Guest post: A heavily overloaded word

Originally a comment by latsot on You conflate identity and reality.

One of the issues here is that ‘identity’ is such a heavily overloaded word. I mean ‘overloaded’ in the technical, computer science sense: it has lots of different meanings which can be used only somewhat interchangeably. The overall semantics might be broadly the same, but you’ll quickly run into trouble if you use the wrong one.

I think two different senses of ‘identity’ that are relevant here are:

1. Stuff I make up in my head. How I feel. What I want to be seen as. Let’s call this ‘idenniny’.

2. Assertions made about me by the proper official bodies, documents etc. Let’s call this ‘identity’.

So on the one hand, we have documents like my birth certificate which assert various facts about me and on the other, we have unverified things I assert about myself. The clue here is in the word ‘certificate’: the authority is certifying things like my date and time of birth, the name I was registered with at birth, my sex and my parents. If anyone ever needs to know any of those things, the government will certify the facts.

Now, I can change my birth name any time I like. I can suddenly start doing so right this minute without taking a single action other than making that decision. In fact, I have: my birth certificate records my name as Robert, but I absolutely never use that name; it’s always been Rob. That, you’ll have to take my word for because the government doesn’t care what I call myself.

(In fact, that’s not quite true in my case: my driving licence and passport both say “Rob” but since my birth certificate was used to apply for both, there’s a clear chain of evidence that all those documents refer to the same person. But this just illustrates my point even better: the relevant authorities are certifying my identity even though I have two different names.)

It seems to me that the problem in the above exchange is the common one of slipping between identity and idenniny without due care and attention. It’s a very common Motte and Bailey tactic. The problem is not just that a fact such as my sex is material reality when my ‘gender identity’ might be whatever I want it to be, it’s that the legal and social consequences of the two are not the same. That’s why one needs to be certified and the other does not.

Honestly, we should just put computer scientists in charge of everything, we’d soon have it all sorted out.

[In case it is not clear, absolutely do not do this.

It would be the worst disaster you could possibly imagine.]

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