Right after hitting publish on my recent post on fundamental differences, I started to feel nervous about it. I’m fairly sure I didn’t explain myself fairly well, I’m fairly sure that I don’t actually agree with everything I said there, I’m fairly sure that there are parts that I still agree with now but that future me will disagree with, and I’m fairly sure that there are parts that both I and future me agree with but where people I respect disagree with us. And I also suspect that all of that adds up to me looking like rather an ass.
I didn’t want to jump back into the fray immediately: for one thing, those struck me as the sort of mistakes that would require some amount of thinking to have any hope of digging out of, and, for another thing, I’d just started reading a book that is directly relevant to those issues. But now it’s three weeks later, so hopefully my subconscious has done a bit more processing; and I have a few thousand words of quotes to refer to when I feel like I’m going off the rails.
Before I dive back in, however, an apology: to the extent that anything that it felt like I was saying that you shouldn’t feel that an attribute of yourself makes you fundamentally different from people who don’t share that attribute, I apologize. It is not my desire to tell anybody else whom they should feel different from or similar to.
With that out of the way:
The key to how I was acting weird was in this sentence:
I have a very hard time accepting the gloss of “fundamentally different” with “a different gender, sexuality, race, class, or religion”.
This was referring to Corvus’s saying that exploring someone other than us in games is “most powerful when it allow us to identify with a character who is fundamentally different than ourselves–a different gender, sexuality, race, class, or religion.”
The important word in understanding what my brain was doing here is “gloss”: I was interpreting the dash as setting up an equivalence, i.e. that people who are fundamentally different from ourselves must be of a different gender, sexuality, race, class, or religion and that, inversely, people who are fundamentally the same as ourselves must be of the same gender/sexuality/race/class/religion. This straw man is easy to knock down—I certainly have no trouble coming up with pairs of people of the same gender/sexuality/race/class/religion who are far from clones—but, of course, it’s only a straw man, there are many other interpretations of that dash that are much more generous and plausible.
So yeah, that was a pretty strange interpretation. But I can understand why it took me a little while to notice how strange it is, because of (one aspect of) the way my brain works: INTPs will, I suspect, fairly naturally jump to definitions/equivalences like the above. (Or maybe mathematicians will, or maybe those mathematicians who are INTPs.) So it’s not a pure derailing tactic (and it certainly wasn’t a conscious derailing tactic, I hope I’m not that much of an asshole); or, perhaps more accurately, it’s a derailing tactic that a quirk of my psychology makes me more likely to slip into than most people. (Than normal people, perhaps I should say?)
A more natural interpretation of that dash in Corvus’s sentence would be: these are examples of fundamental differences. And sure, they’re good examples on that score. They are, of course, not chosen at random: they’re all categories linked with oppression and power dynamics, categories that have a strong impact on how others treat us before getting to know us, categories that continue to have an affect on others’ behaviors towards us even after they get to know us, and that even have an effect on our behavior towards ourselves. That’s pretty damn important.
As important as it is, it leaves out lots of other ways of slicing and dicing humanity. Divisions based on mental approaches and temperaments, for example: the MBTI classification that I touched on above, or where people fall on the autism spectrum. Age-based divisions: what historical events you lived through (c.f. Strauss and Howe’s generational divisions), what stage you’re at in your own life. That last one raises the question of whether it makes sense to call something “fundamental” that isn’t constant across your own life, and I agree, that’s an argument against applying that label; but child me is different from teenage me from young adult me from me as parent of a young child from me as a parent of a soon-to-be-teenage child.
I’m sure each of you can continue with examples of differences. The examples from the last paragraph aren’t chosen at random, however: they’re divisions that are related to times where I’ve felt most alien (least normal, to return to a word that I was uncomfortable with above) over the last year. And yes, it does seem a little odd to feel that being a parent of a 12-year-old means that I’m abnormal; normality is a product of both yourself and context, and, in both Silicon Valley startups and the community of video game bloggers, having a child of that age marks me as unusual in ways that directly affect my experience and ability to fit in.
In contrast, of Corvus’s five categories, I fit well enough within the dominant group in my country in four of them to accrue real benefits; and, in the fifth category, I spend most of my time within subcultures where my status is accepted without comment, even expected. So, while I do at times feel a little uneasy on two or three of the his dimensions, my response to his list was unquestionably coming from a position of privilege: when thinking about differences, I’m less likely to interrogate dimensions where the dominant culture supports my status, and more likely to look at dimensions (such as introversion / extroversion) where the dominant culture makes me feel like more of an outsider.
Returning to flying my mathematician freak flag: part of what this points out is that fundamental differences doesn’t form a partitioning of humanity, because the notion of fundamental similarity isn’t symmetric. I may feel that you and I are fundamentally the same at some level; you may, however, disagree with that. And yeah, that’s probably more likely to happen in situations where we differ along one of Corvus’s dimensions than along less politically-charged dimensions: if you’re a woman, you might be more inclined to see our gender as a significant difference than I am. (And, to return to what I said near the top: you might feel that we’re different for all sort of reasons; that’s your labeling decision to make, informed by your perspective, not mine.)
To make matters more complicated, not only might I disagree with you about what constitutes a fundamental difference between us, I might disagree with myself. “Fundamental” is a word that lends itself of many interpretations, and that pulls towards extremes: I might use it to focus on one dimension, I might use it to pay as much attention to each of us as individuals as possible, I might use it to emphasize our common humanity. I might do that based on my mood at the time, but I might also do it for political reasons; and that’s an area where Corvus’s categories are very much a double-edged sword. Because, while these categories can be used to emphasize respect for others’ experiences, they can also be used to mark people as Other with a capital O, with all the evil associated therewith. What I would hope I wouldn’t do is shift between these different meanings purely for sophistical reasons, but “fundamental” is a slippery enough term that it wouldn’t be hard to do that without intending.
Though that tension between different interpretations can be wonderful to explore in its own way. That’s one of the reasons why I liked Whipping Girl so much: in one paragraph, the author would talk very thoughtfully about femininity versus masculinity, and the real power and effects that that difference has, but then say, in the very next paragraph, that “it is not enough for us to empower femaleness and femininity. We must also stop pretending that there are essential differences between women and men.” I really enjoyed that juxtaposition of viewpoints, and I appreciate it as a helpful reminder of the dangers of falling too in love with a single philosophical lens. And I think it’s also quite possible that the book’s author isn’t actually intending to give me whiplash, that she instead comes from a rather wiser point of view that has allowed her to synthesize these concerns into a coherent world view. Beats me; it will be interesting to return to the book in a few years once it’s percolated through my subconscious and experiences a bit more. (Hmm, I should probably think about The Mad Man‘s interrogation of roles in this light, too.)
Enough meandering for today: I’ll stop here, as an expression of my fundamental identity as someone who writes loosely-constructed 1500-word blog posts. And I’ll doubtless have regrets soon after hitting publish on this one, too; fortunately, my friends are generous types who are willing to look past my considerable warts, and I love you all.
This post has not been revised since publication.