Now You're Thinking With Labels!

If you’re thinking based on the title that this is an in-depth labelmaker shootout—well, that probably just means you know me pretty well. It’s not, but that’s well within the scope of the stuff in which I am interested.

No, this is a reflection I stumbled into in response to a student asking for advice on an assignment. He asked,

I know we are suppose to write about a group or culture that we belong to, but I honestly can not think of one that I consider myself to be apart of? I understand that such a statement may sound ludicrous, but as an individual I stray away from putting “labels” on others and in order to do that I must apply the same logic to myself. Is there any advice to help me come up with at least one group to write about? Am I thinking to deeply on the assignment?

My response fairly quickly got way too baroque, but in the process I ended up saying something that I think might be meaningful about pedagogy, [D|d]iscourse, rhetoric, and Too Many Zooz. Here are my afternoon’s unexpurgated ramblings.

Hi, _____-

I don’t think that you’re thinking too deeply about the assignment, but I think you might not be thinking quite deeply enough about labels. I don’t know you personally, yet, beyond our somewhat spare interactions in these first couple of weeks of class, so I’m going to try not to make any assumptions here. But I do want to set you thinking in a way that will hopefully help you find a way into a topic for this Writing Project. I am, almost certainly, going to way overboard with my answer, because you’ve asked me the kind of question that is a) essential to the rhetorical journey we’re taking in this class, and b) super fascinating to me as a person and thinker. (If you’ll forgive me for labeling myself twice in a row.)

At its best, I think what we mean when we say “I don’t want to put labels on people” is that we want to view each person as an individual, rather than as a stereotype, and that any labels we might apply carry with them implications that may not fit any given individual. I think that’s a fine impulse, but I also think it misses something essential: being an individual, by its very nature, puts us into communities. Communities mean commonalities—things we share with some people that we don’t share with others. Labels of one form or another are, in most cases, a necessary consequence of that.

For instance: do you like music? If there is any music that you like, you’re relying on a label. You’re saying that there are some sounds that you consider music, and some sounds that you don’t. If you don’t like all music equally, then there are also some kinds of music that you like and some that you don’t. And maybe you do like all music equally. Maybe it’s even important to you that you like all music, because you don’t like labels. Maybe you just like what you like. That’s awesome—I’m not going to tell you what to like.

What I will tell you, though, is that without labels, there can be no difference. I like Debussy. I like The Knife. I like Wingnut Dishwasher’s Union. I like Too Many Zooz, a lot. I can say that it’s all music—which, again, is still labeling it—but without applying some sort of label, I can’t say that there is any difference between those groups whatsoever. (Notice: the names of the artists are, themselves, labels.)

If you watch that Too Many Zooz video—go ahead, I’ll wait, it’s amazing and everyone should have the right to experience it—you will almost certainly be knocked on your butt by the unfathomable talent of Leo Pellegrino, far and away the most prodigious baritone sax player I have ever seen in my life. He’s an incredible musician, and he plays an instrument that—at least in my own estimation—very few people feel it worthwhile to become incredible at. I mean like seriously wtf. I can’t call him a musician without labeling him, or a baritone saxophonist, or a prodigy. If I make space in my ontology for the existence as such a thing as a baritone sax—labeling some configurations of brass (a label) in such a way that excludes others—I also recognize that some people play the baritone sax and others don’t (label), and if I begrudgingly accept that is true, then I’m admitting the existence of a commonality.

That doesn’t make all baritone sax players the same. It doesn’t reduce them to a stereotype. In fact, I have to create the label in order to acknowledge Pellegrino’s individuality. I have to say that he is this kind of thing in order to acknowledge that he is so unspeakably good at being that kind of thing. And I think this is the rhetorical essence and necessity of labels. If I decide that I want to address an audience of young people, I’m labeling them, and I’m also almost certainly going to make assumptions about members of that community that are not true in all cases. But the essence of that label is the recognition that “young people” probably have some things in common that they perhaps do not share with people who are not “young.”

One more thing about Too Many Zooz. If you ask them what kind of music they play, they will tell you that they play “Brasshouse.” As far as I know, there is no other band on the planet that identifies as “brasshouse,” although it wouldn’t surprise me if others have come to emulate them. “Brasshouse” is a label that they built themselves to describe what they do. It is by labeling themselves that they make themselves individual, different from others. We are not ska, not big band, not Tower of Power, not swing, not any of the other labels that apply to horn-heavy music. We are brasshouse. By labeling themselves, they reify themselves as themselves-qua-themselves.1

All of which is to say, when I am asking you to identify a group or culture that you belong to, I am not asking you to define yourself explicitly by a label, with whatever undue stereotypes or constraints you think apply to it. Rather, I’m asking you to identify something about yourself which you share in common with some people—some community—but not others. I’m not asking for the old stand-up staples of “X people drive like this, but Y people drive like that.” Rather, I’m asking you to accept that there are things that you do, say, think, believe, know, understand, value, engage in, and so on that you share with some people and not others.2 And when I ask about decorum, I’m asking you to explore what you share. For the people with whom you share this thing, how do you talk? How do you use language among yourselves? Are there things you know that other people don’t? Are there things that you all might notice that an outsider might not? Are there things that you had to learn when you first joined this community? Were there mistakes you made that you wouldn’t make now? Are there things that you expect of each other in this community?

Because at its worst, what we mean when we say “I don’t want to put labels on people” is “I haven’t actually stopped dating my ex.” It’s a relationship cliche that “I don’t want to put a label on this” is just another way of saying “I’m unwilling to commit,” or “I’m excluding myself from this label because I want the benefits it implies, but not the obligations.” When we refuse to add labels to who we are, we’re refusing to recognize any commonality—or at least, any nameable commonality—with anyone. When my son calls me “Dad,” he labels me. To deny the label is to deny something essential about who we are to one another.

So to swing this back around to the practical: consider yourself. If you want to avoid the essentializing impulse of labels, consider first what you do. Activities you like. Habits. Interests. Hobbies. Are there things that you do that you share with some people in your life, but not others? Don’t think about labels. Think about those people. What do you share with them? What are the samenesses that come from this common pursuit? And what among those samenesses is invisible, secret, obscure, or obfuscated to those who do not share it? If there is commonality, there is a community, and thus is a group and a culture—whether you choose to hang a label on it or not.

  1. If anybody’s running a pool on “most pretentious sentences on this website,” this is definitely a contender. 

  2. At any moment we are using language we must say or write the right thing in the right way while playing the right social role and (appearing) to hold the right values, beliefs, and attitudes. Thus, what is important is not language, and surely not grammar, but saying (writing)-doing-being-valuing-believing combinations. These combinations I call “Discourses” …. Discourses are ways of being in the world; they are forms of life which integrate words, acts, values, beliefs, attitudes, and social identities as well as gestures, glances, body positions, and clothes.

    James Gee, “Literacy, Discourse, and Linguistics: Introduction,” Journal of Education 171.1 (1989).