You are not your labels

I had a conversation with my friend Kat ages ago. It went something like this:

Me: People are weird about labels.

Kat: No, you’re weird about labels.

It’s a fair cop. When I react differently to something than 90% of people, it’s fair to say that I’m weird rather than they are.

This is a post about how I feel about labels, and how I think peoples’ interactions with them are unhealthy. I especially owe a discussion of this in the context of sexuality, but that’s mostly because that’s the context in which this came up and I owe a larger explanation of my opinion on the subject than I could fit in a sequence of 140 character soundbytes. It may take a little while to get to that part of the post, so be patient.

Before I proceed, I need to add the sort of disclaimer I usually do when writing about feminist topics:

I’m sitting here with a massive amount of privilege. I’m white, middle-class, cis, male, able-bodied, mostly neurotypical and a sufficiently close approximation to straight that I’ve probably just outed myself to a whole bunch of people I know by not just including “straight” here (I don’t think my parents read this blog but if they do, oops).

I think I’ve adjusted for that. I’m reasonably confident of what I’m going to say here, mostly because it’s a general principle rather than one that pertains to any specific axis of my privilege.

But while this perspective doesn’t make me wrong, what it does do is make it a whole hell of a lot easier to practice what I preach. I’m about to go on a long explanation about the effects of labels and how you shouldn’t get so attached to yours. It’s pretty easy to say labels aren’t important if most of the ones applied to you are ones you’re unlikely to ever be challenged on, and I pretty much fit the societal narrative of “this is what a normal person looks and acts like” (until I open my mouth and start ranting about some abstract philosophical point or telling people they should be picking things at random, but even that nicely pigeonholes into “geek”, which isn’t exactly a rarity these days).

So if you read this and go “Yeah, I get where you’re coming from, but my labels are really important to me because reasons, so they’re absolutely a fundamental part of my identity”, that’s cool. I totally get why they might be. I mean, I still think all the things I’m about to say hold true, but it’s pretty hard to go through life without some negative impacts and these are far from the worst. Besides which, I don’t know your situation and even if I did I don’t have any moral authority to tell you what to do. This is merely how I think the world works, and how I try to behave in response to it.

Second disclaimer I implicitly consider attached to all my blog posts but feel I should reiterate here: I’m totally not an expert on this. If I’m wrong, call me on it. Please.

OK. Disclaimer over.

Let me tell you how my thoughts on this subject started.

As a kid, I was diagnosed with Dyspraxia. I still have trouble understanding exactly what this is supposed to mean, and my experience of it as a kid doesn’t match all that well with the wiki article, but for me what this meant was:

  • I was really clumsy
  • There was about a 60 point difference in my IQ depending on whether I took the test orally or written (oral was higher).

Dyspraxia is apparently not something you get better from, but I seem to have taken a pretty good shot at it. I’m still pretty clumsy (though less so), but when I retested as a teen I’d basically closed the IQ gap. If you care, I think this is mostly because I have a really active internal monologue which I use as a coping strategy (pretty much all my writing I’m basically talking through in my head. I imagine that’s normal to a greater or lesser degree, so I’ve no real idea if this is just something you learn to do as an adult that I wasn’t very good at as a kid or what, but there you go).

The details of my dyspraxia aside, why is this relevant?

Because it gave kid-me a very nice inside view on how labels work.

As far as I was concerned, “dyspraxic” was not a thing I was. I mean I acknowledged the actual empirical details of it – I was definitely clumsy, and sure I was way better at some mental things than others, but wasn’t that normal? People are good at different stuff. You learn to be better at the bits you care about, you learn to do without the bits you don’t. That’s how it works, right?

To my parents and school though, this was a seriously big deal. David was no longer this weird little kid who was obviously super bright (not to mention ever so charming and modest) but wasn’t good at stuff, he was dyspraxic. It made sense now! Dyspraxia is totally a thing, and we can take these steps to help the dyspraxic kid.

Except… it’s not really a thing. What it is is a collection of loosely interacting phenomena and spectra which all seem to be more or less related. You’re not just binary dyspraxic or not, you express different variations of it, you express it to varying degrees, you express different bits of it to varying degrees. They’re are as many forms of dyspraxia as there are dyspraxics. Sure, we have a label, and we have a lot in common related to that label, but really it’s just a large corner of the weird and varied landscape of what people are like.

But despite the fact that it doesn’t refer to any one easily isolatable thing and despite the fact that I didn’t really feel any attachment to the label, it still proved very useful to the people around me.


Well because that’s one of the main things language is for.

When we use words, we’re not expressing some absolute nature of the universe. What we’re doing is conveying enough information to be useful.

