2017-10-17

Biases and Anxiety

What Other People Think? part 3

We Need Our Group. So Find One that Values Changing Your Mind.

I find it helpful to keep in mind: We are able to not care what some people think – THOSE people – by caring instead about what other people think – OUR people, as we have generalized them. I also find it helpful to remember the limitations and biases of my brain, and how seeing the world the way I do is largely a fluke of my social situation, mixed with some genetic predispositions.

Is there something we can do about this? A little bit, yes. Rather than Polonius, “to thine own self be true,” go back to Socrates, “know thyself.” Identify your own confirmation biases. You were made to be oriented toward tribal bonding, so try to be aware of how that’s at work in your opinion formation.

Since we are such a group-oriented species, see if you can hook up with a group that values evidence over any particular story for interpreting that evidence. This is tricky, because every group likes to think of itself as valuing the evidence, but almost all of them fail to notice how highly selective they are about the evidence they value.

But here’s an example. I understand that members of the Yale Political Union
“are admired if they can point to a time when a debate totally changed their mind on something. That means they take evidence seriously; that means they can enter into another’s mind-set. It means they treat debate as a learning exercise and not just as a means to victory.” (David Brooks, New York Times)
Can you identify times when evidence changed your mind? Can this congregation become the sort of tribe that admires members who talk about when evidence broke through their confirmation bias and changed their mind?

Nonanxious Presence

Edwin Friedman (1932-1996)
As I look further at this question – “Should we care what other people think? How much, in what ways, under what circumstances?” – there may be an underlying issue here of anxiety. The issue of how other people are judging us tends to come up in our lives when we’re feeling some anxiety about where we stand with people around us. The question, “do they like me?” naturally raises some anxiety, and to deal with that anxiety, one strategy is to tell ourselves we don’t care. This strategy tends to be disconnecting. It's a tried-and-true strategy for coping with anxiety without ever acknowledging to ourselves that the anxiety arose. And the drawback is that we disconnect.

Here’s an alternative that derives from the work of Jewish rabbi and family therapist Edwin Friedman: nonanxious presence. Nonanxious presence is one of my slogans I try to live by – not always successfully, but I try.

If I tell myself, “I’m not going to care what other people think,” I conceal from myself the anxiety that prompted me to say that. If I tell myself, “be nonanxious,” I’m bringing awareness to the fact that, yes, a little bit of anxiety is there, and I’m now intentionally going to move past that.

If I say, “I don’t care what they think,” I’m disconnecting. If I say, “nonanxious presence,” I’m telling myself to stay connected, stay present.

Another popular strategy for dealing with do-they-like-me? anxiety is to go the opposite way – instead of “I don’t care what they think,” I start doing and saying things I think they will like.

Those are the two main strategies: blow ‘em off, or bend over backwards to appease. Nonanxious presence is neither of these. It’s an approach that, first, recognizes the anxiety. I notice anxiety first in myself, and then notice how anxiety is functioning in the system around me, the anxiety of the people who aren’t liking me. Whatever reason they may say they disapprove of me, underneath that, there’s anxiety. Something about me is challenging their assumptions, their status quo, their world picture, and that’s anxiety-producing for them. Bringing awareness to my anxiety, and the anxiety in the system, I make a decision not to be ruled by that anxiety. This is easier said than done, and it’s a skill that takes a while to develop.

Supposing I’m able to move into being nonanxious, the next part is presence. I’m going to bring my presence to the situation -- MY presence – who I am. This is not appeasing, or saying what you think they want to hear so they’ll like you. Friedman’s term is self-differentiation. Self-differentiation is: the capacity to be present to, but not caught up in surrounding emotional processes – not taking on the anxiety in the system. It also involves reaching clarity about your principles and vision, and a willingness to be exposed and be vulnerable.

Nonanxious presence neither disregards what other people think, nor is it controlled by the natural human impulse for approval.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

In sum, other people, some of them, form judgments of us -- and though they probably think about us less than we imagine, making judgments of others and relating to how others judge us is inherent in being the social species that we are. This involves some good, some bad, and some ugly.

The good is that we care, we want to connect, and bond, and have a shared story, and not be psychopaths.

