After writing yesterday about the reluctance of some to adopt the label of feminist even though they share the goals of the feminist movement for gender equality, I realized that I never call myself a feminist either and that this perhaps requires an explanation.
I see labels as being either descriptive or complimentary. I am quite comfortable ascribing labels to myself that I see as purely descriptive, such as atheist, physicist, scientist, teacher, blogger, writer, and so on. But for anyone other than egomaniacs like Donald Trump, giving oneself a complimentary label would be gauche. So for example, the labels ‘humanitarian’ or ‘hero’ are not ones that people adopt for themselves but are instead conferred upon them by others.
The distinction between a descriptive and complimentary label is not always clear-cut and may depend upon whom it is applied to and who is presumed to ‘own’ the right to assign it. The label feminism provides a good example of the ambiguity. Is it purely descriptive or is it also complimentary? (I know some people think of the label as derogatory but I disagree and am not really interested in pursuing that line of discussion since it would be a digression from the question I am addressing here.) Without getting into the details of what exactly the label represents, I think that it can be purely descriptive if a woman uses it to describe herself but is complimentary if applied to a man, because it suggests that he is seeking to advance the goal of equality of a group to which he does not personally belong. I feel that women ‘own’ this label and it is their prerogative to decide who should be encompassed by it. So I would be honored if someone else were to call me a feminist but would not presume to call myself that. (Commenter bad Jim shares my concern about unilaterally adopting the label.)
It is the same thing with the label of LGBT ally. I like to think that I am a supporter of equality for the LGBT community but hesitate to call myself an ‘LGBT ally’ (though I have a button that says that) because it is up to the members of the LGBT community to determine who they consider to be their allies. It would be awkward to call oneself an ally of another group and then be challenged that one is acting in ways that are not advancing the cause.
Maybe I am overthinking this and that the labels like ‘feminist’ and ‘LGBT ally’ should be seen as purely descriptive and people should feel free to adopt them if they wish to so self-identify and more clearly proclaim their allegiances.
I’d be curious to hear other people’s views on this question.