Today is an interesting day. My eldest child, who is less than six months away from not being a child at all any more (at least according to our legal system), is going away to summer camp for the first time. This is not because we wouldn’t let them go before now ... it’s just because this is the first time they ever wanted to go. The Mother, of course, is as devastated as one might expect from a mother on her first child’s first day of school. Which makes sense, if you consider that, between their initial career at a Sudbury school and later homeschooling, this really is the first time that we’ve sent them off to be with strangers in an environment which we know will be good for them but simultaneously know they will have difficulty with. It’s a tough transition.
Now, in case you’re wondering why I’m being gender-coy with the pronouns, I can assure you it’s not because I’m having an overprotective moment where I want to keep my child’s identity so anonymous that I can’t even let you in on their gender. No, it’s because that’s how they’ve asked me to refer to them, and I do my best to respect those wishes, even when it’s hard for me to grasp exactly where the wishes originate from. I suspect (though I don’t know for sure until they choose to enlighten me) that it’s not a case of them being uncomfortable with the gender assigned to them at birth. Rather, I think that the issue is they’re not that comfortable with any gender at all. I think (and I must continue to stress that I’m speculating here) that they’ve come to realize that all gender is is a label, and no one likes to be labeled (especially not at their age). If you think about it, we are all identified by a multitude of labels: gender, race, hair color, height, weight, social class, geographical background, sexual orientation, political leanings, occupation, technical adeptness, income level, marital status, type of car I drive, whether I rent or own my house (or neither), whether I have children or not (and, if so, how many), whether I have pets or not (and, if so, how many, and what species), which books I read, which TV shows I watch, what foods I like ... just an endless series of labels, some of which we accept and some of which we avoid, but all of which carry baggage. Even the ones that seem innocent. If tell you I’m a gay male, or a black woman, or a rich Jewish person, you’re going to have a picture of me, and you’ll probably even realize that you’re stereotyping. But if I tell you that I’m a redhead, or that I’m from Minnesota, or that I live in my parent’s basement, or that I own a lizard—any of those things will also cause you to think you know me, and many of them won’t be that obvious.
Like all of us, some of those labels I own, and some I eschew. For instance, I’ll happily tell you that I’m a liberal, and a father, and a technogeek.* Others I don’t talk about as much: I don’t bring up my race or my gender or my social class that often, because my race and gender and social class are pretty privileged, and I don’t wish to be defined that way. Oh, I accept that I’ve often had an easy life because of those things (and others), but it’s often easy to imagine that people who can’t possibly have had it as hard as you have therefore never had it hard, and that’s not the same thing at all. If you’ve suffered a lot, whereas I’ve only suffered a little, it does mean that I don’t have the right to judge you, or to talk about what you’ve been through. But it doesn’t mean that my suffering doesn’t count.
Being stuck with one of those labels that you never particularly wanted isn’t suffering, especially when it happens to be one of the “good” ones. But that doesn’t mean it’s totally fine either. At this point in my life, I happen to be an old white man. There is little separating me from those idiots you see in Congressional committees (particularly those impaneled with determining women’s reproductive rights, or settling disputes with Native Americans). Well, apart from my long hair and scruffy beard, which, honestly, I mostly cultivate exactly because it will set me apart from those morons. So I’m an old white man, sure, but I’m not one of those old white men, and I don’t appreciate being lumped in with them. Do I know what it’s like to be black, or Jewish, or gay? Nope, not in the least. But I do have some inkling of what it’s like to have a burning need not to be judged by those labels: not to be reduced to a stereotype.
As part of the research we as parents are currently doing into gender roles and related issues, I looked at some information from a fellow named Sam Killermann. He has a comedy show that he performs where he talks about stereotypes, and snap judgements. Here’s a snippet that caught my ear:
It’s natural, like it’s instinctual—we just do it so fast, we jump to those conclusions, we make those decisions—you know, it snaps—and it goes into your head and you just have to let it go out ...
It’s like, there’s a stereotype, and that’s just like, an assumption about a group, and there’s prejudice, which is the next step. That’s where you act upon it. I don’t think it’s really possible for us to just ignore the stereotypes, for us to get rid of them all, at least not in this generation, but it’s possible for us not to act with prejudice.