The bad is that we’re oblivious to evidence that doesn’t support our story, we suffer confirmation bias, and despise people with different opinions.

The ugly is anxiety – in ourselves and in the systems of which we’re a part. This anxiety can make us disconnect on the one hand, or lose ourselves and our integrity in seeking after approval on the other hand.

May we find ways to embrace and celebrate the good, compensate for the bad, and effectively manage the ugly.

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This is part 3 of 3 of "What Other People Think"
See also
Part 1: We All Care What Other People Think of Us
Part 2: The Self and Its Worldview

2017-10-16

The Self and Its Worldview

What Other People Think, part 2

George Herbert Mead (1863-1931)
What is this “self” thing to which Polonius tells us to be true? The great philosopher and social psychologist George Herbert Mead, whose career spanned the first three decades of the 20th century, understood the self as a generalized other. I always thought that was very helpful. The self IS others – certain important others – generalized into a single personality. A person’s “generalized other” is her conception of the important other people in her life in general – an amalgamation of the people with whom she identifies. (She literally identifies with them in the sense that she gets her identity from them.) The ones with whom the child identifies during the formative years, she generalizes into a shared set of attitudes and assumptions which are her attitudes and assumptions, defining who she is.

As the context of your life shifts, and the people you’re around, and the people you identify with, shift, who you are shifts. It does. Maybe just a little. Maybe a little bit more.

The question is: how much, how fast? When it happens too much, too fast, that’s a problem. You need a core sense of self that’s pretty stable over time.

You might hear advice such as: “Don’t let other people tell you who you are. Don’t let their voice be more powerful than your own.” What this means is: “Don’t let what people are telling you now replace too fast too much of what you have previously learned from other people.”

On the other hand, not shifting at all is also a problem. You need a core sense of self that’s pretty stable – but not totally static. Life is for growing and learning, and growing and learning means taking in influences from some other people.

Indeed, our vaunted rationality is more about social bonding than for discerning truth. A few years ago, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber published an article, “Why Do Humans Reason?” If reason evolved to discern truth or make better decisions then natural selection would have weeded out confirmation bias (which Wikipedia defines as: "the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms one's preexisting beliefs or hypotheses, while giving disproportionately less consideration to alternative possibilities").
“If a fact comes in that doesn’t fit into your frame, you’ll either not notice it, or ignore it, or ridicule it, or be puzzled by it—or attack it if it’s threatening.” (George Lakoff, qtd in Yudhijit Bhattacharjee, "Why We Lie," National Geographic)
"I trust this site to tell the truth."
Confirmation bias is a huge distortion – an enormous obstacle to adopting the belief that best fits all the available evidence. Confirmation bias exists because forming beliefs that fit the evidence is not the purpose of human reasoning. Forming social bonds is the purpose of reasoning.
“Most of us are quite willing to think or say anything that will help us be liked by our group. We’re quite willing to disparage anyone when, as Marilynne Robinson once put it, ‘the reward is the pleasure of sharing an attitude one knows is socially approved.’” (David Brooks, New York Times)
Human thinking is fundamentally relational because for our ancestors going back millions of years survival had more to do with strong relationships and social bonds of support than it did with reaching conclusions that fit the evidence. Competition between groups placed a premium on group solidarity, and group solidarity was reinforced by sharing an ideology – a characteristic pattern of reasoning.

The genus homo has been around for between 2.5 and 3 million years, and the scientific method for less than 400 years. Clearly, coming up with a story that really fits best with all the evidence that has been or could be gathered is a low priority for brains like ours. But having a story that we share with our tribe-mates is a high priority.

So powerful is our own worldview, so convinced of the power of its arguments do we become, that we can’t imagine how someone on the other side would answer those arguments. When I have talked to someone on the other side of some opinion that I have, and they’ve told me their answer, even when I understand it at the time – which is itself a rare occurrence – I don’t retain it. A few days later, I’m back to being unable to conceive how the arguments on my side could possibly be answered. Since it's important to me to understand other people, I find this forgetfulness (about details of how they defend viewpoints different from mine) perplexing and vexing.

