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  • Writer's pictureCrone

Who are you?

Yesterday I read this article on Aeon and I found it intriguing because, well, it made sense to me. Are you going to click on the link to read it? I wish you would. I have little internet connectivity in my 5* shed and so I can't flick between the text and this blog. Oh, I see: you want me to recap it as best as I can remember and understand? OK, then, but believe me this could be a long way off the mark.


The thesis seems to be that we are neither soul/humunculus-self-in-the-mind nor just a complex network of neurons in the bone-box of the head. We are the world.


Take a simple action, and let's make it really simple. A single-celled organism in an environment. Over there is something it can metabolise into energy. It moves there. The environment, as it were, creates the movement, through its interaction with the cell. Scale that up to a human reaching out for a glass of wine, say. The wine glass, as... darn, was it Hegel or Heidegger? Well, as one of them said, is 'ready-to-hand'. It is not just an object but an object internalised by past experiences into a part-of-self. Of course, were the person some strange being who hated the taste of wine, the reaching would not happen because of a feeling arising out of a series of memories, which are aspects-of-world-internalised.


Our memories are the world in the past; our ideas and imaginations utilise experience of the world to create novelty, but that would not be possible without the world, without experience. A mind that had no body, no senses to feel even the most basic sensations - temperature and pain, for example - would have no experience. No world = no mind.


In memory and imagination - even in a sensory deprivation chamber - we have the world with us. All that neuronal activity is dependent on there being a world that we experienced-internalised.


A lot of the time, when I am running or walking, it is my internalised world that holds me in its thrall. Thoughts and fears bubble up unwanted. I listen to audiobooks or podcasts to pull me away from my own concerns and into a world of someone else's thoughts and fears. Meanwhile, in the world, outside my head, there are the primrose banks, unsalted-butter-yellow and leek-green. (Last night we cooked leeks in butter - and that image, world-internalised, popped up unawares until I recalled, consciously, my sister-in-law commenting on the leeky colours.) The layers of world, multifarious, miraculously both out there and here-in-mind.


That layering, that complexity - because, as you'll read in the Aeon article (seriously, click on the link, it's worth it) myriad facets of world combine and network to lead us to decision and belief, value and idea. And it operates on layers grander still.


I mean that who we are, our version of world-internalised, is not a one-dimensional thing. I am not just a heterosexual woman, I am also a left-winger, a usually-vegan-but-only-vegetarian-when-staying-with-my-cheese-making-relatives, a journalist, a (bad) artist, a graduate, a thinker, an animal lover, a pet-owner, an atheist, a former Catholic, a Brit, a European (well, as much as I can be now). I am for equal rights and opportunities, but doubt the concept of equal outcomes. I am for a Universal Basic Income. I am against factory farming but have some sympathy with small scale producers. I believe in climate change and doubt the political will to do enough about it (which reflects most society's continuing desires to live as they have become accustomed to living - maybe coronavirus will impact this).


The varied aspects of identity - and the threat posed by narrowing people or cultures down to just one - are well explored in Amartya Sen's Identity and Violence. His focus was on the dangers of limiting classifications of identity to simply religion, nationality or West/non-West. But it made me think about identity politics.


Now that so many people are suffering as a result of a tiny piece of genetic material with a pernicious ability to contaminate and kill, a focus on internecine battles in humanities departments seems something of a luxury. But I am sure that gender identity remains of particular importance to those who have re-categorised themselves. I feel it's right that people should express themselves as how they feel they truly are. But I don't truly understand what the gender identity is.


I'm probably too old and square and not woke enough. Certainly the early conditioning I experienced, the world I internalised as a child and teenager, did not offer up this freedom. What I can say is that I do know, I suppose, what it is like to be 'treated as a woman' in the world, in various societies, workplaces, and so on. But I can't say I know what it feels like to 'be a woman'. I know what it feels like to be me - and that's pretty variable. 'Woman' though.... I can't access that as a single defining element. There's no 'essence of woman' inside that I can feel. I can't begin to imagine what it would be like to feel that there is an essence of woman, or of man, or any other gender, inside me.


When I was a kid, I had some tomboy-ish traits. I liked playing detectives or Batman and Robin (sitting on my brother's motorbike and wearing one of my mother's silk scarves as a cape). I seem to recall a man in Saudi asking my mother about her 'son'. I wasn't a pretty girl and I was wearing jeans, so I guess he meant me. I was the only child in the room, after all. I remember having school-girl crushes on older girls. Oh, and I recall a friend and I, when we were eight or nine, playing some rather inappropriate games - her instigation, obviously. I think I was the man. It was both exciting and rather disgusting. As exploration often is. None of this impacted on a sense of gender because I felt like me, not like a boy or a girl.


Well, so how does this all tie up? My experience of gender is, I guess, that the identity 'female' is somewhat irrelevant. Just like all the other things. I mean, I don't think I need to define myself by any of the things in the list I outlined earlier. Sure, my food preferences play a part when I eat; my desire for men (a man) when I have sex; my political allegiances when I vote and so on. But I guess I don't really care how others define me.


That doesn't mean I have any negativity at all toward transgender people. I think I can imagine, maybe, the pain of feeling that one needs to be other than how one has been born and is labelled. And I empathise with that. And I want others to be compassionate and to accept. But I can't feel into that experience. I don't know what aspect of the world that I have never internalised would let me see into that feeling.


The world is richer that I can imagine.


And for that reason, it's my hope that people on either sides of debates about rights and safe spaces for women and self-identification can find that across the divide their joint passions. This person shares an interest in Tolstoy or Star Trek or Isaiah Berlin or Beethoven or Grey's Anatomy or environmental campaigning or Judaism with that other who may have different views on gender identity. There are so many ways in which we can find connections with others, so why, for goodness sake, do we always focus on the issues where we disagree?

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