December 11, 2020

For the Love of Label Culture

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The combined forces of Trump administration rhetoric, an addiction to media and the increased fervor in the fight against police violence has resulted in a society defined by identities and labels. Although we blame Trump for increasing division in America, his exit on Jan. 20 will not staunch the tribalism that’s developed in America. Our label-obsessed culture will continue to stoke the fires of division.

This brand of identity politics is a scourge on America. We reduce others’ identities and ideas into buzzwords. Terms like “blue-hair” or “facist” abound. It’s particularly prevalent at Cornell, where students are tenacious in their opinions and eager to contribute to dialogue. The way we talk about identity has diverged from the original intention of identity politics. As young adults in the Internet age, we need to find a way to halt our dangerous descent into a damaging form of discourse. A good way to start is to stop “calling out” others based on their identity, a practice we have become all too familiar with over social media. 

The true definition of identity politics is a nebulous one. Black feminist scholar Barbara Smith first used the term in 1974 as part of her argument that “the most profound and potentially most radical politics come out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” Smith’s original intention was to establish a mode of discourse for Black women to express their discontentment with the feminist movement and to call attention to their unique identity. She saw that Black women involved in the feminist movement of the late 20thcentury were working to end white women’s oppression without equal progress being made for their own community. Her concept of identity politics calls for groups to draw attention to their particular identities, and in doing so, forcing others to acknowledge the troubles faced by people of those identities. 

Smith’s understanding of identity politics has done, and still does, a lot of good. The BLM movement is a good example of effective identity politics. The organization, mobilizing the Black American identity built over centuries of suffering and fights for progress, emphasizes the injustice inflicted on them and advocates for better treatment.  But nowhere does it suggest that “calling out” individuals or groups of people is productive. Indeed, the way most of our society talks about labels and identities has moved far from Smith’s vision. Each American seemingly feels a burning desire to label everything and everyone, no matter what the truth or benefit of it is.

 During the spring protests brought on by the death of George Floyd, protestors were labeled as looters and thugs. There was no nuance or empathy involved in the application of pejorative terms to violent protestors. Similarly, Trump supporters are often unequivocally labeled as racists and sexists. Neither application of these labels is completely truthful or beneficial. Yet both continue, fueled by the pushback against police violence. 

Media also plays an important role in America’s label culture. Most in our generation eschew newspapers for social media or easy-to-digest podcasts and newsletters. In fact, over half the U.S. population now receives its news from social media instead of traditional sources. This shift in the way we learn about events, tied with the attendant capability to hear about a higher volume of events, impels people to use reductionist labels instead of forming nuanced understandings. Over the last year, I’ve seen countless acquaintances create Instagram stories that attempt to break incredibly complex, charged issues down into an aesthetically pleasing pictograph or flowchart. Others demonize corporations or individuals by making hyperbolic claims or taking information out of context. This is a damaging habit.  

Trump has not helped matters with his incessant use of Twitter. With the help of this platform, he was able to relay his thoughts to the American public in real time. Unfortunately, these thoughts were often inflammatory and used the same reductionist labels present in other types of social media. In one particularly memorable instance, Trump questioned why four congressmen of color didn’t “go back and fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.”  

Migrants weren’t mothers, Hondurans or victims of gang violence. They were simply “illegals.” Less developed countries like El Salvador and Haiti weren’t beautiful places in need of help, they were ‘shithole countries.’ And no matter how vehemently people opposed Trump, his style of discourse bled into American society and encouraged a hurtful form of identity politics.  

Reducing people or groups of people to labels and set identities expedites the growth of tribalism in America. At Cornell, for instance, Trump supporters were criticized by most of the student population for simply being Trump supporters. People criticized first and asked questions later. This is the destructive force of a label culture. 

As young adults, we are inheriting this label culture. As far as I can tell, most of us are embracing it. In conversation and on social media we deride and put down certain identities. If we don’t agree with a particular view, we accuse proponents of being ‘brainwashed” instead of stepping into their shoes. The recent election cycle put this flaw into the limelight, especially at Cornell, where students consider themselves intellectuals and want to come out on top in any debate. Identity politics should be about advocacy for a particular identity. We’re doing the opposite when we choose derision and labels. If we cease “calling out” and labeling others, I am certain our society will benefit. I am not urging inaction, but rather a return to the identity politics advocated by Smith, one grounded in positivity and honesty.

Christian Baran is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at cbaran@cornellsun.com. Honestly runs every other Friday this semester.