The Label Is Not the Object

The label is also not the surface, nor the entity, nor [insert appropriate term].

Here’s another map-territory relationship that I’ve been thinking about: Labels and objects. The function of a label is to set expectations. It tells you how you’re supposed to think about whatever underlying thing it has been applied to.

Often this is banal, as with a drawer labeled “forks.” There is no need to devote mental processing power to the full complexity of each multi-pronged implement.

Labels on humans deserve more scrutiny.

Personally, I’ve always been a sucker for categorizing myself. Myers-Briggs (I’m a consistent INTJ), the political compass (I wander around the lower middle), etc. I know that aside from the Big Five, these designation systems don’t mean much. But they’re fun! And comforting, because I can feel like I’ve situated myself relative to other people.

Labels become unwieldy when you fluctuate between multiple categories or when you would need a Venn diagram to properly lay out your position. Think of the hyphenated Ethnicity-or-Country-of-Origin-American — manageable, but awkward.

For a while I described myself as a “cynical optimist” (yes, this coincided with my arguing-about-religion phase). It was cheesy, but I was trying to encapsulate the blend of sardonic and sunny that I wanted to project.

Now I have a hard time summing up my political views. Left-libertarian? Neoliberal? Socially liberal, fiscally conservative, but jkjk I’m only fiscally conservative in a selective way? It’s harder now than it used to be, since I’ve learned to be far more uncertain about any given policy choice. (Generally speaking, I believe in markets and competition, but the implementation details are hard to work out.)

Paul Graham wrote in 2009:

I think what religion and politics have in common is that they become part of people’s identity, and people can never have a fruitful argument about something that’s part of their identity [because disagreement feels like a personal attack]. By definition they’re partisan. […] If people can’t think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.

Graham concluded, “The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.”

What I like most about Graham’s framing is that it puts you in charge of your identity. Your identity isn’t something that happens to you, imposed by the rest of the world, but something that wells up out of you and is displayed to the world. It’s your job to filter and shape it.

My friend Way Spurr-Chen wrote wrote a lovely, encouraging essay two years ago about the process of identity self-management:

If you think about integrating a new sense of self as simply moving from one place towards another place, it seems less daunting. You can always go back to where you were before (and I don’t know about you, but I reverse my improvements all the time). Instead of being a daunting undertaking, you can turn your identity goals into a sort of play. Why not explore (metaphorically and literally) different parts of your potential? Why not see how you regard yourself when you have certain identity traits?

Circling back to labels: They have a tendency to stay stuck. You might end up adding spoons to your fork drawer but never switching out the label for a new one that says “silverware.” And then guests get confused looking for spoons.

Is it necessary to label yourself? Probably not, if you’re the sort of person who can mentally avoid it. (I’m not.) Other people will continue categorizing you regardless — there’s no escaping that. I suppose thoughtful, self-applied labels can be a kind of defensive maneuver.


Originally posted on Substack.

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JJ’s Razor

My friend @Ctzn5, who goes by JJ, came up with a useful corollary to Hanlon’s razor. I’m posting it here so that I can easily link to it whenever, instead of needing to dig through Twitter search every time.

To refresh your memory, Hanlon’s razor goes like this: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”

JJ’s addition (which dates to 2016, as far as I know) points out the futility of Hanlon’s: “The intentionality of an agent with behavior sufficiently indistinguishable from malice is irrelevant.”

I think JJ’s razor could use rephrasing for pithiness, but I’m not sure what would be ideal. Perhaps: “Malicious or stupid, it doesn’t matter, because your options are the same.”

Suggestions welcome!

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Perception, Possession

To have and to hold, cogito ergo sum.

The map is not the territory, as they say. A map (and there are various kinds) is an interpretative layer on top of some underlying substance. It would be hard to handle the world without maps, but they are necessarily reductive. As I wrote in 2016:

[N]o map is a 1:1 representation of reality — that would be a duplicate, or a simulation. Rather, our maps give us heuristics for interpreting the lay of the land, so to speak, and rules for how to react to what we encounter. Maps are produced by fallible humans, so they contain inaccuracies. Often they don’t handle edge cases well (or at all).

Nevertheless, I like mental models [which are one of the types of maps]. They cut through all the epistemological bullshit. Instead of optimizing a mental model to be true, you optimize it to be useful. An effective mental model is one that helps you be, well, more effective.

Although the map is not the territory, and we recognize this, a map can still dictate how the territory is perceived. How it is navigated. Which features of the terrain are considered salient. Maps are powerful and people vie for control of the ones that they consider influential. (Consider the recent kerfuffle over a certain New York newspaper’s op-ed section.)

Artwork by Ganesha Balunsat.
Artwork by Ganesha Balunsat.

Of course, you can diverge from a given map, or improve it, or substitute a new one. But even switching between existing maps is difficult and can take time, although in my experience it’s possible to develop multi-map skills.

The LessWrong wiki points out that because the map is not the territory, manipulating the map only affects the map. “If you change what you believe about an object, that is a change in the pattern of neurons in your brain. The real object will not change because of this edit.”

However: “The map is a separate object from the territory and the map exists as an object inside the territory.” For example, your thoughts and ideas about yourself are created within — are even created by! — the entity that they attempt to understand. It gets recursive very quickly.

There is no requirement that you perceive the world as it is. I’d go as far as saying that accurate world-perception is 1) a nightmare to judge one way or the other, since any judgment would be subjective, and 2) not intrinsically noble.

You can post-process your raw intake into whatever form is most useful to you. In fact, your brain already does post-processing automatically, from the sensory level on upward. When its output is particularly debilitating, we turn to medication or suggest cognitive behavioral therapy. Thus the “meme yourself into X” concept.

Seeking and synthesizing meaning from whatever chaotic milieu you occupy is a way to own the world. (I find it immensely satisfying.) There’s a passage from Cormac McCarthy’s masterful Blood Meridian:

Whatever exists, he said. Whatever in creation exists without my knowledge exists without my consent.

He looked about at the dark forest in which they were bivouacked. He nodded toward the specimens he’d collected. These anonymous creatures, he said, may seem little or nothing in the world. Yet the smallest crumb can devour us. Any smallest thing beneath yon rock out of men’s knowing. Only nature can enslave man and only when the existence of each last entity is routed out and made to stand naked before him will he be properly suzerain of the earth.

In the context of Blood Meridian the idea is dark, because that’s the nature of the novel. But in the context of our lives, I think knowledge-based dominion is an empowering concept.

You cannot rule the world. Or even if you can, it won’t stop you from becoming Ozymandias. We all meet his fate, on varying levels of grandeur. But you can bring the world into yourself and command its tulpa to do your bidding.


Originally posted on Substack.

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Casual Narcissism

“Despite the label’s clinical connotations, identifying a narcissist remains a fundamentally subjective and intimate act. […] Fixating on any demon necessitates a deep familiarity with it, and today my fear of narcissism derives from intimate acquaintance with the many evolving ways a person can bend her life into a flattering mirror online.” — Jia Tolentino

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Teens???

Social media pillows. Photo by Nan Palmero.
Photo by Nan Palmero.

“Formulaic responses breed zero confusion. Instagram is not a place for tone or irony. […] Awkward is a ubiquitous teen word to denote socially unsanctioned behavior. It usually implies first- or secondhand embarrassment when you or a friend step outside the rules. […] Showing too much interest in anyone is mortifying. It lacks chill. […] When you have tools with which to stalk everyone all the time, the most seemingly aloof person wins. […] Teens aren’t money machines, oracles, or bellwethers of an uncertain future. They’re mercurial because they’re evolving, figuring things out for themselves.” — Mary HK Choi

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