In a study a couple years ago, participants were told “Donald Trump said vaccines cause autism.” (And Trump has repeatedly suggested there’s a link.) Participants who were Trump supporters showed a stronger belief that vaccines do cause autism. That’s not surprising: For them, Trump is a credible source, so they believe what he said. Then
“the participants were given a short explanation—citing a large-scale study—for why the vaccine-autism link was false, and they were asked to reevaluate their belief in it.”
The explanation was cogent enough so that participants “now accepted that the statements claiming the link were untrue.” They got it. They understood that, in fact, there is no link between vaccines and autism. But they didn’t retain it.
“Testing them again a week later showed that their belief in the misinformation had bounced back to nearly the same level.” (Bhattacharjee, National Geographic)
If it doesn’t fit our worldview, it doesn’t stick. Even in cases where information is accepted and agreed with in the moment, if it doesn’t fit our worldview, we forget it.

That’s how powerful our worldview is. And where did that worldview come from? It came from identifying with certain other people, and forming a generalized sense of how they thought.

This is bad news for truth, but it’s good news for integrity. Integrity with our worldview, with the sense of self that has that worldview, usually trumps new information that doesn't fit our worldview.

* * *
This part 2 of 3 of "What Other People Think"
See also
Part 1: We All Care What Other People Think of Us
Part 3: Biases and Anxiety

2017-10-15

We All Care What Other People Think of Us

What Other People Think, part 1

At last year’s congregational auction here at CUUC, the high bidder for the privilege of giving me a sermon topic wanted me to address the issue of other people’s opinions of us, and should we care what other people think? So today is the day I take up this topic.

It turns out there’s an answer to this question: Yes, we do and should care what other people think. Blessed be, amen, our closing hymn . . .

Oh, you know I’m not going to short-change a topic as rich as this one. (What would you think of me?)

The question is one of integrity, isn’t it? “To thine own self be true,” as Polonius said. And integrity – the wholeness of a life in which actions and principles are consistent – is important.

We’ve all met people who say, no, they are not affected by what other people think of them. Maybe you used to be one of those people – maybe you still are. I spent some years as youth imagining that I was immune to the opinions of others – but this was mostly so I could say snide and contemptuous things about lemming-people who followed the crowd and wouldn’t think for themselves.

Social psychologist Mark Leary did a very interesting study. He began by surveying a large group of students on their self-esteem and how much it depended on what other people think. Some of the students, question after question, reported that they were completely unaffected by the opinions of others. Other students said they were strongly affected by what other people think of them.

Leary then selected two groups: students who most strongly said they were not affected by others, and students who most strongly said they were affected by others’ opinions of them. Here’s what each student did. They had to sit alone in a room and talk about themselves for five minutes, speaking into a microphone. They were told that there was someone out of sight in another room listening to them, and that listener was making a determination, based on what they heard, whether they wanted to interact the speaker in the next part of the study. So the speaker is talking for five minutes into a microphone. And they can’t see the listener, but at the end of every minute as they’re talking, a number appears on a display in front of them – a number between 1 and 7. The students have been told that a 1 means "the listener really doesn’t want to interact with you. From what they’re hearing, they don’t like you." A 7 means that they very strongly do want to interact with you. Numbers in between indicate varying degrees of in-between interest.

Imagine how this would feel. You start talking about yourself, and at the end of one minute you see a 4. OK, they’re on the fence. You keep talking. At the end of the second minute, you see a 3.

Oh.

At the end of the third minute, it’s a 2.

I'm losing them!

At the end of the fourth minute, it’s up to a 3.

Ah, that last minute must have a little more interest in it.

Then at the end of the last minute, it’s back down to a 2 again.

Ugh.

Now, Leary has rigged it. Half the students, by random draw, got 4-3-2-3-2 – and it didn’t matter how charmingly or how boringly they talked about themselves. The other half of the students got rising numbers: 4-5-6-5-6.

