‘Identify’

by Daniel A. Kaufman

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Until about five minutes ago, if you’d asked me what some customary uses of ‘identify’ are, I would have given three: [A] Where one expresses sympathy for and solidarity with a group to which one does not belong, as in, “I identify with the plight of Afghan women, in the wake of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan”; [B] where one asks another person to determine who or what something is, as in “Could you identify the suspect?” or “Can you identify this species?”, or where one is unable to do so, as in “I can’t identify that particular insect.”; and [C], relatedly, where one asks another person to say who they are – i.e. “Identify yourself” – where what is being asked for is the person’s name and sometimes, some bits of biographical information like a home address. It is worth noting that when answering the latter sorts of questions, the term ‘identify’ is dropped. One says in response, “That’s the guy I saw coming out of the supermarket with the bag of money” or “This is an Iguana delicatissima,” or “I’m Dan Kaufman,” not “that guy identifies with the person I saw coming out…” or “this lizard identifies as an …” or “I identify as Dan Kaufman.”

In asking around the philosophy interwebs, another use was suggested that is a variant on [A], where one does belong to a particular group but wishes one didn’t or has fallen out of sympathy with it, as in: “I was born in San Francisco, but I no longer identify as American, now that Trump is president.”

In contemporary gender-identity discourse, ‘identify’ is used in conjunction with ‘as’, to produce linguistic constructions like [D]: “I identify as a woman/man/neither a woman nor a man.” I already have written about these kinds of sexed/gendered identifications from a number of angles: whether or not they are the sort of identities that are self- rather than socially made; whether they are the kind that can be felt, as in “feeling like a man”; as well as a number of others. [1] But, I haven’t examined the actual grammar – in the Wittgensteinian, not the syntactic sense – of ‘I identify as’, which is what I’m doing here. [2]

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[A] – [C] would seem to indicate that ‘identify’ operates in essentially two ways: As a way of asking or saying what or who something or someone is (or saying that one cannot do so); and as a way of expressing one’s relation to something one is not. The question is whether [D] can be assimilated with these established uses or demonstrated as having some other coherent, customary use.

Suppose that one is a lawyer or guitar-player or carpenter or Lutheran. What would saying “I identify as ___” add? As already discussed, if one actually is the thing in question, one simply says so without using the word ‘identify’. ‘Identify’, while employable in an identity seeking query – “Could you identify this species” / “Could you identify yourself” – becomes ungrammatical when used in an identity stating assertion: “This is an Iguana delicatissima,” not “This identifies as an Iguana delicatissima” and “I am Dan Kaufman,” not “I identify as Dan Kaufman.”

Now, imagine that one was not any of these things. Suppose, for example, that you are an actor playing a lawyer or a guitar-player or a carpenter or a Lutheran in a play, film, or TV show. You would say, “I play a lawyer, carpenter, guitar-player, etc., in ____,” and this would communicate quite clearly that in fact, you are not the thing in question. Also notice, that you would not say “I identify as [a lawyer, guitar-player, carpenter, or Lutheran].” As per [A] and its variant, ‘identify’ can be used to claim sympathy with a group to which one does not belong — or antipathy towards one that one does — but it is not employed in straightforward denials that one actually is something.

So, what is ‘identify as’ supposed to communicate, when uttered or written? In earlier days, when the public understanding of trans people was largely in terms of male to female and female to male transsexuals, the relevant state of being was conceived as that of a legal and social fiction. A person, for reasons of psychological distress, endeavored to look and behave like a conventionally appearing and acting member of the opposite sex and was treated as such in a limited number of contexts. If ‘identify as’ was used back then (it wasn’t for the most part), it would have been understood in the kinds of terms just mentioned in our discussion of someone in a television show or film playing a role, a direct implication of which, remember, is that one is not actually the thing in question. And while perhaps an odd use of the expression — as indicated, we don’t describe actors and other performers this way — it would be coherent and comprehensible.

