Applying labels to oneself

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.


  1. says

    I usually don’t have much occasion to apply labels to myself in general, but I occasionally refer to myself as a “self-described feminist” or something along those lines. I know that some feminists are wary of having supportive, but non-activist men like me taking on the label of feminism (though others would encourage me to do so). So I try not to assume that I’ve met some criterion of “being a real feminist,” but still express my sympathy for the claim that women deserve to be treated equally.

  2. says

    The only time I use descriptives is when I’ve said something that was misconstrued and I have to apply labels to myself while clarifying my position. In other words, whenever I’ve made myself unclear.

    Otherwise, it’s what you say and do, not how you describe yourself that matters.

    There are people reading this who describe themselves as “feminists” who are nothing of the sort as judged by their words and deeds.

    So, I’m leery to the max of self-appointed labels. Especially when it comes to ethics, human rights, etc. Descriptives like “scientist”, “physicist”, “uncle”, are different because they point to an external reality.

  3. DonDueed says

    You can always phrase it as, “I consider myself a feminist”. That could have some downside of its own, though, since it may come off as wishy-washy.

  4. hjhornbeck says

    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.

    That attitude strikes me as odd. Am I going above and beyond what’s expected of me if I say women should have equal rights to men, and face no discrimination? Who owns the “atheist” or “human” label? You are free to call yourself whatever you wish, but if your chosen label doesn’t match the common definition we’re free to call you “misguided” or “deceitful;” no harm comes to the definition itself, provided it’s not a fuzzy practical one like “green.”

  5. a fan says

    Flip it. Would you, in the interest of full disclosure, reveal yourself to hold bigoted positions? I suspect you might. I think the most honest people would, and do. Anyway, same thing with calling yourself a feminist.

  6. Glenn says

    I don’t call myself an atheist because that is a name given by theists to those who don’t share the beliefs of theists.
    I call myself a naturalist because I firmly believe that all phenomenon can be understood on a natural basis. I call others who do not share my belief supernaturalists.

  7. jamessweet says

    FWIW, the turn of phrase I use is “I like to consider myself a feminist.”

  8. jamessweet says

    Hey, I’ll go first… I admit that until pretty recently (like a couple years ago) I held some pretty transphobic opinions, I am reluctant to stand up against casual transphobia the way I try to against casual misogyny/racism/homophobia, and moreover, despite a lot of effort, I have difficulty having real empathy for transexual individuals (the reasons for the latter might not be what most would guess: despite being straight, I totally “get” the idea of being genderqueer — so much so, that the idea of feeling a strong need to change one’s physical genitalia in order to fully inhabit one’s perceived identity is very foreign and unnatural to me. I try to imagine how I would feel if I woke up tomorrow morning and my penis was missing, but I’m pretty sure that if I had functional genitals of some kind, I’d get over it pretty quickly. Which is not to say that because I would get over it, that means everyone has to! It just makes it difficult for me to empathize.

    I consider these all to be failings on my part, and pretty much any time somebody talks about trans* issues, I just listen and don’t offer the slightest opinion. It’s an area where I’m pretty sure I just kinda don’t “get it”, so I just exercise humility. That sometimes means I don’t speak out against transphobia when maybe I ought, but the thing is, I really just don’t “get it” enough to understand when something is transphobic and when it’s not. It’s an empathy fail on my part, and I’m not really sure what to do about it, other than what I already said: Practice humility.

  9. MNb says

    No, this is not the main reason I’m reluctant to call myself an atheist. My main reason is that I’m not sure what feminism stands for except pursuing equal rights. If feminism is more than equal rights -- and now and then to me it looks like it is -- I want to preserve the freedom to disagree.

  10. says

    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.

    No, I think you have it mostly right. Perhaps the best way to approach it is not as an identity assumed or conferred but as a habit of action: you try to be or act like an ally. This means you can fail, misunderstand, or whatever.

    The worst are those who claim to be allies and then argue that the people whose ally they are are alienating them or harming their own cause, offering patronizing advice to the people whose ally they claim to be. Sometimes this is a ploy, but often I think it just results from a real desire to help combined with the arrogance that accompanies privilege.

    So much of being an ally is shutting up and listening, or just shutting up period, and acknowledging when you’ve screwed up, which can be tough. Self-appointed labels can be counterproductive.

  11. bad Jim says

    My ears are bright red. Thanks, I think.

    Chris Clarke wrote a widely read essay on “Why I am not a feminist”, which I can’t locate, even though I’m positive he reprinted it here at FTB. While I share his reservations, I also have trouble saying “I am not a feminist.” I know which side I’m on.

