2016-04-17

Identity Crisis

I just saw a video where college students could not explain why a short white man was not a tall asian woman and an article to go with it, and it got me thinking. I'm genuinely fascinated by this subject and thought experiment, and I feel compelled to write about it. So what do I think?

Well for one thing, I think those college students just haven't fully thought through the implications of their beliefs. This is something known as cognitive dissonance and it is something everyone is guilty of to some degree. I myself have found a lot of conflicting beliefs in my mind that I had to sit and think about for a while before resolving. It's really easy to come to believe that one thing is the way things should be without actually applying it to any of your other thoughts and behaviors - this often results in hypocrisy. (Though, you can be hypocritical without having relevant cognitive dissonance). It's also possible to believe two conflicting ideas at once without ever realizing it. When emotions and opinions get involved, people often forget to analyze problems and break them down, instead resorting to gut instinct, and gut instinct typically hides conflicting ideas.

Let's talk about identity. What kind of identity? Online identity? Social identity? Legal identity? No, in this case we want to discuss personal identity: what someone identifies as to themselves, even if they don't tell others; and physical identity: what someone is physically identified as by others. In most cases, personal and physical identity are mostly the same: a person who thinks they are a man also tends to have the physical properties of a typical man. An example of when they don't line up is with homosexuality - which, in my opinion, is a very misleading word.

To me, a human has three identities: their personal identity, their sexual identity, and their physical identity. All three of those things can be in any combination - they could all be the same, they could all be different, or a couple could be the same and one could be different. The word homosexual by definition should mean that a person's sexual identity is one which is attracted to others with the same physical identity as the person, but this doesn't account for a person's personal identity at all. It has been used to account for it, however, and so the term is now ambiguous and I will cease using it, because ambiguity is annoying. (By the way, note that sexual identity does not mean "do you have man parts or woman parts" - that's what physical identity is).

In the above video, none of the featured students seem to be able to explain even one of those three identities - some may not even know there is more than one in the first place. The interviewer has a physical identity of 'short white male', which could potentially be changed via surgery and other means. He then suggests that his personal identity may be 'tall Chinese woman', without ever mentioning what his sexual identity could be. (Since I get the strong impression this is a thought experiment and he doesn't actually personally identify as a female, I'm going to refer to him as a male). It is important to note that his personal identity is something only he can know for sure, and we just have to trust that he isn't lying about it. (Well, okay, if brain mapping technology gets far enough we could eventually find out if he is lying and know for sure what his personal identity is, but that's a discussion for another decade).

To be clear, it's perfectly fine if he personally identifies as a Chinese woman, but nobody will ever convince me that he physically identifies as one until he goes through the surgery to make it real, and I don't think it's healthy for him to believe he is taller than he really is. If he robs a bank and I am a key eye witness, I'm going to tell the police about a short white man, not a tall Chinese woman. If he dies and centuries later his bones are dug up and examined, he will be identified as a short male. If he so desired he could go through all the surgery to change those facts, or if the medical field advances far enough he could even swap bodies with someone else (exchange their brains) and thus break many people's perceptions of identities in the act. But if all it takes is swapping brains to change physical identity, what is physical identity?

The way I see it, our brains are the only thing that really matters in most cases. Yeah, our physical bodies matter in some cases, but most of the time they don't. Yes, the brain is physical too, but what surrounds it is merely an avatar. I see our physical bodies as avatars for our physical brains. You've probably even seen the movie Avatar and should at least have an idea of what I mean. It's perfectly fine to customize one's avatar if it isn't to their liking; most people probably aren't born with an avatar they actually want, but the cost of changing it varies from expensive to extremely expensive. So, most people just accept that it isn't worth the time and money to change their avatar when they have more important things to do, like researching a cure for cancer or taking out the trash. Ideally, one's avatar need only be modified to be suitable for the task it needs to perform (which in most cases means correcting birth defects and repairing injuries), but the cosmetics industry exists for a reason. People are vain, and vanity is still an integral part of our culture. (Also, I'm aware of mental disorders and the likes, and that's a whole different can of worms). But I digress.

Back on topic, the college students in the video don't seem to understand (or aren't able to adequately explain) that the interviewer's avatar is now and most likely will forever be, a short white male. They don't even seem to be comfortable with the idea that they can refer to the avatar as a separate thing. They're probably worried about sounding racist, sexist, or otherwise bigoted. This is, in my opinion, the biggest problem with society at the moment: confusion of the three identities, and intolerance for intolerance. (The latter being rather ironic).