But this is not how ‘identify as’ is being used today, and to suggest any such thing provokes intense and hostile reactions from activists, who go to extraordinary lengths to exercise control over the public discussion of the subject. Now we are told that one no longer needs to be dysphoric to be trans, one need not “identify as” the opposite sex, and that in fact, gender need not be related to reproductive classes at all (hence ‘agender’ and the like). Gender is no longer a socially determined and inflected set of roles, but rather an innate identity, and this is why, today, one hears more and more that “Transwomen are women,” “Trans men are men,” and “Non-binary people are neither men nor women.”

But why employ the ‘identify as’ construction, then? If ‘man’ and ‘woman’ no longer denote reproductive classes , as they always have up until now, but refer instead to genders, then the claims “Transwomen are women” and the like are analytic and require no elaboration. And as we’ve seen, ‘identify as’ has no customary use in this regard, as it is not used to say that one is, straightforwardly, such-and-such. I leave open the question of the motives behind continuing to talk this way in this context, as I am not inclined to guess, but suffice it to say that given the common and customary uses of ‘identify’, why someone one would use it to say “So and so is such and such” is at best puzzling.

Furthermore, as far as I can tell, ‘identify as’ is only acceptable when used within gender-identity discourse and is harshly punished when employed outside of it – witness what happened to Rachel Dolezal, who tried to “identify as” black – though it remains unclear whether such uses may become more acceptable in the future. [3] Oli London, a so-called “influencer,” recently claimed to identify as Korean, despite not being Korean, and has received a less hostile, more mixed reaction than did Dolezal. [4] I also am seeing ‘identify as’ used in the context of disability, albeit it only on the fringes of public discourse.

What all of this suggests is that ‘identify as’ is fundamentally rhetorical in nature and should be treated as such when encountered. It is hardly the only such expression, of course, but given that it is now being employed in the official communications of major journalistic, political, legal, scientific, and medical institutions, it is particularly important that we be clear that this is what it is.

Notes

[1] https://theelectricagora.com/2017/05/25/self-made/

Feeling Like a Man

[2] http://assets.press.princeton.edu/chapters/s7747.pdf

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rachel_Dolezal

[4] https://news.sky.com/story/oli-london-british-influencer-defends-identifying-as-korean-after-surgery-to-look-like-bts-star-12344765

37 comments

  1. By “rhetorical” are you saying that this phrase is pretty much empty bombast but prefer not stating that it is empty bombast lest some TRA throw a brick through your window?

  2. Thank you Daniel Kaufman for always wise and sane thoughts on contemporary matters. Please, do no not give up your invaluable and inspiring struggle.

  3. After since I was a teenager and maybe before that, people talked about ” teenage identity crises”. Teenagers were, according to this theory, in search of an identity and many of their problems were adscribed to this teenage lack of a firm identity. I have no idea if that theory is still in vogue, but it now seems that the identity crisis is no longer a teenage phenonenom, and that even grown adults have them. That use of the word “identity” has been around for at least 60 years (I’m now 75) and you did not take that into account in your original post.

  4. I would agree that much of the current gender discussion ends up being an issue regarding the use of language. The “Identify as” problem implies that identity is a plastic, fungible quality internally (psychically) determined rather than externally imposed. It also implies freedom in doing so, and attempts to deny such “freedom” of expression is what raises the ire of gender activists. Yet there are things one clearly is not free to determine, such as physical sex at birth. No amount of psychic identifying can overcome this reality, and one must simply submit to it.

    To repeat a prior comment on the subject.
    If we are to uncouple physical sex at birth from gender and then further from gender expression as well as sexual orientation (not unreasonable given observed human behavior and reported human experience), then a way forward would be to collectively clearly define the use of words in our language in order to indicate specific (conceptual) meaning – i.e. physical sex at birth = male/female/ambiguous, psychological gender identity = man/woman/trans, gender expression = masculine/feminine/butch/effeminate, sexual orientation = heterosexual/homosexual/bisexual.

    Thus, in this linguistic schema, to “identify as” male becomes as incoherent as to identify with being black if one is not biologically given the physical attribute of being male of black at birth. One is simply not free to identify as such. However, it is coherent to say I “identify as” a man, since being a “man” linguistically represents a subjective psychic attribute defining gender identity.

