Wednesday, September 24, 2014


Here's a couple of quotes on personal identity that get me pulling in opposite directions.
  1. How does a workout become a social identity? In some ways, it's choosing a gym. In some ways, it's choosing a life. 
  2. For me, the worst thing about being asexual is other people trying to fix me all the time. They develop this completely inappropriate obsession with my sexual and romantic life, which can manifest as anything from aggressively propositioning me for sex to searching for what’s “really” wrong with me through invasive questions. Some of them maintain that these attempted interventions are about my health and happiness, apparently unaware that they’re compromising both by refusing to respect my identity. 
The first is the teaser from an Atlantic video comparing Crossfit and yoga. I read it and my first thought is, "How could a workout not become a social identity?" The second is from an interview with "asexual" author Julie Sondra Decker at Salon. I read the article with a certain amount of sympathy because I can see how it must be very hard to live without feeling sexually attracted to others. That sympathy evaporated when I read the words "refusing to accept my identity". I immediately thought, "Don't tell me your lack of interest in sex is your identity." I also thought, "I think she's lying." A clarification: I suspect she is lying but she isn't necessarily lying to us.

To go back to the first quote. The thing that should shock us is that it even needed to be said. A workout is more than just something you do. It is something that shapes you. Your body has a huge effect on your brain and the amount and kind of training you do will inevitably shape the way you think.

I think most of us, especially those of us who consider ourselves to be intellectuals, will fudge that. We'll think, "Of course a physical regime will affect how we think," instead of saying "shape how we think" because we want to give primacy to the brain—while we might admit that activity might influence our thought we will still insist it is the life of thought that makes us who we are.. I've heard decidedly atheist intellectuals describe this as emphasizing the spiritual side of life.

That might suggest a Christian influence but I think it's ultimately Stoic. The Stoic will typically argue that humans may be limited or even utterly deprived of the ability to control physical circumstances but we are always free to choose the attitude we take to those circumstances." If you ever find yourself in prison and being tortured that's a useful bet to take.

Pushed hard enough, however, you will certainly lose that bet.

But there is no need to consider only the extreme cases. Your everyday physical regime will form you and that remains true if you actively choose Crossfit or Yoga or if you just let yourself drift into a set series of habits. Over the years, I have seen people who have drifted into habits that ended with circumstances ranging from the failure of their marriages to their being diagnosed with adult-onset diabetes.

In our contemporary culture, however, we tend to see the game running the other way. We tend to think that the important thing is to decide what we want to be. Then, assuming "we want it enough", we can become that. I've even caught myself saying that the real reason that I didn't succeed at something was, "Because I didn't really want it".

Which is why I think Julie Sondra Decker is lying to herself about her "identity". In a sense, it is her identity because if you fail to develop some aspect of your personality for long enough (Decker is 36) you can reach a point of no return. I've know celibates who have told me that eventually their interest in sex just vanished. I've also known women who told me that it took them until their late twenties to make sex work.

I can understand, by the way, the person who has no interest in sex and simply doesn't care enough to bother "fixing" what they don't see as a problem. (Or, it may simply be that they are dysfunctional and no fixing is possible.) But the person who honestly finds themselves in such a situation will not insist that others "respect their identity". (An ugly element of pride creeps in whenever we start taking aspects of ourselves as our identity, which is why it's probably better not to use the word in that way.)

The take away for those of us trying to develop virtues has often been made before and that is that it is more important to start acting the way the sort of person you want to be acts than it is to think in a new way. Change the behaviour and the mind will follow.

Eventually. There will be a significant amount of cognitive dissonance to wade through first.

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