Do Labels Inform or Conceal?

 

labelsOne definition of a “label” according to the Oxford Dictionary is “a classifying phrase or name applied to a person or thing, especially one that is inaccurate or restrictive.”

I was reminded of this definition as I read David Brook’s editorial today on “partyism,” a word coined by Cass Sunstein at Harvard to describe discrimination based on political affiliation.  Brooks’s comments were prompted by surveys that indicate that discrimination based on political affiliation is now greater than discrimination based on race.  He noted, for example, a comparison of polling data from 1960 with 2010. In 1960, the percentage of people who indicated they would “be ‘displeased’ if their child married someone from the other party” was about 5 percent for both Republicans and Democrats. By 2010, it has risen to 49 percent for Republicans and 33 percent for Democrats.

Much of Brooks’s article focused on the destructive impact of what he called hyper-moralization (the automatic association of moral and ethical values with party labels) on the political process.  His conclusion, on a higher philosophical plane, is worth repeating:

“This mentality [of hyper-moralization] also ruins human interaction. There is a tremendous variety of human beings within each political party. To judge human beings on political labels is to deny and ignore what is most important about them. It is to profoundly devalue them. That is the core sin of prejudice, whether it is racism or partyism.”

Or, I might add, sexism.

The subject of labels and the damage they do has been a recurrent theme in discussions with book clubs and women’s groups about sexual fluidity as it relates to the same-sex relationship that occurs in my novel, A Fitting Place. I’ve been surprised at the number of women—a relatively small percentage of my audiences, but more than I expected—who flatly reject the notion of sexual fluidity, and insist that any woman who has had a same-sex relationship at some point in her life must be lesbian (or at least bi-sexual) because “a straight woman would never do that.”

When pressed for why they insist on these labels, the typical response boils down to: “Well, I’m straight, and I’d never do it. I just don’t get why any one else would—unless they were gay.”  A few will add that they simply aren’t interested in learning any more about the subject of sexual fluidity or same-sex relationships.

I never cease to be amazed when people assume they can speak for the world at large, based on their own individual experience. But the more disturbing aspect of these responses is that words that seemed descriptive in my college days—words that opened up a discussion about a different approach to sexuality—have become labels that all but eliminate the possibility of talking about diversity of human experience.

In Brooks’s words, these labels—lesbian, bi-sexual and even straight—have the effect of devaluing what is important about one of the most significant lifestyle decision that most of us have to make.

Notwithstanding my comments above, I have to keep reminding myself of the difference between a description that starts a conversation and a label that closes conversation off.

How often do you use “labels” in a way that shuts down the possibility of a conversation?

Girlfriends Matter

 

Welcome to Kathleen Pooler, who has joined us today to discuss the nature of friendship.  It is a subject of considerable interest to me, as the protagonist of my novel has never had the kind of girl friends that Kathy describes here and in her novel.

 

Some women pray for their daughters to marry good husbands. I pray that my girls will find girlfriends half as loyal and true as the Ya-Yas.”                               Rebecca Wells, Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood

I have plenty of awesome male friends whom I respect and admire but there is something unique and special about girlfriend relationships.

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Carol Bodensteiner, Kathy Pooler, and Mary Gottschalk in Osceola, Iowa

I have always valued my girlfriends from every phase of my life. Together, we have experienced the joys and sorrows, the frustrations and challenges, the ruts and growth spurts of our lives. As I age, I find that I value them even more—both the old and new friends.

In the words of a popular Beatles’ tune: “I’ll get by with a little help from my friends.”

Martha tried to convince me not to marry when she listened to my doubts. Sharon coaxed me up the stairs and out the door the day I left my first husband because of his drinking. Judy supported me before, during and after both my divorces. Eileen opened my eyes to God’s presence in my life. Mary Sue and her family became my family away from my family. Meredith and Denise rallied around me when I escaped from my second husband for fear of physical abuse…

These are a few of many who stood by me—steady and true—through my life challenges. I had to find my own way in my own time but their presence in my life made a positive difference in helping me move forward.