    Medicine is attempting to develop just such defined categories. An example of an attempt to use such clarity in nomenclature is embodied in an article published today, 10/25/2021, in the JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) entitled;

    USPSTF Approach to Addressing Sex and Gender When Making Recommendations for Clinical Preventive Services (1)

    “The USPSTF will use gender-neutral language when appropriate to communicate that recommendations are inclusive of people of any gender and will clearly state when recommendations apply to individuals with specific anatomy associated with biological sex (male/female) or to specific categories of gender identity.”

    (1) https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2785544?guestAccessKey=5b2db446-54da-41c9-ba62-223e2723ab97&utm_source=silverchair&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=article_alert-jama&utm_content=olf&utm_term=102521

    1. The problem I have with this is that I see no good reason to adopt any aspect of their incoherent conceptual scheme. I have a ‘gender identity’ now? I don’t think so. The concept of ‘gender’ is systematically ambiguous and vacuous. I am a man, which is an accurate self-description. If I didn’t think so it would be a criterion for me being insane or delusional. The reason they’ve invented all this nonsense is to bully people into accepting men who want to live as if they are women into places that are designated as female-only.

      1. Are you saying that trans are insane or delusional? And do you genuinely think they made up the idea of transness just to pee in different bathrooms? Strange conspiracy, that.

        1. According to the standard use of the proposition ‘I am a man’, they would be. But, this is where ‘identify as’ comes in. I think Dr. Kaufman’s piece above is a nice summation of why that is not a viable way out for them. I think those that hold to transgender ideological views are no more insane or delusional than religious people who adhere to the incoherent formulations that are partly constitutive of their belief system. Bullying people into accepting that ‘transwomen are women’ is certainly meant to get people to acquiesce into letting transwomen into female-only spaces. If transwomen are women, then why shouldn’t they be allowed to go wherever normal women go? But they are not women, in fact, logically, you have to be a man to be a transwoman. This doesn’t mean that norms couldn’t be changed to allow transwomen into women’s spaces (personally, I don’t see why they should be), but the ‘transwomen are women’ argument is illegitimate.

          1. Philocon:

            “But, this is where ‘identify as’ comes in. I think Dr. Kaufman’s piece above is a nice summation of why that is not a viable way out for them.”

            His whole notion of it being wholly innate with no reference to social roles is pulled out of thin air, and falls on its face when you bother to talk with or seek out the testimony of actual trans people. In the Vox article I linked, you have trans people consistently referring to social roles and how they inflect their own self-conceptions. The only thing we could remotely call innate are their feelings regarding what roles best suit their desires, preferences, sensibilities, etc., but that’s not nearly doing the kind of work Dan wants it to.

            “I think those that hold to transgender ideological views are no more insane or delusional than religious people who adhere to the incoherent formulations that are partly constitutive of their belief system.”

            “Bullying people into accepting that ‘transwomen are women’ is certainly meant to get people to acquiesce into letting transwomen into female-only spaces.”

            You say this like it’s an end in itself. Why do you think a transwoman would want to use a woman’s bathroom? Is it because she just really likes those bathrooms? Or she’s just a bully who wants to terrorize women? Or is it that’s where she feels most comfortable? Or that she’s been victimized in men’s bathrooms? You want to frame them as inherit nuisances or threats to women instead of what they are, people who want to shit somewhere unharassed, like anyone else. In more sober days, others agreed:

            https://theelectricagora.com/2016/04/29/provocations-6/

          2. Thanks Zac for the link.

            Maybe you (Dan) can explain how and why your position has evolved since 2016. I’m puzzled at the change.

          3. The essay is about the linguistics of “identify as.” It’s not about the merits or demerits of gender identity claims or policies concerning them.

            We provide females with single sex intimate provisions, because *some* males are predatory and despite the fact that most are not. I have not seen any evidence provided that males identifying as women offend at any lower a rate than males, generally. So, the same reasoning applies.

          4. I realize that this essay is about the use of the verb “identify”, but I was curious if you still believe what you wrote in the 2016 essay or have your views changed since then?

          5. I think public restrooms are a particularly difficult issue, for the reasons I said in the essay.

            Otherwise, I am in favor of single-sex intimate provisions.

