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.

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The Danger of the Single Story

chimamandanew-colour-lst036235In 2009, novelist Chimamanda Adichie gave a TED talk in which she shared several examples illustrating the danger of “the single story.” She explains that, “The single story creates stereotypes, [and] the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete.” When people are informed by only a single story, misunderstandings and inaccurate perceptions often result. Adichie expanded on the problem of the single story saying that, “it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.” In order to prevent prejudice that arises from stereotypes based on partial truths, it is important for there to be a balance of stories.

Although Adichie’s talk centered on issues of race (watch the TED talk for the full story), the LGBT community is also a group about which only a single story is being told. Although LGBT characters are becoming more represented in the media, many have criticized the stereotypical portrayal of LGBT individuals. Despite the increasing diversity among LGBT characters, the primary focus is still on their sexuality, and this is the focus of the single story that is being communicated about this community. They are pigeon-holed by this single aspect of their identity.

In an interview, musician Jennifer Knapp commented that the conversations regarding the intersectionality of faith and sexuality are valuable, but she considers the situation to be a catch-22. She has noticed that “All we do is talk about it and then people get the idea of the stereotypes; that that’s all people are and that’s all they’re made of.” By focusing so much on the sexuality component of an LGBT person’s identity, Knapp contends that, “I’m missing a core part of your experience and who you are. What do you like to read? Who are you inspired by? What’s your family like? Tell me about where you grew up.” If people asked these questions of LGBT individuals, the resulting conversations would lead to a beneficial balance of stories depicting a fuller and more accurate picture of those who make up the LGBT community. 

Androgyny

In modern times, gender norms have migrated toward androgyny and there has been an overall loosening of stereotypes. For example, I have been taught that boys can be sensitive and girls can be strong; men can be fashionable and women can be athletic; husbands can wash dishes and wives can mow the lawn; dads can be the children’s primary care taker and moms can be engineers. In summary, women have been allowed to become more and more “masculine” and (to a lesser extent) men have also been allowed to become more “feminine.”

In Japanese and Korean cultures, androgyny is portrayed as an ideal and is therefore manifested to an even greater degree. This leads one to question how far American society will allow the tendency toward androgyny to progress. I also wonder at what point Christians will no longer agree with society’s viewpoint that this is what gender equality should look like. The reason I say this is because most of the Christians I know don’t think twice about the fact that I wear pants, but they become uncomfortable when I cut my hair “too short.” Apparently, some characteristics that are considered to be masculine are okay to emulate while others are not. Though we now enjoy more wiggle room when it comes to the gender expectations others hold us to, the gender stereotypes shaped and perpetuated by our culture are still deeply entrenched in society.