Where is our Agency?

Do we have agency when we feel like we don’t have a choice? What are the forces by which we feel we have to abide?

The human mind is immensely fascinating to me. As a student of philosophy and as someone who generally dwells in the onion of abstraction with a desire to understand how things work, I have been doing a lot of thinking about the topic of agency. What is agency and where do we find it? The deeper I venture into this onion, the more ephemeral the concept appears. I have only scratched the surface, but here are some of the insights that I help me understand ourselves a bit better.

Currently, I think of agency as the ability to make choices, along with a sense of my own being or existence as an individual. In philosophy, we often hear this dichotomy between free will and, on the other hand, determinism, meaning everything is predetermined and just plays out according to cause and effect. Neither, to me, seem to be useful descriptions of reality, which is why I would see agency as a combination of both in the form of moments of clarity, or bubbles of agency. There are certain times when I feel that I have agency and am able to make choices, in contrast to other times when it feels like my path is predetermined and delineated by forces outside of my control. 

How is all of this relevant to queer life? Largely, this has to do with my identity and my values. The moment I realized my attraction to my own gender at age 13, something happened that created a split consciousness or identity. One, which I was living toward my social relations and, the other one, my secret desires which, for years, I denied even to myself. Did I have agency then? I could have been honest with the people in my life, but something prevented me from acknowledging how I felt. This was a fear of social ramifications. Humans are generally very smart and understand their social environments. This means that they also understand the cost function of their actions, to a certain degree, and in this case the perceived cost was social ostracism. Eventually, I came out and am grateful to have had a very kind experience with most people. But these years of double consciousness left me with a particular mental augmentation of perceiving the world such that my partner calls me “onion-dweller”.

Do we have agency when we feel like we don’t have a choice? What are the forces by which we feel we have to abide? For one thing, there are social forces. Humans generally have a tendency to synchronize their opinions and thus form groups. Group allegiance is signaled by our publicly perceptible opinions, from the things we say to the clothes we wear. All of these are elements of identity and form the character we play. Once I believe that I am the character of the story in my mind, then I am subject to the dictates of this character steered by the emotions I experience connected to its encoded values. 

Don’t get me wrong, emotions are a superbly sophisticated way of sensemaking and processing information about the world. They are a wonderful tool to situate ourselves within the complexity of the world and they can also misguide us and be weaponized. When we become purely reactive, we relinquish agency by believing the stories in our head to be reality, rather than concepts and encodings describing reality. I have often seen my queer kin, in search of community, become disenchanted after moving to the Bay Area, by encountering a familiar rejection or racism embodied by groups who they thought would yield their sense of belonging. These in-group/out-group dynamics can be very toxic and damaging. Many of my friends have told me, for example, that they had experiences ranging from subtle to overt and vile racism in and around the Castro community in San Francisco. In these situations, it became evident that there existed group identities built on a foundation of normative ideas of whiteness as a measuring stick used to the exclusion of other-than-white, ironically, from across the color spectrum.

Self-awareness is one of the keys to moments of agency because when we are engaged critically in understanding ourselves and how we operate, we are less likely to be reactive to the fictions of our minds and instead see these emotions and thought constructs as useful tools. This process also emancipates us from solely being subjects to group dynamics, by revealing our humanity above our identifications with values allowing us to hold multiple sets of values at once. Others aren’t necessarily crazy or stupid for believing what they believe, they are merely identified with their values.

The human capacity to synchronize beliefs and values in this manner is partly due to our capacity for language and allows us to construct meta-entities like group identities, corporations, or nation states, by coordinating behavior through shared beliefs and role distribution. These meta-entities are intersubjective in that they are encoded across many minds and emerge with their own agency. From this perspective, gods and spirits are real entities computed through vast networks of human minds. Their agency acts through the individual, who can function as the appendage of the meta-entity, which often means the individual’s surrender of their own agency.

When we believe things for which we have no evidence other than another’s opinion, it is likely we are dealing with a mind-virus, an ideology that hijacks our perception and identity into that of a meta-entity. Many paths can lead to increased self-awareness and this journey is different for every individual. Cognitive scientist Joscha Bach suggests a method to check if we are infected with such a mind-virus: Does meaning depart when I give up a belief? Critical thinking is a crucial aspect of self-awareness, to explore the world on our own terms. To me, these are valuable insights in regards to how we form queer identities, as well as it pertains to the current global protests in the face of systemic racism. Each new concept, like allyship, becomes a tool in our conceptual tool belt of identities and behavioral encodings within the context of the larger project of building an improved tomorrow; new systems that are more equitable for all. We must be careful, though, because while tools can be useful, they can also be weaponized and used for manipulation. For this reason, it is important to find our own center for sensemaking in addition to fostering communities of trust and support.

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  1. That was such an onion to dig into and you mentioned it was only scratching the surface. I took a few screenshots to really digest some of the nuggets of wisdom you dropped on us there. I had what sounds like a similar experience to yours in having to create this other identity that I denied and worked tirelessly at destroying. In the end I would have had to destroy all of myself not to be who I am and always have been. That wasn’t an option anymore so eventually I came out as well, thankfully. I now identify as non-binary and who I have allowed myself to learn to become is nowhere near where my past self imagined me to be now. This also created a similar experience for me that people have called me similar things to an “onion-dweller.” It’s so insightful to see your perspective on this, with the entanglement of philosophy and different schools of thought. I look forward to reading more of your pieces in the future!

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