Not surprisingly the students who had said that they cared about other people’s opinions had big reactions to the numbers. When one of these students got the sequence of falling numbers, their self-esteem sank.
“But the self-proclaimed mavericks suffered shocks almost as big. They might indeed have steered by their own compass, but they didn’t realize that their compass tracked public opinion, not true north” (Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind 91)
Leary says that we have an internal sociometer that continuously measures how the people around you value having you around. When your sociometer needle drops, it triggers an alarm and changes our behavior. Leary writes:
“the sociometer operates at a nonconscious and preattentive level to scan the social environment for any and all indications that one’s relational value is low or declining.” (qtd in Haidt 92)
We ALL care what people think of us. It’s just that some people have such low self-awareness that they think they don’t. And why do they have that delusion? Because they think people will think better of them if they profess to be the kind of person who doesn’t care what other people think.

Actually, there is one group of people that truly do not have the internal unconscious sociometer and can be said to not care what other people think of them: psychopaths. Psychopaths would care what others think only as part of a plan to manipulate or exploit them. They don’t have shame and guilt: the social emotions that correspond to being attentive to what others think of us.

At this point you may be thinking, OK, we are all, if we aren’t psychopaths, attentive to others opinions, but even so, there are some people who are clearly always seeking approval and others who, while attentive to overt signs of approval and disapproval, aren’t always trying to get approval. Some people seem to need to constant reassurance and others seem to be more “self-defined” or self-differentiated. They take for granted that they are "acceptable enough," and, unless explicitly shown or told they aren't, they don’t seem to think about it.

To get at what’s going on here, we have to unpack the notion of self a little bit. What is this “self” thing to which Polonius tells us to be true?

Next: The Self

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "What Other People Think"
See also:
Part 2: The Self and Its Worldview
Part 3: Biases and Anxiety

2017-10-03

Quintessence of Glorious Dust

Yay! Death! part 3

At one point in his book, To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death, after describing his encounters with certain transhumanists keen to inhabit robot bodies that would colonize the galaxy, Mark O’Connell reflects:
“Some essential element within me reacted with visceral distaste, even horror, to the prospect of becoming a machine. It seemed to me that to speak of colonizing the universe – of putting the universe to work on our projects – was to impose upon the meaningless void the deeper meaninglessness of our human insistence on meaning. I could imagine no greater absurdity, that is, than the insistence that everything be made to mean something.” (20)
Yes. Being who you are means making meaning in that particular way that you do. And that’s beautiful within the boundedness of its finitude. But to burst those bounds, to raise the prospect of subjecting everything to one particular way of meaning-making, is to lose meaning.

I am, then, so grateful for that boundedness, that finitude which frees me play my part without overrunning all the other parts. What has meaning in context, loses meaning when stripped of its context – and the context that allows our lives to have meaning is that they are so brief, so bound to particular place – and a single lifespan of time.

The transhumanists speak of “the sense of ourselves as trapped in the wrong sort of stuff, constrained by the material of our presence in the world.” (55) They therefore seek a “more suitable computational substrate.” But it is just this material constraint that gives us the context for making some meaning of ourselves.

Would it be “you” if you were uploaded into a robot’s computer brain? Yes, it would be “you” in the same sense that the mountains and rivers and stars are already you. It would be "you" in the same sense that it would also be "me." The other sense of you is rooted in the sinews and guts of your particular body, and to put your brain processes into a machine would be to create something as different from you as your child. It would, in some sense, be your child. But it wouldn’t be you. (Nor is the future self into which you are slowly, willy-nilly, turning, and of which you are also the parent, as Wordsworth recognized, writing, "The Child is father of the Man.")

For one thing, a human brain, being organic, is, for better or worse, unpredictable. Each one has its own style, its own predilections, but also has a fair amount of randomness built into it. We often find ourselves doing something, and we make up a story that makes the action seem like part of a coherent purpose. That’s often a story made up after the fact to rationalize some bit of randomness. Our brains are like a school of fish, or a murmuration of starlings “where elements interact and coalesce to form a single entity whose movements are inherently unpredictable.” One could, I suppose, build randomness into a computer emulation of your brain, but what seems to appeal to the transhumanists is getting rid of the flaw of our unpredictable randomness. Get rid of that, and an essential aspect of our humanness has been stripped away.

