I Know I Am, But What Are You?

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By Erin Rook, PQ Monthly

In my most recent column for PQ Monthly, I write about the ways in which identity policing is antithetical to creating community. When I set out to write on this topic, I figured that the tendency to decide for others where they do or do not belong is something we all struggle with but know on a gut level to be problematic.

I forget that a surprising number of people don’t actually believe in self-identification, the right to claim one’s own identity and say: “This is who I am.”

Some have called this narcissism, as if it is somehow selfish to look at your own reflection and give a name to what you see. As if other people’s perceptions of who and what we are somehow carry more weight. As if strangers have some insight into our true selves that we lack.

Now, I recognize that certain labels have socially constructed definitions. It’s human nature to want to put people into neat categories that tell us how to feel about and treat them. But I cannot accept the notion that I should value someone else’s assessment of who I am over my own. Sure, sometimes we came across those — friends, family, partners, therapists — who seem to know us better than we know ourselves, and their perspectives are worth considering. But society at large has no particular expertise with which to evaluate my identity.

The labels we are offered with which to identify ourselves may well be socially constructed, but that doesn’t mean who we are is socially determined. No representative body of humanity held a vote on my identities or came to a consensus on what I am allowed to call myself. And even so, we are all part of the society that constructs these labels and drafts the definitions for their application. (So, yeah, I’ll socially construct whatever identity I damn well please.)

Furthermore, these definitions are not static. (Just ask any grammarian frustrated over the apparently contradictory definitions of words such as “peruse” and “literally.) Our understanding of the world, ourselves, and, yes, even “reality,” are constantly evolving.

How do we make sense of an ever-shifting reality? By trusting ourselves and believing each other. I’m not so naive as to believe that there are no deceitful people in the world. Yes, some people take on the appearance of another gender with the intent to mislead, some people lie about being raped to exact vengeance, some people pretend to be gay or bisexual to get close to someone they otherwise couldn’t. But these are few and far between, and their violations of our collective trust do not justify our denial of each other’s right to self-identify.

It’s like Pee-Wee Herman used to say, only in reverse: “I know I am, but what are you?” Allowing others to be the experts on their own lives isn’t narcissism, it’s humility.

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