Thursday, June 24, 2010

Who are we?

I was at a very interesting play last night which explored some ideas about who we are. At one point there was a discussion about whether your sexuality is anyone else's business. Obviously, as long as your not hurting anyone else, the answer is no, but this is not a majority opinion as there's always someone ready to pronounce on who should and should not do what.

The borders of 'normal' are constantly being policed to make sure transgressors feel our wrath. The fact that these borders shift over time does not make them feel just as immutable, just as timeless - even though such an idea that they are not constantly shifting is patently absurd.

During my sociology degree I'd have called this a question of 'norms' and 'deviance', in other words what we take to be normal standards for society and those who deviate from it. One of the interesting things about this is that things like murder or suicide are seen as great taboos and far from normal behaviour while, in reality they are literally everyday occurrences that have 'rates' that can be statistically measured and effected.

That's why they use the term 'norms' rather than 'normal' because breaking norms is normal, if not the norm.

So why do some people feel that the fact that some people are gay, for example, is any of their business. Why get angry about adult consenting behaviour that has no bearing on your life? Why do people get violently attacked, even killed, for daring to go about their daily lives without shame?

I think a large element of this is the way we define ourselves, which you might think of as a very individualist act, but it is in fact a social one. So much of who we are is bound up with others. Where we work, say, or who our family is, our position in the community, our academic achievements or friendship networks. Even those aspects of ourselves that feel very private are in fact inevitably bound up with social categories. A private writer of poetry is still perpetuating a socially created category, and using learned forms to articulate their emotions.

In fact I'd go so far to say that we define ourselves in relation to other people, often unconsciously and we have a tendency to categorise and formalise what is really quite fluid. We might think someone is 'sexy' or 'brainy' or 'witty' or 'emotional' but will also recognise that this is just one part of that person, more complex than a label and often a part that may be hidden under the surface in different circumstances.

When we dig into these ideas they become difficult, but they rarely create problems as we rub along in our daily lives.

These boxes that we put others in help us to place ourselves, to define ourselves. A box with firm and clear edges finds it more easily fits when stacked with others. It's safer that way because you don't have to define yourself anew everyday and when you find yourself in a social situation it isn't a terrifying venture into the unknown because everyone is meant to stick to the rules, even though they don't.

So if you start blurring those edges, redefining sexuality or stepping outside of the normal dress code or ways of speaking then you're doing something extremely scary. You're changing the rules. If your sexuality has fallen out of the socially accepted box then what's to stop mine doing the same? My ideas about myself are challenged and by being 'different' you challenge the whole basis of the shape of society when you wear lipstick with your goatie beard.

Those edges of what is acceptable isn't just socially policed, that policing itself helps define what is and is not acceptable and sometimes gets produced even when no deviance has actually been exhibited. If gay people are beaten up if they are open about their sexuality it reinforces where the line is. The bigots are not just unhappy about other's behaviour, they actively want to create, through their bigotry, what kind of world we live in.


Joe Kisolo said...

Your dead right that identities that blur the edges are indeed powerful challenges to the cohesion of social identities.

Of course, marginal identities can generate norms of their own, they can become their own social identities and this can be positive and negative.

Marginal social identities can come to incorporate the bigotry that is shown against them, so there becomes, for example, a way you should be if you are gay or black. In this way the marginalised can come to negatively police themselves as well.

I bloged the following on identity:

Jim Jepps said...

Hi Joe, sorry to take so long to get back to this.

Very interesting - thank you.

I think this is a very important point that there isn't simply one norm in society - a "british culture" for instance - and that the way those different subcultures interact with each other and, in fact, make up the total mix, is very, very interesting to me.

I think it's true that stereotypes can become absorbed into the way people actually behave, but as importantly often stereotypes are based on something real.

Lots of black people in prison, get stopped by the police and don't like the cops much = black people are criminals. It's false logic and blaming people for the consequences of a racist society, for example, but there's a twisted kernal at the centre of the myth.

I might repost a piece I wrote a while ago on how these spheres interact, or don't, sometimes.