One of the favorite slogans of the slacker revolution is the demand that the legions of the fusty “don’t label me.” This often is in response to some category of sexual attraction — or lately, gender — religious affiliation, or politics.
As a writer who writes westerns for college professors and who contributes a liberal’s support for gun rights in political books, I have a measure of sympathy with this point of view. Many labels are sloppy in their definition and application. I once suggested to a fellow writer who was dissatisfied with the constraints of a particular subgenre that she just change genres and keep the same book. That’s not as easy as it sounds, since publishers and book sellers are limiting in their understanding of how to market a book and too many readers aren’t willing to give something unfamiliar a try.
That being said, there is also the temptation felt by lazy authors to refrain from learning the rules — especially without learning what the rules give us in return from their constraints on our freedom. Robert Frost is quoted often as saying that “writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down,” and in my own small experience, the requirement, for example, of fourteen lines of iambic pentameter that must rhyme in the Italianate or Elizabethan model makes finding fitting words hard, but also produces inspiration that wouldn’t have come without that standard.
Language itself is essentially a collection of labels and rules for combining them. The debate about precisely what those labels are — ideas illuminated by the Good or more like the conventional sense of text written on a box of items — goes back to Plato and Aristotle, but for the present discussion, choosing between them or among some other answer isn’t necessary. Take the label of “chair.” I have the object that I’m currently sitting on in mind, and whatever entered your consciousness upon reading that word is highly likely to be something else. But the function of the object is the same, and even the shape will have a lot in common with mine.
All right, but what about a stump? Or an ottoman? Or that Iron Throne thing from the Game of Thrones? And what about the gender-neutral term for the leader of a committee, the chair?
These illustrate some of the ways in which labels are poorly formed and applied. The effect of that is to miss possibility. Take the example of the riddle about the father and son who are in a car wreck, killing the parent. When the son is taken to the hospital, the surgeon says about the boy, “I can’t do the surgery. That’s my son.” The explanation in my childhood was that the surgeon was the mother, something that the categories of the time had trouble handling. These days, there are more possibilities as to the nature of the doctor that are in public discourse.
Returning to chairs, my family had a battered wood model, covered in layers of mostly grey paint, that we used, obviously, for painting ceilings or for removing things from high shelves. Then my grandmother got after the thing, stripping off the accumulation of years to find a Polish antique from the 1920s or some such that was worth a good deal of money. When last I saw it, the objet d’art stood in the corner of the living room, unused because it had acquired the label of valuable, making it no longer effectively a chair.
The duty then for all participants in the discussion of life is to understand that we must use labels — otherwise known as words — to communicate, while acknowledging that those labels have to be tested against reality. To quote from the Tao Te Ching, “Nameless: the origin of heaven and earth. Naming: the mother of ten thousand things.” When the refusal to accept labels is mere laziness, a reluctance to engage in clear thinking, that should be rejected, but when instead we are being invited into deeper awareness and comprehension, we should be grateful for the opportunity.
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