8 Labels I Never Want to Hear Again
There are several words that have gained in popularity over the last few years that I don’t ever want to hear again: Deplorables, snowflakes, libtards, nasty women, fly-over states, urban elite, hillbilly, and liberal bubble, to name a few.
These are not words we use to describe ourselves, they are words we stab at others like weapons. These are not words that explain our differences, they are words that reduce us to our differences.
It is not difference that divides us, it is our contempt for difference.
We can be connected to one another, despite (or because of) our differences, but the minute you start curling your lip at who someone is, the connection is over.
Those labels are also violent in how they define someone else without their input. It’s childhood name-calling. You reduce someone to a label and there’s nothing else to learn about them.
But people are complicated, and most of us defy easy categorization. You would never guess that a good friend of mine, educated at Berkeley, living in a major east coast liberal city, married to the son of eastern European immigrants, was born and raised in Oklahoma. You would never guess that a professor of mine at an extremely conservative Christian university in the South came from (in his words) a family of atheist hippies.
When I was researching religion and politics, moving between New Age and evangelical Christian organizations in Virginia, I couldn’t predict who would be militantly Republican or passionately vegan. There were trends, of course, but there was surprising diversity as well.
Sometimes individuals at my fieldsite seemed to fit a mold, like John, who was the child of Texas pastors and was studying to become an evangelical pastor himself. But even when someone lined up “by the numbers”, their humanness—their compassion, their personality, their blind spots—were what stood out. John was almost obsessed with the life of the apostle Paul, in part because of his strong calls for morality, in part because of his privileged status as a Roman, which encouraged people to listen to him. John wanted to be like Paul—to use his privilege to speak up for the greater good and to be heard.
Even more striking, everyone I met was aware of how they were perceived by others. John, surrounded by peers, family, professors, community members, and fellow church-goers, was still wounded by the perception that what gave his world meaning—his faith—was considered ridiculous by nonbelievers.
When I asked John if he had anything he would want outsiders to know about him or his community, he looked at me heartbreakingly.
“Tell them we’re not freaks,” he pleaded.
Your Culture is Showing
Part of our own challenge is that we resist the idea that we have our own cultural group, and that it is one of many. Our desire is often to see ourselves as the ones with the truth. The Christian professor friend of mine felt annoyed by the popular use of the word “worldview” because, as he said, “I don’t have a worldview. I have the Truth.”
Even outside of explicitly religious groups, Americans tend to think of ourselves as unique individuals, making independent choices. The idea that we are predictably acting, or grouping together with a “type” can be unnerving.
A friend of mine who also has young kids was telling me how she enrolled her daughter in a preschool program at the local Waldorf School. I made a joke about my being raised too middle class (with my television watching and fast food eating) to fit into the Waldorf culture (with its strict rules about no screen time, only wood and cloth toys, and unprocessed diet).
She immediately took offense.
It took a couple of minutes to work out exactly where her offense lay. Did she see herself as middle class and that I was excluding her somehow? Did she think I was accusing her of being elitist? Did she think I was mocking or disparaging the Waldorf community?
It turned out she just didn’t want to be categorized as part of a subculture at all.
What seemed obvious to me—that there was a community of people who came together not only to choose a certain lifestyle, but because they were already predisposed to feel comfortable with one another—conflicted with her sense of independence and self-determination. But when I pressed her a bit further on whether or not she felt comfortable and at-home with the parents at the preschool (she did) and asked what it was that made her feel comfortable around them, she had a long list of similarities that she never really recognized. What originally brought her to the community was of course there in an obvious fashion: a commitment to raising their children in as natural and nontoxic an environment as possible, open environmentalism and egalitarianism, an orientation of respect and nurturance toward children. But she also began listing elements she hadn’t realized were influential on her feeling of comfort:
- All the parents were university graduates, and many had postgraduate education.
- In almost all of the couples, one spouse was from a European country.
- All of the parents shared the desire to raise global citizens rather than national ones, children who spoke at least two languages, who traveled, and who were well-versed in culture and politics outside of the United States.
- Many of the parents had no previous connection to the Waldorf School itself; rather, many of them came from upper middle-class America, where parents felt more comfortable than working and middle class parents in bucking whatever trends existed about what lunch foods you sent your kid to school with or how they spent their free time.
Somehow they had all found each other, not because they lived on the same street, but because the web of ideals and experience, of money and social networks, brought them a set of choices from which they selected this particular school. At the end of the conversation, she shook her head in amazement that she never realized what a cohesive group this seemingly eclectic mixture of people was.
It’s not a bubble, it’s a subculture
Pointing out someone’s difference from yourself is the first step in sneering at it, exoticizing it, placing its status under your own. It’s fair enough to critique Those Who Describe Others, including academics, journalists, and politicians. But calling them snowflake libtard elites is just as counterproductive as calling someone else a backwoods hillbilly. It covers up the complexity and history of the person being attacked, and stops honest communication that could bring more peaceful solutions to social problems. In either situation, the labels are a cheap trick, the easy way to mock others’ opinions and perceptions and to shut down any validity their arguments may have.
Labeling others can also give them an unexpectedly powerful weapon. One response to being labeled is to appropriate the label as a badge of honor. Just look at the number of t-shirts with “nasty woman” on them or the multitude of Twitter handles that now include the word “deplorable” in them. Look at how “queer” went from an offensive and derogatory term to a field of academic study. And raise your hand if you’re allowed to use “the N word” (if you’re not black, put your hand back down).
That’s exactly what wielding the word “bubble” does. It suggests someone is stuck in their own community, without any awareness of or connection to anyone outside. It’s an accusation of cultural isolation, and a pushing back against others defining your own culture. You’re taking the weight out of what they say about you by telling them they are in no position to say anything at all.
Understanding and respecting difference is extremely challenging because it goes well beyond a label. We are all in bubbles, or subcultures, or ethnic groups, or religions, but many of us work hard to move beyond those groups to connect with others who are overtly different than us. The first step is making our own bubbles visible. Not only do we have to open your ears and minds to how someone else sees the world, we also need to take some time to witness and appreciate how you see the world, too.
It’s not just about learning about another’s culture, it’s about realizing that you have culture, too.