Category Archives: Uncategorized

A place for nerds in the Society of Friends?

One of the questions asked in this year’s Spiritual Preparation for Yearly Meeting is:

  • Do you consider yourself to be ‘spiritual’, or an activist? Do you find the distinction helpful in considering your own journey and experiences?

My answer to this is: neither, and therefore, no.

When I picture an activist, I think of people who do things for which I don’t have the time, energy, or social skills. I do little bits of activism – the kind of things which get mocked in internet articles – like signing petitions, discussing politics with friends, and donating a bit of money now and again. I very rarely go to demonstrations, I almost never hand out leaflets, I’ve never been arrested, and the ways in which I’ve changed my life to bring it into accordance with my principles are mainly invisible. I’m often practical, but I’m by no means an activist.

When I picture someone who is spiritual, I think of people whose spiritual life works in a way which mine doesn’t. I’ve been going to meeting for worship my whole life and I’ve never really been able to ‘centre down’. I don’t have a prayer life to speak of, I’m immune to whatever people get out of sacred music, I like to look at religious art but rarely get beyond looking, and when I read scripture I come away with more questions than answers. I do sometimes have experiences which I can only describe as ‘spiritual’, and I value being in an organised religion because some of our structures help me feel spiritually connected, but whatever ‘being spiritual’ involves, I feel outside the category.

So, what I am? I’m a nerd, a swot, a geek, an over-educated over-thinker. This is, as that link suggests, common among Quakers – but it also, often, unwelcome. In a time when rationality has been staked out as the realm of atheism, there seems to be a trend among the religious towards rejecting thought and rigour. I’ve considered it carefully, and concluded that this could be a terrible mistake. However, because I’ve ‘considered’ and ‘concluded’, I suspect my ideas are liable to be thrown out without being heard, on methodological grounds.

When I call myself a geek or a nerd, people sometimes tell me off for putting myself down. This tells me that these words still have a power which can be reclaimed. After years of bullying and social exclusion for being ‘weird’ and ‘clever’, for being articulate enough to give right answers in class and bothering to do so, for enjoying learning and working hard at it, I’m not going to start pretending not to think. I admit it: I think about things at home, I think at work, I even think in Meeting for Worship.

I’m not suggesting that you should do this too (unless you want to). For me, though, prayer and philosophy are closely connected. To think something through, to consider it from all angles, to ask questions like “what do I really know about this?” or “what assumptions underlie the way I am approaching this?” is a way of holding an issue in the Light. Sometimes this leads to activity: “if I hold this view, and this view, then I ought to…” Sometimes this lead to spiritual perspectives: if God loves me as I am, then She’ll love me even if I ask the hard questions.

I am neither spiritual, nor an activist, but approach the world through questioning, thought, and wondering. My Quaker journey is strongly shaped by that even – especially? – when it seems unpopular.

My experience of Meeting for Clearness

I was teaching about Meetings for Clearness the other week – offering people the chance to try it out for themselves using a ‘mini Clearness process’ in which a small group takes it in turns to be the focus person – and that led me to notice and reflect on the extent to which I use my own experience of having a Meeting for Clearness in teaching. In particular, I try and give people the chance to have an experience of the process something like my experience. Even if I don’t, can’t, achieve that, it’s guiding my decisions about how to describe the process and how to introduce people to it.

It also led me to reflect on the fact that I haven’t come across detailed descriptions of individuals’ clearness processes. There are some sets of instructions around, but – perhaps because the process is both relatively unusual, and where it is used in its full form it’s mainly for very personal things, like ‘shall we get married?’ or ‘should I have major surgery?’ – not much in the way of accounts of experience. (If you know of a published account of someone’s Meeting for Clearness, please do let me know in the comments!) That being so, I offer my story here.

I asked for a Meeting for Clearness as part of a wider process of discernment. I was applying for funding to offer my PhD work in Quaker Studies as a workshop which would be free for Quaker Meetings. The funding application called for a ‘market research’ exercise with a Quaker meeting, which I carried out, and for references, which I had; but I felt that this process was a bit thin on its own. The formal demands of the funding application were, for excellent reasons, entirely secular, but the work I wanted to do felt like ministry, so I asked for a Meeting for Clearness in order to bring some spiritual depth to my process of deciding to apply.

