Labels: Our Identifiers and Rules for Using Them

We’re all addicted to labels. Deny it all you want to, but we’re all looking for them. We want to apply them to others, and we want our own as well.

When I say labels, I mean our identifiers. They can be anything from political leanings to sexualities to faiths to job titles to gender identity. It’s what we choose to call ourselves in order to identify some part of who we are.

Sometimes, there are good reasons for labels. They can help us understand ourselves better. Or they can help us find similar people to us, a support group, others to connect with. They can help us feel not so weird or alone as we might wonder if we are.

But unfortunately, with labels comes conflicts. Human beings are so susceptible to bias; it becomes almost too easy to create an “us-versus-them” battle. And even without battles, people can simply end up believing their label makes them superior to others. I shouldn’t have to explain why that’s a bad mentality.

Further, some people can become so addicted to their labels and their groups that they refuse to associate with anyone outside of them. Yeah, I’m talking about all these groups—because separating yourself and refusing to connect with anyone outside your own group can be harmful.

While there are certainly plenty of pros and cons regarding labels, I’ve generally got no issues with them. But I do think we need to set some boundaries about what they are and how they should be utilized. Here are my suggestions:

1. Wear the Labels that Feel Right

Labels should be here to empower you. Not anyone else. It is one of the biggest reasons why we have labels: to help us feel like ourselves.

The power of a label is that it makes us own a part of ourselves. To label oneself as gay can help someone finally feel like they know themselves in a world that feels overwhelmingly heterosexual. Being able to carry that label can make someone feel like they’re not alone or they’re not wrong.

And it can help them connect to others that share that, or a similar, label. And that helps people feel more in touch with themselves and others. These are some of the benefits of labels, and it’s why it’s important to only wear the labels that feel right to you.

Don’t pick one up if it really doesn’t fit you. You may find yourself in a circle of friends who all identify as one way, but you don’t really feel the same. Don’t wear that label just to fit in. Doing that, you may end up hurting yourself, others, and even shutting out your own individuality.

Find what feels right to you and lean into it. They right connections will come.

Personal Example

I’m a pagan, and I wear the label Druid. It’s what I’ve studied; it’s what I’ve connected to; and it’s what empowers me. Others feel the same about the title Witch, and I wish everyone who carries the title to do so with pride.

Some people don’t understand the difference. And I get that. Druids and Witches can share a similar past; we’re usually both pagans, so there’s plenty of shared ground. Further, we don’t have many hard and straight facts about Druids, due to lacking historical records. A lot of modern Druidry does fall in line with different pagan and spiritual paths.

But it’s still about wearing the label that feels right to you. Druid is a title and word that has bewitched me all my life. So when I began studying paganism and found Druidry, I felt an immediate pull. It’s for this reason—and many others I won’t share here—that I chose to go by Druid, and not Witch. This empowerment is vital to the labels we wear.

2. Don’t Force Your Labels onto Others

While it might be comforting to have others wear a label that you like, or that works for you, you shouldn’t force it onto people. A forced label isn’t a real label—not for you or for the person you’re forcing it on to. It probably does more harm than good.

I think this is a good rule no matter what your reasons for trying to force a label onto an individual. Forcing your religion or faith onto someone is never right. But equally neither is trying to put a label onto someone to force them out into the world. I remember the days of trying to force people out of the closet, and some argued that celebrities should be more vocal in their sexual orientation, so that the world would see that people are gay or bi. You can argue those intentions are well-meant, but if someone’s not ready to wear a label—or, quite possibly, isn’t part of the group—than forcing that label isn’t a good thing. Leave it alone and let people when and if they will wear their own labels.

There are a few reasons why I think this rule is important. For one thing, just because a label feels good or empowers you doesn’t mean it will feel the same for someone else. You shouldn’t want to put that discomfort onto someone else.

But beyond that, if someone doesn’t feel empowered by a label, they won’t carry it well. Someone who doesn’t connect to Christianity shouldn’t be forced into it if they will get nothing from the faith. It’s not beneficial for the group, nor is it beneficial for the individual.

Further, would you want someone to force you to wear a label that you didn’t approve of? No? Then maybe don’t be doing it to others.

Personal Example

To use the Druid and Witch analogy again, a lot of people have told me to simply accept the label of Witch.

Why? Because it’s the label they know and understand. It makes them feel comfortable. And to them, it’s easier to connect with. Or it may be that the label Witch is empowering to them, and so they want others to adopt the mantle as well. But they may also be looking for people in a shared group, so they can connect. If they have more nefarious natures, they might be trying to get more people for their own coven.

But the word Witch has never felt empowering to me. That doesn’t mean it can’t be to others, but it is not to me. I shouldn’t be forced to wearing a label that does not empower me. And more than that: you shouldn’t want someone to wear a label just because it’s comfortable for you; that person may not honor the label as you do.

And for that matter: a person doesn’t need to wear your specific label for you to connect with them. In fact, one of the better ways to expand your knowledge and ways of thinking is by engaging with people outside your respective label.

3. Connect with People of Other Labels

Sure, this might seem obvious after my last statement. But it bears repeating.

I’m a big advocate of communication and connection. I genuinely adore deep conversations, ones that make me think about issues from all sides. I strive to be a better communicator every single day. It’s not easy, but I feel it makes my relationships a little better when I make the effort. And I actively engage with people who have very different opinions than me. Everything from different politics, different viewpoints, different sexualities, different opinions.

And this is how I get the most fully-rounded points-of-view: by hearing people out and communicating my own opinions in a respectful way.

We’re all getting a little too comfortable just cutting people out for a difference of opinions or groups. Even the people that preach tolerance and acceptance are okay with shunning people for differing opinions. It’s creating more division among people—and that really isn’t a good thing.

