Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Categories and Labels: a Manifesto

There are many categories I or others might consider myself a part of. Some of these are fairly trivial in their consequences, some are shaped by my society, some shape my role in that society. Some are completely self-applied and help shape the lenses through which I view the world.

Now, labels are just labels. There is a huge variety of opinions within any group. And anyone can throw labels onto themselves that other people might take issue with. The Pussycat Dolls claim to be a feminist band. Bill O'Reilly calls himself a centrist. I, on the other hand, might label him a "douchebag." He in turn would then label me a "pinhead," and so on. We humans like to put things in categories. They make things easier to understand. Categories can be useful, even self-applied categories. But it's important to recognize that they're artificial.

Today, I want to address several of these labels that I readily apply to myself. The ones through which I see the world, as I mentioned above. I'm a far-left liberal, a skeptic, a feminist, an atheist, a humanist, an agnostic, a science-enthusiast, and on and on and on.

I don't see any conflict between belonging to any of those categories I listed above. But why do I apply those particular labels to myself?

I'm a humanist, a skeptic, a science enthusiast, an atheist, and an agnostic because I believe there are things we do know, things we don't know and things we can't know.

In the case of things we do know, I revel in them. I am awed by the fact that we are the products of billions of years of evolution from simple chemical chain reactions to complex creatures that can turn around and consciously know that we are the result of said chain reactions. We are self-aware. Isn't that cool? And those chemical reactions are in turn made possible by billions of years more of stars coalescing from clouds of pure hydrogen, burning for periods of time longer than we can really even conceptualize beyond pure numbers, then exploding in a confetti of oxygen, carbon, neon, copper and all the other elements that make up everything we see, including the eyes we see them with... That is awe inspiring stuff.

And things we don't know? Science is the journey to turn these things into things we do know. It's that self-awareness I mentioned, looking deeper, trying to understand how things are the way they are. And it's by far the best tool we have for doing this.

Then there are the things we can't know. Did a god create the universe? Well, unless it appears before us and presents irrefutable evidence that it did, we have no way of knowing. I personally think this is unlikely, which is why I call myself an atheist. I do not believe that gods exist. Can I prove it? Of course not, but I likewise cannot prove that leprechauns do not exist, such is the nature of magic and supernatural beings. But I cannot know whether or not gods exist. Thus I am both an atheist and an agnostic. One is a statement of belief ("I do not believe that gods exist") and the other, one of knowledge ("I cannot know whether they do or not").

And I'm a skeptic because we live in a beautiful, natural world filled with wondrous things, and do not feel the need to sully the gorgeous wonder of our universe by muddying it up with crass notions for which there are no evidence, such as gods, anal-raping aliens, or using the magical "memory" properties of water to treat real illness.

I'm a feminist. I'm a humanist. I'm a political liberal. I'm these things because I think all people should be equal, that everyone in our world should have the same opportunities, regardless of gender identification, race, nationality or because of those with whom they choose to share their life or their bed. I believe that we need to listen to each other. I believe that we are all informed by our background. I believe that, for instance, white males -- a demographic to which I belong -- collectively have a hugely disproportionate voice. I believe that women, non-whites, gender and sexual minorities, religious minorities, cultural minorities, and countless other groups have been and continue to be disenfranchised and we need to do everything we can as a culture to correct this. No one's thoughts should be dicarded or discounted because he or she belongs to any particular group. This includes everyone, from bisexual libertarian Arab Scientologist men to straight Marxist white atheist women.

I do not believe, however, that one's statements should be exempt from critique simply because either the speaker of the critic belongs to any one group or another. I was dismayed recently at the reaction on a feminist website when a few commentators disagreed with the post or even just added information in the initial post. The reaction was not to critique the content of the comments, but to malign the character of the commenters for happening to belong to a group (in this case, being non-disabled) of privilege. It's absolutely true that being disabled gives one a different perspective, and that our society is built around the non-disabled.

But squelching discourse, to say that someone in a "priviledged" group is not even entitled to an opinion, that's wrong. And it's hateful. And I will condemn it when it's done in a group I identify with every bit as much as when it's done elsewhere.

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