I think this is key. Stereotyping is, in my opinion, an inevitable consequence of human intelligence. We analyze and cogitate by separating and categorizing and compartmentalizing—this ability to put things in boxes and put labels on them mostly works to our advantage. It lets us take exceedingly complex concepts and simplify them enough to be grasped and grokked and thorougly dissescted and reassembled and twisted inside-out and turned into brand new concepts that we then put out there and let other people start the whole process all over and produce even newer concepts that then go out into the world and do it all again. This process has enabled scientific advancements and literary achievements and depth and complexity of emotional shading and mechanical assembly and microscopic discovery that have launched us humans to the pinnacle of life as we know it. Also, it’s launched us into countless wars, and inquisitions, and genocides, and pogroms, and bombings, and rock-throwings, and hateful words. Because when you apply that reductive categorization and labeling to a mechanical structure, you get to understand what makes it tick, but, when you apply it to another living, breathing person, you completely fail to understand what makes them tick, because human brains have that ineffeable quality that, so far, nothing else in the known universe seems to have: it’s greater than the sum of its parts. That is, you can understand all about neurons, and synapses, and frontal lobes and cortexes and medullae oblongatae, but still utterly fail to comprehend how another person thinks. Because there’s simplifying, and then there’s oversimplifying.
So stereotypes are a natural, but dangerous, way of oversimplifying people, which is okay, but only as long as you know you’re oversimplifying people, and you know you better cut it out before you think you know them. Because stereotypes may have grains of truth in them, but, unlike DNA or quantum physics, they don’t have universal truth. And labels enable stereotypes. And many people feel that, if we can get rid of the labels, we can get rid of the stereotypes.
I don’t necessarily agree with this. I’m with Sam, up above, where he says it’s not really possible for us to get rid of stereotypes. Of course, he holds out hope that future generations may be able to succeed where we will fail, and I’m not even sure I’m willing to go that far. I’m not sure I believe it’s possible to get rid of stereotypes at all—not while remaining human. Perhaps someday we’ll evolve into something else, and then of course all bets are off. But, until then, I personally believe we’re stuck with them.
Which is not to say that I’m not going to respect other people’s attempts to get rid of the labels, though. I may not agree with such attempts, but I admire them. Striving to achieve the impossible is a victory in the journey, even when the destination is never reached. Plus, every now and again, I’m reminded of one of my favorite uplifting quotes, from Pearl S. Buck:
The young do not know enough to be prudent, and therefore they attempt the impossible—and achieve it, generation after generation.
So let folks attempt the impossible, I say, and I will support them, even if I don’t quite believe in it. ‘Cause I might be wrong. Often am, in fact. So, go for it.
But I also want to encourage people to learn to ignore the labels, even when they haven’t been expunged. I think people have to learn to ignore the labels that people place on them, and also (probably more importantly, even) to ignore the labels that they, perhaps unconciously, place on others. I say, don’t feel bad about labeling people. We all do it. Just be able to throw the label away after you print it out. Because, ultimately, it means nothing. If you get to know a person and it turns out your initial label was correct, that means nothing more than the proverbial infinitude of simians reproducing Shakespeare. If you decide that you can jump off your roof and not be hurt, and you do so, and, by some miracle, you happen to land unhurt, that doesn’t mean you were right. Ditto for people-labels that happen to turn out to be right. More often than not, though, you’ll find that, even if you were partially right about people (and often you’re not even that), people are just so damned complex that “partly right” isn’t worth much. Unlike horseshoes and hand grendades, “almost” is not particularly useful in psychoanalysis.
So I respect my kid’s desire to avoid the gender label as much as they can, as long as they can. But I also hope they can learn to ignore the label ... I think that’ll be more useful in the long run. I hope they can learn that they can be whoever they want to be, regardless of how other people look at them. To sum up, I’ll use a quote often misattributed to Dr. Suess, but which is really a Suess-ification of a quote originally spoken by Bernard Baruch, a white, male, Jewish, upper-class father and stock broker who advised presidents, bought a former slave plantation, and endowed the United Daughters of the Confederacy. But, like all people, he was more than the sum of his labels. And he expressed the original sentiment that inspired this reformulation, which is another of my favorite uplifting quotes.
Be who you are and say what you feel, because those who mind don’t matter, and those who matter don’t mind.
And that really says it all.
* And, in fact, I often have, on this very blog.