The Author Asserts His Independence
What follows is a lengthy, and I hope rewarding, position piece that I initially wrote up in reply to two friends who commented on a declaration I made recently to focus on remunerative writing only. (To date, I have done the bulk of my readings and writing here pro bono as a community volunteer. I love doing so, but I also need to eat. Writing is not just an art, it’s a trade, and tradesmen need to get paid.) This is the original declaration, A Quick Note on Professionalism, as found on my literary blog. The specific prompt came from the one friend’s implication (so far as I can tell) that all labels are self-limiting, and especially that of ODSP (Ontario Disability Support Program) recipient. In her own ironic way, she also riffed on the issue of trying to put a cash value on creativity.
What’s In A Label?
Folks, I agree in the main. Certainly about demolishing labels – in general. After all, in general, I’ve devoted much of the content of my public art and all the content of my activism to establishing and celebrating our common worth and humanity, irrespective of any characteristics, be they intrinsic or externally (socially) created (physical, mental, spiritual, cultural, etc.). As for specifics, on the other hand, I think there are things we need to explore.
To tell someone to defy all labels and roles, and to live purely as the human being they are, is the task for the macro level of self-perception – that is, at the species level and beyond (according to our top-of-the-Maslow-pyramid natures as consciousnesses ripe for satori and kundalini awakening). But with few exceptions, we spend just about 100% of our time at the micro level, where identity politics play a deciding role in our (inter-)relationships. Unless we know exactly why someone self-identifies according to a particular label or role, unless we tune in our empathy machine to understand that individual’s motivation to say, “Yes, I am a such-and-such,” and walk the proverbial mile in her bare feet, we can’t really speak to her identification, much less assume that it’s self-limiting.
Here, the ODSP issue is not an identifier for me, it really just a matter of income source; though with all due respect, for some it is an identifier – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing: for it is from the ranks of the self-identified that the activists come. They recognize, like it or not, that they have that one thing in common which others (Others) don’t share and can’t truly understand as part of their experience. In the case of ODSP, those who are admitted ODSP recipients include the ones who will fight more ardently for improved social services and service delivery.
Labels are inevitable in society, because as a species that communicates linguistically, we inherently categorize and classify everything (rightly or wrongly, correctly or incorrectly). So let’s eliminate pernicious labels by all means, but also remember that as communicative beings we rely on the process that assigns labels. And we might find ourselves dispensing with some labels, loaded though they be, at our peril. Because terminology reminds us that beyond our common humanity and equality of worth, there are profound differences amongst us: differences of wealth, differences of status, differences of history, differences of health, differences of capability in any of a variety of areas, and so on. And if we don’t acknowledge these physical, demonstrable differences amongst individuals and groups – especially where there is injustice and inequity – we can’t address them. Which means we cannot redress the imbalances.
And note that if something is culturally constructed, not only is it not any less real than something physical, sometimes it’s “more” real. That’s because cultures and the labels they use for themselves and others are things-in-themselves, and determine the contents of the baggage they schlepp (like a feedback loop). I’ll go out on a limb here, but I think it’s a pretty safe assumption to say that in the Western Hemisphere, every single human being who has apparent traits reflective of a Sub-Saharan African origin has had to hoist some of that baggage, in the same way that likely every human without a Y chromosome has been handed the baggage of bullshit sexism. And so on, for every possibly self-identified (or externally-identified) group.
As a Madder (viz., Mad Pridester, adherent of the rights of the psychiatrized, promoter of the culture and achievements of people who are considered excessively off-kilter in relation to social norms, reformer against medical abuse, and so on) I identify with a certain specific cultural group. Regardless of what or who I am at the macro level (a human being, a spirit, a consciousness, a source of potential that needs tapping for my own good and for the good of others), at the micro level I chose to seek out peers, and find strength in identifying with other people who have been through the psychiatric mill and with whom I share many other things not shared by people without similar experiences or motivations.
That’s the soul of a community and a culture, of a common cause, of shared identity. This need not mean exclusivity – far from it. Mad Pride is emphatically not about labels. While many Madders are totally anti-label, and many are anti-psychiatry (the engine that generates pathologizing labels), there’s no need to adhere to such positions. We’re fluid, and that’s integral to our identity. Those who reject the diagnoses they have been given form a very strong and vocal component in our movement, to be sure, but then there are many who accept their diagnoses as helpful to understanding themselves. It’s all good. We have room for everyone. We are above all, in MLK’s words, the “creatively maladjusted.”
If The Labels We Give Ourselves Fit….
At any rate, all this to say that to seek to transcend the limitations of labels is fine, but if a label actually corresponds to one’s actual nature, then I cannot countenance the assertion that creating an identity for oneself based on one’s actual nature, then applying one’s own label to that, is limiting.
“ODSP Recipient” is not one of the labels I use for myself. It is just a descriptor that both the government and I use to define my income source. And yes, the general public might use this term as well, according to their own understanding. It is possibly an incorrect understanding (“Damn welfare bums! Don’t do shit but sit on their asses all day and collect money!”) or perhaps it’s a correct one (“Damn system! It offers people on Social Assistance no alternatives or mechanisms for getting off it!”). Yes, indeed, it would be truly self-devaluing for me to reduce myself to that, because I personally see any reduction of anyone to a role or label to be dehumanizing and disempowering.
The trick in the grander scheme of things is to never reduce ourselves or anyone else to any one role or status or identity, self-applied or otherwise, but to allow a simultaneous multiplicity of roles, functions, purposes, occupations, labels and designations. Here are some examples, none of which is hypothetical (that is, I’ve actually met or read about these very people).
- The security guard who is only a security guard when he’s on duty – because at home, he might also be an engineer who had a burnout and looks wistfully back on a career of having designed buildings;
- The CEO who may be predatory and unpleasant at the office – but who, at home, and with all insecurities abandoned, spends a lot of down time working anonymously for charities;
- The family on ODSP that is first and foremost a family – yet at home lives with the traumatic effects of having escaped Somali warlords;
- The hustler on Church and Wellesley who peddles his ass by night – but does so to pay for law school, in the aims of becoming a reformer for sex workers’ rights.
These are all roles, all identitites, all labels. Each of us has a plethora of them – some we give to ourselves, some others apply to us; some good, some bad; some accurate, some inaccurate; some we should embrace, some we must discard – and they cover us and interpenetrate like some sort of 3D Venn diagram.
If The Labels Others Give Us Fit….
Time for me to be controversial, and propose that we also should not assume that identification with an externally applied (third-party) descriptor is necessarily a bad thing either, even if it is the result of a horrible situation. If I’m in a POW camp, or I’m a prisoner of conscience, I shall certainly wish to see myself as the free person I truly am, and choose to spin my perception so that I may interpret being a prisoner as a temporary condition rather than as an inescapable role or label. (While I may have no expectation of being released, I can always possess hope.) But I’ll go out on a limb and say that Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Viktor Frankl, Elie Wiesel, Primo Levi and countless others changed (and are changing) the world for the better on account of suffering years of unspeakable horrors at the hands of some of history’s biggest bastards. They never wanted the labels given them; yet if, as I believe, there’s no way out but through, the entire courses of their lives are/were active and continuous engagements in the act of transcendence, in the knowledge that transcendence is a continuous and continual process, without necessarily an actual end. Simply put, the identities they never wanted, and which were brutally imposed upon them, became – revealed! – their true selves.
By Way Of Conclusion
So. ODSP. It’s what I’m stuck with for the moment. It’s hard to get out of, though (and right now, especially so), not just because Social Assistance programs are seemingly (and perversely) designed to make it hard to get off ’em, but because as a clear-cut “multipotentialite” (that is, professional Renaissance person) I have to figure out a constructive and productive way to use my rather diverse and unfocussed array of skills and talents in contexts and places and ways that are not yet apparent to me. After all, my ability to work in regular environments and especially in proximity to other humans varies drastically from day to day, moment to moment. My ability to focus on projects and deadlines is also an issue, as I vary from hyper-efficient to utterly “anti-productive.” These are just facts. I’ve always been this way.
I am a writer, but my bliss – my truth – is fiction and poetry, which will bring in a few bucks here and there, but not likely enough to live on (I’m not Anne Rice or Maeve Binchy; hell, by 43 most literary types have found a day job that’s more than just part time, minimum wage). And I’d damn rather stay true to myself and starve than try to shoe-horn myself into occupations which will wear me out psychologically, kill me creatively, or provoke emotional/mental collapse.
Time to become an entrepreneur. Yeah, that’s a label I can live with.