They’re everywhere. Labels, titles, categories.
Mild, spicy. Manual, automatic. Right-Wing, Left-Wing. Rich, poor. Gay, straight.
When it comes to my spice rack, I’m appreciative. Knowing the difference between basil and oregano, asafoetida and fenugreek is integral in the whole cooking process. Useful.
Labelling my son’s possessions for pre-school. Got it, convenient. Don’t want some other kids stuff coming home with us… Although on the odd occasion, despite the labelling process, I do tend to take home the wrong Spiderman lunch box.
Categorising parking spaces? Fair do’s man, disabled people deserve to have better access and less distance to travel. Helpful.
They organises our lives, simplify things and cut unnecessary corners. Labelling has become part and parcel of everyday life. But it reaches a point where the labelling, titling and categorising process can become both harmful and detrimental. It can even reach a point of being a burden where we fear other people’s perceptions; the speed at which other people jump to put you in a category and just exactly what category they’ll put you in. Eventually it becomes compartmentalising not categorising.
Example; its been ten years since I left secondary school and some fellow pupils have organised a school reunion this summer. I instantly got excited at the prospect of seeing old faces, hearing other people’s stories, seeing how much everybody has changed; both physically and mentally. Then the fear set in.
I didn’t finish Uni. I’m 26 and already have a three-year old and am 3 weeks away from having another child. I’m not married, nor am I currently working. I then began envisaging all the people whom did finish Uni. Who did their masters. Who went travelling. Who are married. Who have the 2.4 family and all the rosy, shiny perks that go with it. Who realised their dreams and pursued them.
I felt instantly inadequate; timid and apprehensive at the prospect of the question, “So what have you been doing with yourself since school?” A question that a couple of my friends have said to me they too are dreading. I comforted those friends telling them they were silly to think in such a way, that they have plenty to offer and be proud of.
Then I got annoyed. And really quite mad at myself… And what about me? Why can’t I apply that to myself? I have a BEAUTIFUL son. I am less than a month away from having another. I have the fortune of being able to be a stay-at-home mum. I have a fantastic and gorgeous partner who makes me feel loved, grateful and lucky every single day. I have a lovely house. I’m healthy. We’re not rich but we’re not living on the bread line. I have a car. I am privileged in that when I am done with the whole stay-at-home mum thing, I have the freedom and support to decide which direction I want my life to go in, job wise. Since school I have been lucky enough to visit quite a few countries and experience different ways of life.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t plan to sidle up to my old school peers, embrace them and recite the aformentioned list of accomplishments, think I’d look a little strange if not desperate. But it certainly helped to remind myself of all of that. And all of that aside; I’m a relatively eloquent, intelligent, interesting person. If I feel inadequate in a room full of people whom I once considered friends or at the very least acquaintances and they judge me because I didn’t marry the father of my first borne, am having a second child with a different man, I don’t own my house or have a job at the moment; isn’t that their problem and not mine?
You’re damn straight it is. I’m great. I am me.
That’s when I got thinking about labels. When my ex and I split one of the biggest struggles of mine was processing the prospect of being a “single mum”. I grew up thinking that was one of the hardest, most thankless, most demeaning and shameful things there is to be. Exactly why I’m not sure. Let’s not beat around the bush; it’s fucking hard work, testing and thankless. But it’s also incredible, heart-warming, makes you feel proud and accomplished, not to mention stronger. But why is it a “label” we should instantly feel ashamed or embarrassed of. Like “divorced”, “broke”, “single”, “unemployed”. These are all just adjectives. Words used to describe a small aspect of our lives. Most of them are temporary, none of them are intrinsically definitive of the people we are. “Gay”, “religious” “ill”, “on benefits” – all characteristics seemingly fundamentally linked to our social standing.
I have definitely in the past been embarrassed to admit I worked behind a bar. Friends of mine have been pained to admit that they left school, didn’t bother with college or Uni, went straight into a job and have stayed there ever since. Someone I know used to outright lie about what he did for a living, petrified that people would instantaneously think him boring and uninteresting for being an accountant. Accountants are smart people. In my mind, crunching numbers (correctly nonetheless) is an incredibly challenging thing to do on a daily basis (me and numbers do NOT get on, give me words all day everyday). It’s what he always wanted to do, he went through 7 years of training and unrewarding apprenticeships to get to where we wanted and quite rightly deserved to be. And he made a tidy wage. Yet when meeting women, did everything he could to steer conversation away from the topic of careers through fear they’d then become uninterested.
