Sunday, September 2, 2012
We are all born with labels. Some labels are inherited from our parents (even though not all are genetically forced upon us) and some labels are imposed on us by society.
The labels we are born with denote our genetic disposition: white, black; red-head, blond; blue-eyed, brown eyed; short, tall; fat and thin. The labels we inherit without any biological markers are the religion of our parents, our prejudices, and more critically, our feelings of self-worth (you’re over-weight, your stupid).
Some are legal and some insidious. They denote our status in society, for instance, married or divorced, single or spinster. Being a spinster denigrates womanhood and there is no similarly disparaging term for a man in the English language. We are old and young, a goody-goody or a cad. Labels are used to reinforce class divisions. And then there are the judgements of society: retarded, slut, lazy and over-sensitive.
As often as not these latter names serve no more than to impose the values or prejudices of one group onto another. Very soon after 9/11 Britain’s Labour government introduced legislation intended to stifle speech that it defined as inflammatory. The Imam of the Central London Mosque stated that if the new law protected Muslims from violence it was ‘acceptable’ as long as it did not impede the Islamic right to free speech.
What he inferred was that religious prejudice was acceptable when it served an Islamic purpose while anything opposing it was incitement. When the head of the extreme British National Party or ‘BNP’ was tried in court for a speech that was deemed to have incited hatred against Muslims he won the case because he proved to the court that he was simply taking quotes from the Koran and pointing out the danger inherent in what Islam itself allows its followers to say and do. After the courts failure to convict, the government responded that it would have to consider ways to tighten up the law. Few supported this Liberal-Left attack on free speech. It implied that Islamic racism and its incitement to violence was acceptable while protesting against it was not. And we have seen this principle used against Israel, here in the UK.
In this case labels have been used to criminalise those who practice free speech and to attempt to assign privileges to one group over another.
But then labels are far too often used to reinforce comfortable prejudices. By their repetition these sound bites serve only to benefit the mentally lazy. They are a short-hand for those determined to remain ignorant; those to whom ‘thought’ must be served up as a convenience food. One must not disturb that which intolerant people regard as serving a purpose.
When society applies different rules to separate groups it is a form of legalised and intermittent apartheid (another label). Rape and murder become words with flexible meaning (more labels) because they help to explain justifiable cultural requisites. If some justify this as necessary political correctness in order to actively support minority rights the problem is in the despotic nature of its result. Throughout history the wolf pack has been dominated by the alpha male whose active participation rarely encouraged justice but often rallied support for terror.
More labels. Football clubs have their supporters, trains their train-spotters, and of course society has its Philo and anti-Semites. Bimbos and Feminists are labels we use to denigrate women or raise them, and Essex girls in England have their equivalent in American princesses. How many of us know a nerd or an ‘anorak’? Political labels define us as Zionists and anti-Zionists, Liberals and Conservatives, extremists or moderates.
The labels we use define our society and they are necessary because without them we could not maintain a consistent approach. They are a short-hand which defines our condition. Democracy is dependent on the transparency of justice but labels define the Law (by which they too often limit justice for the sake of consistency of purpose and incorruptibility) just as labels define the system of government we use.
All these labels make up our identity.
Identity was initially defined by tribe, then by religion and then by nationality. In the 20th Century the Nazis attempted to replace German faith with a state religion that it incorporated into the national ethos. In totalitarian societies labels are used not simply to define limits but also to compartmentalise those who are empowered, those who are disenfranchised and the multiplicity of identities in between.
For those who declare ‘their way’ to be the only legitimate form of expression, it makes sense that those who do not follow them are opposed to them. Dissension becomes illegal and must be obliterated, order is essential, it is linear and hierarchical. Dictatorship craves order, is all predictable and operates within defined limits. Identity is us and them, and the ‘them’ are inevitably inferior, demonised and persecuted. There is no grey area in these societies.
There are forces in all societies that will strive for there to be only one way and their calling card is intolerance and fear. But the failure of democracy may well come about because in trying to be all things to all people we satisfy no one. A fragmented national identity will disintegrate under the burden of fear and hopelessness which is fed by the collapse of confidence in society.
We need an identity, no matter how complex it may be, to identify the path to travel; we need a road map to arrive at the destination. We may take various paths to arrive at our destination but without consistent rules our paths will inevitably and violently collide.
If there is one thing that is killing Western Society it is that we have lots of labels, but no depth of vision in which to position our labels onto our road map so that it secures justice for everyone.