Labels are for Soup Cans?

There’s something that kind-hearted and well-meaning people say that can hurt. Well… there are lots of things like that, but today I want to talk about the anti-label statements.

It goes something like this:

“Let’s go around the circle and introduce ourselves.”

“Hi, my name is Sparrow. I’m a writer, artist, musician, and astrologer. I live in an apartment with my cat, Fermat, and I am Autistic.”

“Oh, Sparrow, I don’t think you should call yourself autistic. Labels are for soup cans, not people! You’re such a sweet, intelligent young lady. You don’t need to use that label on yourself any more. We all accept you here. You’re just like us and seem totally normal to us. Don’t label yourself.”

a bowl of alphabet soup with the word Autistic floating in it.

image: a bowl of alphabet soup with the word “Autistic” floating in it.

The person who says that is trying to be progressive and enlightened and kind and accepting. It is so hard to tell them that they are hurting me because their words so obviously come from a place of love. But those words also come from a place of fear and misunderstanding, so it is only by explaining why it hurts me to tell me not to label myself that I can help others to perfect that love they are trying to express.

In my opinion, labels are valuable tools.

Labels help us to find other people with whom we resonate. How many dating sites would people bother with if you couldn’t use labels to tell prospective dates that you identify as: male, female, (on more enlightened sites, there are more gender options), Jewish, Neopagan, Christian, atheist, agnostic, Muslim, Buddhist, etc. African-American, White, Asian, Native American, etc. smoker, non-smoker, and so on. Those labels are crucial if people are to find dates with the sort of people who “ring their bell” and try to form intimate partnerships with them. Imagine trying to find a date on a site where all the people were just randomly jumbled together.

Labels help us to find groups with which we click. I wouldn’t be studying Morse code right now if I weren’t able to label myself as a ham operator and find other people who also call themselves hams. I would have missed out on a lot of great friendships if people from the Rainbow Family refused to use labels and didn’t call themselves Rainbows. People use labels all the time when they are seeking groups with which to associate.

Labels help us to understand ourselves better. Yes, they are a sort of heuristic — a short-hand and reductionist way to identify things that doesn’t encapsulate the entirety of who and what a person is — but they are so useful. A woman who notices her stomach getting bigger and bigger is comforted by remembering that she is pregnant. Pregnant is a label. When I get frustrated that I have to slowly reason out people’s words and actions and cannot interpret them immediately and on-the-fly, it comforts me to remember that I am Autistic. Autistic is a label.

We’ve all heard someone say — either joking or seriously — “that’s because I’m a man,” or “I feel this way because I am transitioning,” or “that’s because I’m a woman,” or “it’s because I’m still a kid,” or “come on, I’m a grown-up!” or any variety of these. Man, trans, woman, kid, grown-up — all labels. And all useful.

Abandoning labels is well-intentioned — it tries to seek to avoid harming others. But it can cause more harm than good. I view the drive to abandon labels as a close relative to person-first language. Both seek to assert one’s humanity in the face of something considered dehumanizingly horrible. We don’t find people insisting on person-first language for conditions considered positive or neutral, like being an artist, musician, male or female, etc. People only get cranky about the “person living with Thingness” construction when being a Thing is thought to be something terrible.

Likewise, people who say that people shouldn’t be labeled (“labels are for soup cans, not people”) have no problem with labels like “man,” “woman,” “artist,” “musician,” “writer,” “astrologer,” “Nobel Prize Winning Physicist,” and so on. They only pull out their anti-label rhetoric when they are cringing about the particular label a person has been given or has given to themselves.

Now, when that label is a genuine pejorative someone else is using to restrict or hurt a person, it’s great to fight labels. Many people reading this have fought hard to wipe out the R-word and I love you all for that! But when someone has embraced their label and is proud of it and feels that it conveys important information about their identity — like “Autistic,” for example — it is a painful squashing of their identity to refuse to accept their label.

