Tuesday, July 21, 2015

In the Beginning Was the Word

Maybe I overuse the "X for me, Not-X for thee" template, but it encompasses so much bad faith that it's hard to resist.  Yesterday a queer friend of mine posted one of those "Labels are for cans, not for people" memes.  I have at least two reactions to this slogan; one is that you can't really have language without labels; the other is that the people who claim to dislike labels actually like them quite a lot: first for other people, but also for themselves.

For other people there are labels like: homophobe, transphobe, bigot, Bible-thumper, so-called Christians, redneck, and so on.  That leaves aside the more straightforwardly abusive neologisms, often constructed with the -tard suffix: theotard, Republitard, Reichtard, and so on.  These latter have their right-wing counterparts (libtard, etc.), but for the moment I'm talking about people who'd consider themselves liberal, rational, compassionate, loving, open-minded.  More labels, of course.

For themselves, the labels proliferate.  I was recently invited to give a presentation on LGBT history in the area, and while putting it together I was struck by how many labels were coined in the late nineteenth century -- invert, Urning, Uranian, homosexual, androgyne, third sex, etc.  These were words that sex/gender nonconformists invented for ourselves, or adopted for our use.  When I was newly out forty-some years ago, gay men were fond of labeling sexual acts and roles: French active/passive, Greek active/passive, and an older man laid out for me a full list of nationalities linked to sexual practices.  We were also fond of constructions based on "queen": chicken queen, closet queen, opera queen, and (my favorite) fish queen.  (I liked "fish queen" not because of its misogyny but because it incorporated straight men into its taxonomy, classifying them as homosexuals so twisted that they were queer for women.)  Lesbians of the period had their own system: butch, femme, butchy-femme, soft butch, and so on.  I don't know how much of this is still current, but similar self-labeling is certainly going on today: pansexual, asexual, demisexual, genderqueer, transman, transwoman, and so on.

Just a few weeks ago, Caitlyn Jenner's "I am a woman" pull quote was all over the media, and none of the anti-label people got on her case for labeling herself: indeed, they celebrated and defended her.  In this case too, the label is a moving target: "man" and "woman" are meaningless social constructions on one hand, and pre-existent, pre-social benchmarks that define who one is.

I don't think this is necessarily a bad thing.  It's the hypocrisy, the doublethink, of those who claim to reject labels but use them anyway that I'm criticizing here.

I'm presently working my way through a collection of stories by Vincent Czyz, Adrift in a Vanishing City (Vanishing Mountain Press, 2015).  In one story, the French narrator reflects on another character who's labeled a pédé (location 2061 of the Kindle edition):
We French also say pedale, homosexual, tante, de la jacquette flottante – he whose jacket blows lightly behind him – not much else.  It is not the big deal of snow to the Eskimos who have 50 or 60 words for it to distinguish between wet, powdery, crusted, high drifts and so on.  Americans must hold most sacred of all the homosexual since they have any number of words for it – fairy, fag, tinkerbell, queer, three-dollar bill, limp-wrist, homo, fruit, pansy, queen, flit – imagine if my English were up to date.
(I wonder how true it is that French has relatively few words for men who take it up the butt; I doubt it, but my French isn't good enough for me to say. I do know that Spanish has a rich supply of such labels, rivaling what we have in English.)  Even if it were true that Eskimos "have 50 or 60 words" for snow, the variety of American terms for queer men wouldn't be the same kind of thing.  They aren't a taxonomy to enable fine-grained distinctions between varieties of homosexual, they're a ragbag of epithets for the same supposed species.  Some are abusive epithets used by ostensibly heterosexual culture cops, others are self-classifications invented and used by queers ourselves, some moved from one side to the other and back again.  As I mentioned above, though, queers are fond of proliferating labels for ourselves, which sometimes distinguish and sometimes lump us all together.  Unless you're still an adherent of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis -- and I think a lot of laypeople are, especially in its more deterministic forms -- I don't think there's much to be learned from the existence of all those terms.

