Thursday, August 22, 2013


On Labels, Unity and Identity


By Norm R. Allen Jr.


Malcolm X once said that he did not want to put a label upon himself, because it could be problematic. Many people are of the same opinion. After all, some labels have negative connotations. Moreover, many people believe they know exactly where a person stands on any given issue based on the label that a person embraces, or has placed upon herself or himself.

However, in truth, labels are usually necessary and useful, especially for those that understand the power and importance of organizing. Many take pride in being individualistic and not belonging to organizations. Yet it is only through organizing that the important work of the world gets done. It was organizing that was responsible for the eradication of slavery, Jim Crow, apartheid, etc. Organized people successfully fought for civil rights, women’s rights, LGBT rights, human rights, etc. Indeed, an individual’s ideas go only so far unless and until organizations put them into practice.

Therefore, labels are somewhat unavoidable. Even Malcolm labeled himself—Muslim, Black nationalist freedom fighter, field Negro, etc. Yet there is a problem with labels in that they can be “hijacked.” For example, liberal Christians accuse conservative Christians of hijacking their faith. Moderate Muslims accuse Muslim extremists of hijacking their faith, etc. In both of these cases, however, there is no real hijacking occurring. The simple fact is that the Bible and the Qur’an have messages that appeal to liberals, radicals, moderates, conservatives, fanatics, and numerous others.

Still, if one is serious about his or her worldview, she or he must have the moral courage to defend it as they see it, and forcefully critique the alleged hijackers. For example, as a Black non-theist, I strongly opposed the reactionary Afrocentric nationalism of the Black Atheists of Atlanta. I could not in good conscience remain silent as they demonized gays and White people.

However, this kind of response is all too rare in the world. For example, though moderate Muslims complain that militants are hijacking their religion, they often remain silent when the alleged hijacking is taking place. When thousands of angry Muslims are demanding that someone be killed for alleged blasphemy, there never seem to be any news reports of counter-demonstrations by moderate Muslims. Any critiques coming from moderate Muslims in response to militant Muslims attacking women, Christians, and others seem to be extremely mild at best.

Conversely, during the civil rights movement, Martin Luther King and the other major civil rights leaders established strong moral authority. In no uncertain terms they forcefully denounced Black bigotry and refused to work with Black bigots. They never abandoned this position, even though Black militants deemed them Uncle Toms.

However, those days are long gone. After the civil rights movement, civil rights leaders thought nothing of working with Minister Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam (NOI). Jesse Jackson even used the Fruit of Islam (FOI), the paramilitary arm of the NOI, for security during his presidential bid in 1988.

During the Million Man March in 1995, hundreds of thousands of Black people answered Farrakhan’s call. Black people had come full circle. During the civil rights movement, Malcolm X complained that civil rights leaders were afraid of being identified with Black nationalism (of any kind). After the civil rights movement, however, civil rights leaders were afraid of not being identified with the likes of the theocratic, ultra-reactionary Farrakhan.

Feminism is another label that can be problematic. For instance, many people believe that all feminists oppose porn and prostitution. However, there are sex positive feminists that do not oppose either one. The point is that one cannot assume to know a person’s position on an issue just because that person identifies as a feminist.

People that proudly assume labels should understand that the labels do not belong exclusively to them or those that share their views. Words evolve and sometimes become more inclusive than their originators had intended. Moreover, sometimes labels require modifiers.

For example, the Black Atheists of Atlanta have every right to organize and call themselves atheists. However, it would be best if they used qualifiers. Why could they not call themselves the Afrocentric Atheists, for example? The fact is that one of their leaders has stated that any group calling itself Black should be only open to Black people and concerned only with Black issues, etc. Most Black people, however, do not accept this narrow, misguided view.

The bottom line is that people that assume labels should take them seriously and be prepared to defend what they profess to represent. If they accuse others of hijacking their worldview, they had better have the courage to forcefully take their alleged hijackers to task and let the world know that there is a much more acceptable alternative.


© Institute for Science and Human Values