A Tale of Two Trans Women (Part 3): Narrative

“The distinction between successive selves can be made by reference…to the degrees of psychological connectedness…On this way of thinking, the word ‘I’ can be used to imply the greatest degree of psychological connectedness.” –Derek Parfit

In her paper “Narrative, memory and social representations: a conversation between history and social psychology”, Sandra Jovchelovitch argues that narratives are at the heart of social norms and not only our own understanding of our individual selves, but our collective understanding of our history and present. She explains that “Stories allow us to retain and understand information, to deal with time, and give us at least the illusion of a stable identity. Narration is essential for our sense of self and our cultural history; indeed the organization of experience in terms of a plot shapes the very structure of our thinking and our sense of reality”.

Recall from parts 1 and 2 that our perceptions of reality are the result of construction and that our language plays a critical role in said construction. If Jovchelovitch is right, these constructions, including the self, are built into a narrative plot with a beginning, middle and an end. In other words, we take bits of unorganized information and put them together in a context that we can understand and work with, i.e., a story. This theory of the relation between psychology and history presents another challenge to the notion that we have access to things as they really are.

Let’s suppose that Katy meets a gentleman named Rick, who (as far as he knows) has never met a transgender woman before. His only understanding of trans women comes from the media that tends to portray transgender women as sexual ‘deviants’. He is surprised to learn that his experience with Katy contradicts that narrative–she seems no more ‘deviant’ than most of the people he knows–and becomes more accepting of transgender women as he constructs a new narrative.

As mentioned earlier, narratives are also at the heart of our sense of self. Rather than being a stable entity that persists through time, the self is more dynamic, i.e., it is constantly changing. Like many other transgender women, Katy’s earlier understanding of transgender women came from a narrative similar to that of Rick’s. She didn’t see herself in media representations of trans women and, as a result, didn’t realize she was a woman until later in life when something else caused her to experience a change in narrative–a change in her sense of self.

Derek Parfit argues that the most important connection between Katy’s past self and her current self is her memory which creates a psychological connectedness. While illustrating the significance of this connectedness, he considered what it means to talk about a future self in light of the fact that the self is constantly changing:

“If I say, ‘It will not be me, but one of my future selves,’ I do not imply that I will be that future self. He is one of my later selves, and I am one of his earlier selves. There is no underlying person who we both are. When I say, ‘There is no person who we both are,’ I am only giving my decision. Another person could say, ‘It will be you,’ thus deciding differently. There is no question of either of these decisions being a mistake. Whether I say ‘I’, or ‘one of my future selves,’…is entirely a matter of choice.

Stated differently, what is important isn’t that there is a stable self that is the same self in the past, present and future since there is no such thing. What is important is that there is a psychological connectedness between past selves, a present self, and potential future selves. This psychological connectedness is the constructed narrative of the self that gives us the sense of stability and persistence through time.

 

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