Field of Science

Don't like labels? How inhuman of you

Just a few ingredients that might be on the label for the average human.
Via Wikimedia Commons.
Humans like to classify things so much that we've got entire disciplines and subdisciplines devoted to the practice. Labeling helps us in any number of ways, from communicating in shorthand--a term that itself is a label based in a now-lost art--to corralling ideas or people or things or regions in ways general (white people) to specific (Homo sapiens). We like to categorize, and we start doing it in infancy [PDF]. 

But our relationship with labels is one of love alloyed with hate. As much as we use labels--words themselves are labels--for everything around us, within us, and about us--we also despise them. One google search on the phrase "I don't like labels" in quotes tells you as much. It seems that most of us have a little of that maverick in us--speaking of maverick, that started out as a label for the unlabeled--to want to break free of whatever labels we bear. We also have some understanding that no matter how hard we try to pigeonhole (which once literally meant a hole for pigeons) people, places, and things, nature has a way of spreading beyond those confines and expressing the uniqueness of the whole, if not of the parts.

A label is, in essence, of a reflection of assumed properties. If I label myself as female, most people will automatically assume that I have a number of associated physical and chemical properties typically accompany that label. I could say I'm an "ovary-bearing, monthly cycling human being with breasts, a uterus, and a vagina," but really, "female" tends to encompass all that.

Except. As many people know, females don't all have ovaries. Many don't cycle monthly. Some never have breasts, some lose them in transit. Ditto the uterus, sometimes even the vagina. On occasion, a female acquires a vagina as part of becoming female. Does that mean that the label "female" no longer applies? No. But it does illustrate how the shorthand of the label can belie some aspects of its reality while still being generally accurate and useful. 

And sometimes, the meaning of a label changes. Only a couple of hundred years ago, telling someone they were "nice" meant labeling them as a bit overly fussy or precise in their needs. Today, it means they're kind or pleasant. Meanings and relevance change.

These changes and the malleability of labels and their boundaries can make us think that labels, in the end, are meaningless. Take the sum of an individual's parts, and you'll find that what emerges from those parts transcends the inherent properties of each part. A single neuron's just a neuron, but from a pack of them interacting with internal messages and the world outside emerges each unique individual. Can we deny, though, that that emergent individual traces back ultimately to those parts, the individual neurons? That's where it starts.

So a label is a starting point. It's the place to begin, from where we work outward, incorporating the variations that expand beyond the label to the individual. Yes, labels tend to dissolve on close examination, allowing us to see past them and into deeper relationships, but that doesn't negate their importance as beginnings or identifiers or shorthand in the wider world.

Think of groups or social circles of which you may be part. Why are you in them? If you're a mother, you may be in some kind of "mom" group. A scientist? In a scientific society related to your discipline. Someone who's battled addiction? You may participate in a group of others with that shared experience. You come together in these groups because of a label--mom, scientist, addicted--and even though each member of the group is an individual, these labels form a shared commonality and produce the emotional glue that built the group and keeps it together.

As a mother myself, I fall under a parental sublabel known as the "special needs parent." My children, because of their identifiable needs, have labels. My oldest son is autistic. That's his label. Is he exactly like all other autistic people? No. And they are not like him. But their commonalities are sufficient to warrant the label. The label itself implies a suite of shared sensory sensitivities, behaviors, and communication deficits. Whatever else my son is--smart, funny, tall, blond, male--he is also these things, and that label applies. 

That label is also useful. For him and for his brother--who has the Tourette's trifecta of ADHD, OCD, and tics, lucky kid--these labels serve any number of positive purposes. I can search them online and find other people whose experiences overlap. I can tweet a question with a hashtagged label and obtain insights from people who have been there, done that. I can find summer camps, therapies, social communication classes, homeschool groups, online groups, blogs, and news stories, all potentially related to my children, thanks to the existence of these labels.

These are only a few of the benefits. Because of the need for a starting point, to receive intervention services in school, a label is required. We no longer receive those because we homeschool, but our oldest son couldn't have received the in-school therapies and aide support he had without his "autism" label as a beginning. It also serves as a shorthand in the wider world, even if that world has yet to fully understand how much each individual expands uniquely beyond the label of "autism" or "ADHD."

Can labels carry negatives? Absolutely. First, there are the backlashes against them. For whatever reason, people who don't have these labels or have any relevance at all see fit to challenge them, sometimes with appalling ignorance (the stupid at that last link burns so hot, you may want to don protective goggles). When a label is particularly pervasive in popular culture, the tendency among the vox populi seems to be to denigrate it, dismiss it, demean it. Is that painful? Sure. Does it make the label any less valid that a few noisy, uninformed people don't "believe" in it? No.

My children are more than their labels. Of course. They each exist as the unique emergent property of the sum of a seemingly infinite number of parts, like every human being does. That doesn't mean, however, that they don't have sufficient basic components in common with some others to duck a label--or make a label irrelevant to them. In the aggregate of groups or communities bound by these commonalities, these labels are deeply meaningful, even as the disparate individuals that emerge from them remain unique. And for that reason alone--that deep meaning, the emotional glue that a label can be, the starting point that takes us in many a useful direction--you'll never find me saying, "I don't like labels." After all, I used 1100+ of them writing this post.

Why does Rush Limbaugh think sex frequency and cost positively correlate?



