This is me, Ali. You’ve all seen photos and are familiar with what I look like. Some of you know me in ‘real’ life too. Both photos and facts, however, can spawn pointless – and potentially damaging – labels.
I am a composite of characteristics. We all are. Looking at the image above, I am sure there will be those who will not be able to resist adding labels, trying to define me by what I appear to be, narrowing me down to the strict categorising we humans are so poisonously adept at.
I am NOT, as I said in the title, my labels. I have parts of the whole package that can be labelled – sure; we all do – but I am not prepared to be confined by them! They are limiting. They open the door to prejudice, or, in some sour cases, a sense of wholly fictitious entitlement. They separate. They are not part of the unifying principle.
It is not the facets which are important; it is what we do with them and how they cause us to react to the world we live in and how we treat our fellow creatures, be they human or animal.
We have free will, so can choose from our characteristics which ones we wish to nurture and grow, which ones we wish to lop off and which we are undecided about. The mistake too many of us make is to look at another and condemn him or her to the special Hell suggested by our own, often fallacious and injurious, labelling system.
So, allow me to work on my own possible labels as illustration of the point I am making:
I was brought up in a middle-class, Christian, family. I am white. I was born female and have identified, for the most part (but not exclusively), as heterosexual. I went to a girls’ grammar school in Oxford, then to university, did a degree in English Literature, taught for three decades. I have a Family Tree, a Family Crest and sound posh. My background, on my father’s side, has a strong Military Tradition.
It would, looking at the labels hidden within this, be easy to classify me as a posh, out of touch with reality, conventional snob.
I shall carry on: I am coming up for my sixtieth birthday, am certainly not slim, have wrinkles and grey hairs and sagging particulars; I am retired, wear glasses, am not the epitome of litheness and have liver spots on my hands.
Labels here would strongly suggest that I am old, grey, fat and past it!
The assumptions drawn from both paragraphs lead to some worrying labels: That I will be intolerant of, and unable to identify with, anyone not in my class, race, religion or education system. That, as an old person, I will, of course, look down upon youth and be unable to bear anything the younger generations wear, do, listen to or say. That, by virtue of my age combined with my background, I am a worthless, past it, Tory-Bitch, parasitic, member of the controlling classes and should, come the Revolution, be shot!
This, my dears, is where people tend to get hoist on their own sharp labels for others – because the above contains nothing but empty air and descriptors applied to some of those thus labelled.
I have never identified as an archetypal member of my birth class, race or religion. Having family trees and crests and all that bollocks is historically interesting, but has nothing to do with the person I actually am. I was not brought up in a wealthy home, and have never voted Tory. Being white and heterosexual would only matter if those parts caused me to look down upon, abuse or discriminate against those who are not. I gave up Christianity at the age of thirteen, and am now a practising Ritual Magician. Nothing has ever been handed to me on a plate: I worked, full time, for my living from my early twenties.
I have never conformed to what are seen as age-appropriate ways of thinking and of seeing the world. My outlook as I approach my seventh decade remains identical, in most respects, to that I had as a nineteen-rising-twenty-year-old. I still choose friends on the basis of compatibility, and WHO they are, rather than giving a toss about their colour, class, religious beliefs, gender identification or choice of sexual partner.
And yet still I get labelled. Inevitable, I know. We all do it to some extent – and I understand that some minority groups, who have received a lot of needless and hurtful prejudicial shit, can be defensive and fearful around unknown others. Hell, I am a woman – for centuries one of the most reviled and misunderstood and discriminated against groups; I know what it is to be on the vicious end of prejudice!
But – I am Ali. I am me. I am not a human frame festooned with other people’s labels. I am, I hope, bigger than any that might be applied to me. Because, you see – and I know many of you do! – labels are really pasted on to name, and thus shame, the often wildly exaggerated stereotypes of any known group, and usually reveal far more about the fears and prejudices of the label-giver than they ever could about the subject.
The world would, in my view, be a much better place if we could get out of this childish, playground-like, habit of thinking, and saying, ‘Oh, you are lower class or upper class or rich or unemployed or lesbian or trans or cis or gay or Muslim or Pagan or Tory or Labour or Pro-life or Vegetarian – and, therefore, you will be, in some way, WRONG: Evil, mean, insensitive, violent, abusive, condemned by the Word of someone’s God…’
Why can’t we start from looking at who people are – and not peeling off, scrutinising and then rejecting on the basis of the various labels that society has deemed fit to pin to its citizens’ backs?