Labels

Slate has been hosting a debate this week over who gets to use the term feminist. The debate springs out of Sarah Palin's pushing her claim to the mantle.  Here's E.J. Graff's take on the whole contremps:


Who gets to be a feminist? It's the wrong question. And debating it leads to the wrong answers. Identity labels always mislead. 

They don't disclose the contents of the bottle; they proclaim that the bottle is powerful, meaningful, and important. Debates over who gets to wear those labels are tribal battles about who runs the group and who gets to patrol its borders, about who holds power. Declaring that someone is--or isn't--"really" white, black, Jewish, Christian, radical, conservative--or feminist--says nothing about the value of particular policies, ideas, or goals... 

Here's the debate I believe is genuinely worth having: What would full equality look like--and what do we have to do to get there?

I think including ethnic groups muddies the point a bit, but in the main I think this is exactly right. Anyone who believes that Glenn Beck is an actual heir to the mantle of Martin Luther King, has deeper problems that can not be corrected by fiddling with labels. Ditto for Palin. This is a politician who half of all Republican women believe is unqualified to be president, and only 22 percent of all Americans view favorably. Sarah Palin may well damage the feminist brand, but not in the manner that many feminists think.

I think Graff really gets at something when she hints tribalism at work here. Regrettably, "feminist" has assumed a totemic power in our speech, one that outshines the actual policies contained in the bottle Graff alludes to. It's become a pop-culture word in a way that, say, "civil rights" isn't. I don't believe this is an accident, but likely part of a deliberate campaign. I get why that might rankle, but it shouldn't distract from actual issues. 
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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