Clare Bryden. Label-free. The Porch Magazine, May/June 2017. Available on The Porch website (paywall).
Let me introduce myself. I’m Clare. I am British. White. A woman. According to my website, I am a consultant, writer, blogger, speaker, and artist. I am single, a daughter, and a sister. Is this helpful information? Does it give you a sense of who I am? Do we share anything in common? Does it matter? If you are a non-British, resolutely non-blogger, or a married Porch subscriber, does it make you want to flick on to the next article? If so, I’d be sorry to see you go. Instead I hope you stay with me, so that between my writing and your reading, we will come to a deeper understanding of who we are.
Who am I?
Who am I really? I can and do slap any number of labels on myself. It is not just for the purposes of introducing an article about labels. Even after I noticed them, and had a chuckle at myself, my website still sports those labels as my way of presenting myself to the world.
I am not alone. Other people slap labels on themselves. We slap labels on each other. Then the labels I give myself and others affect how I see myself, how I see others, how I expect them to see me, and how I interact with them.
Some labels are given based on outward appearances, such as gender or race. Other labels refer to more hidden aspects of a person, such as politics or sexuality. Labels may not be explicitly applied to a person, but that person can still take them on, for good or ill.
Can labels be positive? They can be a source of growth, leading a person to put a name to something they are struggling to understand about themselves. They can be transfigured; there are many women and men proud to be identified as a feminist, even though the label “feminist” might be intended by some as a slur. It is possible that labeling myself as an “artist” gives permission to others to embrace the idea that they might be artists too.
Equally, it might lead other people to conclude they are not artists because they think they are not creative, or able to draw like “artists” do. They might feel excluded, or diminished in some way. In general, labels are not meant positively, and often a label will cause people to shrink further back in the closet in fear.
Labels have baggage. Take a simple example: I have a background in science, an interest in sustainability, and a Christian faith. Suppose I label myself “scientist.” Immediately that conjures an idea of what I must believe; I often read that scientists must necessarily be atheists. Similarly, I read that a Christian can’t be an environmentalist, or vice versa, because God told Christians to dominate and subdue the natural world. And scientists and technologists are also implicated in destroying the natural world; they cannot possibly be environmentalists. I continually receive the message that I can be a scientist, or an environmentalist, or a Christian, but no combination of any two, let alone all three labels together.
Divide and conquer
It seems to be a natural human instinct to categorize. Take the word “science,” which comes from the Latin scire, to know, related to the Greek skhizein, to divide. We categorize in order to better know and understand.
Carl Linnaeus, the 18th century “Father of Taxonomy” developed the modern system of naming, ranking, and classifying organisms. It is fluid; scientists often move organisms between categories, or define new classes of organisms. Taxonomy is vital to understanding families, relationships, and how organisms originated and continue to change. But there are two equal and opposite risks: It can lose sight of the individual and its glorious distinctiveness; and it can lose sight of the greater whole.
Linnaeus, living and working in the eighteenth century before the word “scientist” was coined, would have been known as a “natural philosopher,” literally a “lover of the wisdom of natural things.” Science has been very successful in labeling and dividing big questions up into smaller, manageable and answerable questions. Wisdom is about putting it all back together again, to gain an understanding of the whole system. It is only recently, with much biodiversity threatened or already destroyed, that we are regaining a sense of whole ecosystems and the web of life.
Them and us
Unfortunately, “them and us” thinking has become pervasive. Driven by the media, the tendency in political discourse has swung in the direction of fragmentation. Brexit Britain and Trump USA become more toxic by the day.
Here is a simple but potentially life-threatening example on the streets where I live, in Exeter in southwest England. I usually cycle around town, and have noticed that I am feeling less safe on the roads. At one time, it seemed that in every edition of the local newspaper there was a letter or article about “cyclists,” “pedestrians,” or “drivers,” and these letters often demonized “cyclists.” People who cycle, or walk, or drive had labels slapped on them, and those labels carried expectations about their behavior. It contributes to a “them and us” mentality, and, I think, has contributed to the increase in road rage that I have observed. But most people who cycle in the UK also have a car. Usually I cycle, occasionally I walk, and sometimes I drive. I am fundamentally a person who just wants to get around town safely and efficiently.
I am aware that I am getting off lightly. I have not been labeled as one of “the unemployed,” “the disabled,” or “the elderly.”
I hope I never forget the insights I gained when I worked on a health research project with a nonprofit called Help the Aged. The organization (now called Age UK) had realized how its name lumped together a whole group of people, and defined them as needing “help.” Labeling the people we were working with as “the aged” dehumanized them, and reduced them to a cohort of research guinea pigs. I learned to call them “older people,” people first and foremost.
