Imagine There’s No Labels?

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

– “Imagine,” John Lennon

This part of Lennon’s classic song has always bothered me. Not that I’m offended by the concept of a world without religion or national borders. (I’m pretty sure we’d still find reasons to hate each other without those things, but that’s another topic for another day.) What bothers me is the idea that, in order to live in peace with one another, humans must abandon the things that distinguish us from one another. This is why, contrary to pretty much everyone I’ve ever talked to on the subject, I don’t hate labels.

Now, to clarify, I hate the misuse of labels. I hate it when labels are used as an excuse for stereotyping and prejudice. I hate it when a label is assigned to someone against their will. I hate it when people take a label and make that single label the entire sum of another person’s identity. I hate it when a person is pressured to choose a label in any given category before they’ve figured out which one best describes them. I hate it when a label is used as an excuse to dismiss everything that a person says.

But labels themselves? They don’t have to be any of these things. They’re just words. Descriptors. They needn’t and shouldn’t have any meaning beyond their most basic definitions.

Let’s look at a few of my own labels. Author. It means I’m a person who has written a thing that was published. Geek. It means many things to many people. To me, it means I’m a socially awkward intellectual who loves science fiction and fantasy. INTJ. It means introversion, intuition, thinking, and judging as defined by the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator are my dominant personality traits. Disabled. It means I have a medical condition that affects one or more major life activities. Latina. It means my ancestors were indigenous to Latin America. Female. It means my gender identity is located on the female side of the gender spectrum. Cisgender. It means that, when I was born, the doctors and my parents made an accurate guess about my gender identity. Bisexual. It means I’m attracted to people of more than one sex. Christian. It means my faith is based on the teachings of Jesus Christ.

These labels are all facts. I could reject any of them, but if I didn’t or couldn’t change the reality that the label describes, getting rid of the label wouldn’t really change anything. I could choose to stop using the word “disabled,” but that wouldn’t change a thing about the state of my health. I could choose to stop using the word “Christian,” but merely changing the word wouldn’t change my beliefs. (If I did change my beliefs, I would change the word – to a new, more accurate label, like “atheist” or “pagan” or “Reform Jew” or whatever described my new belief system.) I could choose to stop using the word “bisexual,” but that wouldn’t make any of my past or present attractions to people of either sex un-happen. I could choose to stop using the word “Latina,” but that wouldn’t change history and make my ancestors indigenous to some other part of the world.

And, honestly, the only thing on this list that I would change if I could is “disabled.” And in that case, it’s not the label that I hate. It’s the fact that I’m fucking disabled. That I have a medical condition that affects several major life activities. (No, you don’t get details. Sorry.) But as long as I do have it, why do I need to pretend I don’t in order to feel good about myself? Why does another person need to pretend a part of my reality doesn’t exist in order to see me as an equal?

Which brings me to the ultimate reason I don’t want to imagine there’s no labels: the idea that distinction is necessarily a source of strife and oppression. We don’t need a world with no countries. We need a world where national identity isn’t seen as a valid reason to kill someone. We don’t need a world with no religion. We need a world where people can respect each other’s religious choices, even if we disagree with them. Even if we think they are absolutely, unquestionably incorrect. We don’t need a world where the social constructs of race, gender, and sexual orientation don’t exist. We need a world where neither race, gender, sexual orientation, nor any other label is seen as a legitimate reason to deny anyone any right or privilege in our society.

Imagine that one’s country
One’s religion, too
Is nothing to kill or die for
It’s not that hard to do
Imagine all the people, different, yet in peace

People label me a dreamer, but I’m not the only one…

11 responses to “Imagine There’s No Labels?”

  1. 100% agree. After seeing how many people fight for their country as though it’s the highest ideal there is (silly, cause it’s plasmatic anyway) I started to think the world needs to become one. However, even then I never thought that countries should be eliminated. They would exists as something like districts, with people living there retaining their unique characteristics. We would never all become the same, a mass. We’d just be friendly and fighting would be limited to sports. Only then would we want to beat another country. There’s no need to go into detail about common governance or trying to counter language barriers by inventing an easy international language alongside the local one (yay for bilingual people!). The reason for the latter is because language is meant to unite. It would assist people when trying to understand each other better.

