January 02, 2012

The Aversion of Labels

There are a couple of labels that I've noticed a lot of people are averse to stamping themselves with, despite the fact that if you expressed the label as a description of its philosophy, they would most likely agree with that. These labels are ones that I wear wholeheartedly and they are:

  • Atheist
  • Feminist


I think atheism is the more cut and dried of the two, purely because its definition is so simple. I've banged on about it before, but I'll quickly run over it again. If you don't believe in God, you are an atheist. You are only not a God an atheist if you positively hold the belief that a God exists. You don't have to have a position of certainly, you don't even have to have a position at all. You aren't making a statement about how you feel about religion, whether you are part of a religious culture or that you feel confident in evolution, the Big Bang or any other scientific explanation. Whatever your position on anything, if you don't believe in a god then you are an atheist. The word says no more about you.

In a way, cats and rocks and woodlice are atheists too, because they (as far as we're aware) don't believe in God either. They've probably never even considered the idea. Until you are introduced to the idea of God, you can't believe in it.

As you may know, I'm anti-theistic, anti-religious and pro-secularism but this is in addition to my atheism. I could be an atheist and love religion and love the idea of God and wish I believed in him if only I could be convinced. Being an atheist doesn't make you akin to a Dawkins or a Hitchens, or even a cat. I think this is the problem with the label - people are worried to be associated with the vocal proponents of atheism. I know a lot of atheists (most of my close friends) who really don't like Richard Dawkins, but they are still happy to call themselves atheist. In fact, most of them don't give a crap about the debate on religion and probably find my constant banging on about it on Facebook and Twitter utterly boring. But we're all atheists.


Feminism is a little more nuanced because it's a positive position and not a response to a claim, as atheism is. I can't go around calling people and things 'feminist' without having a decent understanding of their position on gender and society.

In it's most basic form, feminism is the belief that men and women should have equal opportunities in society, life, education, healthcare, politics, etc, etc. Unless there's a very good reason to discriminate (an bad example would be 'being allowed to go topless'. A lot of women don't agree with not being allowed to go topless where a man would, but in this instance there is at least a tangible difference from which to work an opinion) then one should treat a woman as one would a man and vice versa.

An equivalent expression to 'feminist' (in a different area) is 'not racist'. Being not racist means you don't allow the differences in people's ethnicities to judge/treat them differently, and so it is with feminism and gender.

In a way, feminism is a bit of a bad word because it sounds like it's pro-women when, in a more accurate sense, it's pro-equality. More men would realise they were feminists, if they understood this. Hell, I've had women tell me they aren't feminists, but I'm pretty sure none of them would want their rights taken away from them or be turned down for jobs because they were competing with a male applicant.

Once again, like the Dawkins example previously, I think feminism is sold on its loudest proponents. The controversial quotes make the papers, the 'over the top', 'PC gone mad' hyperbole are reported. The bra burners and the 'man haters' are the very symbol of feminism to those who don't really understand it, so many people - including women - back away from the association.

The Point?

At the end of the day, labels are labels and the important things to consider are the philosophies. Do you believe there is a God? Do you think men and women should be treated equally? Maybe it's not super important that everyone agrees on a label if everyone can agree on answers to the questions.

But then again, a label brings people together. It's an umbrella that we huddle under, under which we unite, under which we can turn to one another and realise we are the same and believe in the same things. David Silverman brought up the point at Skepticon 2011 that we wanted people to recognise themselves as atheist. The people who labelled themselves humanists, secularists, freethinkers, brights, etc were all atheists (NB. This isn't strictly true, but it was mostly true. The atheist circle would gobble most of those groups up on a Venn diagram). They were segregating themselves and making themselves weaker.

I think feminism in particular would find a lot more people cheerfully labelling themselves as such if they recognised that they too were feminists all along. The labels do mean something, but they aren't loaded with anything bad. Be proud of your belief.

The great Satah has pointed me to the following two articles by s.e smith which are interesting and important takes on why people reject "feminism".
Why I'm Leaving Feminism on Meloukhia
I'm Not a Feminist and I Wish People Would Stop Trying to Convince Me Otherwise on xoJane

Both articles are quite "movement" based and I'm still thinking about them and will probably respond if I think of something worth saying.

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