The British welfare system has noble intentions, but stories of inhumane treatment are easy to find. “The elderly,” “the unemployed,” and “the disabled” are clearly not human beings, with individual value, stories, and desires to contribute to society. They are lumped together and treated as sub-standard. Treating people with empathy and compassion—working with them instead of doing something to them—is too much time and trouble. Slap a label on a person, and then you know what process to follow. Labels are an unspoken tool used in implementation of welfare cuts. The outcome is not just increasing hardship for folk who need the safety net, but denial of the humanity of people on both sides of the desk at which the decisions are made.
Do an online search for “Daily Mail refugees” images, and a slew of dehumanizing headlines return: Migrants: how many more can we take?; 7 in 10 Calais Migrants Get Into UK; and The Swarm On Our Streets. The last was a report on the then Prime Minister David Cameron’s horrifying comments “likening [migrants] to insects.” The Daily Mail could put these words in quotes, and so appear to be righteous in its condemnation of the PM. But it still had a choice on what graced its front page, and it chose its own agenda and the dehumanizing label.
Much has been written about the results of the UK European Union membership referendum in July 2016 and the US Presidential election in November seeming to have legitimized racist behavior. Figures from the UK Home Office show that the number of racist or religious abuse incidents recorded by police in England and Wales jumped 41% in the month after the Brexit vote.
Labels have spawned fear and created enemies out of fellow human beings. “Refugees” and “Muslims” are bearing the brunt, not least of President Trump’s travel ban. Again, we see border agencies and guards “just following orders,” and encroaching dehumanization. Asghar Farhadi, the Iranian director who won the 2017 Oscar for best foreign language film with The Salesman, boycotted the ceremony as a protest against the refugee ban. In a statement read out by Anousheh Ansari, the first Muslim woman to have traveled to space, he said: “My absence is out of respect for the people of my country, and those of the other six nations who have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the US…Dividing the world into the ‘us’ and ‘enemies’ categories creates fear.”
If it is natural for humans to categorize, it is also natural to seek identity. Humans are social animals, and naturally seek identity. The two tendencies to categorize and seek identity can intersect when we seek identity through nationality or membership of a group. The danger is that we try to bolster our need for inclusion by excluding others.
Back at the Oscars, the actor Gael García Bernal commented on Trump’s proposed border wall with Mexico: “As a Mexican, as a migrant worker and as a human being, I am against any form of wall that wants to separate us.”
There is another way. The Book of Joy follows a week-long meeting in 2016 between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, facilitated by the writer Douglas Abrams. During a series of conversations about joy, and obviously embodying a great deal of joy, the two returned many times to difference, separation, and what it means to be human. For example, to quote the Dalai Lama: “If we stress secondary level of differences—my nation, my religion, my color—then we notice the differences…We are same human beings…When we relate to others from the place of compassion it goes to the first level, the human level, not the secondary level of difference. Then you can even have compassion for your enemy.”
The impact of applying labels and seeing differences is to lessen the self as well as the “other.” Douglas Abrams reflects in The Book of Joy: “The Archbishop and the Dalai Lama were saying that so much of our stress is dependent on seeing ourselves as separate from others, which perhaps returns to the loss of our sense of communal connection, of Ubuntu.”
As well as categorizing others, we have a tendency to taxonomize our selves. Psychometric tests and personality typing, such as the Myers-Briggs Typology Indicator and the Enneagram, are being increasingly used in the workplace and on the psychotherapeutic and spiritual journey.
In Myers-Briggs, I can work out whether I have a preference for introversion or extraversion, and on three other scales, and label myself with four letters, say INTJ. It can be helpful for an introverted person to know that they need to spend time by themselves to recharge their batteries, and why they might find an extravert friend or colleague exhausting. But there is a danger of pigeonholing myself, as well as other people. I might constrain myself to act out of my INTJ personality label, instead of experimenting with ways of being and behaving or risking empathy with and learning from others, and stunt my own personal growth.
It is not the same as introversion, but I was very shy when I was young. For years I told myself: “I am shy.” I was attached to that label and usually acted out of it. Goodness knows how many wonderful people I missed. Thankfully, over time I came to realize that shyness is not my identity. I know I have a tendency to feel shy. I also know that it is only a transitory feeling and is not “me.” Furthermore, I realize that other people often feel shy, too. Not just we Brits, either. It was a revelation to read articles that took it for granted that Americans feel shy! So instead of being self-absorbed in my “shy” label, I can now recognize and empathize with others’ feelings of shyness and do my limited best to make them feel at ease. If I need to interact as well with seemingly confident and outgoing people, Anne Lamott’s words come in useful: “Never compare someone else’s outside with your inside.”
