Monday, January 18, 2010

RE: "Active vs Passive Identities"

Warning: This will be semantic; it may also be pedantic.
(Note: Though this is a [sort-of] response to shiva's post, all use of "you" is in the royal sense)

The broad meaning of "active" and "passive" identification and their respective problems.

(Note: I will be using "[x]" as shorthand for something like "the party of concern", which, I'm sure you will agree, would be entirely more annoying to write out.)

Active identity recognizes that ultimate deference with regards to a party [x]'s identity lies with [x], as [x] is the active participant in the formation of that identity. Passive identification recognizes a more general force ("society", "the group", etc.) as the active participant in the formation of [x]'s identity; [x]'s role in the formation of hir identity is reduced to influencing hir interpretation by that nebulous, generalized entity.

Activity and passivity can be seen as a sort of spectrum. At the active extreme, you find self-referential identification; "[x] is [A] because [x] identifies as [A]". At the passive extreme, you find denial of the agency of others in the role of identifying themselves; "[x] is what [x] is interpreted as by other parties".

The passive extreme is unsatisfactory for a few reasons:

-People are not passive. They are actively participant in their identities, by nature. Agency is an inherent part of being a person.

e.g.: From a purely passive perspective, [x] in a vacuum (no contact with other entities) is incapable of verifying hir own race, gender, sexuality, etc - any matter of identity is fundamentally unverifiable. This does not make logical sense if one accepts that [x] is active, forms opinions about things and is, you know... a person.

-Passive entities do not simply add up to become a generalized active identifying entity by any workable logic. If [x] is passive and therefore lacks the power to identify hirself, from whence comes hir power to identify or contribute to the identification of others?

e.g.: From a purely passive perspective, neither [x] nor [y] may verify any matter of their own respective identificaties in a vacuum, but as soon as they are put together they may verify every aspect of one another. This seems... illogical. (Note: The passive interpretation may put an arbitrary limit on the aggregate necessary to positively identify a given party. In that case, one can simply run this scenario with the given number of people - assuredly, it will still make little sense, as the fundamentals remain the same.)

-Inconsistency. If one accepts that aspects of [x] may actually be consistent, at least moreso than the interpretation of those aspects by other parties might be, then the passive explanation fails miserably.

e.g.: Let's say [x] identifies as bi and has been out as bi for five years. But [x] has a new job and is assumed het at the workplace. Is [x] now bi and het, as per the passive interpretation? Or is [x], as per the active interpretation, a bi person who is misinterpreted as het in the workplace? The latter is the only option which makes sense to me, at least.

The active extreme is unsatisfactory for one important reason: it does not recognize that the terminology of identification has meaning of its own. The term for [A] can be anything at all and still be true. As the meaning of terminology is passively ascribed (terms have no activity/agency of their own and thus do rely on the agency of generalized active forces like society, culture, community, etc.), the active interpretation must be offset by a passive recognition of the meaning of terms.

e.g.: [x] claims ze is a crocodile, but meets all the criteria necessary to be verified as a human. Since both "crocodile" and "human" have meaning of their own, it can be objectively* verified that [x] is not a crocodile but a human. Thus, the meaning of terminology means that the passive interpretation of identity may trump the active.

*Objectively being used rather loosely here - an objective stance is not perfectly achievable, but we can get close enough in this case that we don't have to worry about it. Other areas of identity are entirely messier and more subjective, though, of course, making the method of using the meaning of terminology to positively (un)identify someone less tenable.

So, for general purposes relevant to interaction between persons, identification lies on point in the spectrum between "active" and "passive" which respects personal agency (active) but also the meaning of the terminology of identification (passive) - and this point changes depending on the level of objectivity with which the terminology at hand can be verified by another party.

On to a specific claim relevant to this matter...

"Trans/nonbinary people are 'gender nonconforming'."

-So, first, what does that mean?

The meaning of the term "gender nonconforming" is in itself quite subjective. Of the meanings it may have, the most obvious are "not conforming to the social expectations of one's gender" and "not conforming to the social expectations of one's perceived gender", with no readily apparent way to tell which is meant. With this in mind...

-It is entirely possible to be gender conforming whether trans or nonbinary. Many are.

And yes, as concerns those who transition, this may apply before transition (putting on a gender conforming show for the general audience) and/or after transition (conforming to the social expectations of the gender one has transitioned to).

-Social expectations for [gender] are incredibly subjective. Draw a neat line around the social expectations of a gender and you will find that you've cut out entire cultures and even those within your own culture will disagree with the details. Hearkening back to my overview of passive vs. active, this means that adopting a heavily passive approach to the subject puts you in a precarious position.

To put that in simpler terms, if you tell someone they are "gender nonconforming" (or "gender conforming") and they disagree and find that offensive, passive interpretation is no reason to claim that what was said was not actually offensive.

-Incidentally, not "passing" (in scare quotes because I don't want to claim the implications of the word) doesn't mean that necessarily mean that one is "gender nonconforming". One may still conform to the social expectations of their gender whether they "pass" or not.

One who is gender conforming but does not "pass" may be perceived as gender nonconforming, but the perceived is important here.

-Plenty of cis people are gender nonconforming. I point this out because this topic grew out of discussion of the FWD debacle, in which "gender nonconforming" was used in exclusion to cis men, which doesn't make any sense.

[shiva]...A better way that i can see of conceptualising this category is as the category of people who are subject to oppression on the basis of (perceived) non-gender-normativity...

If what is meant by "this category" (I'm not sure, in the context) is "the category of 'gender nonconforming'", I think that is problematic for some of the reasons I've listed, particularly with regards to the subjectivity of the terminology.

e.g.(1): It is unfair to characterize someone who does not pass for their gender as "gender nonconforming" for this reason (unless they agree).

e.g.(2): It is unfair to characterize someone as gender nonconforming for an aspect of themselves which they see as gender conforming (like, say, a man wearing a kilt) but might be seen otherwise by their (or your) resident culture - once again, unless they agree.

[I was going to do more, but this took longer than it should have to write already, so I'll leave other active vs. passive issues for other posts.]


  1. Metaphysics, semantics, sociology, psychology. Cool topic.

    I would suggest that both active and passive identities are seperate things which may or may not overlap rather than a single spectrum. And that each will be both legitimate to an extent and yet totally flawed via subjective bias.

    As most 'identites' catagories are fairly nebulous and evolving notions often culturally and situationally dependant any objective classification and lists of criteria neccessary for such may be impossible anyway I think.

  2. I decided that the idea of a "spectrum" was useful when, while writing, I realized that identification is really a compromise between these two ideas (active personal agency and passive meaning of terms). You're right though, "spectrum" might not be the best word.

    Also, yeah, objectivity isn't really possible... but sometimes it's close enough to possible for the purposes of the situation.

    e.g.(1): The human example from before - the species has enough distinct qualities that a very-close-to-objective identification can be made.

    e.g.(2): Say [z] identifies as a man and has been recognized as male all his life. "Cisgendered" would be close enough to an objective description of [z]'s situation for most purposes.


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