So today I want to talk about labels. I don’t mean those things your passive-aggressive roommate puts on each egg in the carton in the fridge you share (yeah that’s right Gary, I’m talking about you! Eggs are like 20 cents apiece – get over it!). I am talking about the labels we use to describe ourselves and each other. We use labels when we discuss ethnicity, philosophical or political affiliation, religion, gender, you name it and we put a name on it. It’s what we do.
But I’m a ____!
I have nothing but shade to throw at people who use the label “skeptic” as the beginning and the end of their argument. This rejoinder is usually offered, complete with requisite sneer, in discussions dealing with things like chauvinism or group supremacy. Someone will point out that the speaker’s argument – that rates of imprisonment of black men demonstrate that black men are more prone to criminality – is fueled by racist ideologies about blackness. The speaker will shoot back “look, disbelieve the data if you want. I’m a skeptic, and I’m just going to where the evidence points.”
Here’s the thing about labels: labels follow behaviour, not the other way around.
Identifying as “a skeptic” does not somehow mean that all the things you do, all of the heuristics you use when arriving at conclusions, are magically imbued with skepticy power. Your brain is not better because you have chosen to affix a label to yourself. If anything, the use of a label in the place of a behaviour suggests a brain that is less engaged, not more. The moment that you stopped questioning your own assumptions, the second you abandoned the premise that you might be wrong about something, the instant you precluded from yourself the possibility that you are prone to the same errors that everyone else is, that’s when you stopped being “a skeptic”.
You are “a skeptic” right up until the point when you stop acting like one.
And here’s the thing about that – you are “an X” right up until the point when you stop behaving like an X. Then you become something else. Oftentimes it’s “an asshole”.
But I’m an ally!
The same goes, in my mind, with the word “ally”. There are many people who are ostensibly in favour of progress for some group or other. Let’s say LGBTQ rights in this case. They believe that queer people deserve better treatment, they want to see a fairer world for queer people, they might even have participated in a few marches in their time. They have lots of queer friends, they call out their friends and relatives for saying/doing queerphobic things…
They’re on the team.
And then they slip up and say something queerphobic, or they mistake their closeness with the movement for permission to give “helpful advice” to queer activists, or something of that nature. And they get called out for it, just like they called out their own relatives/friends for their comments. At the surface level, this seems fair: you do or say something unacceptable, you get treated as though you just said or did something unacceptable.
But not for the ‘label ally’. The label ally has made a fundamental error and confused label with behaviour. Good intentions about helping queer people is not the same as helping queer people, and thinking otherwise betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of both sides of the issue. On the side of opponents of LGBTQ equality, it presumes that the problem is malicious intent and active hatred rather than systemic and historical heterochauvinism (or heteronormativity, if you prefer). It presumes that people who work against the advancement of queer people do so knowingly and intentionally. Sure, there are some of those out there – a lot of them, really – but they aren’t the biggest problem. The biggest problem is the people who, by not doing anything but upholding the status quo, perpetuate a system of discrimination and harm.
These footsoldiers of the status quo are a bigger problem than the out-and-out bigots not because they’re more likely to commit active acts of violence, but because they are far more likely to assent, by way of passivity, to a system that perpetuates acts of violence. And because they aren’t actively oppressing people, they simply won’t see the harm in their (in)actions. All they will see is “I didn’t tie Matthew Shepard to that fence, and that’s enough to make me a good person”.
The ‘label ally’ doesn’t see this. The ‘label ally’ fights against the active oppression, but because the ‘label ally’ is (usually) not impacted by the passive oppression, ze doesn’t see it. Ze doesn’t recognize it well enough to fight against it. And when ze, in due course, participates in it by hir own inaction, ze does not expect to be the target of the backlash that comes from that.
Which is the second reason why the ‘label ally’ is wrong: ze misunderstands hir own place. The ‘label ally’ believes that because ze has done X and Y and Z in the past, that somehow grants hir special status. That somehow it’s okay when ze does it, because everybody knows that ze is on the right ‘side’. That ze isn’t like those others who are the ‘real problem’, and that ze should be held to a different set of standards because of hir past actions.
What follows from that premise is something like the following:
“If attempting to talk about LGBT issues causes a person to spend an inordinate amount of time defending their character, rather than their ideas, it’s understandable how people might quickly tire of it and start focusing their efforts elsewhere. I want LGBTQ activism to succeed and so I want the movement to have the most allies possible. This is why I feel the need to point out that a perceived lack of understanding is often met with a rush to condemnation (not by all, but undeniably by a substantial number) rather than patience with people who want to help.”