Recall, the three identities are the personal identity, the sexual identity, and the physical identity, and any combination of them is perfectly fine (to me, anyway). When people confuse two or more of these identities as the same thing, or when they are afraid to talk about one or more of them, it leads to problems. The college students seem to be unable or reluctant to talk about the interviewer's physical identity, instead confusing it with or prioritising his personal identity. How does this happen? Let's break down the conversations:
"So if I told you that I was a woman, what would your response be?"
  1. "Good for you. Okay. Like... yeah."
  2. "Nice to meet you."
  3. "Wait, like... what? Really...?"
  4. "I don't have a problem with it."
  5. "I'd ask you how you came to that conclusion."
Now, to be fair, these street interviews are a horrible way of doing things. These students are worrying about classes, jobs, and relationships, and then suddenly you add more pressure by putting them in front of a camera and microphone, and then to top it all of you start asking them ridiculous questions. How are they supposed to respond? Well, they're supposed to respond quickly, and unfortunately that means their responses aren't very well thought out. When things are not well thought out...you get the above. Also, they probably interviewed dozens of students and hand-picked the responses that proved their point the most, while discarding ones that disproved their point. These types of videos are a powerful form of propaganda. But, I'm not here to judge the fairness of the video, only the questions raised and the responses given.

Responses 1, 2, and 4 are all accepting of the new information, but dodge the question. Response 3 is skeptical, asking for clarification. Response 5 is...well, we will have to come back to this guy.
"If I told you that I was Chinese, what would your response be?"
  1. "I mean, I might be a little surprised, but I'd say: good for you! Like... yeah, be who you are."
  2. "I would maybe think you had some Chinese ancestor."
  3. "I would ask you how you similarly came to that conclusion, and why you came to that conclusion."
  4. "I would have a lot of questions, just because, on the outside I'd assume that you're a white man."
Response 1 is again accepting. Response 2 is trying to take the "this is a riddle, isn't it?" approach. Response 3... well, this is the same guy from the previous question's response 5, and I'll just call him "conclusion guy" - more on him later. Response 4 is actually pretty decent, as it correctly realizes that the interviewer is physically not Chinese, but it also uses the word "assume" showing lack of confidence. (Nothing wrong with lack of confidence here - it's a crazy world we live in). Also note that response 4 specifically says "on the outside" - this is directly referencing the physical identity in simpler words.
"If I told you that I was seven years old, what would your response be?"
  1. Speechless.
  2. "I wouldn't believe that immediately."
  3. "I probably wouldn't believe it, but I mean, I... it wouldn't really bother me that much to go out of my way and tell you 'no, you're wrong', I'd just be like 'oh, okay, he wants to say he's seven years old'."
  4. "If you feel seven at heart, then... then so be it, yeah, good for you."
Responses 1 and 2 are probably most people (citation missing). Response 3 is a masterpiece, and after listening to it several times I'm still not sure what he actually meant even though I feel pretty confident about what he actually said. It wouldn't bother him that much to say 'you're wrong', but at the same time he'd either be okay with it or just accept that what was said was said. I'm confused. Response 4 uses the phrase "at heart" and I'm not really sure if it means the same thing to me as it does to her. I think a lot of people feel like a kid at heart but would never really identify as a kid in any of the three ways.
"So if I wanted to enroll in a first grade class, do you think I should be allowed to?"
Suddenly, we shift from "what would your response be" to "do you think I should be allowed to", and I think this has a big impact on the responses. Where before the interviewer was querying each person's own reaction, now they use the phrase "allowed to". This is a very subtle way of changing how they approach the question, because now their response is more general - after all, if one person is allowed to surely others should be too? Also, do note that there is never any mention of how the 'first grade class' is to be implemented - will he be inserted with other kids who are actually the correct age, or with other adults? The word 'class' is used when the word 'education' could have been used. Let's hear the responses:
  1. "Probably not, I guess, I mean unless you haven't completed first grade up to this point and for some reason you need to do that now."
  2. "If that's where you feel, like, mentally, you should be, then I feel like there are communities that would accept you for that."
  3. "I would say so long as you're not hindering society and you're not causing harm to other people, I feel like that should be an okay thing."
Whew. People really struggled to push words out of their mouths with this one. And, as expected, their responses seemed more general and less personal. Response 1 seems to be hinting at what I mentioned earlier, about a class of adults needing to take first grade classes for some reason. Response 2 takes the optimistic approach while assuming that he'll actually be with little kids - the parents of which would make up the "community" that would "accept" him. Response 3 takes a very optimistic approach - where response 2 at least acknowledged that most people are not going to be very accepting of the situation, response 3 goes directly for the "appearance doesn't matter" motto. It certainly would be nice if nobody cared how anybody looked, but I have a feeling that isn't going to change much in the next century. In other words, it's a good general response, but a bad practical response.
"If I told you I'm six feet, five inches, what would you say?"
Back to "what would your response be" but now going to the next extreme: height mismatch.
  1. Speechless.
  2. "That I would question." "Why?" "Because you're not! No, I don't think you're six foot five."
  3. "If you truly believed you're six five, I don't think it's harmful. I think it's fine if you believe that. It doesn't matter to me if you think you're taller than you are." "So you'd be willing to tell me I'm wrong?" "I wouldn't tell you you're wrong."
  4. "No, but I'd say that I don't think that you are."
  5. "I feel like that's not my place as, like, another human to say someone is wrong or to draw lines or boundaries."
  6. "No, I mean, I wouldn't just go like 'oh, you're wrong, like, that's wrong to believe in it', because I mean, again, it doesn't really bother me what you want to think about your height or anything."
Strange things have started happening. Through conversation these students may have backed themselves into a corner that makes it difficult to say contradictory things, or they may actually believe that it's okay to not tell someone they have a misconception about their physical appearance. There are disorders where people look into a mirror and see themselves differently than they actually are, there are people who have a simple misunderstanding or misread their height, there are many situations where a person can believe they are one height when they actually are not. Unless someone is torturing you to believe there are five lights instead of four, I think you should always tell someone they don't look like the height they claim to be.