I was serving as an elder in my local meeting at the time. I discussed my idea with some other elders – if I remember rightly, this was done informally, and didn’t appear in our minutes. One person agreed to act as a convener (although my impression is that I invited people, double-checked times, etc.). Another offered her house as a venue – my flat was too small, and I was very grateful to be offered hospitality rather than worrying about cups of tea and things on the day! The final group were all people from my local meeting, and included elders, at least one overseer, people with experience of clerking and minute writing, at least one person who had used a Meeting for Clearness for an important decision of her own, and a friend whose similar academic background helped him understand the specifics of the question I was facing. On the day, one person volunteered to write a minute at the end of the process.

I had read up about the process in advance, and talked to some people about it, but in the end we made some adaptions on the day. The one which stands out in my mind is that where much advice suggests that the focus person should listen to but not try to answer open-ended questions which seek to shed light on the issue, I decided to answer them as best I could. We had allowed plenty of time for the process, which made this possible. My answers didn’t lead to a discussion as such (although sometimes there was a bit of back-and-forth), but relieved me of the need to try and remember my responses for later, helped me to find out what I really thought and felt (on the spot responses can be much more revealing than later ones!), and enabled later questions to go deeper rather than working off assumptions about my responses to earlier ones.

We did follow the usual process in other ways. We used silence at the start, at the end, and between contributions. I, as the focus person, explained my question and why I was seeking clearness, uninterrupted. People asked questions which probed my feelings and approach, but didn’t try to relate the issue to their own problems or the needs of others. Perhaps the most powerful part – certainly the part I hope I can reproduce for those who try out ‘mini’ versions of the process – was the feeling of being the centre of attention in a wholly positive way, heard, accepted, lovingly challenged, and supported.

Potential problems and negative feelings were held tenderly rather than glossed over, and, unusually for me, I spoke extensively without going away afterwards thinking ‘I shouldn’t have said that’. (It’s not unusual for me to talk a lot, but I normally spend a lot of time in the middle of the night regretting things I’ve said.) In some ways, it healed wounds from previous Quaker processes where I felt important things had been ignored.

Most of the specific questions have faded with time – this was four years ago now – but one stands out in my memory. Someone (I remember who, I can still see her face) asked what I would do if I applied but didn’t get the funding. I said, roughly, that I would be disappointed, but that I would look for other ways to do the work. I have thought back to that answer many times since then, especially when the work is difficult or frustrating. The final minute says, “we are clear that Rhiannon is led to take this work forward in some way; and we are clear she is the right person to do it”. When I’m stuck with it – even now, well after the end of the funding which prompted the initial process and when the work is taking on new forms – I can come back to this and think: it isn’t just me. Other people, joining with me and paying close attention to pick up even the faintest signals from the Spirit, have seen that there will be a way forward.

As well as producing a minute, the Meeting for Clearness brought me closer to the five Friends who met with me, and offered a support structure for the work in the early stages. I’ve moved away from that local meeting and am no longer in regular contact with all of them, but for some time afterwards people would check in with me: how’s it going? how many workshops have you done? what next? Because they understood that much better what I was doing, they were able to ask more specific and deeper questions, which helped me to feel fully part of that community in a way that routine small talk never seems to achieve.

In Britain Yearly Meeting at the moment, Meeting for Clearness is routinely used in many Area Meetings for couples considering marriage, but rarely for other purposes. I found it so helpful that I think it’s a shame we don’t use it more. What could you benefit from bringing to a Meeting for Clearness? Have you had one before, and if so, was your experience similar or different to mine?

Is it irresponsible to claim that spoken ministry comes from God?

At the Nontheist Friends Network conference, in the questions and discussion after my talk, a friend asked about my approach to ministry. Most of the question was about how we understand ministry in meeting for worship, but along the way he raised a very interesting point – he said (and I paraphrase here, but hope that his point is clear and made in terms he would accept) that he wouldn’t want to claim that his spoken ministry came from anywhere but himself, because so much damage is done in the world by other people who claim that their instructions come from God.

