Saturday, August 22, 2009

Eliminating the Labels: Can We All Just Be Humanists?

Labels are a funny thing. On paper they seem pretty harmless; a way to quickly identify your perspective to other people, to advocate for what you believe in, to be part of a like-minded community. Great on paper; not always so successful in practice.

Why? Because people make assumptions.

This isn’t always a bad thing. Throughout our lives our brains learn to make assumptions to save time and serve as a defensive mechanism. Assumptions are essential for keeping ourselves safe. For example, if you are about to cross a busy intersection you make an assumption that those cars are not going to stop for you. Congratulations, you just avoided becoming road kill.

The danger comes when people hear a word or “label” and then create an impression about that person solely based on negative stereotypes and assumptions.

Case in point; I have become “The Feminist” in my group of friends. As in, “Look, it’s my favorite feminist!” or “If you pick up any food for her make sure it’s feminist friendly.” Basically I feel like the missing member of the Breakfast Club; the princess, the criminal, the brain, the athlete, the basket case, and the feminist.

I can take a joke, but it goes beyond that when I become defined by this label. Certainly there are worse things I could be defined as, but why do I have to be “defined” by anything at all?

This has forced me to reflect on how vocal I am regarding my feminism. Honestly I didn’t think I was that in-your-face about it. Obviously this blog is a totally different story; this is an environment where I can vent and whine and pick on boys as much as I want, take it or leave it. But in person I thought I was filtering myself pretty well. Guess not.

Well, you should have seen me five years ago. In a backwards way I have actually made a lot of positive progress. My whole life I’ve struggled with my identity; for many years, the majority of high school and college, I tried as hard as a I could to downplay my femininity. I wore baggy hand-me-down clothing and perfected my cynical I-hate-anything-girly attitude. I wanted to show people I was strong and I couldn’t reconcile that idea with appearing feminine. Feminine equaled doormat in my mind. I became “one of the guys” instead, and it worked for me.

But it wasn’t me, until feminism bridged the gap. I could be a woman and be strong. Win.

So maybe I am pretty vocal about it. Maybe that’s because so many people aren’t. People are afraid to associate themselves with feminism because of the negative assumptions people immediately make about it; read man-hater, bra-burner, and anti-razor. Women don’t want to be “The Feminist” amongst their peers any more than I do. You make yourself a target for debate and ridicule and it seriously handicaps your dating life.

In that case, is the label even necessary? If all it brings me are snide remarks and mumbled jokes, is it really worth it?

I don’t have a good answer. On the one hand I would say no, as the scale seems unfairly balanced. Feminism is advocating equal rights for women, yes? Well then where is the label advocating equal rights for homosexuals? Equal rights for the disabled? They have bumper stickers, why not a label?

Or how about a label advocating equal rights for men? Chauvinism isn't really cutting it.

As the movie 100 Girls so eloquently states, perhaps “the only -ists there should be are Humanists.”

Furthermore, how important is it to claim the label publicly? Many people, both men and women, will tell me they are a feminist in one-on-one conversation but will steer clear of the label in any group setting. I have no problem with this; sometimes your opinions are a privilege and not a right. They don’t always need to be shouted from the rooftops…yeah I know guys, I’m working on it...

On the other hand, I say the label IS necessary if you are brave enough to take it on. This is because women’s rights are threatened on a daily basis, especially in countries outside of the United States…and because a label DOES exist for protecting those rights, for sparking the interest of others in the cause, I will continue to claim it in both private and public settings. Certainly I don’t ascribe to all feminist doctrine but that is the case for any label. That is why assumptions are so harmful. Assumptions disregard the fact that we are unique human beings capable of forming our own opinions outside of a mob mentality.

Slowly I am becoming more aware of how I am presenting myself. I certainly hope that I disprove some of the more negative feminist stereotypes, and in the future I hope I can temper my rants in a way that doesn’t present an air of negativity or bitterness.

Most importantly, I am realizing that the label is temporary…and I am looking forward to the day when I won’t need to be a feminist anymore.

When we will all get over ourselves and just be Humanists.

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