Day 210: On Labels, Negation, and Pronouns

He probably never said that, too. At least not in English.

Who said the phrase, “If you label me, you negate me.” Early 1990s scholar and public access TV host Wayne Campbell pontificates famously below.

Was it Kierkegaard … or Dick Van Patten?

Actually — neither. The oldest reference is The earliest phrasing I can find comes from a 1945 article by Jean Wahl in The New Republic called “Existentialism: A Preface” where Kierkegaard and Hegel are having an imaginary conversation. (Full text here.)

“One day a man, Kierkegaard, was deeply dissatisfied with the ideas of Hegel. Hegel had shown that the truth is the whole, be it in art, in society, in history, and that beyond the particular wholes, there is the absolute whole which contains everything.

But Kierkegaard said: “I am no part of a whole, I am not integrated, not included. To put me in this whole you imagine is to negate me. Who am I? I am an intensity of feeling in relation with beings, and particularly with the Divine Being, who excites my desire, my knowledge. I want to be in a kind of self-destroying contact with God, the Absolute Other.”

Where do we go from here? This quote is actually Wahl’s interpretation of Kierkegaard and Hegel’s philosophy, but let’s for the sake of argument presume that Wahl was a foremost scholar of both, considering how much he did to usher them in French discourses in the 1930s.

Why is this relevant today?

I want to talk about the importance of individualism as it’s expressed among communities that are labelled and subsequently marginalized in the collective. I find the positions of Hegel and Kierkegaard particularly relevant to one issue in particular: labeling in the modern era. For the same of length, let’s focus on one recent contentious issue: pronouns.

I’ve noticed an increasing trend in meetings where some people will introduce themselves as such:

“Hello, my name is [first name]. Preferred pronouns: they, them, their.”

My initial reaction: “Interesting.”

I wondered what it meant for whatever conceits I had before that moment. I’m sure few have ever had any confusion over my gender identity, and despite frequent speculations over my sexuality over the years (largely subsided when I became fat and married to a woman), I never felt compelled to pronounce my pronouns … anywhere, really.

Recently, I watched Dave Chappelle on his Netflix special summarily reject this effort, and honestly, I was offended … along with the rest of the LGBTQ community.

While I don’t know what it’s to challenge other people’s notion of my gender identity, I do know what it’s like to have people constantly interrogate and challenge my racial and ethnic identity. I was just disappointed Chappelle didn’t have the same empathy.

I suppose both Chappelle and I have one thing in common: our experiences are privileged. I do wonder if it would be a move of solidarity to pronounce anyway, to assert that I’m doing all I can to be considerate of others who struggle with this in the public real. I also don’t want to come off as sarcastic or mocking — that’s my default tone. Regardless, I’m committed to call people according to their preferences. Period.

I’d love insight here from anyone with experience or authority on the matter.

To what extent can we control our own labeling?

Back to Hegel and Kierkegaard. Drawing from Wahl’s excerpt, Hegel might say that the debate over pronouns is a fundamentally political one, divergent from an individual’s engagement with the social to produce something of meaning yet remains constantly contested and re-defined. Fundamentally, these matters of “he/she/they” or “genderqueer” all come from this underlying truth about society, culture, and knowledge — it’s all part of a dialectic.

Kierkegaard, however, drawing from a strongly religious position compared to Hegel’s tendency to inspire atheism, observes the truth as independent from the social, connected if not ultimately defined by God. This sentiment may not likely apply much to queer communities, but inherent individualism in an sort of Ayn Randian sense might be more relevant. In other words, these social categories do not wholly define us — we are always resisting them in order to be true to ourselves.

What if … they’re both somewhat right?

In sum, this is about political correctness, a dirty phrase to throw about but literally appropriate here. It’s presumptuous to think that a society wholly determines everything about an individual’s identity, even the potential motivation to resist and redefine it. Yet thinking that the truth is predetermined by an individual, their DNA, or God also falls a little flat for me, especially considering how much these zones of identity shift from region to region.

In the end, I lean to Hegel, but only because the excerpt provided omits the fact that Hegel acknowledges the individual’s agency in their part of a bigger picture. (Apparently it is common to misread Hegel as central inspiration to collectivist theorization.) Perhaps I’m revealing a bit much about my non-religious leanings, but it’s just harder to verify whether God is withholding the truth about our identity politics in the aggregate.

We’re still struggling to figure it all out on our own.

— Lee

Write with intention. Think with compassion.