Labels, Meanings, and the Secret Pretension of Self

A friend of mine has been involved in an interesting exploration of what it means to identify with a certain group. As is often the case with ideas like this, it leads to some frustrating wheel spinning, but can also yield some insight into your own thought processes. In an effort to maximize the latter, I’m putting some of my ideas down to better explore how these labels can have meaning for me. For me it is important to understand, how does the group identity of a label apply to an individual? Is it a meaningful exercise at all? I’d argue yes… but I’ll get to that in a moment.

Some labels are merely descriptive. I say merely, because they don’t convey membership in a group per se, but just state a fact of a person’s identity. To say I have green eyes, for instance, doesn’t imply a real connection to others with green eyes. It just says, Hey, my eyes are green. It’s descriptive. The same can be said for a lot of different aspects of a person. But why does it seem to become more meaningful when I connect it other aspects of my self? Why is being, say, a poet, connect me to a history and an ideology that being a green-eyed person does not? Or does it?

I sometimes try and compile labels about myself. Just for fun, in a sense, but also to explore the value of those labels for me as an individual. I can say even a cursory discussion of who I am would include the following labels: Vegetarian, Sufi/Muslim, Poet, Teacher, Father, Husband, Punk rock, Straight edge, Anarchist… the list goes on. I’d argue that these are the main ones, both in terms of how people view me and how I see myself in the world. But what do these say about my membership to other groups? Are they completely personal?

Some are problematic. Sufi/Muslim covers a broad swath of the world. Many of whom would dislike or even hate me, and many of whom would disagree with me as much as I disagreed with them. Punk rock has become vague and ill-defined. But they are still true, and unifying practices mean those labels are real to me. I can’t meditate and pray in a masjid and not be Sufi, even if certain people wish me to cease. I can’t listen to music and discuss my philosophy without being punk rock, even if I often wish to cease using the label.

Some are descriptive. Father. Straight edge. I have kids. I don’t drink. Yet these still invoke a certain community, a connection between myself and people. Is that valid?

I’m exploring this. The labels don’t bother me like they did when I was 20. They don’t excite me like they did when I was 15. They just are. I’m more comfortable with the sense of an individual being part of a larger whole while functioning as a unique individual. I’m still not so quick to be the lone hold-out, rejecting any sense of individuality a la the Life of Brian guy (“SHH!”). But I’m not so concerned with the pretentious notion that I am somehow above “those people” who need a label to be somebody.

And perhaps holding those labels can help me. Holding the discussion certainly has.