Our materiality, the randomness and surprise our “wetware” produces, the urgency and preciousness of life that comes from its brevity, the dying animal that we are: this is our glory and our part to play in the vast cosmos.

At the end of one of his chapters, Mark O’Connell describes being back home writing up his experience with one of the sects of transhumanism. He writes:
"What a piece of work is man, I thought. What a quintessence of dust. Some minutes later, my wife entered the bedroom on her hands and knees, our son on her back, gripping the collar of her shirt tight in his little fists. She was making clip-clop noises as she crawled forward, and he was laughing giddily, and shouting “Don’t buck! Don’t buck!” With a loud neighing sound, she arched her back and sent him tumbling gently into a row of shoes by the wall, and he screamed in delighted outrage, before climbing up again. None of this, I felt, could be rendered in code. None of this, I felt, could be run on any other substrate. Their beauty was bodily, in the most profound sense. I never loved my wife and our little boy more, I realized, than when I thought of them as mammals. I dragged myself, my animal body, out of bed to join them.” (68-69)
Blessed be.



* * *
This is part 3 of 3 of "Yay! Death!"
Part 1: Yearning for Immortality
Part 2: Two Epiphanies

2017-10-02

Two Epiphanies

Yay! Death! part 2

The question of death is always the question of self. Self is not static. You are always changing, continuously dying because continuously changing. Your current self is impermanent -- a temporary way-station between your past selves and your future selves. Thus, the only way to "live" (well, exist) forever would be to be frozen and never thawed.

The question of death is always the question of self. Self is not separate. You are not a closed-off, self-contained isolation chamber. This simple point is a profound one. You are not just a vast set of complex interactions going on inside your skin, but are also the vast set of complex interactions between those going on inside your skin and those going on outside the skin – starting with sensory input and extending to everything that interacts with the things from which you’re getting sensory input – that is, the whole universe. The self -- the whole self -- is the world. Thus, the self will be around as long the world is.

The impermanent point means that "you" cannot be immortal. The not separate point means that you are.

I recognize the urges and desires that drive many of these transhumanists. Some of them feel keenly the limitations of their brains, and they want to be integrated with machines that will transcend those limitations. Myself, I used to want a really long life just because I was curious what the future would bring. What new art and music, what breakthroughs, what political experiments lay in the future? I was very curious about this, and I wanted to live a long time just so I could see as much of it as possible.

That was up until 2003. In August of 2003, I went to the first meditation retreat I’d been to that was longer than a weekend. It was five days. The moment I so well remember didn’t happen at the retreat, but after it ended. The retreat was in Tucson. I had gotten there by taking a bus from El Paso. But on the way back I had gotten a ride from one of the other retreatants whose route home went through El Paso. So I’m riding in the passenger seat of his pick-up truck, rolling along I-10. Near the boundary between the Sonoran desert and the Chihuahuan desert, I was gazing up at some mountains in the distance when it happened.

I was suddenly powerfully aware that I will be there. I will be there. What this meant was that I will be present for all of those futures that I was so curious about. I am other people. It’s not just these 100 billion neurons that interact to form a self, but these 100 billion neurons are also interacting with the 100 billion neurons inside other skins, and with the many beings everywhere. What is me is the whole thing. So if anyone is around to see the future, that’s me.

In that moment, reincarnation was cast not as something that happens when one body dies, and one self inside one skin transfers to one other skin. We are all constantly, continuously reincarnating in everything else – and it in us. Everything is constantly, continuously reincarnating in everything else. And always has been.

Beings of all past times, Viking warriors, ancient Athenians and Chinese, on back through Neanderthals and dinosaurs were at that moment seeing those mountains through these eyes, and I will present through future beings for all future events. Why would I care whether or not one of those future beings happened to have my idiosyncratic personality quirks, harbor memories that currently reside only among these 100 billion neurons, or answer to my name? I will be there.

That epiphanic moment shifted me. Since that day, now more than 14 years ago, I have not felt that restless desire for longevity of this body. That’s just been gone from me. So it was with a small jolt that I read about these transhumanists and saw the form of an old familiar yearning still burning in them.