    People fought before countries and they will- if this ever happens- after. I take that to mean that it’s just as stupid to fight now. I like to think so many centuries of war have at least taught people that peace is in everyone’s best interest. With things like the EU existing today, it shows that nations (people) are willing to cooperate and comprimise. It’s by no means perfect (everyone’s still out for their own best interest rather than the greater good. I know it’s ironic coming from a Greek) but it’s a start. My theory is that just like a country looks out for what’s best for it, the same way if there are no official and legal borders there will be sharing instead of fighting over petrol and other natural goods. That leaves religion as a reason for conflict, but it’s too vast a topic to breach.

    I apologise for my useless idealism and going off topic.

    For sure, all the people that say they hate labels actually mean they hate the misuse of them and the fact other people use them to define their entire being. Or, perhaps, there are aspects of them that can’t be labeled. I’d hate it if someone based their entire perception of me on my gender (I do that to other people, especially men, but they are most likely cisgender like you so hopefully don’t mind I see them as males very strongly). I see myself beyond being a woman and like to think I’d be comfortable being either- though it would freak me out to suddenly turn male. I’m just starting to get the hang of being a girl. I’m a human above everything and things like social norms annoy me to no end because they make me think “that’s awfully male of me”. Says who? There aren’t any traits that characterise exclusively males and exclusively females. I have so-called male traits and I know men with “female” traits. Even if labeling someone based on their gender is biologically accurate,it isn’t always mentally.I won’t go into sexuality, as it’s a complicated one. Whether you are born with it or it comes to be regardless of your will, you can’t always know. I could call myself straight or bi, maybe even gay, but it’s not always clear whether it’s true or not. It’s hard to know sometimes.

    • I really appreciate getting insight from a non-American perspective on the “no countries” issue. Having lived all my life in a country that takes up most of my continent, I’ve grown up around a whole different set of issues in that regard, mostly revolving around state/regional identities. To hear people from, say, New York, Texas, and California talk about state pride, you’d think they were from different countries. lol A few American politicians still talk about secession, but hardly anyone takes them seriously.

      Gender identity and gender as a social construct fascinate me. I think it’s incredible to see how much diversity there is in gender expression, and how much the idea of what constitutes masculinity and femininity varies among different cultures and time periods.

      Sexual orientation is one area where I feel this statement is extremely important: “I hate it when a person is pressured to choose a label in any given category before they’ve figured out which one best describes them.” Sex and love are complicated. So, naturally, saying it’s complicated to figure out who you’re attracted to and who you want to have relationships with is an understatement. (Using “you” in the general sense here, not taking it upon myself to advise you specifically when you didn’t even ask lol) The most important thing, imo, is being honest with yourself about what you’re feeling, even if the most honest thing you can say is “I’m not sure.” It’s no problem at all if someone doesn’t pick a label because they’re honestly not sure which one most accurately describes them. In fact, if that’s how they feel, I’d say it’s best to avoid labels and take some time to work it out. Where label-avoidance gets problematic (in any category) is when someone avoids a label because they know which one describes them, but they’re not happy about it, so they avoid it in hopes that being labelless will change their reality or at least make them more acceptable to prejudiced people.

  2. A blog post that rings truthfully and powerfully! Thanks for expressing these insights- it’s producing some quality pondering of my own! Way to go Amethyst! 🙂 Keep on writing!!!

  3. Very nice and thoughtful post, and the lines in the Lennon-song always bothered me, too! One thing though: The problem with labels imho is not the fact that they describe certain aspects of one’s personality, nor the fact that they are used for the discriminating purposes you describe. The problem is that, as humans, we “are” not who we are, but we rather “become” who we are, based on, yes, genetical disposition, but also on culturally determined preconceptions.

    Think for example of Luhmann’s description of love as a cultural concept: All people in all cultures procreate, but the accompanying feelings and the situations in which we feel “in love” are culturally determined and dependent on the expectations we form prior (!) to actually experiencing the thing. The same goes even for a label like disability (in some cultures, disabled persons are actually seen as assets to the community because they provide the possibilty of, say, helping, donating and thus doing good. Or think of the topos of the blind “seer” in literature. Compare that to the status of a “disabled” person in a work-, money- and success-oriented culture, or to the way disabled persons are killed in some societies!). Or think of old age: In some cultures, the world “old” connotes respect – in other, it connotes uselessness. And so on.

