Words, Labels and Identity- Feeling Lost in the Unsafe Spaces of our World

I find myself pondering this morning;

As a socialist leaning individual, by which I mean where tension exists between the rights of the individual and concern for the collective I uphold the necessary value of setting my rights as secondary to the good of the whole, it is difficult to find space where I can effectively critique problems I see with the left while knowing that I also cannot in good conscious associate myself with much of what I see on the right.

As a universalist leaning Christian, by which I mean in the tension of the mystery that is real and true justice and in navigating the difference between capital letter Sin (systemic) and small letter sin (participation) I am compelled to live and hope in such a way that believes in the possibility of the good of creation and the possibility that all might be liberated through the Gospels proclamation, it is equally difficult to find space where I can critique the Christian left while knowing that I cannot in good conscious associate myself with most of what I see on the Christian right.

Which makes it difficult to exist with necessary cause and necessary humility when engaging in conversation. It also makes it extremely aware how deeply associated politics and religion actually are in defining these polarities of thinking, both in necessary and destructive ways. Shared language and labels can be and often are important for belonging and identity. Where shared language and labels become destructive is when belonging and identity become measures of exclusion. Terms like left and right become generalizing terms that locate what we are for and what we are against. What makes matter worse is that when you occupy certain space inbetween, that undefined territory that where our beliefs can co-exist with our questions, it becomes easy to feel like we don’t actually belong anywhere and to feel isolated by all sides. To be fair I think most people would desire to see themselves as occupying this space, but the way most people operate, and I include myself, tends to thrive on the polarities.

Now, this might be a dumb thought, but since I like to spend the middle of the night ruminating on existential questions rather than sleeping it’s a further thought I had towards this end nonetheless.

I wonder if one of the biggest problems we face as humanity in this tendency to need shared and defining labels and language is our tendency to move from ‘ism’s” to “ist’s”

Allow me to explain.

For example. Humanism is an idea. To use the word “humanist” in modernist terms is to go from an idea to a worldview, which has both positive and negative interest. That is, it is a way of defining ourselves or the belief system/worldview to which we belong (positive) whole also setting us apart from that to which we don’t belong (it is common for example, for humanism to be arguing for a particular view of the world whole at the same time arguing against a particular religious view).

To use humanism as a further example, one of the problems that emerges from this is that this creates a divide between these sides that inhibits study and interest in the idea itself. It is not true that religion is not interested in humanism or that it lacks “humanist” elements. And yet, when applied as an “ist” we end up with vast generalizations anchored in this idea of defining what something is against what that thing is not. Thus interest in the study of humanism carries this connotation that we are studying something that is opposed to religion, which then plays out into something that is anti-religious, ultimately resulting in equal religious skepticism of humanism at large.

What’s interesting is that some of this problem seems to be rooted in the development of the suffix “ist”, which moves from its Greek/Latin roots into its French application and eventually it’s English counterparts. The further we get from its more nuanced roots the more it becomes fastened as a noun to this kind of identity shaping power rather than the study of or participation in an idea. Think of the word “rapist”. In this usage the action becomes conflated with an identity.

We see this problem in recent history with this shift from Darwinism (a study and an idea) to neo-Darwinist or Darwinist (a worldview), which had immense consequences in terms of the divide this created.

To use a recent example from my own life. I was in conversation with someone about Foucault and his ideas. They used the word “positivist” to describe themselves in relationship to Foucault. I immediately had a reaction because I intuitively know that this word carried the power to both define what this person is for and thus what they are against. It’s written straight into the definition that Positivism as an identity defining noun exists both for something (rationalism and socialism) and against something (metaphysics and theism).

What this seems to show is how quickly humans tend to gravitate towards these identity shaping systems and how conditioned we are to see them as needing that necessary conflict. IST isn’t the only suffix to operate in this fashion, but it is one of the most evident. Relevant to today is even the use of a word like “scientist”, which tends to evade it’s concern for “practice” or one who practices and shifts very easily in its common usage as a means of demonstrating what we align oursleves with and what we align oursleves again. The problem of course is that these things are often much broader than not and tend to digress into beliefs that these two things then must stand opposed, which of course leads to all kinds of nasty division and infighting.

I’m not sure there is an answer as much as this is an observation of our reality. It does kind of reveal the power of language, and even the limiting nature of English (in its own divided and often competing form). I’m reminded of a quote from James Gleik in his book Time Travel: A History,

“We have a tendency to take our words too seriously, which happens (paradoxically) when we are unconscious of them. Language offers a woefully meager set of choices for expressing what we need to express.”

James Gleik

And yet, at the same time I am remind of my recent foray into Tolkien, someone who captured the power of words and language and a genuine love for philology that informed his trajectory and his work. For Tolkien words are to be take seriously precisely because they hold the power to communicate truths we could not otherwise comprehend and to transform us in its revealing.

Which is all to say, perhaps what we all need most of all is safe space to speak, to learn, to be challenged and be heard beyond mere language. A space to be heard beyond the words and the labels, and a space to grow beyond the words and the labels. This is hard to foster when it seems we are consistently forced to enter into spaces, be it online or in person, that are decidedly not this and tend to elicit something quite other, be it from others and/or ourselves. It’s also true that attempts to create safe spaces can quickly be co-opted in the same way by these assumed and often necessary polarities. And yet, if we are to avoid slipping into a self defeating cynicism about it all it seems important to at least be able to uphold such a hope that such spaces are possible, and better yet to trust that even small movements towards embodying these spaces in our own lives and communities can actually make a difference.

Published by davetcourt

I am a 40 something Canadian with a passion for theology, film, reading writing and travel.

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