I’m happy to enjoy this body while it works out for it to be here, and happy to shoulder responsibility for it contributing what it can, and when the time comes to let it go, as Mary Oliver said, let it go – and continue on as the whole universe that constitutes me and all beings.

About two and a half years after that moment, I had a second. It was my forty-seventh birthday in 2006. I was reflecting, as one does on birthdays, on the years past and those that might be to come for this body – all of life, in the form of this body, presenting itself to itself.

What suddenly flooded over me this time was a profound gratitude for mortality. Forty-seven years gone by – maybe, given that death could come at any moment, all the years this body would get, and very likely more than half of the years this body would get. And then it would be gone. And that felt like such a relief.

It was the flip side of the earlier epiphany. On the one hand, I will be there. On the other hand, I don’t have to be there in a way that includes this form. I am not responsible for eternity, not responsible for being and doing any more than what one short lifetime can do -- and this illusion of mine, that I am a separate identity, the illusion to which ego clings, which I am able to occasionally drop only to pick up again shortly after, is gratefully NOT something we will be stuck with for terribly much longer.

It was liberating in a way that complimented the liberation of the earlier moment. While the first freed me from obsessive concern to preserve the particular quirks of this assemblage of attributes, the second freed me to go ahead and enjoy the particular quirks of this assemblage of attributes. They’ll only be around a short while, so love them while they’re here.

* * *
This is part 2 of 3 of "Yay! Death!"
See also
Part 1: Yearning for Immortality
Part 3: Quintessence of Glorious Dust

2017-10-01

Yearning for Immortality

Yay! Death! part 1

Some people really don’t want to die. Until a couple months ago, I had no idea the lengths to which some folks were going. I was strolling through a bookstore with LoraKim, and a book by Mark O’Connell caught my eye. It’s called To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death. I bought the book.

I read about Alcor, a company that currently has 117 clients "who are no longer among the quick." (23) Alcor has frozen their bodies, for $200,000 each, or just their heads, for $80,000 each, until such time as science figures out a way to bring them back to life.

I read about people who are working hard at developing 3-D brain scan technology with a view toward eventually being able to upload the full data into a computer that could then “run” that brain. This might be one of the ways of bringing back the cryogenically frozen people. Or any living person could, they think, have their personality transferred to a more advanced nonbiological carrier. Human consciousness rendered into “platform independent code,” can then be booted up on whatever the most advanced computer around might be, and it would be the same personality and consciousness in the same way that a text is the same text whether it is manifested on a magazine page in Times New Roman, or on a computer screen in Arial bold, or on a piece of notebook paper in your handwriting.

I read about other people who are working on neuroprosthetic replacements for brain parts. If you get a different part replaced by neuroprosthesis every year or two, eventually you have a brain consisting entirely of prosthetic parts, all of which are infinitely replaceable – giving you, voila, immortality.

I read about biohackers enhancing their senses by implanting electronics under their skin.

I read about other people who are taking a more biological approach, convinced that if they can just get enough funding, they’ll be able to reverse the cellular aging process and render our bodies eternally young.

Whichever of the various strategies these people might be pursuing, they are all called “transhumanists,” and they share a sense that death is deeply wrong -- an affront. It shouldn’t happen, and we if we put our minds to it, we can figure out a way to end this scourge.

One of the characters in the book is Aubrey de Gray. I looked up his TED talk. “Who here is in favor of malaria?” he asks his audience. His argument is: if you’d like to see malaria ended, wouldn’t you want to see all death ended? He is visibly exasperated by the lame arguments he encounters against curing aging:
  • Wouldn’t it be crushingly boring?
  • How would we pay the pensions?
  • What about starving Africans?
  • Dictators would rule forever.
And those are pretty lame arguments. I think we sense a much more compelling truth, but aren’t used to articulating it – so these short bad substitute arguments come out instead.

Then de Gray mentions a point that he seems to take as a somewhat more serious objection. To avoid overpopulation disaster, we’d have to curb the birthrate: cut way, way down on children.


The first point I’d make is: even if you could keep this body from aging any further, you can’t stop me from learning and changing. If you can’t stop me from learning and changing, then I’m gradually becoming a different person.