He contrasted this, correctly, with some statements I made in a recent Friends Quarterly article about afterwords and spoken ministry. (No link, sorry; it’s a publication which has yet to reach the internet age.) In exploring the difference between what should be said in afterwords and what should be offered as ministry during worship, I draw a distinction which I think is well-founded in previous Quaker writing, namely between what is inspired by God and given through us, and what comes entirely from us. My questioner at the conference doesn’t think that there is any God external to the world from which such things could come, and in my response in the moment I answered that aspect of the question by suggesting that we may be able to locate God within the community, in such a way that the collective awareness of the people met for worship together hear ‘that of God within them’ into speech. No supernatural; perhaps nothing transcendent, depending how far up/out/down you want that term to go; but a bit more here than us chickens, if you will.

There are other possible answers, but for this post I want to set aside the question about God and focus on the question about the claim I make when I give ministry.

I hope we can agree that giving spoken ministry during Quaker worship is different, socially and experientially, to other forms of public speaking. Even prepared ministry isn’t the same as giving a presentation or making an announcement. It feels different: people talk about being led to speak, finding themselves on their feet, their hands shaking. For me, a pounding heart is usually the first clue, together with a few phrases or a sentence which I keep returning to, which present themselves as needing to be said whether or not I have fully understood them and connected them to what else is going on. It’s also socially different. There are different rules (from the structural, like not speaking twice, to the content, like restrictions on political material) and the reception is different. That goes beyond ‘nobody claps’ to a sense that what is said is weighed and taken seriously.

There’s a connection here to previous conversations on this blog and around Facebook about judging ministry. If we’re taking it all that seriously, of course we want to discuss and judge it and have the best quality ministry we can have – something we often express in terms of wanting it to come from God and be supported, rather than overriden, by the minister’s personal input. What if that’s a terrible mistake? What if, by accepting and using that distinction, we are reinforcing a pattern of social acceptance for anything which is claimed to come from God, even where it runs against our morals? I take this to be the core of my questioner’s worry here.

Firstly, there’s the matter of truth and truth-telling. If I experience my ministry as given by God/dess, I should say so, even if I then need to go on to explain more about what I think that means. That’s truth-telling on my side. Then there’s truth-telling on the other side: who are all these people, out there in the world, claiming to have messages from God, and are they telling the truth about that? Well, it seems reasonable to think that some may be lying. But while I’m prepared to make the claim myself, it seems unfair to say that everyone else, or everyone who’s not a Quaker, or everyone I disagree with, is lying. (Atheists might say: you are all lying. Please allow me to assure you that I may be mistaken, but I do believe what I’m saying! I might be mistaken – fair enough, but I think my evidence, my experience, is enough to run with this hypothesis for now.)

So: I need to say that my ministry comes from God. I need to believe that at least some other people, probably including some I disagree with, are also telling the truth about their experience of this. I had abandoned this blog post around this point, stuck to resolve this, until I heard some ministry which suggested to me a third category of ministry – ministry which acknowledges God but does not come straightforwardly from God. This third kind of ministry of spoken prayer.

In the kind of ministry I was thinking about when, some time ago now, I began writing this post, the minister does not speak to God, and rarely speaks about God. Rather, the minister speaks prophetically, for God or in God’s voice – or, more modestly and more commonly, in the minister’s own voice but sharing something which God has revealed, from God through us. More “and I experienced a great feeling of love” than “God says, She loves you.” (Examples fictional but I hope plausible.) Taking God out of this kind of ministry leaves us with the puzzle outlined above, in which it’s not clear why these things are worth saying, or can’t just be said in a chat over tea, if they don’t have the authority of revelation behind them.

In spoken prayer, though, the minister does not share what God has revealed to them, but rather reveals their own understanding of God’s nature by speaking to God: the words and ideas of the prayer come from us. This is much more like my nontheist friend’s idea of ministry – except that it addresses directly a God whom my friend would take to be a metaphor or useful story. It points, however, to a way in which my initial picture of ministry was too narrow – things which are not from God can still be God-involving ministry, in a Quaker tradition which predates the word nontheist if not the concept. Spoken prayer is uncommon now in British Quakers meetings, but perhaps it can enjoy a revival of sorts if it provides a theological model for the inclusion of nontheist understandings of ministry.

