Are Labels Just For Soup Cans?

Labels - Soup Cans I love stargazing. One of the easiest constellations to identify is the Big Dipper, which in England is referred to as “the Plough.” What we know as “the man in the moon” the Chinese see as “the rabbit in the moon” (Thanks to Leonard Sweet for these insights in his book Summoned to Lead). The beauty of diversity is that each of us sees things differently and as a result, how we choose to name things may also be different. Semantics can be frustrating and may even seem petty, but examining the language we use is an essential step toward understanding. Before we get too far into this discussion, I want to preface it with a quote from Maya Angelou: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” That is to say, I have no desire to argue about the labels that people claim for themselves. Rather, I want to explore the nuances and complexities of labels and the God-given responsibility we have for naming things (Genesis 2:19-20).

I struggle with labels, and I know I’m not alone in that. On one hand, I see their value in bringing about the relief that comes with finding a sense of belonging. On the other hand, all labels are limited in their ability to comprehensively convey what they are intended to get across. There are certainly plenty to choose from though. In addition to the “alphabet soup” letters (LGBTQIA+), there are also “same-sex attracted,” “Side A,” and “Side B,” just to name a few. The problem is that no matter what label a person uses, what they mean when they say that label is often not what the listener actually hears as they interpret it through the lens of their own background and experiences. What one person thinks of as a neutral or positive term may actually be a negative term to the other person. For example, Eve Tushnet writes about how she associates the term “single” with “stressed-out straight women made miserable by the unhappy prospect of dating (or, and this is sometimes even worse, not dating) straight men.” To her, a more positive term is “celibate,” which she asserts has a beautiful, long Christian history. Of course, in our culture today celibacy sounds incredibly negative to the majority of people, Christians included.

Labels, of course, are also the foundation of damaging stereotypes. For example, “gay” is almost impossible to separate from the stereotype of “the gay lifestyle.” (This is another can of worms entirely, and I’m sure I’ll write a blog post about it eventually. For now, I recommend watching this TED talk.) Sometimes, it is possible to engage people in deeper conversations about labels in order to deconstruct stereotypes and clear up misunderstandings. Definitions can be discussed, hopefully resulting in a more common understanding. Unfortunately, there are many circumstances that allow for nothing more than an elevator speech. As Princeton professor Kwame Anthony Appiah said, “we are always navigating between the ‘I’ in ‘I am…’ and the ‘me’ people see as being me.” So, in the real world, will we use the words we believe to be most authentic even if there is a good chance those words won’t be interpreted accurately? Is it worth the risk, knowing that we probably won’t have the chance to explain ourselves? I don’t think there is a uniform answer for this. The labels we use for ourselves are deeply personal (not to mention the decision to come out at all). The good news is that more and more people are ready and willing to listen to our stories when we are ready to share them. When taking someone up on this opportunity, we need to recognize that in order to facilitate understanding, language is oftentimes one of the first things that needs to be addressed.