Consider two colours. They’re both green. Are they the same colour? No. One is this green, the other is this green. When we cut up colours into words, we’re taking what is quite literally a spectrum and chopping it up into discrete chunks.

Why do we do this?

Well, there are two main reasons, and you can see them both in my dyspraxic example.

The first is communication. You don’t want to have to give your whole life story in order to have a basic interaction. Instead, you present a simplification of the truth and then drill down into the details if and when necessary. For example, I will often tell people I’m vegetarian when it’s context appropriate, despite the reality being way more complicated. Language is by its nature imprecise, and that’s what makes it work.

The second is prediction. It’s easy to learn simple rules – if I ask you if two colours go together and one of them is green and the other is purple, you’re probably going to say no regardless of which green and which purple I’ve chosen. It’s not an ironclad rule, but it’s pretty likely. Similarly, if I tell you I’m dyspraxic there are certain things that you can do to adjust my education to help me out (apparently. I didn’t find them very helpful as a kid, but I may just have been being a bit of a bratty kid).

So labels are seriously useful.

But here’s the key thing: Being useful doesn’t make them true. They are a way of looking at the world, not a feature of the world.

And sometimes that way of looking at the world breaks down and you have to fix it up.

Suppose you’ve currently got a very simplistic view of gender. There are men, and there women, and those are all the genders there are. You’re merrily carrying on your life safe in your worldview. Then someone comes along and they say “Excuse me, but what about me? I’m kinda a bit of both”. s’cool. You knew those words were just approximations to reality. As a good, responsible, human being you update your worldview and accept them. Another person comes along and tells you that they’re neither. No problem.

The problem comes when you start to take these labels too seriously. By their nature, approximations are for using when they work and discarding when they don’t.

Supposing I were to consider being a man a really integral part of my identity – I don’t just mean what I look like, or my body identity, but the whole baggage and social constructs around it and everything. I’m now very invested in this as a real thing – it’s part of who I am.

Now suppose a trans man comes along and tells me that he’s a man. Sure, he happens not to have a penis, but that doesn’t stop him being a man.

Where previously I could have just gone “Oh, cool. Sorry, my previous approximations to the world don’t work so well here. Let me update them”, now he’s a threat to my identity. I don’t identify as someone with a penis, I identify as A MAN, and I have bundled my penis in with a whole host of other ideas like liking beer and action movies. By claiming that you can be a man without having a penis, he has now eroded at something I perceive as an integral part of myself, and that makes me much less likely to be accepting of him. I’ve held too tightly to my view of the world, and he’s the one who got caught in the crossfire.

Obviously the above is mostly naive idealism. I don’t really think that that if everyone perfectly followed the advice in this post we’d all be wonderful and inclusive. Sure would be nice if it were true though. Also I don’t think that labels are the sole source of transphobia (there are plenty, and many of the others are a lot darker). This is more… how transphobia could arise amongst otherwise well intentioned people.

But I think a lot of biphobia actually does arise this way. Not all of it by any means, but I’d be astonished if it weren’t a large contributor.

We’ve two sides, gay and straight. Each has quite a lot invested in that label, and because they’ve formed lines along those labels they’ve got the whole baggage coming in along with it. While you can express aspects of the label more or less strongly (see “straight-acting”. Sigh), you’ve at the very least likely bundled “Is attracted to (gender)” in with “Is not attracted to (other gender)” in with your identity when you pulled in the label.

Then you have the bisexual (or pansexual if you prefer) people in the middle going “Hey, what about me? I like men and women. That’s cool, right?”

And unfortunately it’s really not cool. We’ve taken this whole complicated configuration of the world and boiled it down to “I’m straight” or “I’m gay”, and firmly associated our identities with those amorphous blobs of ideas, so when you come into the middle of it and go “Hey, I’m like you except for this thing you’ve very strongly identified as not being”, you’re now chipping away at our identity.

When you look at it this way it’s… understandable how a lot of this behaviour arrives. Not desirable, not excusable, forgivable given change perhaps, but certainly understandable. Imagine how you feel when your identity is threatened, when people deny your experiences. It’s really very unpleasant – it’s at best hurtful, and when done en masse it can be downright soul destroying.

When you do that to someone just by existing, it’s not surprising their reactions to you are a bit hostile.

The solution here is of course not that you should stop existing. Nor is it to deny your nature.

The solution is that people should stop being so weird about labels.

Keep using them by all means. They’re wonderfully useful things. We couldn’t function as a society without them.

Just… maybe think twice about letting them into your identity. Your labels are how you describe yourself, not who you are. Sometimes you’ll discover that those descriptions aren’t working out so well, or that they need to be far more inclusive than you thought they were. Try not to fight it. It’s how labels are supposed to work.

