Mr. Rogers was wrong: You’re really not that special

Mr. Rogers was wrong: You’re really not that special
You are not special.

It is wonderful to live in a society where we appreciate more and more the complexities of life: the distinctions and intersections of gender and sex and family, the power of words, the subtle and subconscious ways in which we can affect others. It is wonderful that we have better and better tools to discuss such things, too (words like queer, cisgender, trans*).

But things are still things. Facts are still facts. Language is still vital to communication, and communication is key to living a meaningful life. We need good models in our heads of what the world really is so we can build habits and live our lives with ease, hopefully happiness, and maybe even genius.

Even if we accept that these models and habits and languages are imperfect, though, we should not accept the anarchy of Identocracy – the theory that society is comprised of individuals who are whatever they say they are, dammit, sky’s the limit, and if you disagree you’re oppressing me with your homo sapiens privilege!

Identocracy values self-proclaimed identity above all else. Its motto might be, “I am whatever I say I am, therefore I am.” The core tenet of Identocracy is that Truth – with a capital T – is unique to the individual, and only that individual has the means and the right to proclaim that unique individual Truth, and that Truth is Identity.

The world according to Identocrats resembles a Neverland in which no one ever has to face the external pressures of reality, where all the hair color and limbs and potential purchases of oppression just fall away because we say so. It’s a choose-your-own-adventure model of the universe where objective reality is a self-selected fiction; all that matters is Identity.

And I blame Mr. Rogers.

In his kind, warm, soothing way, Mr. Rogers weaned a generation on the myth that they were special. He invited us all to imagine ourselves as anything and persuaded us that we were one-offs, each a person unlike any other person.

And that, of course, is not true. Gravity applies to you. Chemistry and biology apply too (vaccinate your kids; don’t eat arsenic). The objective reality of the universe – its physics, biology, and chemistry – applies to you.

Furthermore, you can and should have a healthy taxonomy of animals, plants, and other things stored in your brain. If you’re smart, you have words for all of these things – or “labels,” as Identocrats call them. These words help you communicate your needs and interests to other people that share your language. Communicating these things helps you meet your immediate needs to feed and shelter yourself, as well as longer-term needs to find fulfilling relationships with other members of your species.

Come to think of it, you can tell a human from a non-human, can’t you? You can pick out your species from another one (congressional Republicans notwithstanding)? You can make a fair guess that fleshy skin and a couple of legs and eyes and hair and walking or sitting upright are characteristics of things that are probably more akin to you than tables, right? So maybe we’re not that special after all. Maybe we all actually have a great deal in common.

That commonality is where I derive my joy and interest in humanity — not from a sense that there are no two of us alike, but that we are all a great deal alike, that we have a sameness about us that is deep and meaningful. We share certain characteristics and urges and needs and faults.

Poets and pharmacists make careers out of this sameness. If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you slip on a banana peel, do I not laugh and then feel bad about it and help you?

The Cult of Identity-As-Truth does damage not only to our understanding of what it means to be humans occupying space in a universe hemmed in by objective reality, but it risks blurring some of the crucial ways in which self-identification really does matter. Gender is one such way.

A quick thought experiment about circumstances shows that gender doesn’t hold the kind of hard-and-fast material certainty that gravity or evolution do, at least not without self-identification. We can imagine, for example, a big, burly, hairy truck driver with a penis and testicles; let’s call him Joe (the person, not the testicles). Joe gets into an accident in which his penis and testicles are damaged. Unfortunate, but hardly out of the bounds of reality.

Much later, Joe takes drugs which, as a side effect, alter his hormone balance such that he develops breasts and loses much of his hair. (We don’t need a particular reason in order to imagine it.) Now, Joe has always identified as male. He still identifies as male. Does anyone have a reasonable claim to refute that identity?

What has really changed, after all, except a few extrinsic characteristics and chemicals which could change in any one of us at any time (and actually do, to greater and lesser extents)? Do we have a rubric to cleanly, neatly, perfectly relegate him to a gender without his input? Sure, we can make factual statements about him without his input — he expresses these characteristics, he does not express these — but is that the same as making deep, personal claims about Joe, like gendering? No, we definitely need Joe for this one.

We need Joe because there is something inescapably personal about gender, about its interconnectedness with cultural rudiments, biology, privacy, and family that profoundly impede anyone from making the absolute Truth case for anyone else. Gender needs identity.

But even here I’m wary of the Identity-As-Truth cultists, those who want to “get past labels” and attain some higher order of reality. I’m skeptical that such a project is practicable or even valuable. Labels are tools: they’re neither good nor bad, but using them makes them so.

angry-unicorn.jpg?auto=format&auto=compressLabels help us create that model of the universe we mentioned earlier. They turn the world into language and information and communication elements. They help us organize things, form habits, form families.

I don’t think it’s a paradox to believe that labels are useful and imperfect. Labels are only useful as language to be communicated if the critical mass exists – if enough of us are using those same tools. And what is enough? That depends on the goal: you only need one person to daydream, but you need millions to elect a president. So long as humans undertake projects to dream and form families and governments and try to survive and change the world, the tools to connect those things will be important.

So enough with this “no labels” nonsense. If you identify as male and profess to sexual attraction to other males and females, you’re bisexual whether or not you say so ’cause that’s what that word means. If you identify with the gender you were assigned at birth, you are cisgender (that’s a terrific word more people should know) whether or not you say so ’cause that’s what that word means.

But no matter how strongly you may identify as a unicorn, you’re not actually a unicorn.

This post originally ran on Bilerico in 2014

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