Whether it’s beans at the supermarket or other people, humans are obsessive labellers. We’re never happier than when we can slap a sticker fresh from our brand new automatic labelling machine onto a book, branding it “from the library of J. Humphrey Picklesdötter” for all the world to see. There’s a quiet satisfaction we derive from neatly filing things under one heading or another; a sense of completion and the certainty that this book, at least, offers surety and stability in an otherwise uncertain world.
Labels are unavoidable. It seems nearly inconceivable that we could navigate the crowded thoroughfare of life without them or the direction they provide. Think of your ordinary, unlabelled jar of peanut butter: it is a forlorn specimen that appears to the savvy consumer’s eye as plain; unassuming; even suspicious (what are the manufacturers hiding? we ask). Now, imagine the same jar, but with a label attached. The label confers authority and prestige upon the jar: no longer do we regard the slick, mysterious substance with the mistrustful eye of a stranger, but instead welcome it as an old friend, recognizing its greasy consistency as the All-Natural New and Improved Recipe, and its pungent, cloying odor as the agreeable aftermath of The Certified Organic Process. Hyperbole aside, labels – on food, on television, on signs – are irreplaceable guiding and filtering mechanisms in our daily lives.
Well! we might exclaim. Our argument is concluded; we can go home, secure in our appraisal of labels as friendly, positive guides. And so we would, if it were not for the labels we employ to classify the human race.
Here we enter a much murkier world of labelling. We move from the largely uncontroversial titles attached to your food – which, if debated, are generally done so on the grounds of Truth in Advertising – to the labels and acronyms we apply to people of different races, genders, sizes, shapes, interests and whatever else goes into the making of an individual’s held or perceived identity. The words we use become markedly less straightforward: many are charged with emotional or historical connections that cause people to shy away from their use, or, indeed, direct them at others as insults or slurs. Here is one example among many.
A common label that has suffered extensively in recent times from what I like to call the malice of association is ‘feminist’. Feminism, of course, is nothing new, having been around since the nineteenth century and surfacing perennially as a prominent social issue. The movement – at least, in my belief – seeks nothing more and nothing less than equality for humans, regardless of sex, gender or race. Why not humanism? The name ‘feminism’ is a natural consequence of the fact that in nearly every area of our society, it is females, not males, that are disadvantaged by conscious or unconscious persecution, damaging ‘traditional’ values that adhere to outdated gender roles, or discrimination born of ignorance and self-importance. To call yourself a feminist, then, is to brand yourself a proponent of social equality, and embrace a social philosophy to which we should all aspire.
Yet here we see the corrupting malice of association, for those labelled feminists seem often to be viewed in a far less favorable light. The question arises: why should this be so? In response, I would point out that the answer to that question alone would consume an entire essay; therefore, for the sake of argument, I will attribute the malice to a single component – the vocal minority – and leave the rest for future exploration.
The vocal minority is a convenient choice, for it illustrates well an important point: namely, that the benefit or damage conferred by a label lies wholly in its interpretation. When a member of an MRA group complains that the very term precludes discussion of issues important to males, that is their interpretation. When a misandrist states that feminism has no room for men, that is their interpretation. When I write this article claiming that feminism is a good and necessary thing which is open to all of humanity, that’s interpretation, too. However, the point is that these interpretations, though personal and in no way indicative of the attitude of The Average Citizen, affect others’ interpretations. The existence of extreme dissenting opinions, vehemently expressed – hence the ‘vocal’ minority – confuses the issue, muddying the waters and leaving our Average Citizen unsure of where they stand. Suddenly, the preferable option is to steer around the label entirely when venturing an opinion, thus avoiding any potential cross-fire from the factions we are convinced lurk in the crowd, ready to pounce should we reveal ourselves as one of the enemy. Hence: “I’m not a feminist, but.”
This fearful neutrality from conflicting interpretations is only one part of the issue. In our exploration we still have not really decided whether labels are the positive and helpful guides our supermarket suggests, or harmful and debilitating influences. Consider the following.
On the one hand, labels can be a vital part of one’s identity. Being able to select some established term that you feel encompasses a critical aspect of your character or beliefs can be a great boon. For me, the existence of the term ‘androgynous’ provides a not insignificant amount of reassurance and peace of mind: the term not only confers a sense of shared identity upon me, in knowing that others exist who grasp my perspective, but also the means to provide a handle to others, a convenient-enough label that informs people about me in a single word. It may be an incomplete and imperfect description of my gender identity, but it is nonetheless something I would be far more distraught without. Its very existence imbues me with the confidence to continue exploring myself and not just feel like some strange, unidentifiable alien that is incomprehensible to those around me, as I did in high school and early university.
On the other hand, such descriptive labels can trivialize an individual. A single label can only ever define a single aspect of a person’s character: the term bisexual, for example, tells you nothing more about a person than that they may experience attraction to one or the other sex. The same person may also be an avid cajun chef, a formula one race-car driver, and a performance poet, but it is all eclipsed by the overwhelming label. “So you’re bisexual, huh? Tell me about that.” Proud identification as something outside of the mythical ‘norm’ can also draw forth unpleasant social stereotypes in the minds of others, or cause you to be lumped immediately in the same box as others who identify with a similar label. “It’s okay, I have this other bisexual friend. You two should definitely meet up sometime.” People get caught up on labels; they cease to be helpful guides and become solid barriers that we wear like masks.
Writing this, I know that labels are here to stay. As I’ve said before, they’re more or less a necessity in our navigation of this vast, bewildering, and frankly illogical world. However, it does seem that too often labels that stand for something good – sex-positive, body-positive, gender identity – are misused or perverted to become a condemnation of others’ characters. Labels are only an incomplete description of a tiny piece of the complex bundle of tissue and emotions that make up a human being, and though it takes real effort to look beyond, it’s worth it. The sooner we realize that there’s more to this jar of peanut butter than the 100 g of fat per serving, the sooner we can look inside and discover that new, delicious something that our life has been missing.