Talking, having conversations, respectfully debating are things we should be doing, especially with others we don’t see eye-to-eye with. We have to remember that engaging and communicating with someone does not mean we have been converted to their way of thinking. But communicating and connecting with others outside our groups helps us gain greater insights, improve our arguments, and even find better solutions for improving society.

Personal Example

As much as it’s gonna be a risky topic, I’m gonna have to go with a political example here. While I lean left on most issues, I haven’t cut out any people from my life who are right-leaning or conservative. Often times, from conversations with them, I see that the issues they have in terms of politics are not what the left insists their issues are.

But you don’t learn that or expand your mind on other issues without engaging with people who have different opinions than you. If you constantly cut out someone who belongs to a different group, not only are you causing division, you’re also not growing and learning from others. And you can’t ask people in other groups to do the same, if you’re not willing to do it yourself.

The thing about engaging in difficult conversations like this is you learn to see people as whole, and not just as belonging to a group. I can disagree with people and voice my disagreement. And usually if I’ve given them the space to speak, and I’ve listened willingly, they give me the same back.

I’m not advocating for tolerating people’s hatreds. People actively intolerant or being prejudiced against others is a problem that needs to be dealt with to create a fairer society.

I am saying: sometimes, we charge someone as guilty for hate when they’re not actually. And the way you get to the heart of these issues is by actually having conversations.

4. Don’t Be Too Tied Down to Your Label

Listen, life is all about change and growth. One minute, we think we know who we are, and the next we find something that makes us question ourselves.

At least, that’s the way it should be. We should be growing and changing. We shouldn’t remain stagnant. Life is meant to be about engaging with things that make us question ourselves, so we can become stronger and more aware of who we are. More than that, being able to question ourselves helps us evolve and grow, as we’re meant to.

It is this constant back-and-forth within ourselves that allows us to have the greatest experience in living. Being able to question who you are and the labels you wear is vital to living life to its fullest. Because sometimes we’re meant to outgrow labels, just as we outgrow clothes. This doesn’t mean you’re wrong or flaky; it means you allowed yourself to experience life and let it expand who you were. And we don’t come to know who we really are without greater experiences.

So, don’t attach yourself to a label so firmly that you refuse to open up to wider experiences. Wear the ones that make you feel most like yourself and that empower you. But don’t be afraid to adjust them as you go through life.

Personal Example

For many years, I identified as asexual. I didn’t feel a desire for sex the way my peers seemed to. In fact, I’ve gone years without sex. But at some point, I had sex with a friend. It made me realize I could experience sexual attraction in some way.

I reflected on this a lot, knowing that if I felt attraction there, then I could not be fully asexual. That’s when I found the label demisexual, which seemed to fit. I still didn’t feel the pull for sex with people I didn’t know, so I felt I was still on the asexual spectrum in some way.

Years later, I begin chatting with someone. We talked for six weeks via text, and I found myself very attracted to this person. The second time we met, I decided I wanted to have sex with him.

If I’d been so tied to my label of “asexual” or “demisexual”, I might not have decided to act on what I felt at the time. I would go against having an experience, just to remain loyal to a label. And the thing is: each of those experiences helped me see something different about myself. The first helped me realize that I can feel attraction, but that I can also enjoy sex—as before that, I hadn’t really, another reason why I didn’t seek it out. The second made me see I’d done a lot of self-growth in terms of my own healing; I didn’t feel bad, or guilty, or shameful afterwards, as I had in the past. I didn’t feel like I’d lost something or given something up. That’s an affirming feeling in and of itself.

And both of these have made me less attached to my sexuality label. It might not be the same for everyone, but in closing yourself off from an experience you want to have, you might never find out. Life is a hell of a lot better when we remain open to experiences (while also being safe).

5. Never Let Your Label Contribute to Harming Others

This is a BIG one. I don’t care who you are or what label you wear: you cannot and should not be using it to justify harming or persecuting others.

And I’m sure some people will jump on some accusation. “Um, excuse me, but why shouldn’t we be persecuting murderers?” Don’t be snarky. We all know that’s not what I’m talking about here.

Your label and the group that comes with it is always going to be important to you. And no one should take it away from you, especially if it means something to you. But you also don’t get to use that label and group to justify hurting others.

I don’t care what the reason is. No one on this earth is more important, valuable, or valid than anyone else. You, your label, and your group are not superior to anyone else. And they are not justifications for bias, prejudice, or hatred.

Period.

Personal Example

You don’t get to use your religion to tell someone else how to live. Your faith—or lack of one, for that matter—doesn’t make you a better person than anyone else. And you do not get to use it to justify hurting others. If your faith tells you that gay people are evil or that abortion is a sin, you still do not have a right to persecute those who are gay or choose to have an abortion.

If you’re a man who believes that all women are terrible—or you believe they’re inferior to men—you don’t get to force that opinion onto women. Avoid them, if you want. But you don’t have the right to make women’s lives terrible or punish them because you’re angry or hurt at them. I believe the same about women: if you think that men are evil and insist that all of them should be harmed or ostracized for the crimes of a few, you’re wrong.

No matter who we are or what groups we belong to, we do not have the right to condemn or harm someone from another group. Your label can be important to defining yourself and who you are, but it is not so important that others need to be brought down for it.

Graphic with a black and white image of an artist's doll with book tabs attached. Across this reads "A. A. Jean Writes", "Labels", and "Our Identifiers and Rules for Using Them". The above text reads "Each of us chooses what labels we want to wear and how we want to be identified." Bottom text reads, "Here are some rules and boundaries for the labels and identifiers that we and others wear."

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