The Power of Labels
I've been thinking a lot about labels lately. How we define ourselves, the groups and organizations we claim affinity with when we define ourselves, who we are saying we don't belong with when we claim an identity.
It's a thread that runs through a lot of my dissertation research so I think I'm hyper-aware of labels at the moment. Also, coming from a multiracial, multicultural background issues of labeling and identity have always resonated strongly with me.
What has been catching my eye of late are the labels "extremist" and "moderate." Those, of course, appearing in news stories about Muslim communities and various conflicts around the world.
I have huge issues with both those labels. Whenever I see them in a headline or news story or I hear them come out of the mouths of reporters or pundits I yell "Who says they're extremist? Who's deciding who's moderate?"
Who gets to decide? Who gets to craft label definitions?
When labels are applied from outside a group or community they serve to muffle and obscure the lived realities of the groups being labeled. It robs individuals of the ability to decide for themselves who they are. It can muffle people and robs them of power.
So Muslims are seen as irrational and violent and unmodern because, centuries ago, colonizing powers decided that framing would best serve the cause of imperial expansion. Muslims are treated like a threat and not seen as woven into the fabric of the places in which they live.
A few years ago, when I was in Germany, I spent some time talking to young Muslims whose families had come from Turkey. The young people had been born in Germany. In Berlin, in fact. They had grown up speaking German along with Turkish, taking the U-Bahn around the city, trying to carve a space for themselves that could be both Muslim and German or Turkish and German.
And, yet, historic framings of Muslims as scary, irrational others threw up barriers for these young people. Media representations in which Turks in Germany were portrayed as criminals or uneducated or underemployed only served to highlight their assumed outsider status.
All those kids wanted was to be seen as German, too. Berlin was in their blood, but they felt as though their lived experiences were never going to be seen as valid. Or as really German.
I don't know if I have any answers, really. I keep turning this issue of identity, of label, over in my head and think I've worn it smooth like a stone but I've not had any great epiphanies.
I keep going to back Umberto Eco's discussion of belonging and identity in "Inventing the Enemy." (It's not that he's necessarily said anything new on the subject, but I think the lyrical way he discusses things just stays with me.)
We need an enemy, he says. "Enemies" help us define more clearly who we are. All those porous, amoeba like edges of our identities become more rigid when we feel threatened. When there's not an obvious enemy, well, we invent one.
So that Muslims, immigrants, feminists, anyone whose life experience or life story seems different from ours becomes an "other" against which we define ourselves. We latch onto that which seems most different, most threatening, and reduce our "enemy" to little more than a cardboard caricature. We define them and give them little to no room to resist that definition.
For those along the coasts, those of us living in Middle America become unthinking masses who don't critically engage with our worlds. For those outside the region, Appalachia becomes little more than a third world country that needs saving. For those who have never stepped inside a mosque or ever had interaction with a Muslim person, Islam becomes a religion of intolerance and violence.
The labeling of people as moderate or extremist, as conservative or liberal, as whatever it happens to be, does little more than propagate stereotypes. And we get stuck. Having the same "debates" and "conversations" without discourse or society ever really moving forward.
Or it at least feels that way.
As I said, there's no epiphany here. I've had no eureka moment.
All I can do is ask is that when you hear a particular label being wielded in a conversation, to stop and question why it's being used, how it's being used, who's using it, what they gain from using that particular label and not another.
Don't swallow whole whatever it is you're being served.