Labels are useful. Labels are shorthand that swiftly conveys one’s stances on various issues, from the delightfulness of Doctor Who to the importance of getting to make one’s own reproductive decisions. They can also convey one’s affiliations, whether ethnic, occupational, or some other group to which one belongs that has an effect on one’s thinking. Those uses don’t have to overlap, and the degree to which they don’t is often telling. One can be a racist without being a Bircher, or a Whovian without belonging to the Doctor Who Society of Canada. And indeed, most causes and fandoms and ethnic affiliations have far more people expressing interest and sympathy with them than enrolled as members of specific association devoted to those things. The population of the United States with Amerindian heritage vastly exceeds the number of people that check the American Indian box on census forms.
And then there are people who refuse labels altogether. Sometimes, this is because the existing popular discourse does not describe the kind of person they are, so none of the existing labels are accurate and new ones are, until they catch on, not effective. Eventually, they can become better known, and enter the lexicon of at least particularly aware subcultures. Once upon a time, “genderfluid,” “introvert,” “cis,” and “allistic” were nonsense words; now, they are useful identifiers, often self-ascribed, that enable conversations that would have been more difficult and time-consuming without them.
This essay is not about those people.
This essay is about people who refuse the idea of labels with sneering superiority. These are people too “smart,” too “knowledgeable,” too “unique” to be encompassed by any pre-existing idea, so they refuse any label. One runs across people who don’t believe in gods but are too “open-minded” to call themselves atheists, people who favor women’s equal participation in society who refuse to be known as “feminists,” voters who have never voted for a party other than Republican who demand to be called “independent” or “libertarian.” These people fit neatly into any of various pre-labeled boxes, but noting any similarity between these people and the definition of some established term is an invitation to a fight. These snowflakes are just so bloody special that the very idea that there is a word for any part of them is an insult.
Often, the Special Special Snowflake’s failure is that they view every label as a tribal affiliation, in exactly the manner that calling oneself Balochi or Hispanic or Wild Rose implies membership in a group and loyalty to at least the idea of that group, if not the group itself. They see all labels as ways to designate some people as Self and different people as Other, and to defend the first set and excoriate the last purely based on that membership. The idea that those words mean something other than “I like these people and not those” is something that the Special Special Snowflake cannot consider. (Heck, the idea that being Balochi or Hispanic or Wild Rose means something other than “I like these people and not those” is often difficult for them.) And the idea that some labels describe the person who holds them the same way the label “blue” describes a healthy cornflower? One of the things that make these snowflakes special is an abject refusal to grok that particular thought.
Anyone who notes congruence between an opinion they express and an existing word that refers to people who hold that opinion is “propagandizing” or “waging ideological warfare” or engaging in “categorical thinking,” whatever that means. The Special Special Snowflake lives in a realm of pure, context-free reason, where thoughts have no consequences, nothing has been done before, and claiming that it has is an attempt to bring in the “irrelevant” information of what those same thoughts have wrought in the past. If one of them expresses a torrent of sympathy for half a dozen organized-misogynist talking points, including the no-one-talks-about-this-but-MRAs chestnuts of women being arrested more rarely for domestic violence and being granted custody of children more often being evidence that women, not men, are our society’s privileged caste, pointing out that holding those views makes one indistinguishable from MRAs is “ideological” and “identity politics” and a variety of other invectives. As one of these inchoate creatures smarmed at me recently, “My argument was based on facts, not on an ideological position.” As though one precluded the other.
For many of these slimy cads, no label could hold them anyway, because they refuse any and all identification with others who believe, do, maintain, or promote the same ideas that they do. They present the MRA’s case for them, but they are “not MRAs.” They present Islam’s moralizing or views on evolution, but to call those things Islamic is “categorical thinking.” This refusal to grapple with the definitions of words serves one goal in particular: it enables them to refuse all responsibility for the actions of their ideological compatriots. The “not an MRA” who harps on about how it’s “infantilizing” to tell women that they aren’t responsible for protecting themselves from rape gets to pretend that his views are totally unrelated to spamming rape hotlines and encouraging misogynist terrorism. After all, he’s Not An MRA, and those are things MRAs do. The fact that insisting on the designation “Not An MRA” is literally the only thing that distinguishes him from regular organized misogynists is an unacceptable intrusion of context and therefore “ideological” and “propagandistic.”
The snowflake is far too special to be in any way similar to or associated with anyone, even people who believe the exact same things that they do, who is not also a context-free believer in the purity of individual thoughts. So they congregate. They form cliques of ironically like-minded people united by their refusal to see their thoughts all the way to the dictionary and by their overweening, high-minded smugness at having overcome such a prosaic concern as words meaning things.
The Special Special Snowflake’s entire schtick is, in the end, arguing in bad faith. By refusing to be pinned to any definitions, he can weasel out of the implications of his own views the same way that the sorts of people who use the word “spiritual” change meanings mid-sentence if it suits them. Dealing with them requires forcing them to deal with definitions and refusing to absolve them of the consequences of their views just because they have a name.
A lot of the time, though, it’s just not worth the trouble. Extracting narcissists’ heads from betwixt their backsides is a task best left to their parents. Out here, the best we can do is often to make them look foolish so that others don’t mistake their self-satisfaction for substance. Fortunately, this part is not especially difficult for such a vacuous crowd.