On the other hand, I think the linguist Tim Machan's reflections on language change are interesting.  From Language Anxiety: Conflict and Change in the History of English (Oxford, 2009, digital edition):
Indeed, as Labov has noted, language actually points to conclusions that oppose natural selection: ‘the major agent of linguistic change – sound change – is actually maladaptive, in that it leads to the loss of the information that the original forms were designed to carry’.  More generally, change and variation are responsible for a great many socially debilitating situations.  They produce mutually unintelligible languages and their attendant barriers to communication, the communication, the communicative obstacles that even regional variation can present, and the sociolinguistic drive to instruct generation after generation of students in the details of spelling, punctuation, and usage, which are never internalized and transmitted to subsequent generations in some Lamarckian fashion.  In view of the tumult of history and the blame placed on inadequate communication, I would venture that if there truly is a general drive to optimal communication, it has failed miserably.
Which would seem to imply that people who insist that language is essentially for communication and demand that people communicate clearly with language may be trying to use language for a purpose it didn't evolve to perform.

Back to the desirability of labels, then.  It could be argued that labeling impedes communication, but it seems to me that the people who refuse certain labels (while, remember, embracing others) aren't really worried about that.  Inventing new labels in the name of rejecting labels is hardly an improvement in the communication department.

Take the rejection of the label "gay," which I've written about before.  I'm fascinated by the reasons people give for rejecting it.  They may see it as a pejorative, which is understandable but not so much when they want to replace it with something like "queer."  Again, from the way such people talk, they seem to believe that the word "gay" is inherently and essentially negative, which it wasn't always; sometimes they claim to prefer "queer" because it's somehow indeterminate, though given the negative baggage that attaches to it historically, this explanation makes no sense.  It sometimes is expressed precisely as a refusal to communicate, because of the supposed indeterminacy of "queer": I have my own personal special-snowflake definition of what it means, which I might or might not share with you.  Well, to each his or her own.  Take the African-American graduate student I mentioned in another post, who rejected "gay" because in his mind it referred to two "cis" men together; presumably he thought "queer" doesn't have this denotation.  But "gay" doesn't mean that: its use during most of the twentieth century involved a lot of gender nonconformity and gendered division of sexual labor.  The same goes for "homosexual," which (conflated with "gay") supposedly involves "two individuals who are of the same sex and the same gender," though in fact gender nonconformity is associated with homosexuality both at the popular and at the academic level.  (There's also the notion of "a (postmodern) gay ideology, in which both partners in a same-sex sexual relationship are viewed equally in terms of their sexual orientation."  This, as I've argued before, involves a basic confusion about the "ideology.")

Another common factor in the rejection of "gay" or any other label is stigma: people will look down on me if I say I'm gay.  Another student who preferred not to label himself on a recent classroom panel explained that if he called himself "gay," or even "bisexual," people would misunderstand and think things about him that weren't true.  He didn't specify what those untrue things were.  Of course if he didn't label himself, people would also think things about him that weren't true.  They might believe him to be exclusively heterosexual, for example, or they might label him "faggot" or "punk," no matter how many women he also dates.  And often the trouble with those "misunderstandings" that people worry about is that they aren't misunderstandings at all.  I sympathize completely with the ambivalence other people feel about adopting a stigmatized identity; though they often refuse to believe it, I felt exactly the same way before I came out.  But the only way I know of to counter these misunderstandings is to face them and counteract them, as best we can.  If someone has stereotypes about gay people (and let me remind you, gay people also have stereotypes about gay people!), you won't get them to give their stereotypes up by pretending to be straight.  To add to the fun, many of the people who fear "misunderstandings" involving stereotypes do their best to embody the stereotypes when they do come out.  I can understand and sympathize with that too, but it's a consequence of the prior denial.

Labels can be misused, and I argue that this historical ignorance and self-serving, inconsistent rejection of labels constitutes misuse, because of the confusion that it engenders, probably by design.  There's no foolproof way to avoid confusion, stereotyping, historical baggage, or the limitations of labels; you just have to try to deal with these matters as best you can, in conversation with others, educating yourself and them as you go.  You won't get anywhere by refusing to use labels, because people will go on using them around you, like it or not.  So you must engage with others -- and don't assume that you already know everything and they know nothing.  As human beings using labels, we can't avoid using them altogether; we must learn to use them as well as we can.