When the Labels Don’t Fit

square peg round holeDiscourse sorts our world, as Craig Martin illustrated nicely in a post last week. Identity labels are an aspect of discourse, but they also operate in another way, beyond organizing people. Labels also push people to conform by presenting a normative sense of who they are/should be.

Of course, the common discourse of identity labels is inadequate to convey all differences. We can notice, in ourselves and others, ways that individuals do not fit the “silverware sorter” of discourse, to use Martin’s analogy. Are those spoon-like utensils with points on the end put with the spoons or the forks? The solution, of course, is creating a separate slot for those things, sporks in this case.

This issue came up anew in a blog post on about being neither extroverted or introverted, which begins,

I’ve always hated the distinction between introverts and extroverts because I never could identify with either side. The accepted school of thought is that a person is either one or the other, without any middle ground.

That in itself is an interesting assertion. The Myers Briggs test that the author of the blog cites for this binary actually has an implicit spectrum within the results. Your score can be strongly introvert or strongly extrovert or anywhere in between. However, when that score gets translated into a type, represented by the first of the four letter types (e.g., INTJ, ESFP, etc), the label reinforces the notion that you are one or the other, making those who fall in between appear anomalous, problematic, like they do not fit.

So a new label is needed to legitimize those who fall between introverts and extroverts. Of course, while adding “ambivert” provides another option, it does not resolve the issue, as it simply pushes the spectrum into three categories instead of two. What about those who are two-thirds extrovert? Maybe they should be called extro-ambiverts. No matter how refined we make the labels (until we get to the meaningless point that each individual at each particular instant has a distinct label, and the discourse no longer serves as an organizing form), the labels will generalize about a group that includes internal distinctions.

Recognizing the socially constructed nature of identity labels promotes a critique of the assumption that a generalized identification reflects simply a description of reality and thus tells us how individuals will / should act.

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