Where would this move leave the question of responsibility? I and my nontheist friend retain equal responsibilities to the truth, to name as best we can the sources of our words. Both of us, and the minister who offers spoken prayer, have a responsibility to our Quaker tradition to speak faithfully as we are led – accepting that we are led by we know not what! The minister who, as I sometimes do, speaks as much on God’s behalf as my own, has a responsibility to acknowledge that other people get apparently contradictory messages from the same source. Beyond that acknowledgement, perhaps I also have a responsibility to engage seriously and positively with the implications of that conflict: to try, for example, to bring other evidence of the holy source of my words. (There’s a whole other post about the fruits of the Spirit in there – especially if I think I can point to them as well or better in the life of my nontheist friend than my own!) The form of spoken prayer, though, points to a way I might engage with that responsibility: by bringing my needs, questions, and struggles before God and the community – or God-within-community if you will – for testing and support or challenge. In that way, I am no longer a lone voice crying in the wilderness, with a message which may be from anywhere, but part of a group who pool their measures of Inward Light, their wisdom and experience, and access to whatever is more or less metaphorically Divine, and can claim to know what God wants us to do.

Finally, note ‘us’. I have observed that in my own experience, my Goddess does not tell me what other people should do, but how I and my community should behave. Although sometimes frustrating, perhaps this is a blessing in the form of a limitation of responsibility for true prophetic calls.

Queer Quaker theology: abundance as resistance

“Whoever has, will be given more.” (Matthew 25:29)

A little while ago I wrote a post about labels. Afterwards, I thought: how does this affirmation of the need for more and richer labels for all sorts of genders and sexualities fit with the queer theory I use in some of my academic work? The very use of the label ‘queer’ implies a resistance to narrowing down, definition, or precise identification.

In this blog post, I want to argue that the abundance of labels can lead us to a place which is deeply queer. To argue that, I’m going to compare the situation of multiplying gender and sexuality labels with a situation I’ve already written about – the multiplication of names for God among liberal Quakers. Just as having more and more words for the Divine seems to bring Quaker writing back to the same place as Quaker practice – a place of silence and the acknowledgement of mystery – so having more and more words for sexuality and gender might bring our society round to a deeply queer place, a place of resistance to the oppression of pre-determined categories.

The two situations which form the background to this discussion can be quickly summarised as follows, in the form of two observations.

Observation 1: the English language is quickly developing, especially on the internet, a wide range of terms for sexualities and genders which were previously unnamed and hence invisible. Examples include terms like ‘non-binary’, ‘asexual’, ‘cisgendered’, and ‘gray-a’. At first glance, this appears to run completely counter to a previous movement which aimed to unite all sorts of alternative sexualities, and maybe genders, under the term ‘queer’ – queer is not just lesbian, not just gay, not just bi, not just kinky, not just pegging, etc.

Observation 2: modern British Quaker publications about Quakerism often include a disclaimer about the use of the word ‘God’, either offering a list of alternatives or inviting the reader to swap the word for another of their choosing (which presupposes a list of possible acceptable alternatives). These lists typically include words like ‘light’, ‘love’, ‘God’, ‘Spirit’, ‘Divine’, ‘Christ’, ‘Allah’, and ‘Being’. At first glance, this appears to be both the complete opposite of silence, and hopelessly confused, especially when the words are not used as synonyms in other contexts.

In many situations, including their worship, liberal Quakers prefer silence, or the specific forms of speech which create vocal ministry during worship: words which are held in the context of silence. When the situation forces the use of ordinary words – as when someone sits down to write a book about Quakerism, so that they can neither remain silent (by leaving the page blank?) nor assume that the words will be read in the context of silence – the use of a list, whether stated or assumed, allows the author to say something without being bound to connotations of a word, like ‘God’, which can be radically different for those outside the community. (To start thinking about the ways a word’s connotations are affected by its context and use, consider this: the ‘God’ discussed in New Atheist publications has very little in common with the ‘God’ described by Quaker publications.) It often seems that the very act of making a list, of using lots of words, draws attention to the fact that no one word will do. The abundance of words becomes a resistance to words, or to put it another way: in saying too much, Quaker authors are able to come back round to their starting point, not wanting to say anything.

