paigealert  asked:

Is there a possibility that animals more "recently" extinct animals (Tasmanian Tigers, Passenger Pigeons, river dolphins, etc) still actually existing in small populations somewhere? Or even older extinct animals such as the Dodo. How does an animal gain the title "extinct"?

You ask a really good question! It’s hard to define exactly when animals are extinct. I’m going to quote this Slate article, but it’s worth reading the entire thing for a much more nuanced view:

“The World Conservation Union will label a species extinct only if “there is no reasonable doubt that the last individual has died.” In general, scientists must now show that repeated efforts to survey a species’ known habitat failed to turn up any individual sightings or evidence of its continued survival.”

Some animals, like passenger pigeons, we’re pretty sure are gone because their migratory behavior made them very easy to observe. Others, not as much - there’s a great book called Carnivorous Nights: On the Trail of the Tasmanian Tiger that details the people who are still searching for Tasmanian tigers, hoping they retreated to the really inhospitable terrain in the center of the island. 

For the most part, scientists are very careful to prove that animals are extinct before declaring them so - but they’re not always right. Black Footed Ferrets were thought to have been extinct… and then someone’s dog came back with a freshly killed one, and led us back to the last surviving population… and now we’ve got more than 300 reintroduced to the wild and a highly successful conservation program for them. It doesn’t happen often and isn’t something to put a lot weight on hoping for, but sometimes miracles do happen. 


russian matchbox label by Jane McDevitt
Via Flickr:
Komsomol (All-Union Leninist Young Communist League, b.1918) was a youth organisation controlled by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.

Late 20th - Early 21st Century

All Of Us Or None Archive. Gift of the Rossman Family.2010.54.10064

inscription: Bottom left: “Disrtibuted by The Dennis Banks Defense Committee PO Box 88 1984 San Francisco, CA 94188”. | Bottom right corner: “"Allied Printing Union Label” logo Inkworks". | Bottom right of image: “Michelle Vignes”.
© 2015 Oakland Museum of California    


There’s a topic I’ve been meaning to write about for a while, but I keep putting it off because it’s a very complicated one to broach. However, a video has been going around recently that gives me a pretty good jumping point, so I’m going to delve into this as best I can.

The video in question is a David Letterman interview where Aziz Ansari explains why he is a feminist. I’ve linked directly to the beginning of that section for context, though in particular what I want to talk about is one line:

If you look up “feminist” in the dictionary, it just means someone who believes men and women have equal rights. […] I feel like if you do believe that - if you believe that men and women have equal rights - if someone asks if you’re a feminist you have to say yes, because that is how words work. 

On the surface, this is a message that is palatable and easy to agree with. It has a bazillion reblogs on Tumblr, because a lot of people will pretty blindly reblog anything that advocates feminism. I’ve also expressed my agreement with this idea before, at least as it applies to social movements like feminism. At the same time, however, I strongly disagree with Ansari’s extrapolation that this is “how words work”. 

If you’re going to agree with his statements, I think it’s important to consider the full ramifications of them. The main thing he’s talking about, feminism, is easy to support. Most of us like feminism, and it’s appealing to think that someone could actually be a feminist even if they don’t apply the label to themselves. Anyone who actively refuses the label, we assume, must be against feminism’s beliefs.

On the flipside, though, I suspect most of the people here would react adversely to being labeled as a “men’s rights activist”. Compared to feminism, MRA is a very loaded term - we stereotype people who wear the label as being misogynists, being uninformed, having poor hygiene, et cetera. It’s common to hear people say that the label is vestigial - that feminism is concerned with equal rights, not just women, so it encompasses everything men’s rights activists purport to stand for. At the same time, this is an admission that they do stand up for MRA’s purported beliefs. By Ansari’s logic, any feminist also has to say yes to being a men’s rights activist, regardless of any stereotypes that afflict the group. 

You can take this even further: the reasoning Ansari describes about “how words work” is also the same logic used by people who say a trans woman is “actually a man”. If you look up “female” in the dictionary, most of them are going to tell you it’s an organism that produces ova. He uses the analogy that a doctor who treats skin diseases can’t deny being a dermatologist, but if you apply it to gender the whole dictionary thing becomes much less agreeable. 

