On Assigned Identities

This is a bit of a long one, I’m afraid, as I’m trying to untangle several different ideas in my head. Bear with me… and be warned, at some point, you will probably hit on a generalisation about one of your own identities in here.

So, this week seems to have become something of an “identity week” on this blog, more or less by accident, since the last two posts were about identity-politics stuff of one type or another. Both “trans” and “autistic” are identities that are, largely, assigned in relation to other people, and purely in terms of not being the norm — the extent to which this is true can be shown by the pushback against terms like “cis” or “neurotypical”* being applied to the majority population, and the way in which they get angry about those terms.

And this has led me to thinking about the way identities are imposed on us, and how the way they carve up reality into categories is not necessarily useful or helpful. In particular, I’ve been thinking about one set of categories that the vast majority of British people have been pushed into, largely against their will — “Remainers” versus “Brexiters”.

Eighteen months or two years ago, it would have made no more sense to put people into one or other of those categories than it would to split the country into “Catweazle fans” versus “Ace of Wands fans”. The vast majority of people literally never give 1970s children’s telefantasy series a single thought, and of those who do, many could see arguments for both series even if they preferred one over the other.

And in the same way, until June 2016, the supermajority of people in Britain never thought from one year to another about the EU and their opinions on it. Yet because of a referendum with a false binary in it (“leave” meaning everything from “leave the EU itself while remaining in the EEA, single market, customs union, and all other treaties” to the Government’s current preferred option of “remove the UK from all its international treaties and obligations, smash all worker protections and human rights laws, and turn the country into a Singapore-style ultra-capitalist sweatshop state with a captive labour force who can’t leave the country”, while “remain” meant everything from “I suspect that even though I don’t like the EU, leaving it under a Tory government would probably turn the country into a Singapore-style sweatshop state with no human rights” to “I support the EU entirely in its current form” to “I see the EU as a potential stepping stone to the eventual eradication of all borders”) the population sorted itself into two almost-exactly-equal sides.

And because of this, there are now stereotypes about “Remainers”. There are self-appointed spokespeople for remaining in the EU — people like David Allen Green, Ian Dunt, Jolyon Maugham, Anna Soubry — many of whom either used to support leaving the EU or even do so now, but are somehow still “Remain leaders”. Indeed, whether one is “Remain” or “Leave” seems to have absolutely nothing to do with one’s position on remaining in or leaving the EU — the Lib Dems are apparently “the party of Remain”, even though the party’s official policy is to negotiate an agreement to leave the EU, and only to remain in if a majority of people vote against that deal in a hypothetical future referendum.

Now, for myself, I share very little of the politics of the “Remain leaders”, most of whom are small-c conservatives, in the Burkean sense — they’re mostly intensely privileged middle-class people who think that “Britain was already great” and are trying to preserve the country as it was in early 2016, while my own view is that Britain in early 2016 was frankly horrific in many ways, but that the solution to that problem is not to smash the few things that made it somewhat tolerable. I feel much like anti-imperialists must have felt in the Second World War, where supporting the British Empire against the Nazis was very obviously the right thing to do, but was also very obviously supporting the lesser of two immense evils.

Yet merely by taking the same side as some of those people in a horribly flawed referendum that was imposed on us by people who had no interest in any of our actual concerns, and who were trying to solve problems in their own careers rather than anything more important, we’ve been thrown into the same category, and all the clichés about that category (middle-class privileged Londoners with highly-paid jobs in the media, politics, or law who’ve never met a working class person and who don’t know anything about their real concerns) are seen to apply to me (working-class disabled Northerner on a tiny income living in a deprived area of Manchester) until I specifically repudiate them — and even then, people suspect that I am “really” like them in some way.

A category that didn’t exist until last year now defines tens of millions of people, largely against their will.

And most identities turn out to be like this. Even among categories we choose — I fit very few of the stereotypes of “Liberal Democrat” or “married man”, for example — we all find that immediately, as soon as we’re put into that box, we find that we don’t fit into it very well. And in categories we don’t choose — like I didn’t choose to be straight, or white, or male — we fit even less well.

