It’s coming out week, and I’ve recently seen a lot of articles popping up about why labels are bad and people saying they’re above labels.
I agree with most of these articles. Labels can be restricting. They can be arbitrary and they can feel derogatory. Kudos to those who are rising above.
However, I must advocate for the use of labels sometimes. Not all of the time, but sometimes–self-selected labels especially. Labels can give us a place to belong, and labels make us feel less alone. And I’m very comfortable having a post-it on my head that reads “asexual.” (Though if you call me American, I will throw a hissy fit.)
It’s really linguistic relativity all over again. If we have a conception of a label, we can apply it to people and understand more about them. This, of course, can lead to problems on the ladder of inference, but that’s another story. Labels allow us to provide schemas of ourselves to other people and to gain quick understandings of people’s backgrounds or tastes.
When we think of a “cat,” we think of a furry creature that purrs with four legs and a tail. When we think of a “dog,” we think of a furry creature that barks with four legs and a tail. But say we spoke a different language that referred to all furry creatures with four legs and a tail–cats, dogs, and maybe sheep or cows or the likes–as cogs. Maybe speakers of this language won’t have the typical cat vs. dog debate. Maybe all cat lovers and dog lovers will be friends instead of battling over which is best.
I understand the hype against labels, but at the same time, we label ourselves on a constant basis. I remember an activity in middle school where we were to write a list of our communities, from our families to the church to our nationalities. I called myself a Kiwi, a San Franciscan, a Cure-lover, a Nirvana-freak, a member of the Catholic Church (though not Catholic), a sister, a chocoholic, and more. All these could be considered labels.
And these labels all allow me to provide schemas of myself. By telling someone I’m a San Franciscan, they may then apply a schema to me–I’m very socially liberal, I’m a tree hugger, and I can kind of be a hippy. If I tell someone I’m a bookworm, they might be less offended when I spend half a movie reading my book. If I tell someone I’m a vegetarian, they might be less offended when I decline eating meat.
Before I knew what asexuality was, I felt like something was wrong with me. I’d always been an avid reader, and in many of the young adult books I read, teens experienced fireworks on their first kisses, and had raging hormones that had them wanting to hook up in strange places. I had always been the “guy-obsessed” one of my friend-group; I crushed on a different guy every week in middle school and had two long-term, one very serious, relationships in high school. I spent a phase wondering if I was lesbian, but I never felt attracted–romantically or otherwise–to girls.
I still remember the night I learned asexuality was a thing. It was about 4AM one night during my school’s JanTerm, and I had my entire suite to myself. I was procrastinating on the draft of a paper and thus aimlessly scrolling through Facebook when I saw a Youtube video someone had posted to a friend’s wall. I normally avoid Youtube, but for some reason I clicked on this one. Then I watched another, and another. And then I did some googling.
Having a label for myself meant knowing there was a community of people like me out there. It meant there was nothing wrong with me. It meant there was somewhere that I fit in, that there were other people with my experiences. I wasn’t broken.
I have trouble identifying as or labeling myself as LGTBQA because often that schema is being used in attempts to widen diversity, and I’m still a white middle-class Western girl with a lot of privilege, and I’m not often discriminated against by the general population for being ace. Similarly, I would be wary of adopting a cog, because I know I wouldn’t have time to care for a cog that barks or needs milking every day. But, if the asexuality box was ever there, I’d be more than proud to check it. And I’d be extremely happy to adopt a cat.
Sure, labels can be negative, too. But labels, especially those we apply to ourselves, can give us a sense of community.