Sunday, April 12, 2015

How Do I Make My Voice Do This?

I have my differences with Amanda Marcotte, but in general I like her writing.*  Yesterday she wrote this footnote to a post on why people tell pollsters they believe in gender equality when they really don't.  One reason many (well, most) people deny that they are feminists even when they claim to believe in gender equality, Marcotte speculated, is "the American fetishization of individualism, which leads a lot of people to shun labels in an effort to show what special snowflakes they are."  At the end of the post she added:
This is a major pet peeve of mine. The irony is that there is nothing more basic than snootily declaring that you are above labels. In my long experience with this, I’ve learned that nothing tells you that someone is a boring, unoriginal person quicker than having that person declare that they can’t be fit into boxes. It’s actually hilariously counterproductive to the obvious goal of being perceived as a special snowflake. Genuinely interesting people realize that labels aren’t boxes, they’re descriptors. How can you be an actually interesting person if you shun all descriptors? That’s like calling clear a color.
Ooh, yes.  This is a major pet peeve of mine too, especially since I began to notice that most volunteers on our Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Speakers Bureau had begun introducing themselves by saying they "identify as" gay, lesbian, or bisexual -- or perhaps pansexual, or queer.  Every time I hear them say this, I think of the lines from "Rocky Raccoon":
Her name was Magill
And she called herself Lil
But everyone knew her as Nancy
(Firesign Theater alluded to the song soon afterward in their audio drama "The Adventures of Nick Danger, Third Eye":
Nick Danger: That cheap, tarnished piece of tin is worthless!
Rocky Rococo: Worthless?  Ha!  Not to Melanie Haber!
ND: Melanie Haber?
RR: You may remember her as Audrey Farber ...
ND: Audrey Farber?
RR: [uneasily] Susan Underhill?
ND: Susan Underhill?
RR: [triumphantly] How about ... Betty Jo Bialosky?
ND: [aside] Betty Jo Bialosky!  I hadn't heard that name since college.  Everyone knew her as Nancy.
But I digress.  Aside from the Constitutionally protected, Bible-based desire to be a Special Snowflake, this resistance to labels seems to be motivated by a wish to evade stigma.  People who reject labels like gay, lesbian, or bisexual often rationalize their choice by pointing to the negative stereotypes supposedly embedded in the words.  These are often fanciful.  Just a couple of weeks ago, for example, one of our volunteers explained to a class that he didn't like "gay" because it usually referred to "two white, cisgendered men together."  He preferred "queer," which has its own baggage, but doesn't mean much of anything.  But then neither does "gay."  Contrary to his claim, "gay"doesn't necessarily say anything about the gender identities or presentation of the people involved.  I believe he also misunderstood "cisgendered" to refer not to congruence between one's subjective sense of gender and the gender assigned to one by society (though he defined it that way when prompted for a definition, since not everyone in the class knew the term), but to one's presentation / expression as masculine or feminine. 

A funny thing about the people who say they reject labels, though: they are quite fond of labels, and use them freely about others and themselves. These Special Snowflakes object only to certain labels, which they carefully redefine so that they don't apply to them.  They often assume a linguistic determinism which holds that the meaning of words is somehow innately and rigidly contained in them.  I've pointed out before that although they complain that certain labels are too "narrow," the opposite is usually the case.  "Gay," for example, includes not only gender-variant sissies and tomboys but gender-compliant people; yet those who want it to refer only to the gender-compliant still find it difficult not only to avoid the gender-variant connotations of the word for others, but for themselves as well.  So, for example, people will refer to a gay man as extremely gay to indicate that he is stereotypically effeminate.  I'm not sure what "extremely gay" could reasonably mean instead -- maybe someone at the 6 end of the Kinsey scale, with no heterosexual experience at all?  I believe most people would see such a person as simply gay, not extremely so.  There's also the ongoing disagreement over whether both persons who engage in same-sex copulation are gay, or homosexual.  It appears to be a straw-man accusation that some other people assume that both partners have the "same sexual orientation."

