#AtoZChallenge — We have labels

This post is part of the April A to Z Blogging Challenge, where I am challenging myself to reflect on other A to Z posts that I come across.


Our world is impossibly complex and often quite dangerous, it helps to have a system that can quickly process what kind of thing you are looking at and react appropriately. Categorization helps us make sense of a world where quick decisions have to be made, and a large amount of information has to be processed. It’s also a pretty reliable system for helping us get through situations that we may have not faced by providing a reference and a good guess. If you’ve seen a brown bear, you’ll have some idea of how to respond to a polar bear. If you’ve seen a mountain lion, you know that a tiger is dangerous. …

We have labels for what a man is supposed to be, what a woman is supposed to look like, how black people behave, what jobs a 60-year-old is capable of learning, what opportunities a poor person deserves, whether or not Muslims can be Americans. Our labels and categories help us understand our world, but they also put limits on it too. We aren’t good at seeing the shades, the subtlety, or continuity. We aren’t good at seeing the variation between two individual examples of a thing.

Kinds, Zen & Pi


I was reading Lisa’s post, quoted above, and it makes sense. Evolution has prepped us to categorize things on the fly, and in modern society that doesn’t always work well.

One thing people aren’t always good at recognizing is sexual orientation. Bisexuals and pansexuals get the brunt of this because, regardless of who they’re with, at first glance there are parts of their orientation that are always going to be invisible. Couples with one or more trans person might, on the surface pass as heterosexual, erasing their queerness, or if the trans person(s) doesn’t “pass” to the viewer’s standards then there’s several kinds of erasure there too. If someone says “partner” and the listener assumes that automatically means a same sex relationship — which could be true, and/or it could mean that the couple prefers the word as an acknowledgement that they are both equals in the relationship.

Everyone wants to be seen as more than just a first impression, as more than just a bookcover to be judged by. We may not be wired that way but we can, by virtue of self-awareness, train our brains to do more than just what evolution wired us for. We’re a social species, and we can adapt.

We can ask what pronouns people use.

Parents can ask their kids what synonym for “partner” they’d prefer used in the family holiday letter.

Before you hug someone, you can ask if they’re cool with hugs because, for example, someone with OCD might spend the rest of the day quietly but frantically going over and over and over it in their head for the rest of the day.

You can’t just see these kinds of things. Sometimes, you really just have to ask.

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Pet Peeve: “Humanity” in Fantasy and Sci-Fi

Screen Shot 2016-08-22 at 7.28.04 PMOne thing that becomes clearer and clearer to me as time passes is that my parents are huge nerds and raised me to watch a lot of very nerdy things, including all the original Star Trek movies. I have seen Star Trek The Motion Picture more times than it deserves because it is, simply put, not good. (My favorite was The Journey Home — neither the best nor the worst, but I liked the whales.)

This is only relevant because bits of these movies sometimes filter back into my everyday life. The quote pictured here is from The Undiscovered Country, when the Americans and Russians… Ahem, I mean the United Federation of Planets and the Klingon Empire try to get together and negotiate an end to the Cold War… Sorry, the whatever the heck it was they called it while the no-mans-space Neutral Zone was still a thing. During an awkward as fuck diplomatic dinner where the crew of the Enterprise visibly judges the Klingon delegates for not knowing how silverware works, there’s one point where Chekov hesitantly attempts to extend an olive branch and the daughter of the Klingon ambassador calls bullshit.

CHEKOV: We do believe all planets have a sovereign claim to inalienable human rights.

AZETBUR: Inalien… If only you could hear yourselves? ‘Human rights.’ Why the very name is racist. The Federation is no more than a ‘homo sapiens’ only club.

The reason I’m writing about this… let’s call it human-normative prejudice is because I’ve caught that human-normativity in other works of sci-fi and even fantasy.

In The Sword of Shannara, when Flick Ohmsford is sneaking around in an enemy camp of gnomes and trolls, at one point I recall a line that went something like, “It was so quiet, without the sound of any human voice.” Well of course there aren’t. Why would there be? He and Allanon the only human for miles!

That book was written in 1978. The Undiscovered Country was released in 1991. I guess in the gap between those, both the sci-fi and fantasy camps began to think a little harder about anthropomorphization — defined by Wikipedia as “attribution of human traits, emotions, and intentions to non-human entities and is considered to be an innate tendency of human psychology.” Because, yeah, we all do it. But as authors and creators, we should be thinking beyond those knee-jerk attributions. At the very least, we need to acknowledge that words and phrases like “humanity” and “human rights,” in a story where other sentient beings are known to exist, is the interspecies version of white-washing.

Then again, what does humanity even mean? An anthropologist might argue that “human” is not the same as Homo sapiens. They might be right, technically, but in layman terms I don’t think that applies. “Humanity” and “what it means to be human” very much bear our stamp of ownership because “human” is what we call ourselves.

What do you think? What examples of human-normativity have you seen?