  5. The older phrasing I remember is “self-identify as”.
    “…those same-generation consociates and younger generation successors who care to self-identify as ‘theory people.'”
    “…HIV-positive men who bareback with men who either do not know their HIV status or who self-identify as negative.”
    “…I would self identify as a critical realist;” “many sociologists now self identify as economic sociologists”

    Another setting one frequently encounters is “those who identify as religious”, or “students who identify as being intellectual.”

    It sounds like a technical term from sociology, that has taken on an everyday life – I frequently comment about my significant other.

  6. Sidestepping the gender context for a bit, there is one other context in which I’ve seen “I identify as…” used explicitly.

    My grandmother was Jewish, after the Holocaust she married a Romani man and moved to America. Their son, my dad, married my mother, who was of Danish, Dutch, and Russian extraction. According to Rabbinical teaching and Romani tradition, I’m neither Jewish or Romani. However, once I went to college (2000-2004) and got involved in Jewish student groups, I met people with recent Jewish ancestry who weren’t raised in the tradition but identify as Jewish. One girl had it explicitly stated in her MySpace profile, “I identify as Jewish.” She felt she was under no obligation to convert, that her lineage alone was justification for this identification.

    I never came to a conclusion about how I felt about this view. It certainly defies tradition but I’m not sure that matters. Like many of us with Jewish ancestry, there are entire branches of her family that no longer exist and she has every right to feel that pain as deeply as any tradition-following Jew. In her mind identifying as Jewish was how she asserted that pain in public and kept the memory of the lost alive. I’m sure there are plenty who disagree with her choice. But it was her choice and I left it at that.

    For myself, I had responded to her in one conversation, with a mixture of melancholy and humor, that if asked to identify myself I would say I’m tribeless. While I can smirk at the self-satisfying nature of saying I’m tribeless (we have an independent thinker over here, guys!), I also mean it in a way I doubt most people who say that can. There’s a bit of pride and pain in it. But of course, I’d rather not identify myself at all.

    So solely based on that one experience, I suspect that if people feel they need to say they identify as something, it’s because they feel they have a claim that is going unacknowledged or dismissed. Or some sort of pain intimately connected to their identity that’s going unacknowledged or dismissed. I have no idea if that’s remotely related to Wittengensteinian grammar, which I just learned yesterday is a thing, so apologies if this was a totally unproductive diversion.

    1. I’m not sure I understand the example. Reform and Reconstructionist Jews consider someone Jewish, if they have Jewish lineage on either the father’s or the mother’s side. For the conservatives and orthodox, it is just the mother’s side (although the conservative movement has been moving steadily “left” and may also now accept lineage from either side).

      But I still am not quite getting the following: If I *am* X, what does “I identify as…” add? And if I am *not* X, what could it mean to say “I identify as…”, beyond some some sort of claim of pretense or acting, as indicated towards the end of the piece [and which strikes me as in conflict with customary use, as indicated in my discussion of the acting/performing case.]

      As for “wittgensteinian grammar,” I wasn’t trying to be pretentious, but only to make it clear that I was *not* claiming that “I identify as…” is ungrammatical in the sense of being syntactically ill-formed.

      1. My apologies! I wasn’t clear enough in my writing. I was mostly referring to the difference between those who practice Jewish traditions and participate in a community and those who have Jewish and Gentile ancestry but don’t do those things. The matrilineal nature of Jewish identity played some role in that but not as much as I’m worried my initial comment implied. The girl in question did not take part in any Jewish practices, traditions, or community. Yet she still identified as Jewish due to her ancestry and felt that said identity was often challenged. Looking back, I think I was just reaching for an example of when I’ve heard “I identify as…” and didn’t think rigorously enough about whether or not that instance was relevant to your piece. I have to apologize for that.

        I also didn’t mean to imply you were being pretentious by referring to Wittgensteinian grammar. I was only worried I hadn’t actually addressed your primary concern in the piece because that was a concept with which I had no familiarity. It actually sent me down a Google rabbit hole, for which I’m grateful!

        Reading your comment does help me more clearly understand what you were getting at though. And I don’t think I actually have a challenge to it. It’s a good point, actually! I’m a bit embarrassed by the sloppiness of my input so far but I think I’m getting it. Hopefully nobody will begrudge me for being too amateurish!

