Jul 21, 2015

We Need Labels

Labels are a touchy thing. Any time I see a discussion on a heated issue such as bullying, feminism, homophobia, or any form of prejudice, odds are good someone, either trying to act as a kind of peacemaker or, more commonly, trying to shut down the argument entirely, will pipe up with "this is why I hate labels" and "just don't be a dick."

Why do people shun labels? It's never fun to be stuck with a label we dislike, of course, but rather than kick back against the very concept, have people ever thought about why labels are so often used to address people and issues?

The fact is, we need labels.

Highlight Issues
At the most base level, how can you bring a problem to people's attention? You find an example of the problem in action and say "That's it, that is The Thing, right there." People need to be able to assess experiences, both our own and those of others, in ways we can quantify. Otherwise people trying to help would wind up running around going "Everything is terrible and I can't explain why!"

Determine Solutions
I've often said that you can't say to someone "build me a house" or "fix my car" and expect them to get the job done there and then. Every problem, no matter how broad or focused, has a range of issues and contexts which must be identified and assessed for a solution. The place you want to build your house might have water mains to work around. A specific part your car needs might not be in stock. The same applies to social issues.

Take domestic abuse as an example. Both men and women suffer from it, but the challenges they each face will be very different. A woman is likely to believe she brought it on herself, or that if she is only patient enough, things will change. A man, on the other hand, is more likely to be mocked for letting a woman inflict harm. Both will avoid talking about it, and remain in a toxic relationship, but each will do so for different reasons, and will need different kinds of help to get out of it.

So before you say you're not a feminist, but still believe in equal rights, remember that feminism is one part of the equal rights struggle, dealing with a particular subset of problems brought about by male dominance and enforced gender roles. If you do believe in equal rights, you are a feminist, by definition.

Sense of Identity
Labels don't only have to be used to address negative things. Labels can bring with them a sense of self, a strength of choosing an identity. They allow us to belong. If you're a geek, you can count on there being other geeks who should welcome you. Sports fans show supreme camaraderie. Book lovers can gather together to share in discussions. Rockers can share their love of music.

Most especially during our formative teenage years, but also still when we're adults, we need to be able to define who we are, and what our role is in society. Labels help us do this. When we choose a label for ourselves, we make it a banner, a mark of pride, a shield against those who would try to tear us down.

The Reality
As wonderful as the idea is that we could do away with labels and the words "treat everyone well" would be all we need for a peaceful, fair society, the reality is we don't have a hope of achieving that yet. Simply put, we are not at a stage in the evolution of society where we're able to give one straightforward rule to protect us from all social injustice.

Society has taught us to fear those things and people that are different from us. How many religions have spend thousands of years preaching to love one another? How many laws have had to be expanded and clarified so that people can't abuse loopholes and inflict pain and suffering on others?

Until we grow past that, we don't get to take the easy solution of saying "treat everyone well" or "don't be a dick." There are no shortcuts to a better society. It's hard work, and we've got a lot to do. So let's stick to what can actually help make things better and stop fobbing off our responsibility with lazy catchphrases.

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