On Being Offended By Labels

Story One.

Gerry D came to Sarnia and did a comedy show last summer. A bunch of us went to see it, a number of us teachers who connected with him on a different level. He started his act with spending about five minutes just making fun of Sarnia. He was convinced there was a crack house across the street from the theatre, and that he had to walk by drunks on his way into the show. He made fun of the size and the seeming grossness of the city. He did, what I’m sure he does at every single one of his shows in every town. He tried to contextualize his act to better connect with his audience.

Story Two.

How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: That’s not funny.

When I told my wife this joke, who considers herself a critical third-wave feminist, she said “that’s not funny.” A few people were upset by the joke and I got into a few debates online about the use of it and if it was appropriate.

I never get offended. It’s a gift. I spend my life being made fun of and making fun. There are lots of people who have said and done horrible things to me, and I seem to just be able to shrug it off. But, for about five minutes during this Gerry D show, I discovered feelings that I had never felt before. I think I was offended. This was my town. A place I took pride in. Not only that, this was my downtown, where the theatre was and the crack house you were talking about could have very well been any of my friend’s houses. The drunk people you saw were probably the folks standing outside of Neon Moon, who are usually there starting at 10am and drink all day. Gerry D wasn’t even wrong. He was right. But I found myself annoyed and offended at him. I finally understood how my wife feels when she is offended.

When we identify ourselves with a label, we need to defend it, and have people understand the whole story before they can speak freely about it. If only Gerry D knew that Sarnia downtown was a struggling area of town with a higher at risk population and the percentage of folks addicted to crack is higher than most towns – if only he knew that – he wouldn’t make fun of it. If only I knew that feminism is a movement that desperately needed to happen and has passionately been pushing up against oppressive structures and making things serious which has normally been laughed off for a long time – if only I knew that – then I probably wouldn’t have made fun of it.

I realized I probably don’t got offended much because I don’t identify myself with very many labels anymore. Christian? Not the kind of Christian I am. Pentecostal? Laughable. Conservative? Nope. Unintelligent? I won’t believe it. The less labels I take on, the less I become offended. The less I believe myself to be attributed to the stupidity of labels, the less I care if someone makes fun of it.

Eventually though, there will be labels that you will identify with that when it gets mocked, you feel mocked. Hipster? Radical? Father? Mother? Employee? Capitalist? Church goer? Banker? Nerd? Academic? Blue Collar? White Collar?

I identify myself as a Sarnian. I am offended if someone spits out unintelligent mockery about my city. Not much I can do about it. But it does help me better understand people’s reaction when we criticize labels. When we criticize a label, or even judge a label, we have to understand in the same breath we crush all those who have identified (consciously or sub-consciously) with it. Which is probably why it makes way more sense to learn to identify yourself along with labels that are seen as negative. Recognize yourself as prideful, greedy, loud, ignorant or unpleasant – then when someone mocks those people groups you’ll probably defend them. Just an idea.

2 Comments

  • I think you’re absolutely correct in that giving ourselves a label or being labelled in some way can create much anxiety. It puts us in boxes and often stereotypes us. I think the world at large would be a much more tolerant place if we didn’t need to use labels of any sort-even those like Canadian or Italian-especially those things that we are only because of the chance of where we’re born.

Join the Discussion