Maybe Labels Aren’t a Problem, But the Way We Use Them Are

Jeremiah Traeger

Jeremiah Traeger

An unusual amount of time within the culture wars appears to be over what labels are appropriate. There are certain labels that have a history of marginalizing certain members of society, and therefore probably should not be used (which is not the same thing as saying we need to be politically correct). A significant amount of Dave Silverman’s activism and book is focused on why we should choose the label “atheist” over other labels like freethinker, nonreligious, or humanist. And it’s been a common narrative among right-leaning atheists that a revolving door of “new” labels like genderqueer and intersectional alienated  centrist voters and caused Donald Trump to be elected. Now, I don’t believe for a section that made up words (as if there are any other kind of word) caused us to elect a tyrant, but it’s no question that we seem to be pretty hung up on labels.

After so many squabbles about labels, it’s common for us to throw up our arms and say we’re just not going to care about labels anymore. Perhaps this is because plenty of people use this as an excuse to dismiss someone, to otherize them, or to put them in a convenient box where they can make a ton of lazy, unjustified assumptions about someone’s character.

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[Image: A variety of small cabinets labeled with numerical index cards]

I don’t blame anyone for coming to this conclusion, as it seems pretty attractive, but I can’t help but believe that it’s the wrong conclusion. In these situations I mentioned where someone gets to take the lazy way out, the person will often use labels as the tool, but the problem is the person. When someone (like my roommate) tries to use a metal fork on a teflon-coated pan and scratches the shit out of the surface, I don’t try and throw out all our metal forks. I ask the person to change their behavior. All in all, I find labels to be pretty useful tools. In reality, all words are labels to convey a concept, and it’d be silly to stop using words because people use words improperly. But there are good uses for tools and bad uses for tools.

Many of us atheists have been on the receiving end of a misuse of these tools. It’s plenty common for us to be dismissed as “not really an atheist, you’re really an agnostic”. Arguably worse is when it’s assumed that we’re sexist assholes like TJ Kirk or Reddit trolls. This sucks, but this is not the label’s fault. This is how some people use the label, and that’s wrong. But in many cases, it’s useful to me. If someone asks me where I go to church, if I tell them I’m an atheist it not only gives them an answer but a reason for that answer. In a discussion with friends, bringing up my atheism means they can be safe in assuming I don’t have religious motivations for my ethical, political, and mundane day-to-day decisions. My atheist label isn’t a restriction on my life, nor is it comprehensive, but it gives a healthy splash of first-glance context to my character.

While there are misunderstandings about what we mean when we call ourselves an atheist, that label is far more accurate and unambiguous compared to “Christian”. When this label comes up, it is often us who take the lazy way out and make a ton of assumptions about the other person. Correcting this error would do us a lot of good in improving our conversations, and by extension how atheists are perceived. A lot of ex-fundamentalist atheists assume that when someone calls their self a Christian, that means that they hold every single letter of the Bible literally, but that’s simply not the case. Anywhere from 40-80% of self-identified Christians believe that the Bible is the literal word of their god. This means that if you make the assumption that they think the Earth was literally created in six days, then you have a pretty good chance of being wrong. Christians disagree about a lot of things among each other: dunking vs. sprinkling baptisms, transubstantiation, predestination, works vs. faith, the list goes on. Catholics, Mormons, and Jehovah’s Witnesses all consider themselves Christian, while evangelicals are likely to call them heretical or blasphemous cults. It turns out that when someone calls their self a Christian, there’s not too many assumptions you can make without asking them beforehand.

What do I do when someone tells me that they are a Christian? I do make some assumptions out of practicality, but like all things in science, they are tentative and subject to change with new information. They are likely to believe that Jesus Christ was the son of their god, and that he died for their sins. They likely hold that the Bible is a useful book with good, holy advice (whether or not they have read it). They likely believe in a Heaven or Hell. But when they tell me otherwise, I don’t immediately remove their “Christian” label from the way I view them, I make that adjustment to how I perceive their individual character.

We would to best to recognize labels as starting points when getting to know an individual. I have multiple labels. I am an atheist because I don’t believe in gods, not because I am like Richard Dawkins. I am a feminist because I want women to have equal rights and access to society, not because I am similar to Maryam Namazie. I am a socialist because I think our country would be better if we were more like Norway or Sweden, not because I am like Che Guevera. There are a spectrum of different personalities, opinions, and underlying ideologies behind each individual who take up any one of these labels. I could give you a lot of labels that more or less describe me well: progressive, anti-racist, anti-authoritarian, academic, skeptical, humanist, snarky, sarcastic, and environmentally conscious. Even if I were to somehow tell all my labels to someone, they still wouldn’t get the whole picture of who I am, they would still have to get to know me.

This is not a flaw, it’s merely the limitation of the tool. A label is a good shortcut to giving someone a picture of what is important to me or my identity, but it’s still a shortcut. I’m happy to tell someone that I’m left-leaning, because it’s a good shorthand way of not having to say “I support minorities, LGBTQ rights, a social safety net, etc.” among a million things. But after I tell someone I’m left-leaning, it shouldn’t be a drastic surprise to that person that I have a lot of problems with the Democratic party, I think GMOs are useful, and that we on the left tend to underplay the harms of Islam. Left-leaning still describes me fairly well, but it is not the entirety of my being, and we would be best to recognize that. That would be simply getting to know the limitations of the tool, instead of throwing away the tool altogether.

This would be useful for recognizing the spectrum of other identities, helping us recognize, for example, the spectrum of gender and sexual identities. Someone might identify as bisexual, but prefer women to men 90% of the time, and that’s still valid. A trans person may identify as nonbinary, but feel significantly feminine or masculine, and that’s valid to. Even those of us who are not a gender or sexual minority benefit from recognizing the diversity of our own labels. I am a man and am very comfortable under that identity, but how I perceive myself as a man could very much differ from how some other person sees his self as a man. Hell, plenty of conservatives would probably characterize me as “not really a man” since I’ve never hunted, I don’t own a car, and I wore a dress on social media once. Fuck ’em. I’m a man and they don’t have any say in that.

It’s also worth noting that even if we get to the heart of what an individual means when they talk about the importance a certain label gives to them, that’s only a small facet of that person. Every person lives a life with many intersecting aspects of their identities, and while certain labels often imply other labels, we need our perceptions of each other to be flexible and open to new evidence. We know all too well that not everyone that is an atheist is also a skeptic, so we shouldn’t be surprised when two labels seem to contradict each other. There are gay Christians, feminist Muslims, and conservative minorities. The solution to any confusion we have is not to take issues with the labels, but to try and understand the actual person behind them.

So let’s ignore who is and isn’t a true Scotsman and focus on what that label is truly good for. We get to know something about that person, and get a decent first impression about why that identity is important. But like all first impressions, there’s a lot more to the story.

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