Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Read the label (carefully, before throwing it away)

When you buy a jar of jam, you know it’s jam inside because the label says so. You know what to expect from jam, you know what to do with the jam, and you know what the jam will do to you. The label forms the basis of our interaction with the jam. If we open the jar and find that there are processed peas inside, we will be disappointed, shocked and disappointed (whoever heard of peas on toast).

I suspect you are wondering where I’m going with this....

Every day we use linguistic labels (or categories) to simplify our interaction with the world: labels such as ‘man’, ‘woman’, ‘black’, ‘white’, ‘gay’, ‘straight’. But there is a huge problem with such labels. There is no such thing as a gay man. Really there isn’t. Neither is there any such thing as a black man, or a French woman, or a straight Indian.

Now, before you start building a bonfire to encourage me to recant my evil ways, think about it a bit more carefully: how would you describe, for example a “gay man”? If you were to come up with a description (I won’t attempt to myself) would that description have any relevance to any real person? If it doesn’t resemble a real person, it is without value and meaningless. Let’s try an easier (for me) example. Describe a British man. It’s impossible – there are approximately 55 million people with British passports, of whom approximately 48% are male – call it 27 million male. If we assume 25% are under 16 years old (and therefore boys, not men – sorry, more labels) that leaves us with approximately 18 million people. I don’t have exact percentages for the ethnic break down, but there is no way you can describe a group of 18 million people of mixed ethnicity, backgrounds, religions, educations, wealth, status etc etc etc with any meaningful accuracy. In fact even if you take identical twins, you cannot describe them both in the same way accurately.

Having established that the label is hard to apply, we have to ask ourselves, why we use labels. The simplest answer is that we have to in order to simplify the way we interact with the world, but how we use them is significant. When we refer to a group of which we consider ourselves to be a member we use the words “we”, “us”, “our” etc. As an employed person, when I talk about people who have another job, I say “the unemployed”, “they” – the academic word for this is “othering”. In other words (no pun intended) we create the “other” group as one we are not part of. When I talk about “gay men” I am asserting that I am straight. When a government minister talks about terrorists, s/he is asserting that s/he is a legitimate member of society.

There is however another use of the labels, and one that to me is even more concerning – when someone stands up and says “we whites” or “we blacks” or “we gay” they are claiming for themselves rights and a status that is above, more important, more significant than the “others”

(Please note: I am not homophobic, racist, culturist, ethinicist, ageist, chauvinist etc etc – please read with an open mind!).

I fully accept that people who claim these labels have a strong argument for claiming that they have been on the receiving end of some very unpleasant, and in many cases lethal, behaviour – this cannot not ever be condoned. What I am suggesting, however, is that the use of labels is part (not all!) of the problem. When a minority group of any kind (to avoid stereotyping, lets invent a group called “minortorians”) uses their label they are setting themselves apart for special treatment. If minortorians instead avoided the label, and insisted on being counted as part of the “whole” (another very difficult subject) the discrimination would be reduced. Instead of campaigning for minortorian rights, the minortorian can campaign for general rights applied to every one equally. Society should be in integrated whole, not a fractious disjointed morass of individuals, each with his/her own label.

Let’s take this a step further: is a minortorian only a minortorian? Can’t a minortorian be a woman? or a man? or a parent? or unemployed, or employed, or Christian? or atheist? or big? or small? or fat? or thin? etc etc ad infinitum. I claim the label minortorian when it is advantageous to me to do so, but ignore the other categories that I fit into. I am assigned the label minortorian when someone else wants to generalise, stereotype or treat me differently. Who chooses which label is used when? Surely we should be more egalitarian and reduce the use of the labels, therefore becoming more evenhanded in our treatment of everyone without regard for the label. If a group feels that it is being unfairly treated, then surely the problem is with the designation – remove the designation and you remove the problem. One of the huge advances in discrimination and equality legislation in the UK has shown the value of this. Rather than affirmative action (where you are forced to proactively discriminate in favour of a group) you merely remove the category – thus you may not ask a potential employee about his or her marital/family status, you may not ask questions about race on a named application form etc.

We are not there yet and I have not tested this hypothesis in any way at all but surely we can see that, although not perfect, there is some common sense in this approach?