This is not to say that the words are not important, or that we could do without them. They are absolutely vital. You can’t get a reader past their other ideas about ‘God’ without some form of extra words showing how their use of the word is different to yours. This is not a development process in which we can hope one day to skip a step and do without the words, but a way of using language as a tool to point beyond language.

In the case of the development of lots of words for genders and sexualities, we are talking about people rather than God (although perhaps all of the words can also be applied to the Divine!). Any given person will have some which are true for them and some which are false for them, and perhaps also some which are nonsensical to them. Taken as a group, however, the collection of words seems to me to be forming an ever richer picture of humanity as a whole. By adding concepts like ‘demi-sexual’ and ‘homoromantic’ to our vocabulary, we nuance or break down previous categories. (If someone is homosocial and heteroromantic but asexual, are they gay or not?) Just as the list of terms for God breaks down previous assumptions about what God must be like, the development of more terms for people breaks down previous assumptions about the categories people must fit into. In the process, we see one another more clearly: what was previously hidden under the curtain of a single word is revealed as a shining diversity. The abundance of words, even – no, especially – to the point of confusion brings us to the same place of accepting complexity and multiplicity which was previously captured under the ever-broadening umbrella ‘queer’.

The proliferation of terms can be anxiety-inducing. It’s common to worry that all these lists of not-quite-the-same words for God reveal not a theology but a vagueness. It’s also common to be concerned that all these words for subtly different groups of people mean that we can’t unite around anything. However, I am arguing that both are much more productive than this implies. The Quaker use of an abundance of words to return to a place of mystery and the queer use of freshly created words to resist overly broad categories are both revealing and creative. Rather than allowing a few loud voices in society to tell us what ‘God’ must be (and why we shouldn’t believe in ‘Him’) or what gender and sexuality ‘really’ are (and why we should go on behaving in accordance with their rules), we can use new words and plenty of them to overturn these claims.

Peter Quill, Jesus, and the death of God

This post contains spoilers for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

It is common in stories, perhaps especially in the kind of sci-fi and fantasy which specialises in black hats and white, with the good ending happily and the bad unhappily, for heroes to take on certain aspects of Jesus. Sometimes this is at the level of character traits or plot twists – Gandalf’s self-sacrifice and return from the dead is perhaps one of the classics of that. Sometimes it’s at the level of imagery or cinematography – Man of Steel appeared to be under the impression that it was possible to make us think that Superman was a bit like Jesus by giving him halo-like light effects, if I recall correctly. (I may not. I think I fell asleep.)

In Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Peter Quill is compared with Jesus at the level of narrative. As a character, the self-important, cocky, and music-obsessed Peter isn’t a good candidate for this, but the plot of the movie has some features which make the comparison clear. His father is unknown, then turns out to be a god (the word he uses for himself is ‘celestial’, but when another character offers the word ‘god’, he agrees, noting that it should have a small ‘g’), immensely powerful, loving, and with a plan for the universe.  Peter, discovering this, is able to take on some of his father’s power and use it.

There the similarities with the actual Gospel narrative are at an end. However, since God has been suffering from Kirk Drift for a while now, there are a number of other similarities between Peter’s father in the film and the popular image of God: he is an older man, bearded, alone, genial at first but capable of great anger, creating planets from nothing and willing to manipulate people to fulfil his plans.

This being a comic book movie, he can also be thwarted entirely by a well-timed explosion. More significantly, the character of Peter’s father is named ‘Ego’, and his actions, even those which seem altruistic at first, all turn out to be selfish when his true motivations are revealed. On the one hand, this takes us well beyond any comparison with the God actual Christians believe in. On the other hand, this is more than Kirk Drift: I suggest that it tells us something about how the character of a god is now understood in popular culture.

I maintain the comparison to a Christian God for three reasons: the closeness of the narrative comparison between Peter Quill and Jesus in the early stages of the plot arc about Ego; the availability of Christianity as source material, subconsciously as well as consciously, to the creators and audience of this mainstream American film; and its monotheism. In some ways, the actions of Ego would not be out of place in a Greek drama about many deities – but there would be many deities. Ego’s position is distinctly one of aloneness, which in many ways he longs to but cannot really break. The relationship with Peter’s mother, and then Peter (and also Mantis, a female character who is almost never treated well by Ego, the script, or the other characters) are symptoms of this.

