Note: this essay was recently published in “Western Friend,” under the title “The Oldest Question.” My thanks to editor Kathy Hyzy for the plug, and the arguably superior title.

For those of you who have already read this essay in Western Friend and are just joining us here, please feel free to look around and check out some of my older posts — in particular the post where I explain what the Generous Grasp is, or one of the pieces nearest to my heart, What Have You Done?

What name shall we call you?

The first term that comes to everyone’s lips is still “God.” It’s an old and respected name, been around for time out of mind, especially in its Latinate variations Deus/Dios/Dio/Dieu. But such an old name has been abused so many times, and made many enemies. After all, it alienates roughly half your children, and “Deus volt!” (“God wills it”) turned loose the Crusades. It is not a name we can lightly set aside, but it bears with it so much weight of cruelty, tyranny, and abuse — this name will always serve us, but always uneasily.

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Labeling and Seeing

“See ME.”

I saw those words on a crime procedural show once; not the usual method of enlightenment, I admit. I watched one episode, which happened to be about the murder of a trans youth. In the show the phrase was a clue, but I’ve taken it to mean rather more: don’t see what society tells you to see — see the person who’s really there.

Whenever we humans encounter someone new, we put labels on them based on what we see. I might look at someone and think: Black man. For some time now I’ve tried to break this mental habit, since that man’s color should not necessarily be his defining characteristic. But now I’ve seen that this runs deeper still: I shouldn’t necessarily use “man” either.

We’re a naming species, and we hand out mental labels for just about everything. Looking around me as I scribble this, I see objects I can label: Keyboard. Pillow. Squirrel. This isn’t wrong; naming is the bedrock of communication, after all, and one of the things that traditionally makes us human. But people are not objects. People have a will and an agency of their own, and have the right to make names and labels for themselves… or the right to get rid of labels entirely.

Still, most people, me included, don’t give each other that chance. We put names to all things, and the first thing — before race, before age, before any other characteristic — is label the other person by gender. Man or woman. In my own personal case I blame this on my gonads, which want an answer to a simple question: is this person good for sex? Spurred on by this demand for information, the eyes report, the brain decides, and the gonads either lose interest or go into overdrive. Other categorizations follow, of course — young/old, dark-haired/light, etc. Regardless, gender is the first. Continue reading