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.