In some ways, it’s even worse than person-first language. Person-first language says “I want to separate you and your autism and put you first to remind people that you are a human being because autism is such a terrible thing that they might forget you are human if I don’t linguistically separate it from you.” Anti-labeling says, “I want to deny the existence of your autism altogether. It is inherently dehumanizing so I want to use language to pretend it out of existence entirely.”

If someone is being bullied with labels, it is great to step in and stop it. But when someone trusts you enough to share a core piece of their identity with you, it is a slap in the face to tell them that labels are for soup cans, not people. When you say something like that, you are trying to keep the soup and throw the can in the trash. I am Autistic and if you try to throw that in the trash with the soup cans, you are throwing me in the trash and it hurts. Enjoy my soup (I think it’s tomato-basil soup. I hope you like it.) and learn to accept my label without cringing because I love my label. Autistic is who and what I am. Yes, it is a heuristic — I am so much more than that word. But if you reject that word, you are rejecting me.

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14 responses to this post.

  1. You express this beautifully. I love the way you have described how there are some labels that we own, that form parts of our identity.

  2. Well said! Do you mind if I suggest this for PACLA and/or AWN to use in education efforts? Love, Ib

  3. And of course, it’s very ironic when people say “don’t call yourself autistic. You don’t need to label yourself.” and then say you must be very high functioning, as if they don’t realize that high functioning is a label! :-)
    Great post.

  4. Posted by merelyquirky on April 20, 2014 at 5:55 pm

    Reblogged this on Merely Quirky and commented:
    Requiring labels, and using labels as pejoratives, can be negatives. But check your privilege, you have no right to dictate how another person describes themselves!

    And , since I’ve decided to stop babying the feelings of rude people, I’d reply: Why ask me to deacribe myself, since you seem to think I don’t know who I am?’

  5. I’ve heard those kinds of comments plenty of times. One person told me I couldn’t be autistic because autistic people cannot talk. She said, “Maybe you were when you were little, but you outgrew it!” And my own brother advised me that if I stopped TELLING people I was autistic, I wouldn’t have to BE autistic… as if it is other people’s view of me that makes me what I am, and I can simply step out of it and put on another costume. Sheesh! I’m autistic, I have ADHD, and I’m fine with it!

  6. I love this! :) I blogged almost the same thing (even has the same title!) back on the 7th. I am so glad to see others who feel the same way! People have no problem with labels unless it makes THEM uncomfortable. I am proud to be an Aspie. I’m proud to be Autistic. If I am comfortable with using those labels, others should be comfortable using them to describe me too!

  7. Just substitute the word “Deaf” for “Autistic” and suddenly it’s easy to see how the exclamation “don’t label yourself!” makes no sense whatsoever. I think you’re absolutely right in saying that it is only a way to deny the existence of autism.

  8. Thank you for sharing. Any person should be able to tell as much or as little about themselves as dictated by the environment. You felt safe in sharing only to be denied who you are. Don’t give up on stupid people around you. You are so well spoken I would have liked it if you had told off that person who thought they were helping you.
    My daughter who has significant hearing loss does not like to tell people. Many would be helped by this knowledge and could communicate with her better. It is not because she is ashamed, she simple does not want it to define her. This is her choice.
    No one else should be telling her or you how to describe yourselves.
    Love your blogs.

    • I did tell the person off — I politely corrected her for trying to apologize for me and “explain” me behind my back. She didn’t get it at all, so I removed her from my life. Unfortunately, that required also removing a whole community of people. I still miss some of them. But she was in charge of the community, so I couldn’t stay without having to put up with more of her.

  9. Posted by StephsTwoGirls on April 21, 2014 at 2:53 am

    Thanks for this great post, I love it! I’m happy to tell people my daughter is autistic; she’s only 6 though so of course it will be up to her what she decides to tell people when she’s older :)

  10. Posted by mooncatadams on April 21, 2014 at 12:26 pm

    Glad to see you keeping on, Sparrow.

  11. Beautiful. And I agree.

  12. […] been reading posts here and there about labels – they’re bad/limiting, they’re good/helpful/freeing, etc. […]

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