Taking it even further, the logic Ansari uses is really the core to a whole lot of traditionally conservative beliefs. Even beyond transphobia, it’s where you get these positions like abortion being murder, or marriage being exclusively between a man and a woman. These viewpoints, in most cases, aren’t derived from outright bigotry so much as a belief that words do work the way Ansari is describing them. To someone who thinks this way, a marriage between two men is actually a “civil union” no matter what label others wrongly apply.

What Ansari is saying might be in defense of feminism, but the rationale he is using is something a lot of people are actively fighting against. It’s a conflict that pervades almost every major argument in some form, yet most people are completely blind to it, and as a consequence constantly flip which position they are supporting. 

And that’s what I want to talk about in this post: this notion of words and what they “really"mean.

Identity Dichotomy

Words in our culture essentially have two meanings - or, perhaps, classifications of meanings. On one hand, you have what I’m going to call ”taxonomic identity" (there may be a better word, but I don’t know it). Essentially, these are labels you can apply to things observationally - the goal being for you to be able to classify other things, and to know exactly what information is conveyed by something being in a particular category. 

On the other hand, you have self-identity.

Imagine, for example, that you have a wealthy banker who writes shitty fantasy novels on the side. He self-publishes and advertises his work using the money he gets from banking, even though his books always sell poorly and get terrible reviews. Whenever he meets new people, he introduces himself as a “writer” and leaves the banker part off. What does this tell us about him?

It tells us a hell of a lot, that’s what! While taxonomically labeling the man as a “banker” might give us a cold and utilitarian picture of how he makes money, it’s his choice to self-identify as a “writer” that really lets us know who he is. It’s the element of himself he cares about, and if he’s ever put in a position where he has to choose between banking or writing, he’ll probably choose writing. It shows that he’d rather others treat him the way they’d treat a writer, asking him about his characters or ideas rather than his rates and profits. Taxonomic identity can tell us what he does, but not why he does it, how he wants others to respond, or under what context he would change. Those are elements hidden within him, and expressed through self-identity.

Self-identity can be important to conveying information, but it can also be potentially problematic when people mistake it for taxonomic identity. Like, tons of people self-identify as writers, and any popular creator is going to get messages from people saying “I am a writer and I want to help you on your project”. If you actually need collaborators, then it’s important that you are able to ignore self-identity and single out people who say “I am a writer” in the taxonomic sense. You want collaborators who have professional experience, critical acclaim, and have dealt with the sort of problems you are likely to encounter. 

You can also see it used outright deceptively. A few weeks back, there was some letter trying to get a bunch of signatures from game developers to show “how many people in the games industry” supported an issue; I don’t even remember what the specific issue was. Someone did an analysis on it, and (if I remember right) less than half the names were what most of us would taxonomically consider a “game developer”. It contained a lot of individuals who had made pen-and-paper campaigns, or had started writing the setting for a game, or things like that - people who would understandably self-identify as a developer. However, it was presented in a way that this distinction was lost - the implication given was that each one of these people was an employed developer with significant influence in the industry. Saying that all the people on the list were technically developers doesn’t change the fact that the information was being specifically presented in a way that it would make people misconstrue the letter’s support as larger and stronger than it actually was.

In all of this, though, the biggest place I stand by taxonomic definition is allegiance. While I disagree with Ansari’s implication that taxonomic definition applies to everything, I’ve made clear before that I strongly believe people's allegiances should be thought of in that way. If someone actively works against the empowerment of women, for example, and claims that they self-identify as a feminist, that identity should not be respected. A label of cause allegiance describes who’s side you’re on, and that is something that can be identified through your actions.