Therefore, it came to no surprise to me when I read this UCLA Study On Friendship Among Women posted by Gale Berkowitz in 2002:

“This landmark study suggests friendships between women are special. They shape who we are and who we are yet to be. They soothe our tumultuous inner world, fill the emotional gaps in our marriage and help us remember who we really are”

And the friendship phenomenon is research-based.

As stated in the article, this study came about when two women scientists, Dr. Laura Klein and fellow researcher Shelley Taylor discovered in a casual conversation over coffee in a lab at UCLA one day that “when men get stressed, they hole up; when women get stressed, they make coffee, clean the office and bond, ‘tend and befriend’.” This spearheaded a movement to include women in stress research and the results confirm what we already know:

 “Women live longer than men and friends help us live longer.”

In the same article, The Nurses’ Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that

The more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical impairments as they aged, and the more likely they were to be leading a joyful life.”

I am fascinated by this study even though it confirms what I have already experienced throughout my entire life—girlfriends matter. And the older I get, the more they matter. As we age and face more hardships—physical decline, loss of family and friends—we need each other more than ever.

In my memoir, Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse, I show how my girlfriends give me strength and help me to move forward in my life. When I sat down to write this story, I had no conscious intent to include them. They showed up in my writing as they had shown up in my life to counsel and guide me.

And the many friends—YOU– (girls and guys) I have had the pleasure of bonding with on my writing journey are on the top of my list of people who matter and have made a positive difference in my life.

I will admit to being partial to girlfriend time—to bond in ways only girlfriends can bond. Who else can I go shopping with, spend hours on the phone or over coffee, get honest opinions about fashion trends, giggle over silly memories or whine over minutia with without getting a glazed-over look?  Just saying….

How about you? How have you experience girlfriend relationships?

KathyPoolerBrighterAbout the Author: Kathleen Pooler is an author and a retired Family Nurse Practitioner whose memoir, Ever Faithful to His Lead: My Journey Away From Emotional Abuse, published on July 28.2014 and work-in-progress sequel, Hope Matters: A Memoir are about how the power of hope through her faith in God helped her to transform, heal and transcend life’s obstacles and disappointments:  domestic abuse, divorce, single parenting, loving and letting go of an alcoholic son, cancer and heart failure to live a life of joy and contentment. She believes that hope matters and that we are all strengthened and enlightened when we share our stories.

She lives with her husband Wayne in eastern New York.

She blogs weekly at her Memoir Writer’s Journey blog: http://krpooler.com

You can reach Kathy at:

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Kathleen Pooler/Memoir Writer’s Journey (Facebook)

Learning to See the Other

 

 

You are a person only if someone else thinks you are a person 
                                                                    — South African proverb

 

See the otherThe dehumanizing impact of labels and stereotypes—the losses we suffer when we fail to see the other as a human being with his or her own unique story—was the subject of Naomi Tutu’s presentation to my Rotary group last Friday morning.

Tutu, the daughter of Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, has been a long-time activist for human rights.  She began her comments with a compelling portrait of a young girl growing up under apartheid. No one in the audience was surprised when she described a world that viewed her as a member of the class of “black women,” someone who had no story apart from her blackness.

Similarly, no one was surprised to hear that she had viewed white South Africans as members of a class who had no story apart from their role as “oppressors.” Under apartheid, legal, social, political and historical barriers made it difficult for both whites and black to see the other as individuals—to see the other in terms of individual aspirations, fears and delights.

Breaking Down Stereotypes

But Tutu got our attention when she observed that the white oppressors were themselves oppressed, the victims of a self-imposed oppression. Yes, white South Africans as a class had wealth and privilege and opportunities denied to the blacks. But individually, many South Africans lived in a state of nearly constant fear of the violence provoked by decades of apartheid.

Naomi TutuThis insight came during her first visit to South Africa after she had finished college and started working in the United States. Proud of her spanking new credit card and driver’s license, she rented a car for the drive to her family home. Like all black drivers in that era, she was stopped at a police checkpoint. When she was told to get out of the car, she complied but “with attitude.” As she waited, annoyed and resentful, for the officer to search her car, she watched his face. It took her only moments to realize that the young policeman—in a position of power and with a gun—was clearly terrified of what she, “a black woman,” might do to him.

