phenomena applied only when certain terms are invoked, when certain “appropriate” rituals are performed.

Oh yeah – if you’ve not already tuned out in anger – why am I linking mental illness and gender/sex? They’re all about identity. Personhood. Society. Being human. The all-uniting theme. That’s the point I want to make here before you hear the polemic incoming. That’s why a guy whose prime was around 1830 (ACE, not PM) is relevant to this. John Perceval lived in a world where much of “mental derangement” was defined quite explicitly by how other people viewed you. Today we live in a world where the basic “how other people view you” is filtered through advanced layers of supposed professionalism and entrenched political filibuster. Try to ignore all the layers of politics and assumption for a moment. Try to just think of the core person.

Here’s just my opinion on the titular topics.

Gender: your chosen take on your biology. Because, all you people who say you either have a penis or a vagina – biology also applies to the feelings and desires that lead people to homosexuality, becoming transgender or anything else. All of that is biological. It’s now commonly accepted that our understanding of the body through science is not limited to the appendages that appear on our skin. Not to try and cut you out, but, get over it. Biology is everything, not just your genitalia.

Implicit here is that there is no absolute heterosexuality or homosexuality – it’s all choice. It’s all a kind of bi or pan or whatever. You can always be your best you.

Sexuality: a social construct built from thousands of years of sex. The backdrop is early humans not having much culture beyond “good to receive penis in vagina/good to put penis in vagina”. That’s the root of modern sexuality for sure. But today we have all sorts of nuanced approaches to those basic desires rooted in chemistry and biology. I think of masculinity as sexual feelings and identification based in the old “my penis goes into your vagina” whereas femininity would be sexual feelings and identification based in “your penis goes into my vagina”. So, male or female or anything else, a person chooses which of those best suits them. Or no particular sexuality at all. You don’t need to have a penis or vagina to subscribe to one or the other. We now have, and really have always had, useable equivalents. Mouths, tongues, fingers, fists, oily sticks made of various materials, anuses. Options, basically. The option of nothing too.

But now more than ever we are aware of our options and capable of expanding them. I’m going to be straight with you, I have more of a feminine sexual identity. I think that’s fine, I don’t think it means all women have to get fucked, I don’t think it means all women have to fuck. I don’t think it means all men have to get fucked. I don’t think it means all men have to fuck. I think every individual person chooses who they are. Influenced by what happens to them sure, but they make the final decision, have the final veto. That’s sexuality. A person chooses and acts on who they want to be.

Identity: a terrifying mix of how you see yourself and how other people see you. Everything you remember as being a prominent part of yourself, and, to a large extent, everything you are seen doing, or understood to have done. It’s your professed values, your internal values, something of the values other people think you have. Your emotional composition, the things you sometimes do to change that. Your favourite clothes, music, movies. Your physical health, what you feel about your physical health. It’s all that stuff to do with you. But really, when you think about you, how can you think without considering the world around you, the people around you, and your place in it.

I guess I’m saying identity is the changing nature of the place in which you put yourself, or find yourself in the world. You and your surroundings are separate and yet inseparable. Different parts of the same connected scheme. A big flowing interconnected entity. And that’s not even getting spiritual.

Mental Health: the extent to which you are publicly viewed as being normal or sane. Mass and community reactions to your behaviours and tendencies. Basically responses to your identity that my go on to form part of your identity.

Your own sense of emotional composition, stability, your ability to express or restrain yourself. The feelings that force themselves into your perception, the thoughts that repeat in your head. The sounds, smells, sights, textures you encounter through your own particular means to engage with them. It’s everything your mind does in response to what you physically, biologically, chemically encounter. And it’s the way you reason through all that, or don’t.

And, in a slightly different context, the biological integrity of your brain and sensory functions. Fewer people will have a substantially damaged brain, whereas all people have physically different brains, biologically, scientifically different brains and minds. That includes different sensory capacities, emotional tendencies. Difference on its own isn’t grounds for disability. Difference rejected by society will cause disability.

That’s one of the major misunderstandings about mental health. Depression and like disorders are built from experiences, encouraged by genetic predispositions. They aren’t mysterious imbalances of the humours (cheers Galen) they are built from profound trauma or joy or endless streams of emotional demands. And they can become accidentally entrenched in the way someone thinks about themselves in relation to the world, self-propagating, remaking beyond the point at which they’re at all healthy.

This is what I think anyway. I’m certainly no great source of knowledge on the matter. Just someone who thinks about stuff a lot. You decide whether any of this thinking helps you. And check out that bench in Loughton if you can, the view really is special. The Gardeners’ is fine too.