That being so, I read back from this film’s treatment of Ego an understanding of Christianity which is fundamentally sceptical. It is sympathetic to Jesus – that is to say, to Peter, an unwitting pawn in his father’s plans, then almost a knowing collaborator, then a fighter against the system who overcomes death and symbolic burial with the help of his friends rather than his father. It is slightly sympathetic to Mary/Meredith Quill, Peter’s mother, who is fridged in accordance with modern tradition in order to let the men have their manpain and battles. (This isn’t, I don’t think, a Biblical tradition: contrast the Pieta.) It is deeply unsympathetic to God, who is shown to be self-centred – named Ego! – and to be using his power for evil, ultimately to control the universe, and it’s hinted that this would wipe out (sentient? human? all?) life in the process. Nietzsche – at least in the mood in which he wrote that line – might have appreciated this film.

In a narrative where the ‘good guys’ steal things they are paid to protect, run away rather than owning up, play cruel pranks on one another, seek only to win, and demonstrate any love they have for one another through arguments and explosions, this is an interesting claim. I think it is only a claim we as viewers can accept without question if we have an ethical assumption something like: monopolies of control are bad, the richness and messiness of people is good – even if the people aren’t, as individuals, very moral. It might be the ethical equivalent of the Rule of Cool: actions and characters become more morally acceptable as their entertainment value increases.

Are we giving good evidence this Easter?

Prompted by discussion on Facebook – itself prompted by the arrival of Easter, Passover, and other seasonal festivities – I have been thinking about the Quaker ‘testimony’ of refusing to recognise times and seasons. I’ve written before about how this is a practice more honoured in the breach than the observance (and I plan to stop after this – it probably won’t come up again until December, anyway!). It’s common today to list testimonies in positive forms, often with the capital letter of vague importance – Peace, Truth, Equality, etc. We might not be sure what these look like, but we’re for them. Other discussions make it clear that testimonies can also be against things – against war, against injustice, against fancy clothing, against inequality, against gambling. The stuff about being against times and seasons seems to be firmly in the latter category, although it’s sometimes seen in a positive incarnation, as something like: all days are equally holy.

A testimony, however, isn’t just a practice, like wearing grey, or a position, like being anti-war, or even a value, like thinking equality is good. ‘Testimony’ comes from the same root as ‘testify’, to witness, to give evidence, and we can still use it in this sense as well. The image is of a court of law, where you can give evidence in a trial. However, in order for that evidence, your testimony, to make sense, it has to be given in the right context. You can witness to Jane’s impeccable character until you’re blue in the face, and it won’t make any difference if it’s John’s behaviour which is before the court.

So when we hold to or reject a historical form of testimony, we need to ask: what question is it we are answering? Since we’re witnessing to the world and to each other, this is question which people ask, not a question God asks: it isn’t “will you come and follow me/if I but call your name?” but rather “what would the world be like if it were ruled by God/dess?” We can then talk about there being a spiritual process which leads us to an answer, but also our actions need to answer that question – and our explanations of our actions can link back to the question. For example, one answer to “what does the Divine Commonwealth look like?” might be “everyone is equal”. In order to witness to that possibility, we practice equality – rejecting titles and fancy headstones and all sorts of other things – in order to give evidence about our understanding of God’s way of living.

At the moment, I think a court assembled to take evidence from British Quaker attitudes to times and seasons might conclude that we are hypocritical, unspiritual by our own purported standards, and easily swayed by consumerism and especially sweets. Quakers talk about not recognising times and seasons when it suits them – like when they not giving anything up for Lent or want to put down Friends who engage with Pagan traditions – but pick them up again for other purposes – when they have an Easter egg hunt for the children or Christmas carol concert. Similarly, the reason given for not celebrating times and seasons is that the events of the Christian story which are tied to the festivals early Friends were rejecting is that those events can be remembered every day – but it’s not always clear that modern Quakers think about them on any day at all (or even that the community thinks they should). And the majority of British Quakers participate in seasonal rituals, at home if not at Meeting: the eating of Christmas cakes and Easter chocolates, the giving of gifts and the hunting of eggs.

