Disabling Labelling Transcript

I want to talk about labels, not the labels that we put on clothes, but the labels were put on people.

Some people choose their own labels, and they wear them with pride. They really, really enjoy their labels.

But what I want to talk about are the labels that we put on people that constrict us, they keep us in our place. Within minutes of meeting people,  within seconds actually, we start to label people. We label them male or female, black or white, tall or short. Tall is a really, really good thing actually, it’s amazing. And oh my god, Ginger!

But we don’t always get labels right. It’s a primeval thing. It’s mostly based on whether we see people are a threat or not. As we saw last week sometimes we can get it spectacularly wrong. We’re not really very good at getting these labels right, and I think it’s time to re evaluate.

We’ve seen recently that if we label people refugees or if we label them migrants, that has a dramatic effect on whether they’re accepted or rejected by other people’s tribes.

So we have to think very carefully about whether we’re going to have these labels or not, and what exactly they mean.

40 years ago. I was a dewy eyed, wet behind the ears, fresh out of college idealist, and I was going to change the world armed with a very important bit of legislation that had just been introduced into this country about equal opportunities. The world we lived in then was where Enoch Powell had made his River of Blood speech a few years earlier. We had comedians on national television making racist jokes on. By and large, most people thought it was probably time for a change, and I was going to be part of that change.

I was the first and only female manager employed by a company in the printing industry. Now any of you who go back that far, (there aren’t many actually in this in this audience) but if you go back that far, you’ll realize what that meant. Everybody, all 1,200 people in this company were part of a trade union. Five trade unions. Actually, only a very small part of them were interested in equal opportunities. My first appointment was a 16 year old female apprentice who worked in the factory. And every day she was tormented and taunted about having to work with her top off like the boys did, because that was equality. And to this day it makes me spit with anger.

So little has changed, and yet so much has changed. We know that our race, our gender are physical ability or our sexual orientation have very, very little to do with the kind of person that we are or with how effective we can be in the world on. Yet we’re still doing it to people.

There are some parents who are objecting to the gender stereotyping that their children are subjected to. Let Toys be Toys, Let Books be Books, Let Clothes be Clothes are really, really important campaigns and whether you have children, grandchildren or no children, we owe it to the next generation to make sure that these labels are not perpetuated.

We’ve made a lot of progress that a lot of fronts, but we still have a problem. The biggest problem is with boys. When boys dress in frocks or skirts, whether it is a hero from their favorite book for National Book Day, or to protest again school uniforms, they’re called cross dressers. That label is no acceptable anymore. What it leads to is a huge number of young men in our society committing suicide because they don’t know how to be a man in our society. It’s not about being an Alpha male anymore, but where are the role models? There are lots of them in this room. There are some lovely man I know who are raising boys and girls to be equal members of society without the labels.

What level of despair can someone feel as a teenager to get to this state? Some labels very, very useful. We can’t get rid of them all because we can’t process information without labels, but making people choose in situations that are actually endangering their mental health or their physical health is just not on.

We get into a vicious circle, and it’s really time to tidy up our language and especially our labels. As a writer, I’m constantly frustrated by having to accommodate his and her or some kind of pronoun that is gender free. We need a pronoun that means everyone and, surprise, surprise, who’s got one? The Swedes. They have taken he and she and produced, this lovely word hen. Now that’s obviously not going to work in the English language for all sorts of reasons. But it does give me hope that we can come up with something that we can use, that will be inclusive. And it’s not about a battle.

There is also an option now that everyone can use. Unless your gas company or your mobile phone company needs to know whether you have ovaries  or testicles, you choose an Mx, forgo the gender and choose Mx. We’re not born giving people labels. I’m no longer dewey eyed but I am still idealistic, and I hope that messages like this will get through and help the next generation to stop labeling each other. Thank you.