In an effort to calm his fear, she talked about her visit to her family and asked about his family. They talked, as human beings with a shared humanity, for a quarter of an hour before she went on her way. I had an image of the policeman waving her off with a smile, of her looking back with a grin to wave at him.

That was only one of many stories she shared. All of them spoke to the essence of being a person, of recognizing the unique stories of each and everyone of us. Tutu spoke movingly about the hurt we cause as well as the opportunities we miss when we fail to recognize and honor our shared humanity.

The weight of Tutu’s words struck me again only moments after her presentation ended. As I crossed the Drake campus toward my car, I found myself recoiling, intellectually if not physically, from a young man with heavily tattooed arms in a rainbow of green, red, yellow and blue. Mine was a shamefully elitist reaction, not unlike that of the white South Africans who saw only “a black woman.” Perhaps this young man was an honors student or a faculty member. Perhaps he was a loving husband and father. What right did I have to assume that that the color of his skin would tell me anything about his humanity?

How often do you fail to recognize our shared humanity, to truly see the other?

 

Tutu’s presentation reprised one of the key themes—the corrosive impact of stereotypes—in my novel, A Fitting Place, although my focus has been on gender rather than race. I would love to hear your thoughts and experiences on how stereotypes have affected your life. If you’d like to contribute to the discussion with a guest blog, please contact me here.

 

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A Fitting Place – A Metaphor

 

A Fitting PlaceMay 1 was the big day—the release of my first novel, A Fitting Place. 

Since I began to use my book cover to promote the book, people have asked me about source of my title. The one that actually made me laugh out loud came from a friend who buys his athletic shoes at a local emporium called “The Fitting Place.”

I assure you, I didn’t have a shoe store in mind when I picked the title. On the other hand, a place where you can try something on to see if it fits is not so far off the mark.

So, herewith, some thoughts about my title, which serves as a metaphor on several different levels.

A Fitting Room – In the days when I still liked to shop for clothes, a fitting room was a great place to try on a new persona while I was trying on a new outfit. I’d never worn purple—how would it look with my skin? Would I feel sexy or tart-y in a sequined dress with a plunging neckline? Those dressing rooms coughed up some unexpected treasures that delighted me for years. But more than once, my “new-persona” purchase languished in a closet until I carted it off to Goodwill.

The dressing room is a metaphor for Lindsey’s love affair with a woman. The relationship offers an intimacy she has always ached to have, an opportunity to try a different way of living and loving. But will that same-sex relationship stand the test of time, or will it founder just as her previous relationships with men have foundered?

The Biblical Notion of Fitting. The term “fitting” appears frequently in both the Old and New Testament, usually referring to actions or events that are suited to the circumstances. It stands in contrast to events or actions that are seen to be “right” in some a priori or moralistic way.

For most of her life, Lindsey has been determined to do or say the “right” thing, based on the societal values, including gender roles, with which she was raised. She routinely subordinated her needs to the whims and desires of others, or to what she assumed was expected of her. This approach to life has left her with chronic anxiety and stomachaches that sap her energy.

It is only when Lindsey begins to take responsibility for her own actions based on her own needs—to do what fits the situation rather than what she thinks someone wants—that her anxiety level drops and her stomachaches ease. It is the beginning of  maturity.

A Jigsaw Puzzle – Have you ever had the thoroughly annoying experience of working on a jigsaw puzzle with a piece or two missing? Have you ever had the rather more distressing sense that there was a piece of information missing from your life, a crucial insight that would make everything okay if you knew what it was?

That’s exactly how Lindsey has felt for years. But the missing pieces were largely of her own making, a result of her effort to live by what she assumed other people wanted, a consequence of her tendency to withhold information about herself and to dole out only what she thought people “ought” to know.

The pieces of the puzzle began to fall into place as Lindsey began to acknowledge her own needs and, in the process, discover that what her friends and family really wanted from her was quite different than what she had assumed.

How does the metaphor of A Fitting Place apply to your life?