I used to work in debt collection and as merciless, cut-throat and corporate as one had to be to excel in such a job, it was also very rewarding at times as the company offered debt resolutions formulated to ease someone’s crippled finances, ultimately make their lives a little easier. Yet I was always very hesitant to mention this to people through fear of what that would then make them think of me. I’d occasionally make the joke about being soul-less and money-grabbing myself in order to stay ahead of the curve even though I knew damn well I am neither of those things. As it happened, I didn’t last all that long there because I was not designed to work in an office environment; discussing financial jargon and climbing the corporate ladder but why the shame?- The atmosphere was great, the people were lovely (for the most part) and it was a skilled profession. And again, it earned a tidy wage.
Which brings me right to my next point. A lot of the unease that comes with admitting to a part of your life that you’re not overly proud of or at least don’t think people will take too kindly to is inherently linked to money. The having of it, making of it, using of it. The label “single mum” screams “broke” and/or “on benefits”. Single motherhood is an ongoing battle to be seen outside of the social confinement it brings with it. Realistically though being broke and/or on benefits isn’t and shouldn’t be anything to feel ashamed of. VERY few people I know are doing well in the old dollar department right now. And being “on benefits”, urgh. Don’t get me started. The stigma associated with those whom claim benefits is such an unfair, inhumane one it makes my heart hurt. I am aware there are people who abuse and manipulate the system; we’ve all seen the Dispatches, Panoramas and Benefit Street programmes designed to perpetuate the ideology that all benefit claimants are scrounging, lazy, heartless and feckless. We’ve all read the newspaper articles condemning the “welfare state”; blaming this country’s demise on the people who “can’t be arsed” to get a job and unless you’ve been living in a box under the stairs for the past 6 years, we’ve all heard the hateful vitriol that David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith spew on the regular about the importance of eradicating the benefit system and giving those whom are good-for-nothing a taste of reality. But these few bad eggs are not indicative or representative of the majority. You don’t blame the creation of Music when One Direction release yet another teentastic assault on the eardrums; you blame One Direction.
The term “benefits” in general pisses me off, let alone the judgement the claimants receive. The fistfuls of cash handed to the Toffs in the Houses of Parliament for their lunch breaks should be called benefits. The tax breaks for giant monolithic corporations should be called benefits. The opulent, luxurious living quarters Prime Ministers and Presidents are given for being Prime Minister or President should be called benefits. Receiving money to help bridge the gap between your earnings and your mortage payment isn’t a benefit, its a neccessity. Receiving money to pay for your care because you are physically incapable of looking after yourself isn’t a benefit, its integral to your survival. It’s what the welfare system was developed for. It’s what people who can and do work full time without issue pay tax for. That the single mum who can’t work because she can’t afford a car and no job will accommodate the hours she has outside of her children’s school time and is subsequently labelled indisciminately for claiming the benefits she deserves is disgusting. Yet, that mum, I can guarantee, (I know because I was one and know many) feels humiliated when meeting new people and having to discuss her personal life. All because of the blemish on her social status associated with not being particularly well off. She could be funny, intriguing, charismatic, knowledgeable, beautiful and brave yet all of that falls by the waist side because then and there, she doesn’t work. She doesn’t earn a proper wage. She doesn’t have numbers on a screen. She doesn’t have completely meaningless chunks of metal in her pocket. She has a piece of plastic in her purse but it beeps violently and accussingly anytime she inserts it into a special machine. What money she does earn isn’t really hers and that in turn makes her feel grossly unequal, despite the fact that ALL money EVERYWHERE is owed to someone else. Despite the reality that most of the money in the world is a theoretical notion and has no physicality let alone palpable worth.
So why the intense importance invested in our financial and therefore social standing? Why does Lord Alan Sugar deserve to be treated with more respect than your postman? Because ultimately therein lies the crux of the issue. With money, comes respect. If you don’t have have much fictitious currency, a huge house and a fast car, why do you deserve to not be listened to, valued and ultimately respected? Why should the street sweeper whose wife can’t work because of her deteriorating health, working all the hours the Universe gives him so he can afford their rent, not receive the same level of respect as the man in the corporate suit who crushes the underclass beneath his Gucci loafer everyday at London’s Stock Exchange? I personally would have a lot more respect for the man who sacrifices his time, health, happiness and sleep so as to make his wife’s life as comfortable and manageable as possible than the business man who shouts down the phone and moves quantities of imaginary money from one account to another for a living. Caring about your loved ones, doing good deeds, being kind and a decent citizen is more deserving of respect than any other capitalistic practice in my book. But Capitalism calls for a completely different outlook.
