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It Seems To Me: In defense of labels

Posted: Friday, May 10th, 2013

Labels are often used to demean people and rob them of their self-respect and dignity, but they can also be used to unite us by identifying things that we have in common. The labels themselves are not necessarily bad – it’s our attitudes toward them.

That doesn’t mean we should ever take them lightly. Demeaning slurs wield the power of experience, and those who have suffered because of them will always feel their sting. Those who have been empowered by them will never fully understand the harm they cause, but it’s important that we at least acknowledge their power and avoid contributing to the problem.

On the other hand, there are labels that we choose to wear because they help identify the things that we are proud of. I’m proud to be an American. I’m proud to be a teacher, a writer, and a poet. While none of these labels describe me completely, I’m happy to wear them because they each reveal a part of who I am. And I don’t think less of someone because they are not a poet, or a writer, or a teacher. Nor do I think less of someone who is not an American. I can take pride in who I am without demeaning others.

Unfortunately, there are those who try to lift themselves up by tearing other people down, and sometimes they wave the banner of their labels like a flag they are carrying into battle. They bring shame, and I sometimes feel like I should apologize for being a member of the same group.

This has led some people to believe that labels divide us by highlighting our differences, and they suggest that by eliminating them, we will recognize the things we have in common and become united. They believe that equality means “the same,” when it actually means “having the same value.” The things that make us different add flavor to the world we live in, and it would be better to learn how to appreciate our differences than eliminate them.

We cannot accomplish this by demonizing the labels that others choose to wear. Radicalizing labels demeans the ideas and ideals that they represent. In the current atmosphere where emotional responses have taken the place of honest thought, hyperbole has replaced discourse. Rather than being able to engage in honest discussion, we become entangled in bitter arguments.

I often find myself defending labels that carry positive meaning for me, and it always surprises me to discover how successful people have been in robbing the ideas they represent of their power.

“I’m not a feminist!” I’ve had students declare, offended by the implication.

“Do you believe women should enjoy equality?” I’ll ask. “Do you think women should have the power and resources to make personal choices, to have opportunities to live full and fulfilling lives? Do you believe women have value and should be appreciated as individuals?”

Most of the time, the student will say, “Of course,” and then I’ll explain that these are the ideals of feminism. They are usually surprised. They’ve been led to believe that a feminist is a man-hating radical determined to destroy civilization as we know it. They’ve accepted the emotional diatribes against the feminist movement as fact, and in doing so, have robbed themselves of the opportunity of discovering, and perhaps even participating in, the richness and power of the movement.

Equality, freedom to make personal choices, access to opportunities; these are things that we all seek and defend, and we should encourage and support others to do the same. And when we discover that we have differences of opinions and beliefs, we should have the courage to confront them, discuss them, and perhaps even find a way to appreciate them. We shouldn’t turn them into monsters that we run from.

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