This evening I had a phone conversation with a historian and very close personal friend of mine who lives on the other side of the United States from me. He and I share a good deal in common in our life experiences and interests, and we had an extensive conversation about how much he hated the labels that other people put on him, especially for being unmarried. As I am not married myself, and have reflected often on my longings and frustrations in that regard, I can relate because of my own sensitivity to the slights and name-calling of others. Though it is not a subject I write or talk about often, today I would like to reflect a little bit on the issue of self-identity, and its cultural, political, and religious ramifications.
A lot of people enjoy finding fault with Political Correctness, considering it only a leftist phenomenon, upset that certain (derogatory and offensive) words can no longer be used in civil discourse, marking one as a racist or sexist or some other kind of barbaric person. To the extent that political correctness does not involve an actual manipulation of the truth for the sake of polite fiction, but involves a more respectful and civil way of dealing with other people, of seeing them as human beings instead of others or things, I take no offense with it. After all, civility is often (accurately) considered to be a right-wing political correctness focusing on manners and breeding, and we ought not to forget all human beings are worthy of being treated with respect simply for being created in God’s image, if nothing else.
One of the ways in which people deserve respect is the right to identify themselves. There is a fundamental difference between the way a name or label is meant when it is chosen by someone for themselves and the way a name or label is meant when it is used by someone else, especially someone who could be considered an enemy. Fundamentally, a name chosen by one’s self is an identity–it is a sign to the world of which people they consider their own, where they belong, what sorts of activities and pursuits they identify with. The identities we choose give us an instant kinship with others who have chosen the same identity, a sense of belonging to the same tribe, whether that is (for me) a tribe of bibliophiles, historians, Sabbatarian Christians, Mensans, Janeites, engineers, violists, Yankees, Lincolnophiles, or any other identity I have chosen for myself (and there are many more besides these). The identities others, especially our enemies, choose for us are derogatory labels, meant to convey a sense of incompleteness or wrongness or lesser status, names like nerd or “Progressive” or bachelor.
When we choose an identity for ourselves, we are seeking a community of like-minded people who share a particularly history, perspective, interest, belief, or appreciation. We can choose many of these identities, particularly if we are (as I am) people of complicated and multifaceted interests and enjoyments or personal backgrounds. Each of these identities provides a sense of belonging with others who see a particular aspect of the world the same way. We draw strength and support from these identities, encouragement for the struggles we all face in being treated with dignity and respect in a world that is often nasty and hostile to many different people of all identities.
However, when others seek to pin a name or label on us, they do so often as our enemies, seeking to ridicule or abuse, make fun of, bully, mock, tease, and all kinds of other hostile and nasty behavior. Such labels do not come with a sense of belonging to a community, but the sense of being contemptible and worthless and unworthy of love and respect. The labels that other people put on us, the names they call us, seek to belittle us and make us lepers and outcasts. They seek to make us feel alone, without a sense of community or belonging. Such behavior is improper for anyone to show to any other human being, for we are all potential children of God–whether we act like it yet or not.
It is a striking and ironic, if not outright hypocritical, phenomenon that many of those who are the most prickly about their own identities are the least respectful of the identities of other people. When we lack maturity, regardless of our calendar age, we demand that others respect us without respecting them. We fail to see the reciprocity that self-respect means respect for others as well. The rights we demand for ourselves are rights we must grant to others for themselves. Among those rights is the right to define their own identities. It is just as wrong for people to ridicule men as it is to belittle women, to make fun of European Americans as it is to make fun of Mexicans or Muslims or blacks or Jews or Japanese or anyone else. We all hate to be made fun of, which means we ought not to make fun of anyone else.
This principle of reciprocity springs straight out of the Golden Rule and the Second Great Commandment, principles that ought to be basic for anyone who considers themselves a Christian (it should be noted as well that similar principles are in many other faiths as well). Matthew 7:12 says: “Therefore, whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:39, quoting Leviticus 19:18, says: “And the second [great commandment] is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” It’s not that complicated–giving others the right to define themselves as you demand it for yourself is basic–and yet it is so hard for us to do so.
Why is this? It ought to be simple and straightforward to realize that just as we all recognize that we all have the right to define where we belong and that no one has the right to label us we should not try to label and ridicule others, but it’s not that simple at all to do, or else we would all do a better job at it. Speaking for myself, I struggle not to use insulting language to others, to label them as one thing or another, to try to see every human being as worthy of respect (however much they may insult me or belittle me or attack me or ridicule me or disagree with me). I struggle myself to let others define themselves and to appreciate the unique insights they bring about subjects and matters and perspectives that would never cross my mind to study or learn about or think about otherwise. I consider it worth the effort to do so, though, and think myself enriched by what I have learned from others talking about themselves and their own identities and concerns.
This problem is deeply ingrained in human beings. If one has studied any kind of comparative anthropology, whether formally or not, one understands that many ethnic groups have labeled themselves some translation of “the people.” People recognize that they are people, which is a good start, I assume, but insufficient to really dwell in harmony and respect with others. When you are a farming tribe and call yourself “the people” and call your nomadic neighbors “the enemy,” there is a failure to recognize their humanity simply because they live a different way of life. As was sung, rather tongue and cheek in the musical Oklahoma, “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends.” We should see each other as potential friends, but there are so many ways we can divide ourselves and pit ourselves against each other if we are not constantly aware of the common humanity underneath our different perspectives and opinions and approaches.
What can be done? In this day and age many people are very prickly about other people calling them names or labeling them in a derogatory and hostile fashion. Other people cannot understand why it is important to respect people who look differently, come from different backgrounds, or have different habits or interests even as they themselves insist, quite loudly, and being respected. How can we teach civility and respect unless some of us start practicing it ourselves, even to those who are not civilized or mature enough to give us the same respect in return that we graciously give them. Perhaps, if some of us can start the process, we may eventually reach a point where mocking nicknames and abuse and teasing and ridicule and bullying of anyone becomes a barbaric relic of the dark ages rather than a daily reality. And if we can all help in some small part, it may be enough for a good start.