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25 March 2015 @ 03:02 pm
"Narratives, Neophytes, and the Language of Division" (or: "How Labels Make Us All Awful People")  
My scholarly writing hasn't gotten much of a workout in a long while, so warnings in advance if this is a little clunky.

I work from home full time, which means I get massive amounts done without a commute to factor into my day (Yay) at the same time as I suffer a lack of human interaction (Boo). Which is why I pepper visits to social media throughout my day. It makes me feel a little more... connected.

Whether or not Facebook's algorithms force things onto my feed based on my click-through history, I find myself confronted every day by passionately worded headlines accompanied by passionately worded captions from friends who are, well, passionate about something. Most days it's politics, but the categories include religion, science, race, and gender - the usual suspects in a lineup of things that both bring us together and divide us.

On my social networks, I'm blessed to enjoy a really diverse array of friends. Behold: A labeled shortlist of everyone I care about!

- North Americans (Canadians and USA), Europeans, Australians, Asians, Central Americans
- Democrats, Republicans, Libertarians, Progressives, and Conservatives
- Christians (a gagillion different types), Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Yogis, Aethists, Agnostics, Zoroastrians, and probably a bunch more who haven't publicly identified their spiritual philosophy
- Hispanics, Whites, Blacks, Asians, and honestly, countless other races and ethnicities
- Straights, Gays, Transgenders and Transsexuals

And when it comes to occupations, well, you can imagine how long that list is.

Now, society demands that I label myself for a bunch of different reasons. When it comes to my health, despite being half Sicilian, I usually need to identify myself to my doctor and my insurance company as Latina, because it helps my MD keep a nose out for diabetes and anemia and all that fun stuff that tends to afflict people with even a smattering of Hispanic DNA. When it comes to my desire to vote in an American primary, I have to choose a label and therefore identify myself today as a Democrat (though in 1999, I identified as Republican. Surprise!). Religiously speaking, I identify as Christian because that's where I find the most spiritual common ground and community, albeit some subdivisions of the label would look at my friends list and oust me from that category entirely.

In my mind and body, I am Venessa. But in the world, I am also Venessa, the White Hispanic Middle Class Progressive Heterosexual Christian American Artist/Mother/User/etc.

Apart from all the bureaucratic or functional purposes that labels fulfill, they also fulfill a much more profound and basic requirement. They satisfy the brain's obsessive impulse to organize reality, provide a shortcut to understanding others and, therefore, underscore the nature of our relationships to one another. From an evolutionary standpoint, labels help us modify our own behavior so we don't compromise our own survival. Case in Point: When watching soccer/football an Irish pub, it's wise to figure out whether everyone around you is for United or City, because you might be in for it if you're caught rooting for the wrong team.

Ultimately, the burden of this kind of categorization falls to language. Words are the only tool we have to make the abstraction of someone's identity into something real. So the labels are created, applied, and stuffed with meaning based on our experiences, our observations, and most often, the stories we build around them.

For example:

Label: "Hipster"
Definition (per Google): "A person who follows the latest trends and fashions, especially those regarded as being outside the cultural mainstream."
Narrative 1: Someone irritatingly trendy, usually in their 20s-30s, entitled, self-important, arrogant, ignorant that their favorite craft beer is actually owned by Budweiser, etc.
Narrative 2: Someone eager to express their own individuality, youthful yet with an old soul, creative and vulnerable, with a penchant for the thrill of experiencing something new.

So you see, the label goes a step further than its bare bones definition by incorporating the stories or biases of the person wielding the label.

Still with me? Okay, good. :)

So yesterday, I got into a discussion on someone's Facebook post where the label thing got pretty out of hand. The post was a political article originating from an American conservative media outlet, and its cross-poster captioned it with a generalization about people "on the Left." Being someone who, I think, resides on the left of American politics, I felt duty bound to pipe up and defy the generalization, mainly because I felt like it was an inaccurate assessment of me and many others to which that label usually ascribes. Figuring I was in a relatively safe place on my friend's feed - someone who knows me well enough to know I would never offer an opinion with the intent to troll - I explained my feelings and tried to back them up in as neutral way as I could (although my fellow Americans reading this already know how difficult it is to defend a political stance with "neutral evidence" to anyone who feels passionately enough about the contrary position).

At this point, another person - someone who didn't know me at all - jumped into the conversation and immediately labeled me a "Lib" (translation for non-American readers: that's short for "Liberal," which is a label generally used to identify those who subscribe to Democratic party ideals). In the context of this person's angry comment, the label held more than just an assessment of me as a voter. It was loaded with every negative quality ascribed to the word by a history of pundits, op eds, and politicians. I was a socialist. A naive utopian bent on destroying the constitutional foundations of our country. An instigator of WW3, and who knows what else. Automatically, my perspective was placed firmly in the category of "BS."

