Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Policing definitions?

In a recent post on shades of gray, the author wrote about "Policing the definition: Is there a gold standard?"

She says that one of the reasons for making the post was a debate between us conducted privately. The disagreement between us on the matter is somewhat difficult to precisely characterize, as can be seen by how she describes the matter:
He [me] raised the idea that some asexuals actually define themselves as “not sexual” which, not to put too fine a point on it, to me seems just as much a so-vague-it-becomes-nonsensical definition as it would be to claim a definition of sexuality so broad as to make it possible to claim that all humans are sexual (in a non-scientific context).
My point is a factual one--some people who identify as asexual think of themselves as being "not sexual." As such, the disagreement seems to largely be a matter of responding to this fact. (She see's it as a problem. I don't.)

Now, one thing I find interesting about this is that in private discussions with people in the asexual community, I have now corresponded with someone who expressed utter shock at the possibility that some asexuals think of themselves as "not sexual," and I have also corresponded with someone who was genuinely surprised to discover that not everyone who identifies as asexual thinks of themselves as being "not sexual." This suggests to me that this is a matter worth trying to better understand; I think it is a matter of better understanding the diversity that exists within the asexual community--diversity that does not fit nicely along the better known classificatory schemes used in the asexual community (i.e. romantic orientation, gray-a, demisexual, etc.)

In discussing the matter, I have no intention of trying to address the question of whether asexuals are "not sexual." I've utterly beaten that topic to death in a 16-part series (summarized here) in which I conclude that the question of whether asexuals are "not sexual" is basically incoherent and unanswerable because different people have different ideas of what it is to be sexual, and there is no real way of figuring out who is "right." My intention, instead, is to try to better understand the matter, address the Gray Lady's concerns, and hopefully to foster critical reflection on these issues.

The arguments that she makes are essentially, that a) "asexual" means "lacking sexual attraction" and does not mean "not sexual," b) that saying someone is "not sexual" makes no sense whatsoever and is so incredibly vague that it's not worth asserting, and c) we should therefore police each other on our usage of "asexual" and insist that we only use it in the sense of "lacking sexual attraction."

Regarding the third point, I confess that I take a fuzzy approach to the meaning of "asexual." It does not have one single precise meaning. Many people who use the term (perhaps most) regularly use it in different senses. This certainly includes myself, and I see no problem with this. I think that one major problem with the Gray Lady's argument is that she fails to take into account (or views as a problem we should try to fix) the massive polysemy that exists in natural human language. (For an idea of just how massive it is, see section 3.2 of Unnatural kind terms and a theory of the lexicon by GM Green.)

Polysemy has to do with how the same word can mean many different but closely related things. (It is contrasted with homophony which is two word that mean different things and happen to sound the same.) This can be illustrated by the word "bank." This can be a place by the side of a river or it can refer to a financial institution. Thus, to interpret the sentence "I'm going to the bank" we have to figure out which meaning of "bank" is meant. (This is homophony.) However, the word "bank" can refer to an actual building or it can refer to the more abstract notion of a financial institution. In some contexts, it is possible to distinguish between these. But in others, it is impossible and it doesn't really matter. All that matters is that in a given context, people are generally able to figure out what you mean.

When I talk about asexuality, I could be talking about it as a sexual orientation (but I've previous written about how this has multiple senses here and in following posts), as a social movement of sorts, as an identity, or a number of related things. When I talk about "asexuals" I myself do not know the precise limits of the terms meaning. It clearly means "people who are asexual in some sense of that term." But there are multiple perfectly sensible ways of defining asexuality (Discussed Reflections of defining asexuality). And if we define "asexuals" as "people who experience little or no sexual attraction" you still have the problem of "What is sexual attraction?" To be completely honest, I have no idea. As such, I'm not entirely sure who all is referred to by the term "asexuals." But both I and readers have a general, intuitive enough sense of the meaning of that term that coherent, intelligible discourse is perfectly possible. (I hope!)

The same issue applies to the term "sexual." In saying that someone is "not sexual," there is no reason to think that this has to mean "not sexual in any conceivable sense of the term." That's not how anyone uses it. They are relying on a (somewhat vague but intuitive) idea of sexuality involving attraction, desire, or something--and they're saying that someone who is asexual is not sexual in that sense. The point here is similar to the one with the term "asexual." "Sexual" can have a number of possible meanings in different contexts.

I don't think that this settles the matter, but hopefully it can clear things up a little and provide some food for thought.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I think you've misinterpreted my point especially with regard to 'c) we should therefore police each other on our usage of "asexual" and insist that we only use it in the sense of "lacking sexual attraction."'

I'm not making any assertion about whether we should or shouldn't. I'm saying that WE DO. And that in large part, the policing that goes on on AVEN (asserting the lack of attraction) is policing in response to the policing that users attempt to do towards others who they seem to perceive as "too sexual" (thus indicating to me that they buy the not sexual definition).

What I was attempting to elucidate (re: policing) is the way that the asexual community creates its own definition, and the definition in turn creates the community. In order to be more broadly inclusionist, we've had to reject a broader definition. If we focus on the one major factor that seems to unite us, we can allow for a more diversified community. At the expense, perhaps, of some members who would prefer to hang out in a more exclusive club... But if they want that, they can create it themselves. I believe some have already tried it and failed.

I am keeping polysemy in mind—honestly, how can I not be, when I am discussing how three different definitions are getting confused? But I fail to see how the fact that words simply HAVE more than one definition has any bearing on the distinctions between them. I'm considering what kind of community we are trying to create, and whether the definition we choose adequately expresses our existence to outsiders (i.e. whether or not it is USEFUL to our goal of spreading awareness.)

What I think you are overlooking here is a matter of degree. Of course "sexual attraction" is vague, but it is much, much less vague than if you just say "sexual." At least if you're talking about an attraction, it's pretty clear you're talking about attraction. But to not even specify the way in which we are "not sexual" is just asking for trouble, and that's even if our audience DOES understand that of course we're not talking about not being sexual IN ANY CONCEIVABLE WAY EVER. (Which my personal interactions with them have proven time and time again that they often don't.)

That's the other issue I was attempting to address: whether the definition we use is likely to make any sense at all to a sexual person when they hear it. Which most of the time it doesn't, unless it is firmly situated within the context of alternative sexual orientations. In order to be consistent with that context, it makes more sense to talk about attraction as opposed to... whatever it is we might be talking about if the definition is "not sexual."

The bottom line is, I'm not focusing on semantics, here. I'm prioritizing PRAGMATICS. It doesn't matter how many other alternative definitions of a word there are; what matters is which one we (as a community) are choosing.

Sure, language is arbitrary. There is no such thing as a "gold standard" when it comes to language. Anybody can make up a word and define it however the hell they want. But the reason that language works at all is because people come to a reasonable degree of consensus on their definitions. If we can't do that, we can't even expect to understand what people in our own community are saying, much less expect outsiders to understand us. Maybe it should be different, I don't know. All I'm saying is that it is necessary to make some choices about which definitions we put forward, and I personally think we should make the choice that is most likely to make sense.