It's probably impossible to use language without using labels regularly.  (Some people like to dismiss language, but the dismissal doesn't seem to stop them using it, and taking it quite seriously when it suits them to do so.) The other day I was reading Christopher Ives's Imperial-Way Zen (Hawai'i, 2009), which is mainly about the role Buddhism played in the Japanese cult of war and conquest.  But among the issues Ives discusses is Buddhist, and especially Zen Buddhist concepts of reality:
This concept that nothing exists independent of other things or has any essence prior to or separate from its interaction with them has been given a popular expression by Vietnamese Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh: “What we call a self is made only of nonself elements.  When we look at a flower, for example, we may think that it is different from ‘nonflower’ things.  But when we look more deeply, we see that everything in the cosmos is in that flower.  Without all of the nonflower elements – sunshine, clouds, earth, minerals, heat, rivers, and consciousness – a flower cannot be" [p. 75]
I agree that nothing exists independent of other things, and so on, but I don't think I agree that this interdependence means that "a self is made only of nonself elements" -- I think that's the reverse of the error that a self is made only of 'self' elements.  What but nonself elements would a self be made of (assuming that it is a thing in the first place)?  What are the nonself elements composed of?  Thich seems to grant more independent reality to "sunshine, clouds, earth, minerals, etc." than he does to flowers, but from their perspectives, they are selves, composed of nonself elements.  The flower is made up not only of nonflower elements but of flower elements, specifically those which lead us to notice it against the nonflower background.  What makes it "different" is not that it's made from nonflower things, but how those nonflower things are arranged and combined to make what we call a flower.  [P.S. See Bodhipaksa at Fake Buddha Quotes on this concept.]

So too, a lot of social constructionist writing de-essentializes certain concepts, such as "homosexuality," but leaves others essentialized: sex-as-bodily-configuration (male or female), for example, or sex-as-copulation.  And why not?  Without some elements taken as essences, it probably would not be possible to do any analysis at all.
Not long ago an undocumented friend told me that a coworker had called him a wetback.  He walked off the job for a day, his boss mediated, and the coworker apologized.  I don't know why the coworker chose to be insulting, and I was glad to hear that things turned out well, but I also wanted to ask him why he objected to the term "wetback," since it refers to undocumented Latin Americans and he is one.  In the same way, I reject attempts to "save" terms like "faggot" by redefining them so they only refer to self-evidently bad people, because I recognize that "faggot" as an insult is based on, indeed requires, the confusion between male sexual receptivity and "one who kneels and accepts the dominance of others."  I've upset some of my Latino friends by labeling myself a maricón -- "No you're not!" they protest, but whether or not I fit every connotation the word has, I am one of those it is meant to stigmatize.

We are the people our parents warned us against, a Gay Liberation slogan of the early Seventies said.  I've said before that one reason why mainstream boy culture reacted with such fury to the emergence of openly gay people in the 60s and 70s was not just that we'd hijacked the innocent word "gay," but that we'd taken ourselves out of their control.  We had, in effect, hijacked not-so-innocent words like "fag," "dyke," and "queer."  As with "looking illegal," I claim these words as a statement of solidarity and a rejection of the cult of individualism Amanda Marcotte mocked. 

But, like the Palestinian queer activist quoted by Sarah Schulman, I'm not wedded to any specific term:
"I find it ['queer'] useful for the time being but I am not attached to it or any other term. I am happy to move along with language. I am not looking for a term to marry. When it comes to language, I believe in short affairs."
Or as Glenn Greenwald said about another kind of label:
I noticed very early on that people wanted to apply a label to you because, once affixed, they don't have to bother with the substance of what you argue any longer. If the label is something they like, they'll agree - if it's something they dislike, they can dismiss it without having to do the work ("oh, he's just an X - who cares what he says"?).

Beyond that, these labels mean so many different things to so many different people that they're now meaningless. If someone insists on applying one to me, I'm not going to fight to reject it, because I really don't care about the label. I'm interested in the arguments and the substance.
This is what I consider a constructive response to the misuse and limitations of labels.  It's not surprising that Greenwald's approach is resisted strongly in mainstream political discourse.  As Marcotte says, labels are descriptors, not boxes.  I think some people want to be put in boxes -- or at least, to put other people in boxes.  They want, in Sartre's words, the durability of stone, they want to exist all at once and right away; so instead of engaging with descriptors, they reject them in an endless quest for the perfect label that will define them perfectly, without ambiguity.

*P.S. February 2017.  This has changed: I still like the material I discussed in this post, but the 2016 presidential election campaign and Trump's victory has driven Marcotte, like many liberal Democrats, mad in several senses of the word.