The translation being “if you can’t play nicer, I’m going to take my ball and go home”. This is the refrain of the ‘label ally’ – that there is an onus to sufficiently flatter and cajole and soothe allies, and that when allies feel as though their characters are under attack for the things they have said and done, it is everyone else’s fault. From the perspective of the ‘label ally’, because ze is a special snowflake who has demonstrated that they are ‘one of the good ones’, there must be some sort of accommodation made for their slip-ups that is not made for other people – other people who are malicious rather than simply ignorant.
The Benefit of the Doubt
I’ve talked before about the petulant demand for being extended “the benefit of the doubt” – the idea that since you were a good person yesterday everyone else has an obligation to look the other way at what you’re saying/doing today. This plea ignores a fundamental assumption: the pleader is assuming that people aren’t already taking your previous behaviour into account. The fact that you think you’re being treated harshly isn’t evidence that your impression is, in fact, accurate. In my own experience of getting yelled at for saying something bigoted (usually in the form of ableism), the vast majority of treatment I’ve received has taken my previous stances into account, and the harshest treatment I have received is when I have said/done something egregious. But even if that hadn’t been my experience, that would not translate into some obligation on the part of everyone else to be nicer to me because I’m special. The onus is on me to either recognize that I fucked up, or to announce that I don’t care.
The other implication of the “benefit of the doubt” argument often takes the form of asserting that a question or statement might have simply been ignorant, and we shouldn’t be so quick to punish ignorance. While I generally agree that ignorance is not necessarily a failing – there are lots of things I don’t know – ignorance is not a monolithic construct. Some forms of ignorance are hostile, malicious, and harmful in and of themselves. Context matters here: I’ve heard (I think) pretty much every form of racial ignorance there is out there. I know the difference between someone asking a sincere question with a less-than-complete grasp of the relevant facts, and those questions that are asked as a form of belligerent interrogation. Questions of this form are usually thrown around by people as a method of discrediting the very concepts being discussed (“how can it be racist if Muslims aren’t a race?”) rather than seeking clarification on a specific point. These questions usually take as much effort to Google as they do to ask, and the asking is either an effort to weaponize ignorance or a statement that you believe you are entitled to have someone take the time to explain it to you (usually with complaints about ‘tone’ if they do deign to explain it, without any effort being made to understand why someone might not appreciate the question).
To put it succinctly, if 99% of the times I hear the question “why are there so many black people in jail” are from a racist shithead who is trying to advance the oh-so-novel thesis that criminality (or anything, really) can be deduced from racial identity, your insistence on the “benefit of the doubt” is asking me to assume that everyone is in the 1% because they fucked a black guy in college and being called racist hurts their feelings. Nope. Not happening.
So is part of being an ally getting your head bitten off when you fuck up? Yep. Do you deserve to be handled with kid gloves because you think you’re “one of the good ones”? Nope.
You are not your ideas.
I get that this is tough, and that it sucks, but it’s part and parcel with the privilege you have in being able to walk away. You have a home to take your ball to. For those people in the community who are directly affected by the issue, the ‘game’ is happening in their living room and they don’t have the ability to shut it out or remove themselves from the conversation because their feelings are hurt. You have that luxury, and when you choose to exercise your privilege (and try to put the blame on everyone else), you have done nothing more than announce that you are not an ‘ally’. It just makes you feel good to call yourself that.
And this brings me back to the original point I was making: labels are accurate right up until the moment they are not. That is, you are an ally right up until the moment you stop acting like one, at which point you’re not an ally anymore. Having once been an ally doesn’t change your oppressive behaviour into non-oppressive behaviour any more than having had an accident-free record makes you not at fault for rear-ending that bus.
This whole line of reasoning hearkens back to one of the first things I wrote on this blog: you are not your ideas. You cannot simply identify based on whatever flag you prefer to fly, based on positions you hold (until they’re inconvenient). You can align with a label, you can aspire to a label, but the second you start to identify according to a label, you’ve begun a process in which you put on the blinders that make you unable to see the ways in which you violate that label’s precepts. Labels can be useful ways of describing clusters of complementary ideas and beliefs and actions, but when we start taking our self-applied labels as anything other than helpful descriptors, we do ourselves and our thinking a disservice.
The adhesive on the back of the “I’m a ______” stickers is thin, and makes maintenance of that status a precarious and labour-intensive process. And the instant you stop working at it is the instant you start fucking up, and the instant you start getting judged based on your fuckups rather than the long string of successes and good intentions that precede them.
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