This is also why you see me throw in my allegiance with things like GamerGate, in spite of people always bringing up that there are, in fact, objectionable individuals who also use the label. As I see it, an allegiance label isn’t a choice: someone can’t say they support a label’s stated message, but they don't really belong in it because they dislike the other members. That is not a choice they get to make. Like Ansari got at, though, people treating these things as an element of self-identity is where you get “I’m not a feminist, but…”-type statements. Also, to my personal annoyance, it skews statistics - a label that is socially reviled will have way more members than self-identify as actually being members.

What we have now between self-identity and taxonomic identity is basically a huge mess that only favors harmfully manipulative bastards. The words are vague enough that you can make technically true statements that still make people believe the wrong thing about yourself or others, and you can pretty easily deny or reaffirm people’s self-identities when it is convenient to your actions. Being a jerk is profitable, since few people know how to defend against these tactics.

Fixing Words

So, I’ve spent enough time talking about how everything is bad. Let’s talk about the more interesting topic: how do you safely navigate it regardless?

If you regularly read my stuff, you’ve hopefully noticed a common theme is that things are rarely dangerous if you understand how they work. I don’t think there is really a problem with this linguistic dichotomy where every label can mean two things. Instead, I just think it’s important to keep in mind that every label can mean two things - or more.

Imagine someone uses a label. “I am a furry”, they say. 

If you want to understand what they’re saying, your first job is to isolate whether they are using this in a taxonomic sense, or a self-identity sense. If it’s a taxonomic sense, then you know they fit the by-the-book definition of a “furry”, but it’s up in the air how they feel about the community or its members. If it’s a self-identity, then you know they positively regard the community or the stereotypes applied to it, but not necessarily whether they fit the by-the-book definition. You might be able to answer this yourself from context, or you can just outright ask. If they’re using vagueness for deceptive means, this will usually cripple them. I mean, personally I hate it when I say “I am a game designer” and someone follows it up with “so, what games have you made?”.

If it turns out they are using the word in the taxonomic sense, then your next step is to identify what definition they are drawing from. A lot of words are still not very standardized, and this is something I hope will change in coming years. For example, while I agree with Ansari’s statement that you can’t choose whether or not you’re considered a feminist, I disagree with his definition of what a feminist is. This post by the Angrist Feminist summarizes my views well: what Ansari is describing is egalitarianism, and when someone like him calls themselves a “feminist” you should know that all they’re actually doing shitall in terms of activism and are just there to take credit for it. You can exchange feminist-high-fives with him, but he’s not someone you want onboard if you’re making a feminist organization or something. 

Similarly, if it turns out someone is using a label in the self-identity sense, your next step is to identify what that identity means to them. Someone’s choices in self-identity are largely built off the stereotypes they perceive the identity carrying. The fictional banker I mentioned up above who calls himself a writer probably sees a “writer” as someone who loves putting the ideas and worlds in their head onto paper and sharing them with others. He would never get along with me, since I’d probably storm in all like “oh, hey! You’re a writer! Let’s talk about social manipulation theories and how they impact a work’s economic viability!”. My perception of a “writer” is different than his, and probably uncomfortably close to the banker stereotypes he’s trying to escape. Without learning more I would end up treating him in a way he didn’t want when he took up the label. 

As long as you know what someone means, it doesn’t actually matter if they’re using words in a way you agree with. This is a really important thing to understand in any issue, because a very common (and effective) tactic is to turn allies against one another through differences in their word use. If you can convince your enemies they disagree with one another, even if using definitions in the place of contentious terms would cause them to agree perfectly, you win. And if you can make them fight over what a word “really” means, one or both of them are going to leave hurt and offended. You double-win.

The really important part, though, is that you see through it when someone tries to use this to mislead you. If someone is trying to affect your actions or beliefs and they use a label in their reasoning, there is no shame in questioning the label’s meaning. If someone tries to imply there is shame in asking this, then push harder. You can be that dick that makes me go from a respectable “I’m a game designer!” to admitting that I have no major productions under my belt and all my experience is from contests. I hate it so much when people do that to me, but won’t deny it’s a vital skill to have.

As usual: be critical, question things, and be wary of anyone who pushes their ideas as “truth” - especially someone who tries to negatively define a label others wear by choice.