Self as role
So “I am a human being,” not “I am British”; and “I feel shy”, not “I am shy.” What about all those other “I am” statements at the beginning of this article? I am a consultant, I am a daughter. It is all too easy to identify ourselves with roles, or as an adjunct to another person, instead of as a valuable human being in our own right. There is a difference between the interdependence expressed in Ubuntu. Stating, “I am because we are,” is different than losing one’s sense of self in the role labels of “wife” and “mother.” There is a difference between saying “I am a lawyer” and mistaking that for my identity, and saying “I practice law.”
Douglas Abrams comments in The Book of Joy: “Arrogance is the confusion between our temporary roles and our fundamental identity.” As it is with role labels, so it is with status labels. Here is the Dalai Lama: “And if I relate to others, thinking that I am the Dalai Lama, I will create the basis for my own separation and loneliness. After all, there is only one Dalai Lama in the entire world. In contrast, if I see myself primarily in terms of myself as a fellow human, then I will have more than seven billion people who I can feel deep connection with.”
Self as status
The impulse for this article came from my own reflections on vocation. Vocation, or calling, can take many forms. I have worked with many people who will spend their whole careers doing the work they love. We speak of vocational qualifications, vocations as teachers, doctors, or nurses. I have thought a number of times about vocation to the religious life or to ordination in the Church of England. In that sense, vocation is a calling by God.
I have lived alongside monastic communities for a while, and I know that these are ordinary people. It amused me that the labels “monk” and “nun” are often intended to confer a more elevated status to people who have taken vows of poverty and obedience, and this was even transferring to me a little. It is more pernicious if we start to believe it. One of the temptations of we ordinary church-going people—labeled the “laity”—is to put our leaders, priests and other “clergy,” on pedestals. One of the temptations of being a member of the clergy is to forget that you are still part of the laity (the Greek laos means the people of God) and climb on to that pedestal yourself.
I have come to the grand conclusion instead that I have a vocation to be an ordinary church-going person. Simone Weil, the twentieth century French philosopher and mystic, refused even to be baptized into the Catholic Church, writing in Waiting on God: “I cannot help still wondering whether in these days when so large a proportion of humanity is sunk in materialism, God does not want there to be some men and women who have given themselves to him and to Christ and who yet remain outside the Church…I have the essential need, and I think I can say the vocation, to move among men of every class and complexion, mixing with them and sharing their life and outlook…”
There are many parallels outside the Church: deciding to train as a healthcare professional, and then to be promoted from the front-line of providing healthcare to hospital management, and disappearing up the greasy pole; or to run for office, starting locally, and then maybe aiming for election to Parliament, Congress or Senate, and becoming Prime Minister or President. Yet like the Dalai Lama, or even someone who believes themselves to be the “Leader of the Free World” is fundamentally just another human being.
I was one of 1.8 million people in the UK who signed a petition against a Trump state visit. I received the response: “HM Government believes the President of the United States should be extended the full courtesy of a state visit. We look forward to welcoming President Trump once dates and arrangements are finalized.” I interpreted HM Government to mean that the invitation was to the office of President, rather than to Donald Trump per se. It reminded me of the powerful West Wing episode “Take This Sabbath Day.”
President Jed Bartlet is agonizing over whether to pardon an inmate on Death Row before he is executed at midnight, and he has summoned his priest to the Oval Office. Father Cavanaugh asks whether he should address him as Jed or Mr. President, to which Bartlet replies: “To be honest, I prefer Mr President. It’s not ego. There are certain decisions I have to make while I’m in this room. It’s helpful in those situations not to think of yourself as the man but as the office.” He continues to agonize until he is handed a note to say the execution has happened. Then Father Cavanaugh says to him: “Jed. Would you like me to hear your confession?”
There is no label or role or status or office that absolves us from being first and fundamentally a human being.
I cannot control others labeling me, but I can control whether I label others or label myself, and whether I act out of those labels. Still, categorizing is a natural way of organizing thought, human cultures are vital and life-giving, and seeking identity is vital to growing into that glorious distinctiveness of myself as a human being. Perhaps, therefore I don’t aspire to be label-less, but label-free.
Nadia Bolz-Weber speaks for me when she writes: “Free people are dangerous people. Free people can’t be easily controlled. Free people laugh more than others. Free people see beauty where others do not.” Let us be free people. Let us be human beings.