But that isn't what happens in these selected responses. Response 2 is directly pointing out the problem, but not very confidently at first. Response 3 is amazing - rather than confront the false information, they would rather ignore it because it isn't affecting them, it isn't "harmful". Except it is harmful - it's harmful to the person who believes they are a different height than the actually are. If I were to take this to the next extreme, I would bring up suicide - "I don't think it's harmful" would get you investigated by the police for negligence. Okay, so believing you're a different height than you really are is more mundane than that, but I still think it is negligent to not tell someone about a potential problem that directly affects them. Look at part I bolded, "I wouldn't tell you you're wrong." To me, this means she believes he is wrong, but she isn't willing to say so. This is a conscious decision to be negligent. People have told me that it's disrespectful to say certain things to people, but there are also times where is is disrespectful to not say certain things to people.

Responses 4 and 6 both start with "No", so I assume they take place after "So you'd be willing to tell me I'm wrong?" was asked. Response 4 then reads as, paraphrased, "I would not tell you you're wrong, but I would tell you I don't think you're right." - so, lack of confidence. Response 5 is astonishing to me. The only way I can rationalize response 5 is to imagine that this person believes we all exist in our own separate pocket universes and can in no way have any effect on each other. This simply isn't true - society works because we draw boundaries, and court cases work because we admit that some people are wrong. We all affect each other, whether we like it or not, and not drawing boundaries or telling people they're wrong is very close to giving in to chaos.

Response 6 is like response 3 - "it doesn't bother me". Again, I see this as negligent - someone has an obvious disconnect between what they believe to be true and what is actually true, which is usually a sign of a mental disorder, and instead of telling that person about that disconnect and helping them to realize there may be a problem, these people are opting to keep away and not think about it. Obviously there's a time and a place, but previously these people were giving altruistic responses and have suddenly switched to selfish responses. It seems very strange to me.
"So, I can be a Chinese woman...but I can't be a six foot five Chinese woman..."
  1. (a) "Sure." (b) "Yes."
  2. "If you thoroughly debated me or explained why you felt that you were six foot five, I feel like I would be very open to saying that you were six foot five, or Chinese, or a woman."
Ah, now we get to talk about Conclusion Guy. In this last question he generates response 2. Conclusion Guy really stood out to me because of his unusual responses. I have actually met several people like this - their solution to any problem is to talk about it. In fact, I think I might actually be a Conclusion Guy myself. Doesn't make sense? Let's have a discussion. Goes against my views? Let's talk about it. Sounds completely unreasonable? Let's debate it. In all honesty, it seems like a good way to do things - rather than limit himself to a quick response under pressure, Conclusion Guy tries to lock in a long term agreement to talk things out and get a better understanding of the situation than what he currently has from such a brief question. Conclusion Guy is open minded, but wants to see the whole picture first. Really, I think everyone should be this way to some extent.

Where Conclusion Guy takes the spotlight, everyone else seems to fall flat, defaulting to a generic response that evades the question, or barfing out a mindless response that is not well thought out and will likely make them feel pretty embarrassed after the fact. One of the comments on the YouTube comment section points out that many responses include the phrase "I feel" - I don't fully understand the implications of that, but I noticed it too, and I think it has to do with the pressure the students were feeling causing them to give gut responses.

The world isn't magically going to become an easier place to understand. People need to take the time to learn and think. Learning is one thing, but you can learn all day long without thinking at all. Some even go as far as saying that you aren't learning unless you're thinking, and I'd tend to agree. So, people need to think about the implications of their beliefs. I split identity into three parts when I took the time to think, and as a result a lot of things make a lot more sense to me now. I feel a lot more comfortable talking about things that would have previously left me confused.

You should probably also take some time to think things over. Once you've done that, move on with your life! You've got other important things to do. I appreciate that you read some random 20-year-old's half-assed blog about identity that sounds like it might be preaching some kind of strange identity religion, but please get back to curing cancer after you've thought things over. Also, take out the trash. That's important too, because it gives you time to think.


So, this blog post about my thoughts on identity turned into an informal essay where I break down a video, followed by a cheesy 'how this affects the world' set of paragraphs that I was compelled to write out of habit. Interesting. Well, at least it's safe to say that ninjas identify as ninjas.