Richard Ng

EdTech, Climate, Future of Work, DE+I

What I wish I'd said in my interview with The Times: labels, identity and squircles

Published: 2020-08-07

Post-publication edit: the feature mentioned got published! It's behind an online paywall here, or you can view a scanned physical magazine version here. I've preserved my original writing (below), written before I got to read the published article.

Tomorrow, I'm expecting a feature to be published in The Times magazine, about asexuality and aromanticism. It is due to include an interview with me, as somebody who is asexual (but not aromantic - I’m heteroromantic).

I’m writing and publishing this piece in advance because I’ve been thinking a lot about a question that I was asked in the interview. After reflecting more, I think that I now have a much better answer than the one I originally gave. Since my thoughts have developed, I’d like to proactively circulate them.

The question was something like this:

Some people will feel lost, baffled or fatigued by all the labels that seem to be popping up [e.g. ‘heteroromantic asexual’]. What would you say to them?

This was part of an enjoyable interview that was quite long (~1 hour), mostly centred on asexuality and my experience of it, but sometimes branching off. Not all of that interview will make the cut - so, for all I know, my original answer won’t even be published - but I think that it is a good question that deserves an answer.

I will be writing in future more about my experiences as a heteroromantic asexual man - and why I’ve decided to open up about it in a professional context - but, for the rest of this piece, I am intending to directly address the exact audience posed to me in that question by my (lovely) interviewer.

If you’re lost, baffled or fatigued by labels, here’s what I’d say to you

When you hear about terms such as pansexual, genderqueer or asexual, you might well wonder, “Why do people insist on coming up with all these niche terms?”.

This is an understandable response - after all, your existing vocabulary has worked perfectly well for you, and probably most people that you know, in your many years of life so far. Behind that language is a well-established model of concepts that you are able to use to efficiently and mutually understand each other. It’s an enormous effort to change mental models, especially if this threatens how you’ve all been understanding each other. Why expend that effort for no obvious gain?

So, if this is you - I get it. You’re tired of people asking you to change your vocabulary when it seems wholly adequate for you and everybody you typically communicate with. What’s the need for these labels?

I hope you feel like your experience is heard. Now, I’d like you to hear an experience of somebody else. (It’s not a universally identical or uniform experience, but more of a composite from selected individuals.)

What it’s like to not fit within the standard labels

Suppose that there’s an existing vocabulary which you find confusing and alienating, even though it is so widely accepted by everybody. Actually, you find it all the more confusing and alienating precisely because it is so widely accepted by everybody. The labels work for most, but they just don’t work for you - they jar, and you try to make them fit, but they don’t.

For this person, trying to fit into the accepted vocabulary is a bit like fitting the metaphorical square peg into a round hole. Really, though, it’s much worse than that cliché - because clichés lose their power through being so overused, yet this is a really visceral sense of feeling broken. The parts that society has laid out for you, which work so well for everybody else, don’t work for you. Every time you try to hammer that square peg into the round hole, you hammer into your own sense of self and distort your own identity. It hurts.

Now, to stick with the metaphor, all these terms serve to expand the shapes of pegs we have available. Yes, you’re familiar with the common square, triangle and circle - and these may be the majority of shapes that you encounter - but, hey, let’s not forget about pentagons, okay? Plus, whilst the antiparallelogram is admittedly rather uncommon, it still exists. And who could fail to be charmed by the squircle?

The common vocabulary of shapes works if you only ever encounter the common shapes. Now, suppose you encounter a rogue pentagram in the wild and decide to call it a pentagon. Your maths teachers (or former maths teachers - hello, 10Y/3, it’s Mr Ng!) - would tell you that the label is inaccurate, even if it sounds similar. So, you’ve used the wrong term. Luckily, our pentagram is but a simple 2D shape. Scientists haven’t yet proven that 2D shapes have feelings, and no significant harm has been caused to anybody.

But, with personal identity, when you eschew these rarer labels - pansexual, genderqueer, asexual - you (unintentionally) are hammering that mismatched square peg into the pentagon-shaped hole which represents somebody’s identity. You may be well-intentioned (“Oh, I’m sure it’ll fit if we just whack it a bit harder!”), but you cause pain and suffering to that person.

Unlike shapes, when it comes to people, labels are not just about pedantry and accuracy - they’re also about respect for the other person as a human being with emotions.

What this means for you

Now, I’m not asking or expecting anybody to be able to immediately recite the difference between a pentagram and a pentagon. But I do think it’s reasonable to ask somebody to understand that, yes, whilst the most common shapes might be ‘square’, ‘circle’ and ‘triangle’, there are other shapes, and they do have names.

Whilst you might find it very hard to visually distinguish between a circle and a chiliagonthey are different. So, if a chiliagon politely corrected you, “Oh, actually, I’m a chiliagon, not a circle”, it would be quite impolite to insist, “Well, since I can’t tell the difference, I’m going to keep calling you a circle, because that’s just easier for me.”

It’s with this ethos that I’d like people to enter into learning about new terms and labels. Yes, your vocabulary of squares, circles and triangles works extraordinarily well for those three common shapes - but the world is so much richer than those three. Embrace the opportunity to learn about new terms, understand that there is a human asking to be heard, and respectfully use the terms you are taught about.

Similarly, you might learn new terms that apply to you, which you weren’t aware of before. You thought you were a square - why is somebody calling you an equidiagonal quadrilateral? Are they trying to insinuate that you are some sort of degenerate? No - squares and rectangles just are types of equidiagonal quadrilaterals.

Some people have spent a lot of their lives grappling with the complex terminology for these metaphorical shapes, in a very personal battle sometimes. These battles are all individual and very different, and I don’t profess to speak on behalf of everybody’s individual experiences. But, do you think you could trust them to know about the labels that are best for themselves?

We’re not shapes. We’re people - we have feelings, like you(!) - and I think we probably do best by listening to and learning from the experiences of others when it comes to their identities. How does that sound?

Geometrically yours,

Richard (he/him | heteroromantic asexual | not-actually-a-2D-shape-of-any-description)