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.
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.