I have gotten to the point where I just hate labels. Not the kind of labels we find on our groceries, of course…they keep me from eating too much sodium or trans fat, and that’s a good thing. I mean the labels that we give ourselves, and worse, the labels we assign to other people. Maybe it’s because I’m not much of a joiner, and no matter what group of people I’m with, I almost always feel like the “odd one out.” Or maybe it’s because most of the people I know well are complicated, complex individuals who don’t fit the labels that we toss about so casually. All I know is that the minute people start assigning labels, to themselves or to others, I get very uncomfortable.
Don’t get me wrong, I do understand why people like labels so much. We want to know something about each other, and being able to identify someone as a “Southerner” or a “Liberal” or a “Protestant” seems as if it would help. We think it gives us a point of reference, of knowing just how much someone is like us, or even whether or not we think the person is worth bothering to get to know. Sorting everyone neatly into categories seems like an efficient way to deal with all the people who cross our path, and we know right away who’s “in” and who’s “out.” What could be simpler?
The trouble is, simple isn’t always good, or accurate. There are tons of different interpretations of just about every label out there, and it’s a mistake to just assume that our interpretation is the same as someone else’s. (Personally, I am still completely confused on just what exactly is the difference between a “right-wing dictator” and a “left-wing dictator,” yet we hear those terms all the time as if everyone knows.) It’s sort of like when we talk to someone from another country and they ask, “What do Americans think about that?” And the only honest answer I can give is, “That depends on which American you ask.” We may all live in the same country, but we definitely do not all think alike.
And that, I think, is what I find the most offensive about labels: the assumption that everyone within that label thinks exactly alike and shares exactly the same values. I don’t want to be “assigned” a to a group that I don’t truly fit in with, and I haven’t yet found a group that I always agree with, on everything. Or even a group I usually agree with, if I’m totally honest. And I doubt very seriously that I ever will.
I want the freedom to think for myself, and to draw my own conclusions. I want to be allowed to have a “conservative” opinion on one issue, and a “liberal” opinion on another. I want to associate with lots of different kinds of people so that I never stop learning, never stop expanding my personal horizons, and, most importantly, never become complacent in the supposed superiority my own beliefs. I also want the option of changing my mind, either because I’ve learned new facts or because I’ve simply finally figured out that the way I’ve always thought about something is just plain wrong.
But I know that there are always going to be people who prefer labels, and that there are always going to be people who are eager to stick a label on me. And when that’s the case, the label I’d prefer is simply “human.” That one fits me like a glove.