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Label Makers.

30 July 2014

I am an alcoholic. I claim that label, because it’s true. I am an alcoholic in recovery. I use “recovering”, “recovered”, and “in recovery” interchangeably. Some people in AA argue about the use of particular terms. In particular, some people object to “recovered” because it sounds too final, and we live a day at a time. We all know that we can return to drinking. But the book Alcoholics Anonymous uses the term recovered, and it’s our own founding document. If it’s good enough there, it’s good enough for me. I also like to use the term “in remission”. It focuses on the disease-state of alcoholism in a way that I feel “recovery” often fails to.

But the above is an essentially complete list of labels that I choose for myself. In some ways, that’s a result of my privileges. I don’t need to assert and defend an identity that’s not broadly accepted. I don’t suffer discrimination or marginalization or violence because of the randomness of my birth. That alone makes me incredibly fortunate.

In other ways, I don’t adopt labels because they so often seem loaded with other baggage that I may or may not endorse; indeed may not even be aware of. Years ago, I considered myself a Christian. But even when I felt deeply connected to that religion and that community, I rejected a lot of the social implications of that label. Nevertheless, I was lumped in with a stereotype, and observed that I was perceived a specific way by others (both within and without the Christian community) that often had little to do with the truth of who I was or how I felt.

A few years ago, I attended a skeptic/atheist conference with a friend. I do not call myself either one of those, but I find that there’s much to admire (and much to criticize) about that community. And I am sympathetic to the use of evidence in decision-making. And I took the opportunity to hang out with one of my best friends for a few days. The opening speaker, David Silverman of American Atheists, gave a half-hour long speech in which he tried to push the label “Atheist” on the crowd. His entire focus was on getting people to adopt that specific label. Over and over he said things like, “If you consider yourself an agnostic because you don’t know if there’s a God, you’re an atheist!”

Nothing¬†makes me less likely to accept a label than someone telling me I need to do so. And not because I’m simply contrarian. I’m not very contrarian. I don’t, generally, enjoy disagreeing with people. I do a reasonable amount of it, but I don’t like it. Not anymore.

I don’t accept labels because so often they come with agendas that I don’t understand, or don’t agree with, or am not willing to fight for or about. Because any label I accept walls me off from engaging meaningfully with people who take on an opposing label. Because I’m not interested in being a statistic in someone’s algorithm for promoting their political agenda. Not even when I agree with that agenda. I am completely opposed to the teaching of creationism, intelligent design, or other religious concepts in the public schools as an alternative explanation to scientific facts and theories. Nevertheless, I do not accept the labels of distinction that the people who oppose such things promulgate. I am not a “skeptic”. I am not an “atheist”. Even if I believe many, most, or all of the same things that people who call themselves those things believe.

The same is true of just about any other label that people like to put on people who believe in particular political causes. I have opinions about almost any political agenda a person can name. But I don’t accept the identity-labels that go along with these positions. Because I would have to accept many, and some would conflict with others. Because taking on a label about taxation policy means capitulating to being perceived to have other unrelated opinions about agricultural policy or the health care policy or circumcision or military interventions. Labels rarely come alone. And many are deemed incompatible with each other.

Not adopting labels has consequences too. People assume that if I do not call myself the appellation of their movement, that that necessarily means that I oppose it. That’s not true. I support, and even fight for, many causes that I don’t identify with. But I have made the decision that I’d rather be mistaken for a bystander than a warrior.

I am an alcoholic. I wear that label. And it is the only one. Because as an alcoholic in recovery, I am dedicated to being available to people of any political position. Of any identity. Of any circumstance. When someone seeks recovery, I do not want them to pass by asking me for help because I wear some other label they find objectionable.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. 30 July 2014 18:45

    I have a very different take on labels. I accept many of them: atheist, agnostic, skeptic, secularist, secular humanist, Ethical Humanist, liberal, progressive, etc. None of them fit me perfectly, and none of them encompass all of me.

    I remember rejecting Gen-X in a discussion in college and saying that I didn’t like labels, but I think the difference is that I felt that Gen-X was imposed on us by a media that wanted to label us childish before we were fully adults.

    In contrast, I think I’m ok with the labels I listed above because they are self-selected.

    • 30 July 2014 18:58

      And I strongly believe in accepting and using any label which a person chooses for themselves. It is not my business how others self-identify, and courtesy suggests I call people by the terms they choose.

      But I do not have to accept labels put on me by others.

  2. Syd permalink
    30 July 2014 19:01

    I am not about labels because so much of who we are is complex and confounded to the point that I don’t know what I am at times. It feels better to me to just be entirely open to who I am–a Homo sapiens with many assets and defects.

  3. Lisa permalink
    11 August 2014 00:02

    Hi there – just stopping by to say “hello” and check in. I suppose I have a few I am comfortable with other than alcoholic, or addict, but less and less along the way as far as other labels are concerned for many of the same reasons you describe – too many implications. It made me smile to remember that I cut most of the labels out of my shirts because they itch . . .

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