Up Front by Emma Hart


Romeo Smells of Roses

It's so difficult to be properly politically correct these days. Trying not to offend people is practically a full-time job – unless you take the easy way out and just don't ever say anything. Particularly, never call anyone anything.

Ranginui Walker was quite right in last week's Media Seven when he talked about the power of naming things, how that lets us own and define them. The names we use for things demonstrate our respect for them, how we feel about them. Part of the battle for traditionally disempowered groups has been to have the right name used for them. Sometimes, even your allies get it wrong, and you have to gently correct them:

Language is fundamental to giving trans people the same respect that cis people take for granted. It signals how the speaker sees trans people, and can shape the views of both speaker and audience… everyone who identifies as a woman is a woman, and everyone who identifies as a man is a man.

It's particularly easy to see the power of naming when someone is getting it wrong on purpose. The recent trial of Angie Zapata's killer has been a clear and ugly example. The killer refers to his victim as 'it', but that's not as chilling as the behaviour of the prosecutors:

Family members and friends echoed repeatedly, "my sister," "Angie," one by one on the stand Friday as public defenders Annette Kundelius and Brad Martin questioned them about "Justin."

By their deliberate choice of name and pronoun, they constantly reminded everyone involved that this person was not normal, not properly female. I get pissed off enough when people call me 'Mrs Dearden'.

There's a great game you can play with media naming, too. Take an article, and replace problematic identifiers (terrorists, gang members, beneficiaries, you get the idea) with the word 'people'. Here's a randomly-chosen example from Stuff's world news today:

Pakistani forces backed by jets and helicopter gunships have begun an offensive against people in a valley just 100 km northwest of the capital, Islamabad, part of a new campaign to halt the rapid advance of the people.
Military spokesman Major-General Athar Abbas said he expected it would take up to a week to clear an estimated 500 people from Buner district

So we're aware of the power of naming, we're all pretty decent people, and we want to get our naming right. We want to consider the rights and needs of people in minority groups, but then Dame Cath Tizard comes along in that very same Media 7 episode and points out that actually 'older people', as a monolithic group that all want the same things, don't exist.

The problem with labelling, however well-intentioned, is that it's reductive. (See how, when we moved from positive to negative aspects, I switched from 'name' to 'label'? Two different names for the same process: one good, one bad.) It's our brains being lazy, basically. Once you pop a label on something, you don't have to think about it any more. It goes from being 'that tall thing with all the leaves that leans slightly left because of all the wind that the cats sharpen their claws on' to being 'tree', and therefore the same as all those other things called 'tree'.

And maybe there's nothing wrong with that when it comes to trees. If we didn't have convenient labels like that we'd never get through a sentence. But when it's 'old people', or 'women'? It's really easy to listen to one person from that group and think you know what they all think, what they all want.

Then there's the pressure to conform within the group, and the arguments about who gets to be a part of it. So while it's really interesting to consider the idea of who gets to decide who can call themselves a feminist when the idea can be kicked around calmly and rationally, the flip side isn't hard to find:

there came a point where the strife over who gets to call themselves a feminist and who does not became utterly not worth it to me. It’s that simple really… Do I still feel like a feminist a lot of the time? Yep. Do a whole lot of other people still think of me as a feminist? Yep. But so much strife over a word? Why?

…at this point I could personally care less if people call themselves a feminist, a FM feminist, an ex-feminist, a real feminist, a pro-porn feminist, or the Grande Empress of South Beach. I couldn’t give a flying fuck through a donut as to who says who and who are not "real feminists". That game is never going to end, and the prizes suck.

People who should be allies because they believe in many of the same things, fighting amongst themselves over who owns the label.

I've found my own way to simplify this: I just don't care. I don't care if people call themselves (or me) feminist or not. I just care about what they believe in and what they fight for. I don't care which letter goes first: whether it's LGBT or GLBT or even BGLT, though the one thing we all appear to be able to agree on is that it's never the T. That's a waste of energy that could better be spent arguing about whether we want gay marriage or not.

Wait, sorry, I said 'gay marriage'. That should be 'same-sex marriage':

"gay marriage" is all about the gays, while "same sex marriage" is inclusive of bisexuals. However, whenever I bring this up, I feel like I’m being stupid and nit-picky. After all, we're talking about the big picture here. I'm sensitive to this difference because of my whatchamacallit identity, bisexual.

'Whatchamacallit identity' is a great label, I'm having that. We need our labels after all, our names, but we also need, just every now and then, to remember that the name is not the thing.

Unless you're the Green Onion Slave Girl.

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