And to go back to the original point, about terms like “cis” or “neurotypical”, this is why those terms are so important. We all instantly flinch when stereotypes about our categories are applied to us — if you’re, say, a Labour supporter, think about how you feel about people assuming that you’re a rabid Jeremy Corbyn fan who’s part of a Stalinesque personality cult and denies he’s capable of being wrong about anything. None of the Labour supporters or members I know actually fit that stereotype, yet we all know that the stereotype does exist, and is even an exaggeration of a real type.

(The same goes for me as a Lib Dem — people assume I’m a centrist moderate with no real political opinions at best, or a secret Tory at worst, and those do exist within the party, even though I am far, far, closer in my opinions to a hard-left anti-authoritarian anarchist than a centrist. And in the US there are definitely stereotypes about “Yass Queen!” Hillary supporters versus misogynist Bernie-bros, neither of which actually fit any of the Clinton or Sanders supporters I’ve talked to.)

And people have that reaction when they’re put into categories such as cis or neurotypical or allosexual or alloromantic. As soon as you’re in that category, you’re assumed to be exactly like every member of that category unless and until proven otherwise. And that can be a genuinely painful experience, as my experience of being a Remainer, Lib Dem, or cis white straight man shows. Even when you accept that a category applies to you, you want to say “I’m not one of those ones”.

(This happens on every level. My mum once went into the video rental shop in the small town where I grew up and handed over her video card. The clerk looked at it and said “Oh, your name is Hickey! So’s mine… but don’t worry, I’m not one of those Hickeys”, to which my mum’s reply was “I am”.)

But human beings appear to think in such a way that we put everything into categories and exceptions-to-categories. If we label autistic and trans but not cis or neurotypical, we end up with a world where the less-privileged constantly have to say “but I’m not one of those ones” about everything, while the more-privileged can just be themselves, no explanation needed.

So if you object to being called cis or neurotypical, and think of yourself as “just normal”, accept that what you’re feeling is exactly the same as the marginalised people who are being given a label they didn’t ask for and that doesn’t fit them. Accept that label as a small price for your privilege, and maybe think about how you can work in your own life to reduce the systems that impose false binaries on everyone, whether by supporting moves to allow people to choose their legal gender or by opposing oppositional voting systems like first-past-the-post. Or even by just accepting that when someone says “all neurotypicals” or “all men” or “all Brexiters” they don’t necessarily mean you, but are using the cognitive shorthand that everyone including you uses, all the time, about millions of categories you aren’t a member of.

Signed, a straight white cis allosexual alloromantic English-speaking male oik Remainer.

*A sidenote about the term “neurotypical”, incidentally — this term was originally coined by autistic activists to describe specifically people who suffer from “neurotypical syndrome”, as a joking way to medicalise the norm in the way we are usually medicalised. Many people have since started applying the term in a different manner, to mean anyone of “typical neurology”, so saying “I’m not neurotypical because I have depression” or similar. Whether one considers this an example of normal linguistic drift or of ableist cultural appropriation depends, I suspect, on one’s level of privilege — but I, personally, use “neurotypical” in its original meaning (though with the caveat that I acknowledge that some other neurodivergences, such as ADHD, are so close in their effects to autism in some respects that they take people out of the neurotypical category in my eyes).

Some have said that, rather than use “neurotypical” in the way I do, we should use “allistic” as the antonym of “autistic”. For myself, I will never use that term, because it’s the antonym of the original etymology of “autistic”, which is from the Greek αὐτός, meaning self. “Autistic” originally meant self-admiring or selfish, unconcerned with other people, and “allistic”, by reversing that term, claims that neurotypical people are other-admiring or other-directed, reinforcing the implicit claim that autistic people only care about themselves.

Suffice to say that my observations of neurotypicals do not tend to confirm the idea that they care more about other people than autistic people do…

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