I have been meaning to post something from Surfette for a while now. It's written by Lisa Stone, a journalist and the originator of BlogHer. She has a strong and original voice, and is doing so much to support freedom of speech and to connect good people to each other. Lisa wrote the other day about labels and stereotypes, and noted
...the ease with which new labels magically expand to shrink wrap and diminish great accomplishments, particularly those by women. My favorite case example is the term soccer mom, an interesting psychographic label for some American voters that was quickly abused and applied to virtually all women who vote. Never mind that women have been the voting majority in the U.S. since 1964, don't vote alike (duh) and many of us have never entered the ovarian olympics or demonstrated the voting pattern required to match the moniker.
I hate it when someone labels me. But it is so easy to fall into using stereotypes. Twice in the last few days, I've embarrassed myself by resorting to stereotypes in (online) conversations, when I know better. In the first conversation I was trying to empathize with other working mothers who also try to keep the family and household running, but at the expense of the feelings of the working dad I was speaking to, who took on those responsibilities in his family.
The second time was a little excruciating. I was trying to be funny, in telling a consultant whose work I have a ton of respect for, that he was sounding like an old fart for being so disdainful of blogs. He was really offended. He said that I had "branded" him a certain way just because of the position he took (about blogs.) Luckily for both of us, we cleared the air and moved past it. [Lesson #2 from the I-should-know-better department: A conversational tone in an email or blog, if it contains even the slightest sarcasm or criticism, NEVER comes across well to the person on the receiving end of the message.]
Lisa's post reminds me of this quote from Anais Nin, that I wrote down years ago in my little scrapbook. (It's from Volume 1 of her Diaries.)
...I am not committed to any of the political movements, which I find full of fanaticism and injustice, but in the face of each human being, I act democratically and humanly. I give each human being his due. I disregard class and possessions. It is the value of their spirit, of their human qualities I pay my respect to, and to their needs as far as I am able to fulfill them...I have made myself personally responsible for the fate of every human being who has come my way.
What can we do when people stereotype us? Fight back in kind? Lisa has a better idea. [Italics are mine.]
The real answer is much less sexy and mucho harder. Particularly for a writer. I think the solution to counteracting labels that belittle women or that risk belittling any of us -- the elusive how -- is to give people the opportunity to define her or himself. In other words, shut up and ask first. Which requires listening. Label later, if you must, but only once you can do so with the full opinion of the label-ee.
Listen first. I'm gonna give that one a try.