If You Label Me, You Negate Me
It’s embarrassing to admit this, but one of the most profound ideas that influences my thinking I got from watching “Wayne’s World”.
I don’t really remember the scene or why it was said, but at one point Wayne quotes the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: “Once you label me, you negate me”.
“Once you label me, you negate me”.
As I’ve watched the news of Charlottesville unfold I keep thinking about this quote.
Because I’m stuck. Because we’re stuck.
As I listen to the stories of Charlottesville this time I hear the same stories I’ve been hearing over the last few years, over and over and over. They’re the stories of Ferguson, of Miami, of San Diego, of Copenhagen.
And they’re not new stories, in the slightest – they’re stories that are as old as we are as a species. They’re the stories that came as soon as we formed words to describe ourselves and became aware that others described themselves differently.
They’re the stories of our adjectives.
And I’m stuck.
As I listen to the stories of yet another clash I feel the pressure to choose a side. As I read the comments on articles, though, all I see are people choosing a side and then making broad, ill-informed assumptions or justifications about the “other” side.
There’s a word for that: prejudice.
Prejudice. Pre-judging. We tend to equate it with racism, but the word applies to all the “-isms”. Sexism. Ageism, or any other -ism that leverages apart two groups.
I’m white. I’m male. I’m straight.
I didn’t choose any of those adjectives. I’d be willing to bet that you didn’t choose yours.
Those are qualities I inherited, but they do not define what I choose to be. They don’t speak to my passions, my interests or my dreams.
As a white, as a male, as a straight person I can never truly understand the perspective and life experiences of someone who has different adjectives. But, honestly, as I speak with other straight white males, I’ve learned that we don’t even necessarily share much commonality. There’s just way too many other influences: rich/poor, urban/rural, large family/single child…
As a white person I struggle with how to approach the race issue. I want understand, to empathize, to be part of the solution, but I struggle with the language. Am I “woke”? Am I an “ally”? Is there a “right” way?
I don’t think there is.
Because just as I am aware that my experiences as a white are not necessarily anything close to the experiences as someone who looks similar to me, I know that two persons who share a commonality of pigmentation may have absolutely nothing else in common. The same could be said of gender or age or heritage or any of the other labels we hang on ourselves.
So I’m done with adjectives.
I’m done with labels.
I find that if I use them they’re nothing but a hook to hang a cloak of prejudice on. They’re the excuses we use to justify horrible behavior to each other.
I’m not interested in your adjectives. Those negate you.
I’m interested in your verbs. Those show me your heart. Those show me what you choose to be.
I’m interested in your story.
“What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are… because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets, too, because it makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own.”
– Frederick Buechner, “Telling Secrets”