This entry was posted in Feminism, life, Open sourcing my brain, rambling nonsense on by .

7 thoughts on “You are not your labels

  1. Tom Parker

    One of the other fun problems with labels is that it lumps you together with a bunch of people with whom you may or may not agree with, but just happen to possibly share some level of characteristics with you (and you may well be strongly associated with those characteristics, and they not so much, or vice versa). That’s the reason I don’t like labels, because people assume that because you’ve picked a label you’re willing and able to defend everyone else who has also picked that label, and that you are strongly associated with every characteristic that *they* associate with that label (which tends to have good odds of having nothing to do with what you associate with that label).

    Conversely, I’m very proud of the labels “geek” (having resigned myself being willing to deal with all of the hipster pseudo-geeks, because I’m a geek of many colours, and very proud of it) and “atheist” (being one of the slightly shouty negative stereotypes of that label, and so happy with defending it), but anything else I could use to describe myself tends to be related only directly to skillsets I know I have, rather than groups I could in theory associated myself with.

  2. Jay @hautepop

    Yes, but I think with a power gradient applied.

    So the examples you give are of people from minorities (transmen, bisexuals) who pose a challenge to mainstream identities. They’re coming from a subaltern position, and they are *asking* the people with power to volunteer to expand their categories a bit. They haven’t got much or any power to demand this takes place, or to exert penalties if they fail to do so.

    It’s worth trying to think up some examples that go the other way round – people from the more powerful group who ask a minority to “expand their labels” and let them in.

    The most immediate example I see is one of cultural appropriation – e.g. WASP types buying a dreamcatcher, or going on an expensive “shamanic healing retreat”, and deciding that they’re part of Native American spirituality in some way.

    This tends to really piss off people of actual Native American heritage – and I would argue that’s very defensible. Because Native American people have had to fight for that label against larger hegemonic forces (European settlers; white America subsequently) who would destroy their way of life, throw them off their land, and forcibly convert them to Christianity. Their cultural identity has been formed explicitly through this trauma and their resistance to it.

    So another bunch of white Americans coming along in 2013 claiming spiritual membership of this culture – do they really have a right to do this? At the least it’s disrespectful of Native history, and at the worst may subsume the culture it claims to admire. The meaning of the Ojibwe bawaajige nagwaagan can’t remain entirely untouched by the same symbol being sold in gift-shops and adorning dorm-rooms at U. Toronto. It’s forced into membership of a wider set, and as such appropriation denies the right of Native people to say what their symbols mean. So it’s another way their heritage and culture gets destroyed through assimilation by the white American norm.

    Sasha Houston Brown, American Indian academic adviser at Minneapolis Community and Technical College from Dakota’s Santee Sioux Nation:

    “One important factor to consider is the role of agency and self-determination in the representation of Native peoples, culture and art. As sovereign Nations, Indigenous peoples have the right to speak for ourselves and not have dominant Euro-American society project and profit off of an artificial and socially constructed image of “Indian” identity. When you have major corporations commodify and take possession of various components of Native culture and intellectual property it speaks to the ongoing dehumanization of Indigenous peoples.”

    So the request for people to expand their labels should probably only flow one way: up the power gradient.

    Further reference: etc

    1. david Post author

      Hmm. I’m not sure. I mean, obviously I agree that cultural appropriation is bad, but I think it’s not straightforwardly an instance of this. It’s related to Tom’s point I think, and to something I deliberately left out of this post because of space constraints and might write about later – I think identification with a group is not the same thing as identification with a label, even if the group is “the people who identify with this label” or the label is “the people in this group”.

      Thinking about it, I think the difference is that in what you’re describing, what you’re appropriating is not the label but the actual identity, and that’s a big deal.

      Relatedly, I don’t think power gradients are always clear here. For example race is in many ways as much of a social construct as gender or sexuality or dyspraxia – it’s a set of correlated things which we’ve attached labels to some particular regions of. The power gradients between specific races are complicated (and obviously I’m sitting happy in privilege land), but that doesn’t detract from the point that the label itself is not a fixed aspect of reality.

      I think part of this is that the power gradients are basically always uphill when you’re an edge case, because by definition you’re in the minority – when you sit between two labels, both sides are glaring down at you.

  3. Richard Gadsden

    There is, helpfully, a word for taking a label and pretending it’s a real thing. The word is “reification”. Your blogpost above is an excellent explanation of what reification is and why it’s bad. I’m putting the word in the comments so there’s a chance that something this good comes up next time someone googles reification.

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