The Label Is Not The Package. The Map Is Not The Road.

An online acquaintance of mine was recently complaining that “nobody uses labels correctly.” Which is absolutely correct.

I mean, seriously, what does “submissive” mean? What does “polyamorous” mean? Hell, what do “liberal” and “sports fan” and “Jewish” mean, aside from a too-nebulous set of traits? Hell, I’m buddies with a number of atheist bacon-lovin’ Jews – so how the hell can the term “Jewish” be utilized well when it can encompass my reject-the-faith pals and the new zealous convert with no Jewish relatives?

The solution my friend suggested, however, was completely off: Let’s all utilize labels properly, with each label meaning a specific and concrete thing. Or, barring that, abandon labels entirely to look at each person as a unique individual.

…That’s not gonna work, said I.

The first step, defining correctly, would fail because large numbers of people are absolute shit at understanding who they are. Ever sit down with someone at your job and say to a co-worker, “Look, I need someone who’s responsible, comes in on time, and does their job?”

And your slacker co-worker, who routinely shows up ten minutes late, gets lousy performance reviews, and sticks you with all his leftover work, goes, “Yeah, that’s totally me”?

The problem is that that co-worker genuinely thinks that they are responsible, on-time, and does their job…. even when the definition is exact and they are wrong. Sure, the job description says “Be in at 9:00 a.m.,” but to them, 9:08 is like9:00 a.m. – and even once you convince them that you staying on-board an extra eight minutes to cover for them while they deign to show up is fucking with your schedule, they’ll then claim that everyone’s late sometimes, they’re not late all that often, and when they are they’ve got really good excuses.

They genuinely believe they’re punctual.

They will apply this definition, incorrectly, to themselves.

And if they are left unchecked, as they meet new employees at this job and trainthose fresh fish that “on time” means “plus or minus ten minutes, usually plus,” they will mutate the definition as it’s used in this environment. Eventually, as other people come to learn the culture from the slacker, his definition will replace the “book” definition….

…and so chaos begins.

So even if we all agreed that “love” meant “valuing your partner’s goals more than your own,” some dude would be all like, “Yeah! I totally value her goals!” even as he made her feel guilty for having them and never offered to do the housework while she was out pursuing them.

This is why we can’t have nice things. Because humans are awful, awful, awful at knowing who they are.

So why don’t we just take everyone as individuals instead? That’s the better plan, amiright? We’re all unique, don’t categorize anyone, just have no expectations except that person!

Labels are utilized so poorly, so often, that we never think of all the benefits of labels.

Because really, evolutionarily speaking, you probably know more celebrities than most Stone-Age people knew in person. We’re just not equipped to deal with the thousands of people we run into over the course of a lifetime – our brains are actually really inefficient little machines, in their own strange way. We do a lot with them, which is amazing only because the world is even more complex, but we only function because the brain takes a thousand shortcuts.

We don’t actually see a whole object. We see bits of it at a time as the focal point of our eye wanders over portions, then stitch it together.

We don’t remember well. We condense it down to something memorable, which is often not the same as “what’s accurate.”

Our whole life is actually one big magician’s trick.

And the awful thing is that if we never used labels, most of us would probably find it impossible to remember much about people we never knew. Asking people to meet hundreds of folks and saying, “Well, none of them can be lumped together by any similar qualities!” is asking a lot of folks.

We’re just hard-wired to think of people as redheads or Republicans or what-have-you. I’m not saying that’s great, but that’s the shortcut we use to cope.

And in many cases, that shortcut is fucking awesome. I’m polyamorous. What does that mean on its surface? Well, hell, a lot of people I’d call swingers refer to themselves as polyamorous. And a lot of people I’d refer to as “callous psychopaths” also call themselves polyamorous. And a lot of people who live perfectly nice poly lifestyles without my wife-as-quote-unquote-“primary” or my rules on who I have sex with or any of my permissions systems call themselves polyamorous.

As a label, it’s kind of a mess.

But then again, how much do you really need to know?

When you get down to it, if you’re making chit-chat at a party, do you really wantme to give you a forty-minute lecture on all the aspects of how I date women in my polyamory and the agreements and the emotional bonds we have, so you can see me as a truly unique individual? Or do you just want the overview so we go on to talk about Star Trek?

Trick is, labels are not the end point, they’re the start of the negotiation.

If someone tells me they’re a submissive, I can generally assume that they prefer to be acted upon rather than to act within a sexual relationship, and maybe more so. That’s really vague.

That vagueness may be all I need if I’m just making small talk.

If I intend to play with them at a club, however, “Submissive” is a wide starting point that gives me some information as to whether I’d enjoy playing with them or not. If I choose to pursue them, then I need to drill deeper to determine how that particular person’s submissive approach affects my scene.

And if I intend to date them? “Submissive” can mean a bunch of things, and now it is my duty to descend from the general to the person-specific, determining whether their unique interpretation of “Submissive” is compatible with the kind of submissiveness I’d want in my day-to-day life. (It often isn’t. I like bratty spitfires who submit, a comparatively small subset of the “Submissive” label. Still, they’re Submissives, too.)

But really, I don’t need to know someone’s Gorean history if I’m just here for the checkers tournament.

These labels are nebulous and inexact – which is a bug, not a feature. Poly probably means someone’s all right with fucking multiple people. Liberals usually mean a distrust of government control when it comes to violence, a trust of government control when it comes to economics. Programmers generally work with computer languages.

The trick is to remember that the label is not the person. Even if the person self-applies that label. There are poly-fidelitous folks, liberals who like the right kind of governmental war, programmers who don’t use languages. A label is a general place to start, and that’s wonderful, but you commit some ghastly fallacies when you decide that all Republicans are anti-abortion or all Liberals love Che Guevara or all Doms crave pretty young things.

Labels are useful tools to categorize, a shortcut that minds take. When you start believing the map is the landscape, you make critical errors.

Don’t do that. And don’t think that labels are bad, either. They’re a helpful way to condense a pretty confusing universe, and the more you contemplate the need for them, the humbler you’ll be.

Ain’t a bad thing, really.

1 Comment

  1. Rev. Polyamory
    Sep 28, 2013

    This is an exceptionally well done think piece on labels. I’ve linked to both my blogs.
    How many conflicts could be avoided if we all just took this to heart?
    This essay deserves wider visibility.

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