Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Limits of Labeling Identities

A word only has meaning if we know both what it is and what it is not. It is often necessary to exclude things in order to make sense of the world. I have to exclude flowers and grass and shrubs and bushes to fully define a tree. If I don't, then there's no reason to use the word "tree," because I could just say "plant." Exclusion is not necessarily a bad thing.

But the necessity of excluding things in order to define others creates the binaries that often frustrate us.

Photo: Flickr ...-Wink-...

While defining what something is not can be useful, it can also be so restricting that it morphs into something else entirely. One place we see this is the labels people use to define themselves and others. When we think of ourselves (or others) as Democrats, we are also saying that we are necessarily not Republicans. That would be fine, but there are a ton of cultural assumptions that come along with those labels. People start throwing in "musts" that aren't necessarily tied to the actual definition of the word. Democrats "must" be pro-choice. Republicans "must" be pro-death penalty. There are thousands of these binaries that seem simple enough at first glance, but are actually rife with complications.

To explore some of these complications, I wanted to see what happened when I typed "Can you be a ______ and" into Google search and see what automated responses came up. Here's some of what I saw:

  • "Can you be a feminist and. . ."
    • be pro-life
    • be anti abortion
  • "Can you be a man and . . ."
    • a woman
  • "Can you be democrat and . . ."
    • a christian
    • a catholic
    • vote Republican
  • "Can you be republican and . . ."
    • vote democratic
  • "Can you be pro life and . . ."
    • pro choice
    • pro death penalty
    • pro war
    • eat meat
  • "Can you be pro choice and . . ."
    • christian
    • a catholic
    • pro life
  • "Can you be Christian and . . ."
    • buddhist
    • gay
    • greek
    • wiccan
These searches suggest that there are quite a few people struggling with how the labels they use to identify conflict (or, more darkly, that they're trying to find proof that others don't fit the labels they've claimed for themselves). What's at stake in these conflicts of definition is control of the parameters. If "Christian," for instance, does not exclude anything, it means nothing (or everything, which is basically the same thing). But who gets to decide what is excluded? When that exclusion is maintained by some sort of societal standard that has not been fully examined, the label may cease to be useful.

The problem may stem from people assuming that each label they wear must fit them completely. If a man labels himself both a "feminist" and a "Christian," it would be detrimental to then assume that the two are intricately intertwined. That's not to say that he isn't both of those things, but figuring out which parts of his beliefs are tied to one and which parts are tied to another requires a level of analysis that many people don't give to their identities. Instead, they find labels to wear and then let the different parts of their identities mix fluidly beneath them.

For instance, here are some labels I feel fit me: feminist, mother, wife. Certainly, the things that make me a "wife" are connected to the things that make me a "mother," and the things that make me both of those are also connected to what makes me a "feminist." It would be a horrible misrepresentation of any of these roles, however, to assume that other people must wear them in the same ways or to confuse one of the labels' attributes for another. Someone else could certainly be a "feminist" without being a "mother." Someone could be a "mother" without being a "wife." Just because my labels align and intertwine doesn't mean that I can tear them off, redistributing whatever baggage happened to stick on someone else's identity.

While some exclusion is necessary to prevent a label from being meaningless (it's hard for me to envision, for instance, a definition of "feminist" that could also include "pro-patriarchy"), we must be careful about how we make those exclusions and who we give the authority to do so.

1 comment:

    You might find this panel discussion interesting. If you look at my life, my beliefs and what I have done with life I am raging feminist, however, I have never really used the label for myself. I am also a leftie which I have identified freely as. I found this discussion very interesting. I am starting to feel as though I should wear the label of feminist but it feels as though I need permission from someone....not sure why.