Can we really maintain this form of testimony? I think it was meant to give the answer ‘in the Kingdom of God we will remember and celebrate Christ’s story every day’, but it’s starting to sound like ‘in the Kingdom of God we will do what we like, picking and choosing when to live the Spirit’s way and when to live the world’s way’. If we can have simplicity without plain dress, maybe it’s time to let this one drop away, too.

Labels: good or bad?

I was indirectly compared to a Nazi on Facebook the other day. It made me feel a bit sad, a bit nostalgic, and a bit smug. Smug because by Godwin’s Law, that’s a win. Nostalgic because since I started mostly been spending my internet time talking about Quaker stuff, it hasn’t happened often. And sad because someone in my community thinks that friends of mine are worth comparing with Nazis.

In order to discuss this properly, I want to begin with a philosopher’s move, and lay out the strongest version I can concoct of the opposing argument (‘argument’ in the philosopher’s sense, too: the case someone is putting forward). This isn’t exactly what was said, but represents what I take to be the points involved. The arguments begin with something which everyone can agree on: people these days are, as a matter of fact, using more categories than just ‘male’ and ‘female’ to describe gender. Terms such as transgender, non-binary, and genderqueer have been invented and are in use. So far so good. We also all agree that some Quaker meetings have noted this fact and decided to take steps to make sure they are inclusive of people who identify as something other than simply ‘male’ or ‘female’. Recently, a national Quaker body noted this – which was the occasion for the discussion.

For some people, the proliferation of identity labels looks like a problem. There are, I think, two subtly different forms of the case they put from here on. In the first one, labels are a problem in relationships. For example, if I am trying to get to know someone, and I have been told that they are a woman, I might be inclined to make assumptions about them: that they are likely to be smaller and weaker, that they are likely to be interested in fashion, or whatever. Probably in a real situation the examples are more subtle than this – but they are real and pervasive. The cure for this is not to create and use more labels, but to get to know people as individuals. As the saying goes, if you know one person with autism, you know one person with autism – the label ‘autism’ may tell you very little.

In the second version of the argument, labels are a social problem. For example, if I am trying to describe society, and I pick out a group such as ‘immigrants’, I can then say certain things about them. I have, by the way, chosen this example as a case which seems to me to be a real, current case of the pattern which worries people who put this argument. However, I think it’s a group label used much more by people outside the group than people inside the group, and that might make a significant different to the ethics of using it at all. That, though, isn’t the line of argument which is pursued here – and proponents of it might well say that all labels can be used in similarly bad ways regardless of who applies them first. Anyway: having identified the group ‘immigrants’, I might say positive things, such as ‘immigrants make a huge contribution to the nation’s economy’, but I might just as easily say negative things, such as ‘we’d all be better off without immigrants’. This is where people like to mention Nazis. In particular, the Nazi practice of picking out individuals and forcing them to make their group membership visible – the imposition of yellow stars, pink triangles, and so on – makes the mere act of labelling, rather than saying horrible things about groups of people, seem like the problem.

I hope that these are fair representations of the positions involved. (If not, my comments section is open to you.) I think that both of these views catch something useful, but that ultimately both are mistaken about the value of terms such as ‘genderqueer’.

I can recall holding a view much like the first one myself. I remember expressing it in an online conversation with a non-white friend, who had posted to say that she was feeling a need to take her racial identity much more seriously. This made me uncomfortably aware of the ways in which my whiteness separated me from someone I liked to think I was close to, and I commented to say that I thought it didn’t matter much and we had lots of other things in common. Her reaction quickly let me know that in trying to bring us back together in this way, I’d actually made a much worse gap between us, by downplaying the significance of something which I had the privilege to ignore and she, in our racist society, had to acknowledge every day.

