Emotions on the internet

Cultural differences

Recently, I’ve talked about the book How Emotions are Made, by Lisa Feldman Barrett, and I explained the basics of the theory of constructed emotion. I would like to go a step further, and discuss some of the implications.

If emotional categories are socially constructed, I’d expect different cultures to have different categories. Perhaps we have a lot of categories in common, since our cultures are all in contact with one another, and different cultures might be fulfilling similar needs. But the construction of emotions predicts that there must be some exceptions–emotional categories that only exist in some cultures and not others.

Dr. Barrett gave many examples of emotions that exist in other cultures, but not in US culture. For example, in Czech culture, “litost” is described as “torment over one’s own misery combined with the desire for revenge”. In the Ilongot tribe in the Philippines, “liget” is described as a feeling of exuberant aggression, usually felt by a group of people competing against another group. While these concepts are intelligible to us, we rarely think or talk about having exactly those combinations of feelings, and we have few expectations for how we would respond to those feelings.

I found these examples to be quite compelling, and not just because of the sheer number of examples that Dr. Barret described. Once I understood what a new emotional concept looks like, I realized that we’re creating new emotional concepts all the time! Even without looking outside the US, you can find plenty of relatively recent emotional concepts created right here on the internet.

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A guide to sexual violence terminology

[cn: sexual violence, including explicit references]

When I started out writing about sexual violence, I was confused about many of the terms surrounding it. I didn’t even know, until someone told me, that “sexual violence” was an all-encompassing term. So I’m writing a guide to terminology, of the kind I wish I had years ago. My aim is to go beyond a glossary, not just providing definitions but also commenting on connotations and practical usage.

Categories of sexual violence

Sexual violence – Sexual violence is a super-category that includes any sexual (or sexually charged) act that violates someone’s consent. That includes sexual assault, sexual coercion, sexual harassment, and child sexual abuse (all of which are to be defined later). Note that sexual violence is a term used by public health advocates and activists, not by the legal system; not all sexual violence is illegal.

In my experience, definitions of sexual violence can be confusing. For example, the NSVRC says sexual violence is when “someone forces or manipulates someone else into unwanted sexual activity without their consent,” and then proceeds to list examples which do not obviously fall under its own definition, such as spying on sexual acts. If you’re not sure whether to go with the explicit definition, or the list of examples, always go with the list, which has more consensus than the literal definition.

Sexual assault – Sexual assault is non-consensual sexual touching. Common examples include unwanted kissing, groping certain body parts, and rape. Sexual assault is also a legal term, although at least in the US, there is a distinction between assault (the threat of violence) and battery (the violence itself). Outside of legal contexts, “sexual assault” usually refers to what is legally called “sexual battery”.

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Being vs Identifying as

This article is being cross-posted to The Asexual Agenda.

In modern philosophy, there is a thing called a performative speech act. That’s when you do things by saying things. For example if I say, “I apologize,” it is not merely a statement of fact, but is itself an act of apology. Likewise, if I say “I identify as queer,” it is not merely a statement of fact, but is itself an act of identification. It makes no difference whether I say “I identify as queer” or “I am queer” because both of them are acts of identification.

Nonetheless, if we put on our descriptivist hats, it sure seems like people are making a distinction between identifying as a thing, and being the thing. Instead of dismissing the distinction out of hand, we should try to understand it. I will propose two basic interpretations.

In the first interpretation, “I am” is an act of identification, right now in the present moment. “I identify as” is a statement about how you identify in a more general set of contexts, not necessarily limited to the present moment. For example, the following is a true statement that I could make:

Sometimes I identify as asexual, but I’m not asexual.

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What is identity politics? An empirical investigation

Every time I see people making disparaging remarks about “identity politics”, I wonder what that means. It sounds like a meaningless buzzterm, like “political correctness”. It sounds like an attack on any minority groups that dare to politically advocate for themselves.

But where did the term originate? How did it become popular? Which minority groups is it directed at? Has its use changed over time? Here I perform an empirical investigation using Google.

A line plot of the popularity of search terms over time.

Source: Google trends. This tracks the popularity of search terms over time.

As can be seen from above, the term “identity politics” has been around for a long time. I looked as far back as Google trends allows (back to 2004), and it’s still there. However, there was a big spike in popularity in November 2016–the month that Trump was elected. There’s also a broad hump around January-February 2017, and a more recent spike in August 2017. I will investigate each of these time periods by sampling from time-constrained google searches.

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A personal style guide on sex vs gender

It’s common to make a distinguish between biological sex (which includes chromosomes, primary and secondary sexual characteristics, hormones, etc.), and gender (which refers to one’s identity, or to patterns of behavior). The thrust of the distinction is to separate social constructs from biological reality.

This distinction isn’t wrong, exactly, but I have some quibbles. Mainly, I think gender is the bigger and more important concept, the one that you should be referring to in most situations. There are several things that people think of as sex, but which are really components of gender.

Here I will develop my thoughts on the distinction between sex and gender. I’m calling it a “personal style guide” because it describes how I use the terms, but I am not trying to impose this usage on anyone else. I realize some people use the words differently, and there can be some good justifications for this.

Woman vs female

Some people say that “woman” refers to gender, while “female” refers to sex. I think this is incorrect, on both the descriptive and prescriptive level.

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Clearer thinking about definitions

Do you believe that people waste too much time arguing over definitions?

I do too. But I also have a second problem: I’ve read some philosophy. And so, when I’m frustrated with pointless arguments over definitions, my frustration becomes compounded by the fact that nobody understands the thing that they’re arguing about, and the only way to solve the problem is by spending even more time arguing over useless stuff.

Case in point, in all the time you’ve ever spent arguing over definitions, have you ever once glanced at the relevant articles in either Wikipedia or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy? I’m guessing not, because I never thought to do such a thing myself for a long time.

So now that I’ve made everyone feel guilty, let’s talk about one of the things you’d learn from some basic research: intensional vs extensional definitions.

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Ostensive definitions for queer experiences

While I’m still on the subject of Wittgenstein’s private language arguments, I’d like to say more about how it relates to queer experiences.

You might notice that I’ve never stated exactly what the private language argument is. It isn’t really a formal argument, in the sense of having premises and a conclusion. Rather, the private language argument refers to a cluster of issues regarding personal experiences. For example, what does “pain” refer to, if anything? When I experience a thing, how do I identify it as pain or not pain? How do I know that it is similar to what other people are feeling when they refer to pain?

You must realize that I am not formally trained in philosophy. I’ve never read Wittgenstein first-hand and don’t know precisely what he says. But it seems to me that the private language argument is wasted on philosophers, when it’s so directly relevant to queer experiences. How does one know that one is experiencing sexual or romantic attraction? How about gender dysphoria? This isn’t philosophical abstraction to us, it’s something we live through and discuss amongst ourselves extensively. I would bet that it is also relevant to other minority experiences, such as chronic pain, depression, or aphantasia.


Usually, when we define a word, we explain it in terms of other words. But clearly we can’t do this for every word, because the definitions would eventually become circular. If you think about it, there is a way around this.  You can define a word by pointing to examples of it. For example, I can define an ant by pointing at one, or I can define an octahedron by pointing at one. This is called an ostensive definition.
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