Tuesday, July 8, 2008

On Labels and Generalizations

A while back, I had a rather strange interaction with a fellow whose article about alleged "judicial tyranny" I linked to. In my article, I noted that a post of his regarding the California marriage decision reflected a serious misunderstanding of and ignorance about gay people. To summarize, he wrote a post saying that he didn't understand why gay people sought the right to call their unions marriage but believed they were doing merely out of some desire to stick "their thumb in God's eye."

In the comment thread following his article, I calmly responded that "rather than this being about sticking one’s thumb in God’s eyes, it has more to do with the fact that referring to same-sex families as 'domestic partnerships' turns gay and lesbian Americans into second-class citizens." In addition, I explained that the denial of marriage "is demeaning and it sends the message that our families are not legitimate, real, or worthy of respect."

As I believed this man to be well-intentioned-yet-misinformed, my purpose in commenting on his blog was to challenge some of the assumptions he held about gay people and to try to explain where some of us were coming from. It quickly became apparent, however, that this "thumb in God's eye" assumption was topped by other incredibly-flawed assumptions about gay people.

Responding with what I believe to be full sincerity, this fellow said:

"I have known homosexual people, and have several in my extended family. Every one of them turned the hurt, anger, and bitterness produced by horrible wrongs done them into a lifestyle where perversion is one of the qualifications for acceptance.... I’m worried that your pain and heartache and anger won’t ever go away without the heartfelt apology of those who wronged you."

This response is disturbing on several levels. Why marriage defenders consistently believe they are capable of delving into the inner recesses of gay people's minds and emotions never fails to boggle my mind. But today, I want to focus on one aspect of his response. Because of this blogger's limited experience with "homosexuals" whose gayness was (supposedly) caused by "horrible wrongs" done to them, he assumes that my (and every gay person's?) gayness was also caused by something bad that happened to us. And, assuming both that I am unhappy with my life, pained, and angry because of some painful past trauma, this ministry student also included the expected prayers for my "healing."

If sincere, the gesture is appreciated, although unnecessary. The generalizations this blogger made about me based on my label as "lesbian" or, in his words, "homosexual" remind me of further problems with labels and simplistic thinking.

In past dealings with those with whom I disagree, it has been pretty common for my "opponents" to assume that they know much more about me and my opinions than they really do on the basis that I call myself a lesbian or a feminist. On a frustrating level, I've had the experience of people telling me what I believed about certain issues before I even told them what I believed about certain issues. Why? Because by calling myself a "feminist" or a "lesbian" I am aligned with a (non-existent) monolithic feminist/lesbian party platform, I suppose.

As one recent example of this, in my article discussing transgender issues, on the basis that I am a lesbian who wrote a pro-transgender article, one commenter "informed" me what I believed about something and then told me I was wrong for "believing" that! Specifically, in my trans article I made a very specific point of not conflating trans issues with "gay" issues (as these are two separate issues. This particular commenter, however, responded "Why the conflation with gay issues?" and then proceeded to "explain" to me how the two issues were separate. (As a nit-picky aside, her explanation is incredibly lacking). Now, I don't think she was out to intentionally misrepresent what I had written. In fact, I think a quite plausible explanation for this commenter's ability to invent an argument that I had not actually made is based on the fact that I am both a lesbian and a feminist. And, some feminists equate gay issues with trans issues. Therefore, I also equate gay issues with trans issues.

Now, my point here isn't to revive old debates with these bloggers. Rather, it's to point out a fundamental problem with labels. When people use labels, I think that the part of the brain that gets nuance often disappears. Obviously, from a psychological perspective, categories and labels help us make sense of the world. But the use of labels also carries the risk of allowing us to make huge over-generalizations about groups of people and, consequently, individuals as well as their opinions and beliefs.

Many flawed generalizations about gay men and lesbians are floating around, thanks largely to an anti-gay culture of misinformation: Gay men are rich. Feminists hate men. Gay men are pedophiles. Gays and lesbians are gay because they've been abused. We know them well. And yes, these characteristics are true of some gay men and lesbians, but they are overwhelmingly not true of all gay men and lesbians.

In the case of the ministry student his mind says: All the "homosexuals" I know are gay because of something "horribly wrong" done to them. Fannie is a homosexual. Therefore, some horrible wrong caused her gayness.

For these reasons, I am always much more interested in what people think as opposed to what people call themselves. For, if I had nickel for every self-described liberal who opposes gay rights while using the "liberal" label to prove to the world how "un-bigoted" he is, I could swim in a vault of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck.

On the practical level, I have tried to make very conscious efforts to make it clear in my writing who I am and am not talking about. Rather than making generalizations like, "Well, conservatives think gay people are worse than terrorists," I point out the conservative who said such a thing while refraining from pretending that her ignorant viewpoint is the viewpoint of all conservatives. And, rather than vaguely saying that "the anti-gays say x" I try to find examples of actual anti-gays syaing "X." It is much more valuable, honest, and legitimate to address what people actually say than to pretend that just because they're anti-gay on some issues they subscribe to a mythological anti-gay platform.

Sometimes I fail, of course. Ingrained habits are hard to break, especially in a culture that reinforces simplistic un-nuanced thinking. But we all win when we make conscious efforts to be aware of the limits of generalized thinking.

No comments: