I teach. A couple of days ago I was discussing poetry with a grade 11 student. I don’t teach literature, I teach psychology and a subject called ‘theory of knowledge’, which sounds like philosophy, but isn’t. In the same way that the movie, ‘World War Z’ sounds like the book of the same name, but isn’t.
Anyway, the student is far more intelligent than I will ever be and is constantly seeking intellectual stimulus. Sometimes through philosophical thought (I also philosophize), and sometimes through seemingly random creative pursuits. This time it was poetry, in the slam format.
I must confess, I know very little about poetry. But after watching a few YouTube clips that she suggested, I became intrigued. My intrigue combined with some recent philosophizing on the role and appropriateness of social labels, and we started throwing out possible poetic lines.
“Sometimes I fight, but I’m not a fighter,” I said.
“Sometimes I lie, but I’m not a liar,” she said.
“Sometimes I cry, but I’m not a crier,” I said.
We became excited by the prospect of creating something that questioned, philosophically, the role and value of permanent labels and whether, in fact, we should not label each other at all and instead accept that we are momentarily many things.
We quickly concluded that we cannot be defined by a single action. That we are made up of millions of billions of actions, like drops of water in a swimming pool, and not one of those can define us on any permanent level.
So, yeah, sometimes I cry, sometimes I fight, sometimes I lie, sometimes I do lots of things, but at the same time I am not permanently any of those things, I am just momentarily them.
It was all going so well until I added the following line:
“Sometimes I rape, but I’m not a rapist.”
The mood changed instantly. Faces became contorted. Other students, who were clearly eavesdropping instead of doing the task I had set and then promptly forgotten about, gasped in horror.
Fair play, I thought. Rape is not something that can simply be brushed aside, hidden amongst the other millions and billions of actions that a person performs. No person who has had sex with an unwilling other should be free of the label ‘rapist’. I mean, that is what they are. If they rape, they are a rapist. The logic is sound. But this is not a question of logic. It can’t be, because the logic is sound for all of the other statements too.
My issue with permanent labeling is that I hate the idea that a single action that I may perform is then used as a lens to view and review every other action I take. I say this with some conviction, but then quickly contradict myself with the line about rape. Part of me clearly believes that anyone who rapes should be permanently labeled and forever treated differently.
At first I thought my contradiction was justified through some noble idea about the effect of actions on other beings. I had diagrams of circles touching and overlapping. The idea was that if my actions are contained within my own sphere then no-one can label me. However, if my actions impinge on the rights of other beings then I am open to being permanently labeled. This idea sounds nice, and quiet noble, but it is wrong.
John Donne is right; ‘No man is an island’. There is not a single action that I take that does not impinge on other beings. The world is not full of individual swimming pools that only occasionally spill into each other, the world is an ocean of water droplets, all of them inter-related and inextricably linked.
Of course, if we follow this increasingly weird water analogy, that would imply that the single action of rape is not just a red dye that taints the water of the individual’s pool, but an industrial strength dye that taints the water of the whole ocean.
This might be the eureka moment. My desire to maintain my contradiction about labels may be borne from a simple desire of denial. I want to permanently label a rapist because I want them separate from me. I want an acknowledgement from the universe that they are different from me and I am not responsible in any way for their actions.
‘No man is island’, however. If my actions are a drop in the ocean, then I am as tainted by rape as the rapist, and as responsible.
‘Sometimes I acknowledge a culture that not only tolerates but quite openly encourages rape, but I am not part of that culture.’
This is blatantly false. I am not just part of this culture, I am this culture. I am at the same time every water droplet in the ocean and the ocean itself.
So what does this mean for my crusade against permanent labels?
Quite frankly, I am unsure. My ideas, as stated here, will take a while to properly formulate and settle in my mind. The level of discomfort I feel about them are a good sign that I have opened a seam that needs deep exploration.
That said, I think my position is changing. I think that rape should be treated as any other action that a human can perform. It is abhorrent, yes, but it should not be used to permanently label a life. Instead, it should be used as the catalyst of major societal and cultural reflection. If we are our culture, and I think we are, then we are responsible for a situation, no matter how momentary, where a member of our community thinks it is acceptable to rape. That is on all of us. Instead of throwing shade, through demonizing and isolating labels, maybe we need to initiate change so that no members of our culture think this is an acceptable action.
I think we can do that by removing labels.