In Defense of Labels
Every once in a while, I get into a discussion and one of two ideas about “labels” comes up,
- That labels are bad, because each person is special in their own way, and so should not be constrained by some label.
- That people ought to be free to redefine the meaning of labels as they see fit.
Both of these ideas are wrongheaded. Labels exist to facilitate communication; they allow us to fill in a lot of blanks with defaults that can still be overridden by other things we learn about the person. A label does not define someone—it merely provides a useful first-order approximation about some aspect of them.
If someone tells you that I am a liberal/progressive, it tells you a lot about me. It means that I probably won’t be picketing abortion clinics, voting against gay marriage, or demanding tax breaks for billionaires. But it won’t tell you whether I’m an atheist, a liberal christian, or someone who believes in the healing power of crystals—we can easily imagine any of those options. It might make my being a vegetarian a little more likely, but it doesn’t require that I not eat meat.
If a label doesn’t adequately describe me, the right option for me is to either not use it at all, or just add appropriate modifiers to it. For example, I often describe myself as “someone in a same-sex relationship” rather than as “a lesbian”. I think it fits me better. But I don’t mind if other people describe me as a lesbian, and will use it myself on occasion. I’m enough of a lesbian that the correlations outweigh the things that don’t fit (in particular, “lesbian” implies that I am attracted to women in general, rather than in love with one particular woman).
If a label doesn’t fit me perfectly, it certainly doesn’t mean that I need to change myself to fit a stereotype that matches the label. It just means that a bit more explaining is in order before someone knows what my deal is. But that is still less explaining than we’d have to do if we tried to have no labels at all. And it certainly doesn’t mean that I should try to redefine the label so that it either fits me better or so that I can reject it entirely. So, saying, “I’m not a lesbian because I don’t cruise lesbian bars”, or, “I’m not a lesbian because I’m not a Wiccan”, is foolish.
For labels (or any linguistic communication) to work, there has to be a rough consensus about what words mean. Over time, as a culture, we come to interpret words in particular ways, and it is the commonality of our understanding of what words mean that makes communication possible. The meanings can change, and new meanings can be added (so “gay” can go from “happy” to “attracted to the same sex”), but the stability of meaning over reasonable timeframes is what allows us to communicate meanings quickly. If I say that I’ve been crying and need a hug, it’s so much better if you don’t have to ask me what I mean by “crying” and what constitutes a “hug”.
Obviously, the meanings of words aren’t static, and so we’re all free to try to stretch existing words to fit new contexts or develop neologisms to where existing words fail. For example, “heterosexual” and “cissexual” are relatively new terms and both have proved useful alternatives to terms like “normal” that people might have used previously. But coining new words and changing the meanings of existing ones isn’t easy and often fails to get any traction—quite often rightly so.
If a male friend of your comes up to you and says, “I need to tell you, I’m gay”, and then it turns out that what he really meant was that he was happy and didn’t have a care in the world, you might very well tell him that he can take his attempt to redefine “gay” (reclaiming its old meaning) and shove it.
Likewise, if your friend says, “I saw a transhumanist yesterday”, and it turns out that he was actually talking about someone who changed their sex, it’s reasonable to point out that he’s a bit confused about terms. Sometimes people dig in when you do this, and he might argue that people who change their sex are transhumanists. But even if he can somehow make a tenuous argument that this is true, from the perspective of successful communication, he’s wrong—he has used the wrong word and that’s that.
Finally, because labels are part of consensus communication, we don’t get to completely control them. It’s one thing if the label doesn’t match up (e.g., calling me a “religious conservative” would be pretty ludicrous), but if the only problem I have with the label is that it oversimplifies who I am (e.g., that calling me a lesbian doesn’t capture every nuance about my sexuality), maybe the right thing for me to do is get over myself and realize that sometimes other people don’t have the time or inclination to write many words where one or two are sufficient for their needs.
It’s true that when it comes to how people understand me, there are some aspects I think should be more salient than others, and so if I’m introduced to someone new, the order of labels probably does matter, and usually there are many many labels that are frankly irrelevant and don’t come up at all. But these issues are independent of labels themselves, the same issues would apply if we were trying somehow to avoid labels entirely—arguably, the added long-windedness would make the situation worse.
In short, a label does not define me, it describes me in a useful, yet incomplete way. And people who think otherwise, well, I have a label for them…