Why I don’t call people Bitches or Assholes
Imagine you have just entered your home. It’s dark inside and you still haven't changed the lightbulb in the hallway. You see something there, not a person or anything obviously threatening, but something. Your mind reels with possibilities as your eyes strain to make sense of the vague form. What is it? Finally you pull out your phone and use it’s light to get a better look. It’s just a chair with a jacket draped over the back, and that’s the last you think of it.
Take a moment and consider about the mental process you went through in your imagination. In the beginning your mind was open, that form could have been anything and you pushed your eyes and mind to figure out what you were seeing. In the end, once you had given it a label, you stopped thinking about it entirely. We often do the some thing to people. Once we have decided what they are, we stop thinking about them in a dynamic way.
Labeling a person is a tool for dealing with them thoughtlessly. Worse, some labels are sexist, racist, or otherwise infer judgement on whole groups of people. Calling someone a bitch associates that person with patriarchally motivated preconceptions about women, and calling people assholes does the same for men. Once people have been lumped into these categories we feel free to defame them without a second thought. There are several issues with categorizing people, but I will focus on two. The first is that after labeling a person, we associate them with the actions of every other person to whom we’ve given that label. The second is that labels imply that people are static. In fact we are all dynamic and capable of growth and improvement, as well as the opposite. Labeling someone a hero or great or “the best” does not make them infallible, though it may bring us comfort to hold such a belief.
So next time you’re about to label someone, I challenge you to stop and think about your motivations. I challenge you to come up with an adjective that accurately describes them in the current situation. I’m betting that if you actually take the time to do this you will realize the petty nature of your thoughts and I hope you will turn them toward something constructive. We all have room for improvement.
Our bodies are programed to make snap judgements that in ancient history kept our ancestors alive. In short, if they did something that felt good such as eating something sweet or having sex they craved more of it. Conversely, if something felt bad such as pain, they developed a strong aversion to it. The more they craved sex and food, and the more averse they were to potentially dangerous situations, the more successful they would be at procreating. And eventually you get to present day us. We still have this mind inside us, the fight or flight response. but we also have developed another mind that can control our older minds.
Consider the following simplified conversation.
So how was the movie? Good. How was your date last night? Bad.
We use these oversimplifications to make our lives more manageable day to day, but they also prevent us from thinking critically about many situations. The movie was good? Good for whom? The date was bad? Bad because you’ve decided not to see the person again? These simple labels require context to makes sense, but the context is rarely provided. Isn’t it good that you know now not to date that person? And what made the movie bad? Is there another situation in which it would be good? Again, I think we need to work harder to find the best adjectives to describe situations, and to give context along with any judgement.
Why I identify as a Queer, but prefer no identity at all
First off, I’m a white-skinned male-born that was raised without ever having to go hungry or lacking anything I needed for my education. We were always in debt, but we always had enough. The older I get the richer I feel. I’m telling you all this because I want to talk about identity, and I’m sure my experiences and appearance have shaped the way I think about the subject.
All my life I’ve watched people seeking identity, sometimes desperately. From seeing kids in junior high (middle school) wearing band t-shirts, to tattoos and religious jewelry, I’ve always been a bit baffled by the desire of so many to be included in various groups. I’ve been told by Jewish people to pronounce my name the Hebrew way instead of the way my mother always did. In elementary school we learned about heraldic symbols and were assigned to create our own shield with four images on it. I struggled deeply as other students quickly drew soccer balls, religious symbols, and other elements of their daily lives. But I was hesitant. I did not want to feel trapped in some category, the idea of self identity bothered me deeply. What if tomorrow someone decided they didn’t love soccer anymore, or if their religious views changed? It seemed to me that self identity assumes people are static, and in fact may assist them in remaining so.
Later, the idea of sexual orientation helped me to process these thoughts. Orientation refers to the direction a person is currently pointing. It may have to do with the past, but it does not define the future. We can speak objectively about the past, and describe our experiences, but the future remains wondrously uncertain. Thinking about what I stand to gain from identifying myself with a given orientation, and what I stand to lose made me realize that for me, there was more to lose. Can self identity act as a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy? If I declare myself to be straight enough times will I convince myself that I am, and maybe miss the love of my life? That’s too much for me to risk losing. I can find only two situations in which self identifying with a given sexual orientation is beneficial. The first, and weaker of the two, is to tell your friends what you are interested in so they have a better chance of setting you up with another person. The second and most important reason to identify is when a given group is being treated without justice. I identify as a queer because I believe in equality. I believe that any two consenting adults choosing to join in matrimony deserve the same rights and tax benefits as any other two. Until justice and equality have been achieved, I’ll identify with the group being mistreated.
The common conclusion is that labeling people is sometimes necessary but also problematic. People are dynamic. Expect them to grow and change. Separate church and state. Demand marriage equality. And when you catch yourself labeling people and making generalizations about groups, think about your motivations. Learn additional adjectives and develop your ability to describe situations more accurately. Be excellent to each other.