It’s not just the social labels we’re branded with. It’s the titles that are common place in the UK that segregate us that are in my mind incredibly unneccessary too. Like Lord Alan Sugar. I appreciate very much he came from a humble background, started from nothing and worked his way out of the modest environment he was born in. People who work hard non-stop, day after day have all my admiration. Entrepeneurialism is nothing short of commendable. But these people thinking that because they chose to focus their time and efforts on their careers and bank balance (as opposed to the many many other ventures there are in life) that that somehow makes them a greater, more superior or worthy type of human being, is something I seriously begrudge. I’m a fan of ‘The Apprentice’; I’m a fan of any reality show that involves watching everyday people and the way they operate; I’m a people watcher. It bothers me though when Al (if I met him thats what I’d address him as) whips out the old, “you don’t know shit because you’re not sitting where I’m sitting” attitude. Perhaps someone didn’t graft on the market streets of Essex for as long as he did if at all, or they received a somewhat different upbringing than he did; I don’t feel that then makes Al more entitled. More superior. Privileged, yes; in that he enjoys certain privileges his choices brought him. Maybe a bit harder working. But a better person? No. We’re all different. We all have different qualities and ideas to bring to the table. That’s why I think the whole ‘Lord, Baroness, Lady, Earl, Duke, Duchess’ business is a hazardous one. So you were spat out of a certain vagina; one different to the one I was, does that mean you’re better than me? You were born into wealth; money obtained generations ago probably on the backs of people less fortunate than yourself, does that mean you’re better than me? Are we not all born naked and screaming? Of course some people make better use of their opportunities; some make opportunities for themselves full stop, but to let that define your importance as a human being and therefore the amount of respect you’re “entitled” to is both unfair and problematic.
In his book ‘Revolution’ Russell Brand talks at length about the importance of abolishing hierarchy. A well oiled, democratic, equal society is not based upon the principles of Capitalism and in his mind ridding of all titles, whether it be with regards to the Royal family or the “honourable” ladies and gentlemen in the House of Commons, is a good place to start. Make everybody equal. Have self sustained, autonomous societies within a country that operate on the standards and principles that they as a group have deemed suitable and applicable to them and their needs. Sure, some people are leaders by nature. Some people are sheep by nature. Some people crave direction, others are better suited to be the ones to point out that direction. But that’s the point; let everybody work to their very best potential, utilise their skill sets in order to contribute to society in a positive and beneficial way. Establish this “order” but don’t let it influence the way inwhich you treat each other or respect each other. The person mixing the cement is just as important and valuable as the person stacking the bricks. Neither of them are deserving of a title because they are both equal.
I think good old sexy bum Russell is on to something.
… I guess instead of ridding of all titles, you could just give everybody one… I might do that, start calling everyone “M’Lord and M’Lady.” Get a trend going.
I had the conversation about equality with my partner a while ago and he argued it wouldn’t work because people need order and direction; it’s within our nature to have a pecking order, its prevalent in the animal kingdom, he said. And I agreed to a degree. A pride of lions has a male ring leader whom ascertains which unsuspecting animal will be dinner that day. A pack of wolves has the wolf mother who organises the group and initiates the attack. Ants have a queen whom spawns all the workers and oversees the kingdom. But aren’t the lionesses who actually take down the wilderbeest, the wolf mother’s pups who chase the deer down and the thousands of working ants who carry the materials and build the underground empire all equally as important; integral to the machine that keeps their way of life going? Don’t they all deserve respect?
That and you know, this isn’t the animal kingdom. We’re civilised, established human beings with Ids, Egos and SuperEgos not to mention tools, resources and technology; I think we’ve advanced past the old caveman days. Its about time we acted accordingly.
“Respect’s not given; it’s earned.”
See, that phrase bothers me. Unless you’ve done something already that’s downright disgraceful or immoral; shouldn’t everyone just automatically be dished out an equal level of respect? Shouldn’t we treat the guy behind the till at McDonalds the same way we would our child’s English Teacher? The very same way we’d treat the Queen or our Grandmother? Don’t we all just as human beings deserve to respect each other? Whether we’re “immigrants”, “working class”, “transgender”, “lesbian”, “atheist” or “Liberal”? I don’t feel like its too much to ask.
To quote the timelessly relevant, moving and beautiful ‘Sunscreen’ by Baz Luhrmann:
Maybe you’ll marry, maybe you won’t
Maybe you’ll have children, maybe you won’t
Maybe you’ll divorce at 40, maybe you’ll dance the ‘Funky Chicken’
On your 75th wedding anniversary
Whatever you do, don’t congratulate yourself too much
Or berate yourself either
Your choices are half chance, so are everybody else’s…