Author: Bester firstname.lastname@example.org
All labels have a price, and I'm not just talking the things that tell you something costs $9.95. Every time we slap a name - a label - on something, we pay a price. A label can add unwanted baggage, take away meaning, and generally screw up the person or thing we label. What does all this crap mean? I think that arbitrarily labelling something is wrong and potentially dangerous. Why? Well, that's what this column is about, so I'll stop waffling now and get on with the show!
The first thing wrong with labels is that they carry unwanted baggage. Slapping a convenient name on something or someone is always bound to cause problems. To illustrate what I'm talking about, I'll start with something close to my heart: books. I read sci-fi, and I'm not ashamed. I told my friends about it a couple of years back, and naturally they were shocked at first, but they're okay with it now. Labelling a book sci-fi brings with it all sorts of assumptions and preconceptions as to what the book will contain. Laser guns, robots, space ships, and technobabble are all stereotypical images which are associated with the genre. Yet in many sci-fi novels, there is little or no cheesy crap like that. I won't go into a long, detailed rant as to the literary value of sci-fi, but suffice to say if you read and J. G. Ballard, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K Dick, or Neal Stephenson, you will see the beauty and intellectual interest that good sci-fi can produce. However, most people will never get that far. They see the sci-fi section of the bookshop, and run away screaming. Why? Because of the label. As bad as such prejudging of objects is, it is worse with people.
When the word "gay" is mentioned, the vast majority of people get this image of a dyed blonde, wrist flapping, mincing, lisping interior designer. Now, while there is nothing wrong with that, it's simply NOT me! God knows I'm attracted to men, but I've never flapped a wrist or minced a step in my life. I've only bleached my hair once and it looked bloody awful. The closest I get to interior designing is painting the house. The baggage attached to the label "gay" simply does not apply to me, yet if I came out, a lot of people would expect me to start prancing and lisping all over the place, all because of an ill-fitting, stereotypical label.
The same applies to other labels. I'm a law student. Yes, I admit it, I'm studying to be a lawyer. And, of course, I'll make my living being evil, sucking blood, and chasing ambulances. UmÖ I don't THINK so. I've never sucked anyone's blood in my life, I don't really think I'm evil, and I'm too bloody unfit to chase an ambulance. Nevertheless, the word "lawyer" attaches such blatantly false baggage to me. Christ, with all this mincing, hair bleaching, interior designing, ambulance chasing and blood sucking, it's a wonder I have time to get anything done. All these absurd things that I supposedly must do because I find guys attractive, because I study law. Who would have ever thought that having a word associated with you could be so tiring?
Super studs and linguistic shortcuts
I also have a problem with labels in general, not just those that carry baggage. A label seems to me to be a vile linguistic shortcut. Is it really okay to define someone by one aspect of their personality? Saying I AM gay, for example, implies that the fact that I want to have sex with men is my defining feature. I mean really, how much time can one person spend having sex? Even a super stud (and there's another label!) would have to take a break some time. If you don't spend that much time having sex, is it really a valid way to define someone? In my opinion, it is very obviously not.
I actually find the idea of a defining feature fairly distasteful. Saying that any one thing can define a person is offensive to me. How can you possibly say that one facet of a person can define who they are? I don't think it's valid to say someone IS a teacher for example. Sure, they might spend some of their time, even a lot of their time, teaching children, but saying they ARE a teacher implies that this is the sum total of their person. Saying I AM a law student, I AM a hockey player, I AM gay, I AM anything implies that that characteristic is more important than any other. This is simply not true. All of those are part of me, but none can define me in and of itself. I reject all of those labels. I am me. There is only one label that I will accept. Only one can accurately reflect who I am. My name. All else is meaningless.
And the point of all this isÖ?
The point of all this rambling is not to demand that everyone stop using labels. They are simply too convenient for people to stop any time soon. God knows its easier to say "he is gay" than "he happens to find men attractive". All I would ask is that you are careful with what you say. Each of us has the power to define ourselves and the world around us, often with unforseen consequences. One misplaced act of labelling and we create another stereotype, another misconceived belief about someone or something. Words are power. Be careful how you use them.