Identity, Labels, and the Rectangular Approximation Method (What?)

Major dorkitude alert: may bring back unpleasant memories of high school calculus.

In the category of conversations I manage to have:

(Referring to an increasing number of words used to talk about gender, sexuality, and such). “Why do people need all these labels? Why can’t we all just be people? I thought the point was to not put people into boxes.”

Me: “But in a way, having a ton of labels is kind of like having no labels.”


Me: “It’s . . . it’s like the rectangular approximation method.”


Me: “You know, from calc, where you use rectangles to approximate an integral. You want to use boxes to represent this weirdly shaped area, and it’s never going to be quite right, but the more boxes you use, the closer it gets to the real thing.”

Okay, let me try to explain what I was getting at.

So lets say this area under the curve represents the actual spectrum of people’s experiences. It’s complicated and funky-shaped (and really it should probably have at least 6 dimensions, but I can’t draw that). If we had an equation that represented the true shape of the graph we could do an integral to find the area, but we don’t, so we can’t.

Untitled drawing (1)

Instead, we have to do the next best thing we can and approximate by using boxy rectangles, which are a pretty good parallel for language. These boxes can never fully and accurately encompass what they are trying to describe. Some stuff parts get exaggerated, some stuff just gets left out entirely, and the complexity of the shape gets lost. But we try.

Untitled drawing (3)

Now we can also change the number of boxes. Having just a couple is a pretty grossly inaccurate representation of the shape and a lot gets excluded.

Untitled drawing (2)

But adding more boxes, which are more specific and varied, makes it more inclusive and closer to reality.

Untitled drawing (4)

Of course it will never be a perfect representation of the real thing unless you have infinite boxes. I think language always fails to fully capture reality–but each expansion of language gives us the option of failing a little closer to the target.

Like this

Side note: do all the people who say “who needs labels anyway” in response to other people’s identities actually think that everyone should stop using words to describe experiences? Because I would actually be totally down with a system in which everyone has to describe themselves through interpretive dance.

Side note 2: I think the new answer to “when are we going to use math anyway?” should be “to come up with strange and dorky metaphors for identity and language.”


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