As I've mentioned, there are undisputed benefits to labeling, but lets talk about the drawbacks. Labels simplify things in a world that is increasingly nuanced and complicated. They are tools for community at the same time as they are tools for divisiveness. They give people an immediate pass to stop analyzing, stop thinking, stop empathizing - because the label comes fully outfitted with an elaborately constructed excuse not to care. In the mind of a someone who has been convinced that someone with my values and beliefs falls into a predetermined category, I don't get an opportunity to express the intricacies of my position because those blanks have already been filled. The story has already been constructed; and likely, it's been constructed by someone who has very little notion of who I am, what I truly think, and why I think the way I do.

Consider the fact that Marketing and Advertising are entirely built on manipulating labels to persuade people into feeling and acting a certain way. Coca Cola is carbonated sugar water. But people drink it because it's "The Real Thing."

Everyone reading this, American or not, knows how polarized things have become in the country I live in. History shows us that this happens every time we face the unknown as a people - during times of war, upheaval, economic uncertainty, etc. We cling to our labels because they are derivative of who we are. They are the sure thing when everything else is amorphous. And when they are challenged, we fight harder. We yell louder. We hit harder. We shoot first.

We listen last.

At the end of the day, I value every friendship I have, especially with those who view the world differently from me. They keep me aware, alert, unsure, and occasionally uncomfortable, which is how we grow and change and be better people. And I feel grateful that, at the end of the day, even if they usually think of "people like me" negatively, they still hold affection for me as a person. Something in us is fraternal. Something in you... is me.

I am Venessa. I am many labels because the world forces me to be many things. But I am a human in the world, which means I am complicated, and as often as I can, I try to remind myself that you, too, are complicated. There is only one tool that helps me do that, and it is not a label.

It is love.
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Why be normal?: dh - ron & hermione pianolunalovepotter on March 25th, 2015 09:49 pm (UTC)
Perfectly said. As I mentioned earlier, this is also something that has been troubling me a lot in recent years and you managed to put into words what I really couldn't express.

We all have labels, but in the end we're all still people. And sometimes that gets lost in the shuffle.
Julieaggiebell90 on March 26th, 2015 02:52 am (UTC)
This is really well-said, V. I especially like this: At the end of the day, I value every friendship I have, especially with those who view the world differently from me. They keep me aware, alert, unsure, and occasionally uncomfortable, which is how we grow and change and be better people.

I keep trying to remind myself (and friends...and family members and...), when I get frustrated because someone can't see my point of view (because it happens because I'm human and have my own weaknesses and failures) that the world would be very boring if we all were exactly the same. We need all those differences--all the different pieces and parts that each person brings to the table-- to function as a society.
madderbradmadderbrad on March 26th, 2015 04:10 am (UTC)
In real life one tends to interact with others closer to one's own 'norm', I guess; it's only natural, since many are work colleagues and family. But the online world is a whole different story. My online education in psychology took place in the HP fandom rather than yours of social media. An amazing diversity of people, both good and bad. Idiots, dingbats, viciously stupid; intelligent, creative, imaginative, loving. The whole spectrum, opening my eyes to behaviour I'd never thought about previously. It wasn't the reason I entered the fandom but I've marvelled over the years at the psychological cases I've witnessed therein.

Like you I was fascinated by how many folk use 'labels' as *excuses* to cowardly retreat from a discussion:

They give people an immediate pass to stop analyzing, stop thinking, stop empathizing - because the label comes fully outfitted with an elaborately constructed excuse not to care.

Exactly. Perfectly put. I don't know how many times in a HP debate my opponent would label me as a 'Harmionian' or a 'Hater' ... and then stop, as if that settled things. Ridiculous. A label that's just thrown out without any proof of the legitimacy of its connection to the subject means nothing. And since proving the attachment would mean looking at the substance of the subject's argument anyway ... why bother with the label in the first place?

Still, it always amazed me how so many HP fans just didn't get it. I was always left wondering which ones knew that they were covering up a 'defeat' in the debate, the ones who just couldn't bring themselves to say "you're right, I'm wrong" (so many can't!) ... and which people honestly bought into the 'power of the label', without understanding any further.

I think the efficacy of labelling goes hand in hand with cliquishness; if there are a mass of people in one's own group who are entrenched in the label mindset - 'Brad is a Harmonian', say - then the application of same starts to become axiomatic for them. They can't go back to first principles and comprehend the lack of tether between label and person.

Labels are shortcuts, like mathematical theorems; only the latter can be objectively proven. The former are just excuses for lazy or cowardly behaviour which may not stand up under scrutiny ... and should always be suspect.

Sometimes I think I should wear a T-shirt with the slogan "everything I know about psychology I learnt from the Harry Potter fandom". :-)
mrs_bombadil on March 26th, 2015 12:49 pm (UTC)
There is a lot of enemy-building that ends up happening not only when labels are assigned and used to marginalize, but even when they are enthusiastically embraced in the name of something positive. Ultimately I think for there to be progress in trying to have more cordial, productive dialog (online and elsewhere), we all have to turn our critical eye inward - first and foremost. That is something I think you do quite well in addition to actively pursuing inclusivity and a loving mindset. Love in our hearts is the easy part.