My students hate labels, or so they tell me: “Why do we have to put everything in boxes?” they ask. It’s one of the points about which they seem to all agree, right up there with individual freedom, color blindness, and cute puppies. I often like labels, though. In fact, I have a label maker. And I began to indulge my penchant for labels about the same time that my students agreed labels were bad. I am, then, for now at any rate, quite content to label myself as a feminist, pragmatist, Buddhish professor.
My students — almost to a person — profess to hate labels because they see them as constricting, and, of course, they can be. Being labeled by others as a slut or a jock in the ninth grade can come to define a kid to the exclusion of deeper, more nuanced identities, affinities, and aptitudes. And it’s surely no accident that it’s this oppressive definition of “labeling” that students focus on and then (sort of) reject.
They have learned that tolerance (in which we all just “get along” in a melting pot of insipid bliss) depends upon a rejection of labels. And reactionary conservative extremism reinforces this misunderstanding through its shallow critiques of “identity politics,” according to which I am an entitled whiner if I insist on living as a self-identified “lesbian.” In short, the very idea of labels has gotten a bad rap and been willfully misused.
But labels are indispensable and can serve liberatory and expressive aims. As I sit here, I see them all around, dials on my stove that denote high and low flame, and a Sharpie squiggle on a repurposed peanut butter jar marked “half-caff” (very important). They help create temporary order and can often be altered at will for either playful or serious purposes. I can peel off and restick labels, change my canister of oats to quinoa just like that. From this point of view, labels are not essentialist identifiers of fixed natures, but practical, shifting markers that can make life both easier and more fun.
It is in this spirit that I’m quite happy to say “I’m a feminist, pragmatist, Buddhish professor.” The words point to features of my aptitudes and inclinations that connect to social justice, and ethical and metaphysical minimalism. Once can infer quite a bit about the sort of teacher, scholar, and interlocutor I will be with only these labels to go on. But, of course, it is part of the point that the labels I have taken up, at least in the classroom, are open-ended, leaving much to the imagination, both of others and of myself. Other labels, by contrast, that also accurately apply to me, limit me in the minds of others which is, of course, precisely why it can be so powerful sometimes to announce ourselves too as gay, or agnostic, or socialist or vegetarian or some other label that might challenge the preconceptions of those around us.
But labeling myself isn’t something I do only, or even primarily, for the sake of others. Naming myself as a feminist, pragmatist, Buddhish professor is a shorthand way of reminding myself of some of the basic, sometimes aspirational, values that guide my professional practice. When I stick these labels on my forehead, neatly printed from my Epson machine, I am announcing a commitment that I have to certain pedagogical, intellectual, and ethical values that both I and my students can hold me to. And, importantly, such labels can encourage students to be curious; “What exactly does it mean to be a pragmatist anyway?” I can feel them wonder as they look at me.
I am, then, in favor of reclaiming labels, of embracing the undeniably useful and even playful quality of them. The trick, of course, is to move away from the Judeo-Christian image of God-the-Labeler supplying identity to objects and beings as he names each one “in the beginning.” I am, then, offering a pragmatist, feminist approach to labels to explain why I am comfortable calling myself a pragmatist feminist. When it comes right down to it, in any case, I have noticed that most students are still quite committed to labels even as they decry them. Many still declare themselves as Christian, as tolerant, and, increasingly, as gender fluid. And there is perhaps no label to which contemporary students are likely to be more attached than that of being beyond labels.