    I have an older sister who occasionally reminds me what a sexist pig I am, and in reading various blogs I keep discovering more blind spots, so I’m clearly not a very good feminist, though perhaps not as undesirable as a Communist in the civil rights movement.

  12. invivoMark says

    I suspect that if you have more exposure to trans* issues and the discrimination they face, or even if you just give yourself time to ponder what those issues might mean to them, you may find yourself becoming more empathetic.

    But until that time, I think you’re taking the right strategy.

    Personally, I don’t understand the experience of being trans*, but that doesn’t bother me, and it doesn’t inhibit me from fully endorsing their rights. And I sure as hell will stand up against casual transphobia, and I have done so both around strangers and around friends.

  13. invivoMark says

    I understand the arguments why it may be inappropriate (and occasionally counterproductive) to call oneself a feminist. Yet I still call myself a feminist, because I think people need to become more comfortable with the term itself and those who identify with it. I may fail as a feminist from time to time, but by calling myself feminist around my friends, at the very least I can nudge them toward being more accepting of feminists and sympathetic toward their views and issues.

    At least, that’s how I hope it works.

    Also, I reject the notion that only women can decide who is and isn’t a feminist. No woman is 100% aware and 100% correct on all feminist issues, and being a woman doesn’t mean that you’re automatically more informed or correct on any of them. I know several women who would never in a million years call themselves feminist; they’re woefully misinformed about most feminist issues, and don’t care to support any of them.

  14. hjhornbeck says

    I’m simplifying, but it’s best to think of three types or “waves” of feminism:

    First: Women can be citizens.
    Second: Women should have equal pay for equal work, and be free to control their own bodies.
    Third: There exist self-sustaining social systems that unfairly privilege one group of people over another, which can interact in complex ways. We have a tendency to stereotype and label people, especially in relation to “sex” and “gender.”

    Pick the one you agree with the most. If you want more detail, hit up the ‘pedia.

  15. says

    “Atheist” and “feminist” are, imho, on equal par as descriptive labels. “Feminist” simply means “someone who considers women to have equal rights and treatment” or something along those lines. I suppose that old-time feminists resent men calling themselves feminist, but I don’t consider that much of a problem.

  16. baal says

    I don’t call myself a feminist anymore since I wish to not be associated with a rather vicious group of folks who use social punishment as a primary means of social policing. I used to understand ‘feminist’ to mean someone who supports working to have women in all aspects of society and who works against folks who have behaviors that disproportionally negatively effect women (ex, I’ve stopped opportunities being given out to the first person who puts their hand up. We were getting mostly men when that method was used. it had a biased impact so I got rid of it when I could.).

    Having listened, this is not good enough anymore. I’d have to wield the eye of the censor and the moral out rage of a catholic bishop at each and every person who exhibits the least sign of doing anything ‘patriarchy’. Like censors and punishers everywhere, they go overboard with over identification. They have largely escaped from weighing each situation for its various factors and use binary thinking (comparison to the ideal) as a stand in for thoughtfulness. Don’t get me wrong, this can be highly effective at getting apparent compliance or in politics. I do not, however, find it moral. It also goes against humanistic teaching generally. (if everything looks like a nail…)

    And no, I will not be responding to any OM or A+ or their JAQing or burden flipping on this point. My threshold for responding to the punishers is a recognition (adequate restatement) of the harm I’ve outlined is a harm and some sign that censorship is waning in the movement.

  17. baal says

    Oh, slightly more on point.

    I don’t make the distinction between labels that are descriptive and complimentary. The risk of wearing the wrong label is that someone may criticize you for it (call you a hypocrite if you do not live up to it, for example). That’s fine, you can then reassess if you should still wear it. I do see that some labels are fraught and you’re open to a charge of excessive egoism (hero for example) for self-application but if you have in fact done objectively heroic stuff, you should wear it. The point of a label is to say you fall within the usual meets and bounds for a description. That’s usually helpful for effective rapid communication.

    Note that the error on wearing a ‘wrong label’ could be on the part of the label wearer or by the person complaining. This isn’t likely a 50/50 split as the person complaining is violating peacability norms* and more likely to be in the right (objectively; unless the objector is being tactical).

    To the specific label at hand, ‘feminist’, I view it as a bit of a dodge to say, “I will wear it if you call me it.” By doing so, you get to duck (opt out of) the current fad of forcing allegiance (take this pledge = we love you; disagree with the pledge = you’re hateable). I don’t think it’s a negative mark to bow out of conflicts (generally).

    *I sometimes wonder about folks who willfully offend the norms of peacefulness. It’s an invitation to be attacked. I get an extra layer of offended when someone breaches a norm and then take outrage that someone then reacted. Wasn’t that the asked for response or if you poke me shouldn’t you also expect me to be a human and respond as though I’ve been poked?


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