Check this box if you are male, this box for female. If you are somewhere in between we don’t know what to do with you. Circle your race here, or fill in the blank for “other.” Are you married, single, divorced, or widowed? There is no such thing as widowered. Please confirm your country of origin. If you aren’t from these parts, who told you that you could be here?
Maybe not in these exact words, but you know the types of qualifying questions I am referring to. They often appear on job, college, and credit applications, in marketing research and surveys to name just a few. These questions, and even more so their answers, become second nature. They ask, we answer. Little to no thinking involved. What happens however, if you don’t answer? I can tell you that if you “chose not to answer” race, gender, or age questions during online surveys you will not get to review that devastatingly delightful new reality television show, nor will you qualify for the juicy discount dangling at the end. Instead, you will receive a conciliatory dismissal comparable to, “Thank you for your time, but you do not fit the criteria of what we are looking for.” How do they know?
If you are like me, you will nod to your computer screen and pretend to understand the rejection. I know such questions are at times legally required (i.e. citizenship status on job applications), and at times used to fill quotas. I also know their answers serve to support the human desire to sort and connect, to find our places in the world. It is all part the process of shuffling diversity into normative categories based on what Iris Marion Young calls facticity: “these concrete material relations of a person’s bodily existence and her physical and social environment…” (16). Facticity is observable. It can be revealing, but in no way does it guarantee anything. For example, if I reveal that I am a female one can easily assume that I have all of the “normal” lady-parts. They would be right a large percentage of the time, but they could be wrong had I had a hysterectomy. Either way, the presence (or absence) of a vagina has about as much to do with my ability to develop an opinion about new reality TV show as the freckle on my butt.
Young describes the existential situation as composed of both facticity and freedom. Freedom, the other side of the human situation, seems to me both important and lacking in most of our efforts at human sorting. According to Young, freedom speaks of self-construction: “the human actor has specific projects, things she aims to accomplish, ways she aims to express herself, make her mark on the world, transform her surroundings, and relationships” (16). In efforts to qualify, wouldn’t asking questions based on freedoms, the unobservable bits and choices, make more sense? If we must sort and segregate, as humans apparently must do, wouldn’t projects, passions, and goals provide a more legitimate definition as well as a stronger connection to identity? Wouldn’t it be a good idea to let me get to the questions about how much reality television I watch (read: a lot!) before rejecting me?
What I took to be as Young’s overall suggestion is that the lived body, the experienced body, where you find both facticity and freedom is where we should reside except when facing the powers structures that be. We all know where my decision left me–rejected by the survey powers that be. That is until my Young-induced-epiphany: no one knows me in Survey Land! Just as easily as I can refuse to answer their qualifying questions, I can tell them I am a teenage boy who watches fifty hours of television a week. Yay for free movie passes!