"She's having so much sex, she can't afford the contraception."

Right there, we learn so much about Rush Limbaugh. Clearly, he thinks that when you have a lot of sex, you must pay for it, so the more you have, the less of other things you can afford. What he doesn't seem to understand is, if you're on the Pill or other hormonal forms of birth control, how much sex you have or don't have doesn't actually affect the cost. In fact, a day after uttering that pronouncement, he is sticking to his strange argument, saying rhetorically about birth control costs: "Well, did you ever think about maybe backing off the amount of sex you have?" See, in Limbaugh's world, sex frequency is linearly associated with money spent. 

Rush Limbaugh is a gasbag who once was detained for having a bottle of prescription Viagra that wasn't prescribed to him. He is a crass misogynist whose day of relevance has faded into a dragging, dusty sunset. He still babbles on the radio, though. You may recall Sandra Fluke, the law student who was not allowed to speak at U.S. House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa's testes-only party about birth control. She finally got a chance to have her public say, which has led the good Rush Hudson Limbaugh III to go on the radio and request that Fluke provide a sex video in exchange for payment for her birth control. 

Meh. It's Rush Limbaugh, blowhard, loser, Viagra user. You can't have high expectations from that quarter much beyond ineffectual efforts to degrade a woman who is half his age and twice as smart. 

Rush seems to be struggling to make himself relevant after a series of debacles, so he has plumped himself into the middle of our nation's most furious reproductive health struggle in years, demonstrating his ever-weakening grasp of the issues and always limited interest in our nation's women and children by calling Fluke a "slut" and a "prostitute" for arguing for affordable birth control. The problem here isn't, however, our little Babbling Bloviator III. No. It's the political climate that made him think that it was OK to call her a slut and a prostitute and call for a sex video from her in exchange for affordable birth control. In Rush's mind, you see, all things sex related involve exchange of money for services. 

But the climate is disturbing. Obama has stepped in with a call to Fluke showing support. Even Orange Boehner managed a tepid rebuke, calling the remark "inappropriate" but taking that moment to assert that calling a woman a slut and prostitute for lobbying on behalf of affordable reproductive health access equates to fundraising on the fact that Rush Limbaugh called her a slut and a prostitute. I am just positive that the Republicans have never... oh... never mind. Don't hurt yourself there, Speaker Boehner.

See, it's OK to be sensitive about how one obtains one's money. That's acceptable. So, to ensure that we're on the same acceptable level of discourse here, let's examine what exactly the words "slut" and "prostitute" mean.

Slut: "Careless, dirty, slovenly woman" is the first definition I find. Here is Sandra Fluke, finally being allowed to speak after being removed from the infamous Issa hearings:

She looks pretty clean to me. 

What about the second definition of "slut." "A sexually promiscuous woman." See, Limbaugh assumes that Fluke needs birth control because she is having sex with someone, presumably male. She may well be. A woman could be having sex with six someones at once if she wants, and she ought to be able to do that (a) while using appropriate birth control and (b) and not be considered a slut for expressing her sexuality as she sees fit. These issues aside, Rush appears to be unclear about the fact that some forms of birth control serve purposes other than controlling reproduction, including regulating dysregulated cycles, addressing hormonal imbalances and painful periods, or dealing with acne. 

The Great Bloviator seems also to overlook the fact that many many women in monogamous relationships with men--some of these men are their spouses, even--use birth control to avoid having more children. Rush himself has been married four times but has no children. How did he accomplish that? Indeed, when he was busted for having Viagra not prescribed to him, he appears to have been dating the woman who eventually became his fourth wife. Gosh, Rush. What was that Viagra for, you slut?

Moving on to "prostitute." Rush seems to have a bit of an obsession about the exchange of money or value for sex. First definition: "To sell the services of oneself or another for purposes of sexual intercourse or one who does so." While Rush seems to know quite a bit about the workings of the sex service industry, I find nothing hinting that Fluke sells herself for sex. So let's look at the second definition of "prostitute." "To sell oneself, one's artistic or moral integrity, etc. for low or unworthy purposes or a person who does so."  

Let's see. Fluke, it appears, is a third-year law student at Georgetown University. Unless they've changed the way people generally fund their graduate education since I last was involved in that, it's unlikely she's selling her "artistic or moral integrity for low or unworthy purposes," unless you, like Shakespeare, feel negatively about lawyers in general on moral grounds.

How does Rush stand up to that second definition? I think this headline--"Peddling pure hatred has made Rush Limbaugh a rich man"--pretty much sums it up. Rush has some talents--talking for three hours straight ain't easy, you know--and he uses his native cynicism to package it all up for sale to the bidders he knows pay most: the rich people. Apparently, he'll also do it for vacuum cleaners, insurance, flowers, pizza, real estate, and pharmaceuticals. Rush, you busy little prostitute, you. He'd better start saving up though, because it seems that his charms are fading for some of his deep-pocketed sponsors. 

In his infamous commentary conflating birth control, paid sex, and pornography, Rush closes with an offer to buy all the "women at Georgetown University as much aspirin to put between their knees as they want." I've got a better idea. He should buy that aspirin for himself, instead. Cheaper than Viagra, and it doesn't require a prescription. Women, you see, aren't the only people who have an orifice amenable to birth control interventions, although using aspirin does fit better with Rush's perception that the more sex you have, the more you have to pay for it.