        1. Not at all, I took nothing personally or as an insult. This is one of those pieces where I am navigating a topic in real time. I may add addenda, as additional uses come to light. David Duffy indicated one here that I am still mulling over.

  7. Perhaps I’m incorrect in doing so, but when I see something of the form “I identify as X,” I paraphrase it as something of the form “I am X *because* I say I am” and take the illocutionary force to be something like a request that the audience regard the speaker as they would regard anyone who is an X (supposing some difference in regarding persons who are Xs and persons who are non-Xs).

    Whether the speaker is right to do this is, of course, another question.

      1. Let me see if I’m understanding the rhetorical use.

        If one is a Lutheran but chooses to say in a certain context that she identifies as a Lutheran, and chooses to say this in order to express her active adoption of a status she hitherto had only passively accepted, does that also count as a rhetorical use?

  8. I don’t recognize real people or actual usage in much of this. You can go on Glaad’s or Planned Parenthood’s primers and they retain a distinction between sex and gender. Sex is the cluster of biological markers associated with reproduction, and a further cluster of secondary physical traits downstream of these. Gender is the much broader and more complicated set of social roles we’ve tacked onto sex that affect how we express ourselves and how people and society interact with us. But these are ultimately different levels of description that can and do split apart, since they’re frequently purposed for different things. Most of the time when I’m talking about men, I’m not talking about reproductive organs or anything related to biology. I’m talking about a social group, practices, culture, etc. If I Google “men”, I’ll get the generic Wiki and some scattered links associated with men’s health, but the majority of it will be lifestyle shit and clothes, clothes, clothes. Even if you click on Men’s Health magazine you won’t find a ton of articles addressing issues solely relevant to the dick-born, but again, a ton of lifestyle stuff. That’s gender.

    People whose gender doesn’t match their sex are either trans or non-binary. Trans identify with the opposite gender from what their sex would’ve traditionally dictated. Some of those feel the need to continue to transitional surgery to reflect that and some don’t. Non-binary don’t readily identify with either of the gender roles. “Transsexual” obviously won’t carry that load. “Transwomen are women” isn’t any more an empty tautology than “bourbon is liquor”, and for all your concern about usage, you’re weirdly silent on the actual social context in which it’s taking place. It’s the worst kind of armchair philosophizing. People are denying that they’re women and they’re passing laws to restrict their rights and healthcare. People are constantly reducing them to their reproductive parts and calling them gross, freakish, and dangerous. They’re used by authoritarians like Putin and Orban as stalking horses and scapegoats to distract from their gutting the liberal constitutional order. (The first big Nazi book burning targeted a doctor who specialized in intersex and trans people.) But trans and non-binary people have existed throughout history and across cultures. There was even arguably a trans Roman Emperor. And sorry for the inconvenience, but they’ll continue to exist and they deserve dignity.

    You speak of them rather condescendingly as people in psychological distress whom “as a legal and social fiction” we treat as the opposite sex “in a limited number of contexts”. But this just assumes that a cluster of biological traits is the only real criterion for gender, a kind of crass reductionism. Gender is a social category, one that’s been negotiated forever, and on that will continue to be negotiated. If it’s a fiction, it’s a fiction we all live and breathe, not some silly game we play for a few (what?) foolish people. And to claim that recognizing their gender just falls in “a limited number of contexts” is incredibly trivializing and tone-deaf. Forget the deep pain trans people testify to when people refuse to recognize them or the profound change in their lives when people do or how common both experiences, they say, have occurred in their lives. Are they lying? Deluded? If your gender matters so little to you, why does their’s matter so much?

    I don’t know where you get the notion that gender identity is innate as opposed to being a socially determined and inflected set of roles. The self-identification and the social roles are interconnected. The whole notion of gender identity is that it’s, in large part, a reaction to those roles, that they’re involved in constituting it. Hence, the whole idea of performance as being so important in gender scholarship going all the way back to Judith Butler. The main sense that it’s innate, far as I can tell, is in it being a central part of the person’s character, not something readily parted with.

