Call me a weak, lily-livered, bleeding-heart, liberal, politically correct, overly sensitive, social justice warrior if you wish. Label me with whatever epithet you wish. In fact, you most likely would. However, I have a problem with labels and labelling of people. And this problem has been growing on me like a bad case of genital herpes for the last couple of years now. The problem is best summed up as this:
Why do we need labels? Why can’t we just take a leaf from Steven Moffat’s script for the character of Ashildr in Doctor Who and just start referring to our individual selves as “Me”? No one’s mother, daughter, wife. Nobody’s husband, boyfriend, son, nephew, neice, betrothed, employee, neighbour, surgeon. Our own companion. Singular. Unattached. Alone.
There is a rationale behind this, trust me.
You see, one of the things that I’ve noticed with labels is … well, four things:
- The in-fighting
- The out-fighting
- That we don’t really know what these labels mean
- We are all labelled, regardless of how we feel about it
Take any group. Base it on their sexuality, gender, religion, political attitudes, whatever.
Actually, let’s go for something we have seen a lot of: let’s take the recent Brexit vote or perhaps the presidential election in the US. And let’s look at the louder group of people that proclaimed victory in both instances. Who are they? Some say they are far-right, some say the alt-right. Some say white supremacists, some say white nationalists. Some say racists, some say libertarians. Some say potatoes, some say fries. There are so many different labels flying around that we don’t have a clear picture of who these people are, except that they are people that voted to leave the European Union or to elect Donald J. Trump as President of the United States of America respectively. Those people are the scum of the earth, voting because of their fear of coloured people, the “infiltration” of multiculturalism into a perfectly appropriate society.
Except, they’re not. Most of them voted for their causes because they believed it made the most practical sense. Some voted as a protest. Some voted to “send a message”. Only a few voted because they believe Trump will “Make America White Again” or that Britain should return to Whiteness. And yet, those who voted against Trump or voted to remain in the EU will most likely pass judgement on the other group because their views don’t align with what they believe to be right. Hell, I’m guilty of this too. One of my former colleagues voted to leave the EU and my respect in her took an incredible nosedive. My respect for her as a person was decimated because she made the opposite political choice to me, and I was disgusted because she too is a migrant to the UK. She too came to this country from another and has benefited from the ability to move between nations that this vote was based on. My personal respect for her died because she voted based on her rationale. She doesn’t know about this and I hope she never will. Unless she reads this, in which case I’m sorry, and I am rethinking my views.
This “us vs them” attitude is one of the side-effects of labelling the way we have been. Those who don’t align with our own beliefs or attitudes are automatically labelled as “them” and are not “one of us”. But at least we expect for those outside of “us”, those who are not privy to our own beliefs, to be antagonistic to us. We don’t expect fellow supporters to get on our nerves. And there we have another problem. Let’s take… feminism. Some of us may remember Emma Watson’s speech at the UN, talking about feminism and how it impacts all areas. It encouraged men to join the fight for women’s rights and declare themselves feminists, supporters of women and everything that makes them who they are. And that was great, it was powerful, it resonated with so many people.
And a great many feminists turned around and said that men couldn’t be feminists, by mere virtue of their gender. We could say we supported women, but a feminist had to be a woman. But some of those women went further. They said that only those who were born women could understand the discrimination and isolation that women had known and that those who had been born men but had undergone treatment to become women could not possibly know what real persecution was like for women.
To which most every transgender woman (and a good few transgender men) probably turned around and said
It reduces the appropriate use of the label to nothing more than “Me and all those who are like me”, which by nature, excludes “you”. And this leads on to the other gripe I have with labels – that we don’t have a clear definition of what the label means. Sure, we have the dictionary to help us, but they would define a feminist as:
By the way, if you don’t use “define:” in Google, you really should.
This definition is as simple as we can make it. A feminist is someone who supports feminism. And feminism is:
So a feminist is someone who supports the advocacy of women’s rights on the ground of the equality of the sexes. According to these definitions, men and transgender women can be feminists. But if you were to ask some feminists, and some men by that argument, that’s not possible. So either the definition is wrong and we need to campaign to have it changed, or we need to accept that feminism is doomed to fail because we can’t decide what constitutes a feminist. We need to know what the group stands for and what the members stand for.
Just as we need to do for “Brexiteers” and “Trumpeteers”.
Then again, do Brexiteers call themselves Brexiteers? I certainly don’t refer to myself as a Remainer, and yet it’s a label that would be applied to me. And then, taking again the LGBT+ argument, I was born male and identify as male. That, apparently, makes me “cisgender”. And I don’t identify as that either. On the census, under religion, I don’t identify as “non-religious” or even “other”. My religious beliefs are shunned in favour of the majority beliefs: Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Buddhism and Hinduism. Scientology is recognised as an official religion, yet Jediism isn’t. Both are derided as only for crazy people, but Jediism holds even more scorn since “it’s from Star Wars.” Yet those who follow the religion state that this is not the case, that the religion predates the films, but the films gave way to the terminology. But because I don’t follow one of the major religions, I am labelled as “other”. Not important enough to be counted. And when I am counted, I am “one of the crazy ones”.
That seems to be the only label we all carry at one point – “one of the crazy ones.”
But there is something else that we have with labels. If we apply labels, whether to ourselves or others, we create targets. For every feminist, there is an anti-feminist. For every person in favour of equality, there is someone in favour of supremacy of their group or another. For every person who supports coexistence, there is someone who supports isolationism and segregation. And usually, those in one group fight the other. Those who are extremist will fight those who are not. Those who want change will fight those who want the status quo. We challenge, we debate, we take up arms, both metaphorical and literal. We stand up for what we believe is right.
Maybe that’s the best way to get my point across. Maybe, in order to help people understand my problem with labels, I need to propose an experiment.
Sit with a group of people. These can be strangers or people that you know. Think of a topic that is well discussed with these people, or people in general, and advocate a stance that you feel you can best support, even if it is not a stance you would take. You just need to be able to support it better. You can even challenge yourself and purposely take the stance that you would not personally advocate. Once you have that, advocate the most extreme position you can. If you’re in favour of the death penalty for people who commit the most heinous crimes, dial it up a few hundred notches – advocate that every single offence should constitute the death penalty, right down to traffic violations. That guy travelling five miles above the speed limit could smash into the side of a bus, cause it to explode and then everyone who is on the bus would be dead. That makes him a very dangerous person. Death penalty for him. Take it to that extreme, or even further. Then advocate one thing. Advocate that you deserve this label.
Label yourself as “right”. Since we identify with labels so strongly and they are intrinsic to our very persona, advocate that label with all of your soul, with every ounce of your being. And watch what happens. I’m pretty sure you won’t get through even that one debate without seeing everything that I find wrong with labels.