Nothing about that negates the need to get to know people as individuals – my friend is as different from others of her ethnicity as I am from other white people – but it does point to an uncomfortable truth. By focusing on individuals, we can miss two things. We can miss the effects of systems on them – while I focus on my friend as an individual, I might assume that her experiences of racism are somehow just about her and not examples of a system problem. And we can miss how different we really are by paying more attention to what we have in common. However much we have in common, we’ll always be different (another white middle-class cissexual woman from the south of England and I can be very different indeed, as a survey of my school friends will tell you). If in our personal relationships we try and ignore the labels which pick out our differences, we might fool ourselves into thinking we have more in common than we really do – especially because it’s a common human error to fill in the blanks with more of the same. If I don’t hear about (or listen to) how your experiences are different to mine, I’m liable to assume that your experiences are the same as mine, in the same way that as a child I assumed all families ate supper at 6pm because that’s what my family did.

I can also see the appeal of the second position. When people pick out groups they don’t belong to, they almost always at least simplify and generalise, and often make crass mistakes, or, as in the examples above, blame the group for whatever social problem worries them. However, I also think something must have gone wrong with this argument: despite the actions of the Nazis, I still see the six-pointed star outside synagogues, so putting up a label must have some uses for the Jewish community. (I also see security fences, so I’m not claiming that it doesn’t have drawbacks as well.) The gender-identity terms which were immediately under discussion are labels which people claim for themselves.

The uses of labels seem to me to fall into two forms. One is self-knowledge. Especially if the label you need wasn’t readily available to you, there can be a huge relief – and sometimes straightforward practical advantages – in finding the right one. Someone who discovers the word ‘asexual’, for example, when their partner has been calling them ‘frigid’, suddenly has a different perspective on their own desires. They also have a way to explain their preferences to others, and this is the second use of labels: to give others some idea. Any term will need extra clarification in a deeper relationship, but often a label that gets you into the right area helps to decide whether or not you want to develop the relationship further, and how to go about it if you do. The clearest cases are sexual relationships (woman to man: “No thank you, I’m a lesbian” – three labels in the space of nine words, and you’ve got the picture) and community formation (we’re here, we’re queer, we could have a Pride march). I think it applies in lots of other circumstances too, though, even if the decision isn’t so clear cut: having just met someone who identifies as a Christian, I might ask different questions to if I meet someone who identifies as a Pagan. Neither label tells me what the person believes, but both give me a nudge away from putting my foot in my mouth – and will help me explain Quakerism in terms they are likely to recognise.

Using a label will always carry risks. People will make assumptions – because that’s how labels work. People might try and attach negative ideas to your label. People might attack you because of your label. However, what I am hearing from many people who use labels like non-binary, trans*, or genderqueer is that the advantages outweigh the risks.

In particular, the risks of a new label which is correct are much easier to bear than the pains of an old or accidental label which is wrong. I’m a cissexual woman and I can laugh it off when someone calls me ‘sir’ when they ask for my train ticket – but it’s still an awkward moment for both of us. If I wasn’t cissexual, I imagine that would be a moment of real fear – am I being ‘found out’, will they be angry with me when they realise – and if I was non-binary, identifying neither as a woman or a man, it might take a lot longer to sort out. Indeed, in that kind of very short interaction, I suspect complex genders are often not understood at all. To me, that makes it even more important to name and accept them in communities where we have longer and hence more time to explain. Similarly, I am queer – I could easily let that slide, I’ve dated people of several genders and I could let you assume I was straight – but I don’t want to. Politically, I want to be visible, and personally, I don’t want you to be surprised when my in-depth analysis of The Night Manager includes a hotness rating for Olivia Colman as well as Tom Hiddleston.

The biggest risks of not using the label, though, are the gaps in knowledge. You can just about have a label and not use it, gaining the self-knowledge without sharing it, but humans are social and we want to connect with people. Authentic connection involves sharing that self-knowledge and recognising, not only what we have in common, but what is genuinely different. If we deny those differences in an attempt to create the illusion of unity, we actually slip back into another oppressive pattern: the desire for everyone to be like me.

We’re not alike. As humans, we’re immensely different, and hugely creative, and people bring new labels into being and repurpose old ones in order to communicate as well as they can. That process of communication absolutely has risks – but those risks are often worth taking. This blog post, for example, risks re-opening conversations which quickly turned unproductive – but I hope it helps us understand one another better.