I am a lot of not things.
This position of being identified, and, at times, it begins to feel almost wholly, as a lack of things. The act of describing oneself evolving into merely cataloging what you aren’t, adopting counter-labels that pronounce the identities to which you do not belong.
Take the term ‘cisgender’. The definition is simple: you identify as the gender you were born. I understand where a term like this comes from – you are trying to encourage people to not use the word ‘normal’, given the implication of that toward those who identify as transgender. But, out of nowhere, I am now labelled, not because I am something, but because somebody else is something else. I am not cisgender. The word means nothing to me, it isn’t me, it’s not a concept within my mind and has no bearing on my life. I think it’s good that an increasing number of people are able to proudly identify as transgender if they wish, and tolerance of that ought to become widespread, but it doesn’t make me something new. ‘Cisgender’ is a reactionary label, and the reaction isn’t even one that I’ve had.
You think, therefore I am, kind of thing.
I recently wrote one of these pieces entitled “Gender Equality: not everyone’s a feminist”. The trend with this particular label, ‘feminist’, which I am not against people using, is to retcon and broaden the definition beyond sense, rendering the word essentially pointless. The idea that it means anyone who is not a misogynist or a misandrist (“It means anyone who believes in gender equality”; “Oh, you aren’t immoral? Sounds like you’re probably a feminist!”) isn’t correct, in my view. You should see the piece I mentioned and linked for the full argument as to why I think the word, the label, is not and should not and doesn’t need to be for everybody. With this label in particular, and many others, it quickly becomes a kind of social blackmail, and people seem incapable of respect. If you meet somebody who dates men and women, you do not inform them that, yes, they ARE bisexual, if they tell you that, for whatever reason, they don’t refer to themselves as such, and would like others not to either. I had a vegetarian diet for, maybe, just under two years. I don’t really know why – I don’t, and didn’t at the time, think it wrong to eat meat, and, though I’m quite cognizant of sustainability issues regarding the environment and climate due to the meat and fishing industries, that wasn’t really the reason I stopped eating meat and fish either. I just… did it. And so I never felt like I was a ‘vegetarian’, under that label, part of that community etc. I just, at that point in time, had a particular diet.
Having mentioned the label ‘bisexual’, it brings to mind an example of how problematic and conflict-causing all this labeling and identity politics can be: a friend, who identifies as bisexual, posted some article on Facebook that was about the label and the identity, and in the post they added their own words, saying that, for them, the definition of ‘bisexual’ was one who falls in love with people, not genders. If I hadn’t known who it was coming from, I would have been pretty insulted: it suggests that bisexuality is morally superior to both hetero- and homo- sexuality. They agreed, when I mentioned it, that the wording was not good wording. Their definition was not intentionally smug or superior, but both of those things, as well as dismissive and alienating, is how it can come across. As with many a social media speech on feminism.
The term ‘atheist’ is closer to a label to which I would identify, or confirm belonging. But even this one is, to me, not clear cut, not quite a simple ‘yes’. I don’t wake up in the morning thinking about the lack of deity. I don’t go to meetings. If the topic comes up, then that is certainly the “side”, or position, that I take. But it isn’t something I undertake daily, it isn’t me. I am atheist, but I am not An Atheist… a ‘card-carrying’ so-and-so, such-and-such. The only cards I carry are the ones that give me access to my money and the ones that give you access to my blood and organs if you happen to find me dead (or can, at least, convince the authorities that you found me that way). Not believing in something does not necessarily require a label. If I belong to or join or support or believe in something, I can label myself appropriately. But if I do not belong to or join or support or believe in something, than I can simply say that no, I am not whatever label is given to those who do. I like Star Wars; I don’t like Star Trek (it’s just not good). Therefore, I am a Star Wars Fan. I am not, however, a Not Star Trek Fan, or a Star Trek Not Fan. If I were so anti-Star Trek that I spent time and energy on my not liking it (which I wouldn’t do as it would presumably involve seeing aspects of the show fairly often) then a label would be appropriate, an equivalent of ‘atheist’. I am not a theist, I am not transgender, and I do not like Star Trek – I can tell you what I am not and what I do not believe in or support if and when it arises in conversation. I do not want to be ticking boxes and adopting labels that merely explain to you what other people are, and how I am not one of them.
Labels I accept: Human. Male. White. British Citizen.
Labels I do not accept: Cisgender. Gender Equalist. Un-Racist. Non Astrologist.
Of course, some of these terms I argue against, as far as myself is concerned, may well, for others, be apt – I am not saying they are ones nobody wants or ought to use. There are sure to be people for whom the label ‘atheist’ describes a significant, active part of their selves, or another for whom ‘cisgender’ really is how they identify, and a relatable term and concept. The Internet is surely home to many a Star Trek Not Fan.
As I said above, many of these terms, quite understandably, arise from the desire to create a terminology in which the word ‘normal’ is not used. I agree that ‘normal’ should not be taken or used to mean ‘not trans’, or ‘not gay’, or ‘not religious’. I do not think that the default setting of a human being is, well, me, and I wouldn’t use the label ‘normal’ any more than I would the label ‘cisgender’. To me, both are undesirable, and feel wrong, or at least irrelevant, and pointless.
Another thought, but not for now, is the other way round: people adopting labels that they, arguably, shouldn’t be, particularly if it diminishes or distracts from those the labels really belong to.
Surely unnecessary, but for the sake of absolute clarity: I think every label mentioned in this thing (including misogynist and misandrist!) can be used by anyone to describe themselves if they want to use them. And, outside of rare cases where it actually matters, it doesn’t even come down to being able to defend a label and its usage as intellectual sound – while there are official and/or quasi-official definitions, and there is always the temptation to say “well, technically, you are then…”, for the most part it comes down to pure subjectivity, feeling, flexibility too.
And leaving other people to just do them.