This was vividly demonstrated for me just last night. Last night, I was at my 40th high school class reunion – the only class reunion I've ever attended. The experience of seeing these people that I spent many formative years with, but haven’t seen for 40 years was both strange and familiar, both centering and de-centering. It was a clear experience of how 40 years of learning and changing has turned us into different people.

Certain ways the face moved, and the sounds of their voices were recognizable and familiar (but there’s no particular value in just keeping characteristic facial expressions and vocal tones around). When we were all in high school, we were not real estate agents and electricians and nurses and librarians and mechanical engineers and lawyers and ministers, and now we are. We were not spouses and parents and grandparents, and now we are. We aren’t the people we were. Also: we’re a lot more polite to each other now.

So imagine the world 100 years from now. That world is going to have different people in it, no matter what. These different people might have habits of facial expression and of body movement, might speak with the vocal pitches, timbres, and cadences, might even have a few of the memories – of the people alive today -- but they will be different people.

Or, those alive today might have been allowed to die and be replaced by younger generations.

Either way, it’s going to be a world full of different people 100 years from now. Why should we want the world of 100 years from now to have the first sort of different people instead of the second sort of different people?

* * *
This is part 1 of 3 of "Yay! Death!"
See also
Part 2: Two Epiphanies
Part 3: Quintessence of Glorious Dust

2017-09-29

What If I Don't Have a Gender Identity?

Last Sunday, after the worship service, 50 or so of us gathered in Community UU's Fellowship Hall for a screening of “Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric.” As I listened to the stories of the transgender people Couric interviewed, it occurred to me that I wasn’t sure I had such a thing as a gender identity.

I present myself as male because, from early on, I was told I was male. I never had any sense that was right or wrong. If my parents had told me from birth that I was a girl and dressed me in frilly pink dresses, I think I’d have been fine with that (at least for as long as I could have been prevented from noticing that my external genitalia didn’t match the other girls'). I did have certain preferences that were more common among boys than girls -- I loved playing football, for instance -- but as long as girls could also play football and participate in the other "tomboyish" things to which I was drawn -- being identified as a girl would not have felt like a problem for me.

Of course, I could be fooling myself – delusion is always a possibility – but it seems as though I present myself as male only because that’s easy and convenient (also, males have lots of advantages in our culture, so why not?) rather than because an inner gender identity makes me feel that being female would be wrong for me.

Maybe I'm unusual in how weak my inner sense of gender identity is (or, perhaps, unusual in how strongly I’m in denial about it). In 1977, at age 18, I went away to college and started going by Meredith, my middle name, whereas previously I’d always gone by Steven, my first name, or Steve. I was attracted to the gender ambiguity of “Meredith.” I was consciously making a small statement against the very idea of gender identity. I learned that sex is a biological category while gender is a social construct, and my opinion was that it would be better to stop socially constructing it. Or, at least, since gender roles are oppressive, especially to women, let’s construct gender in a way that allows for a lot more role fluidity -- and minimizes the significance of gender identity.

What I’ve been learning is that there is something biological about gender identity after all, and even if my brain’s gender identity structures really are at the weak end of the spectrum, a lot of people, both cisgender and transgender, have stronger gender identity built into their brains. I don’t know directly what that’s like, but I don’t have to know. Other people bear no burden to make their lives make sense to me. Rather, it’s my responsibility to extend respect and care to everyone, whatever ways they differ from me. It’s up to me to take them at their word about who they are and what they make of the meaning of their life and experience.

As for my identity? GBNS (Genderless But Not Sexless)? No, I have a gender, just not a gender identity. By long habit, I clearly present as male, don't have any energy to change those habits, and continue to benefit from the privileges of maleness. Even if, for me, my own gender is entirely a social construct, male is how I happen to have been socially constructed. Thus, I identify myself as male without identifying with being male. I might have just as readily taken to being constructed female, but I wasn't, so I'm not. Much. I guess. Maybe I'm SHMPUA (Socially and Habitually Male but Personally/Privately Ultimately Apathetic). Or: SCMMLCANGBPGI (Socially Constructed Male and More or Less Comfortable with that but Apparently Not Genetically or Biologically Predisposed to a Gender Identity).