    As for “identify as” in a racial context, maybe you’re right it will loosen up at some point, but you’re still stuck in the armchair if you don’t realize why there are different reactions here. Chappelle jokes sympathetically that TERFs see transwomen like blacks see blackface. Like, oh, yeah, sure, look at it from the TERF’s perspective, transfolk — they just see you as one of the most odious practices in American history! But why is Divine funny and Jim Crow abominable? Errrrrr, maybe because Divine didn’t partake in and lend her name to the systematic debasement and terrorizing of a group of people. And Divine didn’t even identify as a woman. Perhaps there are different reactions because the single most fraught issue in American history is race. It’s one of the main reasons why we slaughtered each other by the hundreds of thousands. There might be a complicated history of passing (there was a good recent series on Harry Pace), but that doesn’t really mitigate that history.

    1. There is a lot material here, but I will merely point out that it is regularly claimed (since John Money) that ‘gender identity’ is some sort of innate sense or feeling that one is a man or a woman or neither. I used to take your view that ‘gender’ denotes the norms associated with the two sexes, but there are problems with this as well – mainly that what people actually say about gender conflicts with this account.

      1. “Innate” is doing a lot of work here. Or none. Yes, it comes from a feeling. How could trans people exist if they didn’t feel like they were a gender that conflicted with their sex? What is the significance of “innate” here?

        1. ‘Innate’ means ‘inborn’ or ‘unlearned’. He was attempting to account for the phenomenon of very young boys insisting they are girls and acting like girls. None of that means they are actually girls, which is nonsense, since boys can’t be girls as a matter of logic. According to your account, presumably I am a ‘biological male’ that ‘feels like a male’. But the proposition ‘I feel like a male’ is highly questionable. What does it mean to ‘feel like a male’? Shouldn’t I be (according to your account) automatically aware of this ‘feeling’? But I am not, in fact, I don’t know what you are talking about. This reminds me of Hume’s infamous comments on the ‘self’, how he ‘introspected’ and only found a ‘bundle of perceptions’. Hume’s mistake was accepting the legitimacy of that philosophical notion of ‘the self’. There was never anything to find because that notion of ‘the self’, like ‘the east pole’, makes no sense.

          1. Philocon:

            “‘Innate’ means ‘inborn’ or ‘unlearned’.”

            And what’s your evidence that it isn’t inborn? Women and men’s brains tend to differ, and preliminary studies have suggested that trans neurology has affinities with the opposite sex. That said, this “innate” talk feels like a canard. If you and Dan think that social roles don’t play any part in trans self-conception, I just don’t see what your evidence.

            “since boys can’t be girls as a matter of logic”

            Oh, did Frege say that? You should hear what he said about the Jews. But really, we’re not talking about “uhhhh logic”. We’re talking about usage and that changes over time. You would do better to make a normative case against this change than to make empty gestures at logic. That just misunderstands logic and what’s at issue.

            “What does it mean to ‘feel like a male’? Shouldn’t I be (according to your account) automatically aware of this ‘feeling’?”

            Hardly. That you don’t have to think about it doesn’t mean that others don’t have to think about it either. Your maleness is affirmed back to you by others reflexively. It’s unconscious to you. For trans people, how they feel about themselves and how people acknowledge them are in tension, so it’s more salient for them. You probably don’t feel your whiteness either. But that just falls in line with, rather than refutes, Dubois’ “double consciousness”.

            The Hume stuff is pretty well beside the point. I doubt many trans people are trying to make deep metaphysical arguments about the self, and I don’t see why they need to. You seem to feel the self doesn’t exist. Good for you. This has no bearing on how society should treat you.

            Your talk seems wholly divorced from what trans people actually say. When a trans person says they identify as a woman they aren’t making some hifalutin claim about some sense data they’re “automatically aware of”. Some of them might talk about just assuming they were opposite sex from as far back as they remember and only realizing the disconnect later. Most talk of a gradual process by which they saw their wants, desires, or behaviors clashing with their gender role. It could take place over a number of years and involve a lot of inner dialogue or a lot of hurdles. I don’t see any of that in all this a priori paint-slinging.

            https://www.vox.com/a/transgender-stories

  9. It seems to me that you’re missing a case, the sense where I’m sure I’ve said, and heard from others: I’m a computer programmer, but I don’t identify as one. The sense of being a thing, a lawyer, but being more than just that, or maybe: but it’s not what I think is the most important thing about me.

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