Othering Through Labeling

I describe myself as an atheist. But, really, why does someone who is not religious need a label? Religion is a thing. Its absence is nothing. It is no thing.

To be sure, the word means “absent god.” But that’s not what most people think when they hear that word. For them, the atheist is something. He is some thing.

Moreover, to be absent some thing conveys some thing is missing, some thing one should have—that one is supposed to have.

But not having god in one’s life is not like missing a leg. Being godless is different from being legless. I am not godless because of accident, war, disease, or deformity. I am godless because I do not believe in God. And I don’t have to in a free society.

The labels “atheism,” “heathen,” “infidel,” “pagan” have long been used to persecute people for not being some thing. But the atheist is not someone who chooses to step into oppression. The label creates the status that oppresses him. He is being othered for no good reason. He is not othering himself.

The atheist is a man who would rather not be forced to believe that which he does not. Is he to be responsible for his oppression because he rejects the beliefs of others? Why must he be included in their belief system? Why must he be burdened by the labels of believers?

The term “atheism” is lot like the term “uncircumcised.” The woman tells her girlfriends at diner, “He is uncircumcised.” “I’ve never been with an uncircumcised man,” a girlfriend says. “That’s gross.” It creates an assumption. It makes the women wonder why he’s not. Not everywhere, of course; where circumcision is the norm, being uncircumcised means the man is on the outside, even if only a little. He may feel a need to explain himself.

Do we say that women who have not had mastectomies are “unmastectomized”? No? Then why “uncircumcised”? Is it because circumcision is a religious thing? Then imagine a cult or a religion where girls are mastectomized to indicate their membership in the tribe, to show their commitment to the doctrine, to express belonging to the group. I suppose we might then have unmastectomized women.

How about that term “cisgender”? The term, appearing at the end of the twentieth century, denotes a person whose gender identity corresponds with the sex registered for them at birth. Simply put, to be cisgender is to be not transgender.

Why is there a word for not transgender? “I am not transgender.” “Most people aren’t. Why are you telling me this? Why is this relevant?” “Because I am a thing. I am ‘cisgendered.’ I was ‘assigned’ male at birth and identify as a man. I thought you should know.” “I don’t care.”

If I reject the cisgender label then for many I am a bigot—and the label will be imposed anyway.

Why should those who don’t believe in supernatural things or who don’t alter their bodies get labels? Do those without tattoos have a label? They have no tattoos. Most people don’t. More and more people do. But, like religion, circumcision, and many other things, people aren’t born with tattoos. What are these people called?

Those who don’t get tattoos are not doing some thing. They are being the way they are. But if tattooing ever becomes the norm… What if those with tattoos wish to label those who don’t with a special word? Let’s make up a label and apply it. When people resist their new designation, we shall call them as bigots. They are, after all, tatouazophobes.

Let’s put on our sociology caps and answer the general question raised by the pattern. There is a explanation for why things work this way. It’s a method of “othering,” of making stubborn and wayward individuals live within the scope of an ideology and marginalizing them for refusing to accept the doctrine or participate in the rituals of those who do.

That those who are not included get a label tells the rational observer that there is a power relation and indicates those who control that relation. Those who control the relation may be the majority. They may be a minority. They may be a constellation of minorities. We are interested in the source of power.

Whatever the source of power, it is a truism that those who have the power to define words and label things have the power to control minds. By controlling thought, they control people. One of the most powerful way to control thought is by establishing the assumptions that steer those thought away from some thing towards another.

Why aren’t your pronouns in your profile and signature line? Because I am not religious. I can’t control what the believers call me. That is for sure. Can I control what I call myself? That’s less certain.

Published by

Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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