    Thus, labels, like words, are not “objective”. And that is the reason why one should, at least, be suspicious of them: Even if you take all “your” labels together, they don’t tell the whole truth about a person. And even if “correct”, because of the inescapable cultural component of language, they also tell that person what to think of themselves. As Plato recognized in the cave-metaphor: It’s pretty hard to escape your given cultural context

    • “The problem is that, as humans, we “are” not who we are, but we rather “become” who we are, based on, yes, genetical disposition, but also on culturally determined preconceptions.”

      It’s possible that we’re coming at this very idea from different cultural perspectives, so I’m going to share mine on why this line of thinking can be, imo, problematic. I’m going to use the issue of sexual orientation as an example, though I’m sure it would apply to others, too.

      There’s a pervading idea among American conservatives that, if liberals didn’t teach people (especially children and teens) that homosexuality existed, they would never consider that it was a thing and therefor everyone would be straight the way they’re supposed to. This is why there’s a big push not to address homosexuality in sex education classes. In Tennessee and Missouri, there’s even been legislation that would ban all mention of same-sex relationships in public schools. I know homeschooled people who honestly did not know that sexual orientations other than straight or gender identities other than cisgender existed until they went away to college. As with any demographic, the majority of these people were straight and cisgender, but some weren’t. For the latter group, the discovery of terms like gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender didn’t suddenly make them those things when they previously hadn’t been. Rather, they finally found a word for feelings they’d had all their lives but had been afraid to tell anyone about because they thought they were some kind of freak. It’s these people I think of when I say that changing the word/label/term/descriptor won’t change their reality, as much as their families, churches, and communities might wish otherwise.

      On a similar tangent, there are organizations who make a lot of money by claiming they can teach gay people how to be straight. In short, they can’t. They just teach gay and bi people never to act on their same-sex attractions and to change “I’m gay” to “I’m a straight person who struggles with same-sex attraction.” Again, suffice it to say, it’s been shown multiple times that changing the label does not change one’s reality.

      • Obviously you’re totally right and I agree wholeheartedly with what you’ve said above, especially because sexual orientation appears to be largely hereditary according to recent studies. Still, the facts remains that even if you are what you are – i.e. female, black, latina, sick or healthy, unemployed or an author (which is largely the same thing in most cases PPP) or whatever -, the way these characteristics/labels are seen and valued or judged by people, including yourself, is socially determined. Just take homosexuality, and more poignantly, pedophilia in ancient Greece as an example! The word may be the same, perhaps even the action, but the feeling isn’t, nor is the social status. Thus, if you label someone as “homosexual” today, what you “mean” is any one (or any combination) of a cluster of semes (particles of meaning) belonging to this word, and your meaning (or label) is different depending on who uses the word – a gay person, a fundamentalist, a politician etc. pp. In short, what I mean to argue is that words aren’t connected to things or ideas, but arbitrary, conventional signs, and that using them makes you implicitly part of the prejudiced society that uses them. 😉

      • Oh, I definitely agree that a language and the society that uses it are inextricably entwined. That’s why learning a new language is so much more than learning to replace one set of syllables with another set of syllables. It’s learning the thought processes of a different culture. But while language is influenced by society, language use can influence society, too. Owning and reclaiming a label and saying “This is what this word means to us and this is how you’re going to use it” can be very empowering for disenfranchised groups, as can saying, “No, you’re not going to use that word for us anymore; you’re going to use this word that we’ve chosen, and here’s why.”

  4. Great post! The anti-label thing has always struck me as very American; we are so enthralled by individualism that we’re actually threatened by thinking about identity in collective terms. Personally, I’ve felt empowered by the labels I’ve embraced (lesbian, femme, feminist, etc). That said, I think sexuality and gender are both very deeply socially constructed–I agree with tinuveilas–but this doesn’t make them “merely” labels or easily changed. Also, what is the distinction between an identity and a label? In the end, this discussion comes down to the question of difference for me. As Audre Lorde said (in one of my all-time favorite quotes): “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” xo SF

    • “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”

      This, totally!

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