Monday, 6 April 2015

Defending The Use Of Labels (aka Adjectives)

 I really feel like I shouldn’t have to justify this, but since it’s such a common argument that we-who-choose-to-use-labels come across on the internet, I figured it deserved some actual attention. Quick note: the labels that usually come under fire are ones specifically geared to describe gender and/or orientation.

It goes like this: “I don’t get why people are so obsessed with using all these labels. Why can’t you just be, like, a human being? Aren’t you just creating more division by making up all these categories? Blah blah blah, special snowflake, blah.” (I was going to add more to that, but it kinda sounds like that to me after a while. You get the point.)

Well, to start, it shouldn’t matter to you what language people use to describe themselves. If someone asks you to use certain pronouns or something, respect that. Apart from that, your involvement is not needed.

Here’s the main thing. To quote Anita Sarkeesian: “I know it sounds super basic — Comm Studies 101 – but having the language to name things in the world is really powerful.” Sarkeesian is talking about naming certain tropes in media, but it seemed like a statement which perfectly matches this argument.

If you grow up in a culture in which certain attributes are considered “normal,” and you don’t perfectly fit those expectations, it becomes essential to have words to describe your experience. Otherwise, you feel isolated and freakish, like there’s something wrong with you for not being normal. If no words exist to describe how you feel, then obviously no human has ever felt the same way.

For example, if you’re experiencing gender dysphoria and suddenly you discover that trans people exist, you feel validated. You’re no longer just some weirdo who has some neurotic inability to Just Be Yourself. The language exists, so now you understand yourself better, and you can help other people understand you better. You have found commonality and community with others who experience the world in a similar way.

It’s not as though we reach into a hat full of words and pick a few and then conform ourselves to those ideas. We have an individual experience and THEN create language to describe how we feel, relative to others. The inability to understand this concept reminds me a lot of how some people don’t seem to understand that science begins with nothing but observations and then forms conclusions, rather than starting with a conclusion and trying to selectively find evidence to support it.

Humans are extremely varied in their personalities and characteristics. Since no two people are alike, it helps to have terms to describe one person as distinct from another. The existence of people who believe in gods necessitates the existence of a term to describe those who don’t. It’s particularly frustrating to have this argument with atheists, who are choosing to use a label to describe one facet of themselves. It’s hypocritical to distinguish yourself in this way, and then side-eye people who use specific terminology to describe their gender or sexual orientation.

I’m sure atheists are tired of having theists ask them why they would define themselves by what they don’t believe in. I am equally tired of having atheists call into question my decision to use concise terminology to describe my gender and various orientations.

This is (most of) my Twitter bio: Genderqueer, poly-pansexual, atheist+ blogger, activist, Whovian, and gamer living with depression. They/them/their.

That’s much more concise than describing that my gender is something between man and woman but sort of both but neither. Or that I experience affection for many people at once, and with people of any gender. Or that I don’t believe in gods but do believe in social justice. Or that I’m an avid fan of Doctor Who. I can explain those things in detail, but I don’t always have the space to do so, and it’s much easier to have a single term to describe a complicated issue than having to write it out every time. If I say I’m an atheist, you immediately understand what that means.

The real question is: How do you go through life without any distinguishing characteristics? Identifying with a race, a religious group, a gender, an orientation, a political party, are all uses of labels. Some people need to use labels for things that you don’t, and disagreeing with it on principle is a huge blaring sign of privilege. Even identifying as a human being is accepting a label which describes a fact about your existence.

I’m glad that cis people don’t feel bad about their gender, and don’t need separate terminology to describe their life experiences. That doesn’t mean that cis people just get to be “normal” and everyone else has to be an aberration. I’m glad that sexual people like having sex, but asexual people don’t need to feel like aliens because sexual people refuse to acknowledge that some people just don’t want to DO IT.

This whole post was spurred on by my finally being able to describe myself as demisexual. Sometimes, personal experiences are hard to understand and come to terms with, and I’m SO thankful that language exists to describe this part of me. I’m glad that other people don’t have this difficulty, but their lack of a need to describe their sexuality doesn’t change my need to describe mine.

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