Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language.—Ludwig Wittgenstein
When early twentieth-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote the above quotation, he was cautioning readers that the words we use can act like mental barriers that close us off to alternative ways of thinking, stunting personal and societal growth. Wittgenstein saw philosophy as a tool uniquely capable of freeing us from those limitations. In the age of social media, such limiting and divisive language has reached its zenith, especially in LGBT discourse, where personal identity labels have emerged as an all-encompassing system of thought, actively walling in discussions of sex, gender, sexuality and relationship models. As a consequence, LGBT culture is trapped in a monomaniacal perspective that erases individuals and too often treats us as little more than microcosms of group identities. This trend toward ever more narrow definitions is constraining us from fully exploring our sexual and romantic social freedoms.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term meme to describe “a unit of cultural information” that is transmitted from person to person. In his book The Selfish Gene (1976), he explains how memes can evolve to better survive in changing cultural environments. The fitness of a meme, Dawkins explains, doesn’t necessarily reflect the truth of an idea. Rather, like a virus, a meme’s fitness depends upon its ability to spread. A fit meme need only be simple (so the average person can remember it) and emotionally appealing (so they will want to pass it on). This theory explains how false and even harmful ideas can nevertheless spread.
In colloquial parlance, meme is now used to refer to specific digital objects that go viral online. Ideas that may originate in academia are simplified and then meme-ified for the easy comprehension and transmission of the general population. This process may help an idea spread, but it also strips it of nuance. Whereas responsible scholars include humble caveats in their original arguments, the popular memes based upon them need have no such humility. In the hands of well-intentioned activists, concepts with important but limited applications take on grand new purposes, influencing culture in ways far beyond their appropriate scope.
The recent explosion of LGBTQIA+ terminology is an example of this process. Labels with specific, narrow meanings have taken on a life of their own. This has had mixed results for society. On the one hand, freedom of expression is enjoying a renaissance in this area as individuals discover and invent new labels in an attempt to capture the idiosyncrasies of sexuality. On the other, the convoluted and often self-contradictory nature of many of these terms has made broader conversations about sexuality extraordinarily difficult, further contributing to the polarisation that is holding back progress. This apparent tension between individual expression and collective understanding is an unnecessary consequence of the language that we in the queer community are using. The time has come for society to embrace a new narrative around sexuality and gender that seeks to bring people together, rather than drive us apart. And this shift in attitude should be reflected in the way we use language going forward.
I have never been fond of the LGBTQIA+ abbreviation because it isn’t a coherent amalgam of concepts. Lesbians and gay men are both homosexual, yet they receive two letters. Meanwhile, bi people outnumber gays and lesbians, but bi men and women aren’t divided up into separate labels, and so are instead represented in this abbreviation by just a single letter. Trans is a gender identity, not a sexual orientation. Queer is an umbrella term for people who fit any number of characteristics around sexuality and gender. Intersex is a biological category. Asexuality is on a different spectrum from gay, bi and straight. Thus, this grouping of labels is neither conceptually consistent nor truly inclusive. It isn’t limited to one category, such as sexual orientation or gender identity, and it isn’t inclusive of all the labels people use for any category. Instead, it is an accident of history used mostly out of habit.
Another vague and poorly defined term is ally, used to refer to people who aren’t part of the so-called LGBTQIA+ community, but who nevertheless are supportive of the rights of said community. The problem with this framework is twofold: 1) The community itself is poorly defined and thus a term for those outside the community is doubly unhelpful, and 2) It positions those outside the community as other, thereby potentially alienating many people who might otherwise be supportive.
This brings us to the heart of the matter: the current dominant paradigm around LGBT issues is one rooted in division. First, it divides people up into two separate categories: members of the community (however one defines that) and those who are outside it. Second, it divides those within the community into various teams that are often left competing with one another for attention. Consider legitimate complaints of bi activists that their causes get a tiny fraction of the support gay causes get, and within the bi community consider the counterproductive wars between self-identified pansexuals, polysexuals, omnisexuals, ambisexuals, multisexuals, etc. Consider also the enduring discord between trans activists and certain gay activists who see trans issues as muddying the waters. Consider the same with regard to the battle between trans activists and the classic feminists they deride as TERFs (trans-exclusionary radical feminists). All these divisions are real, and the differences of opinion matter. It leaves me wondering whether the current narrative around LGBT issues is going to help us resolve these divisions or if it is in fact perpetuating endless discord.
What we need is a profound paradigm shift. To this end, I am fond of the word queer, not necessarily as an alternative to the alphabet soup, but rather as a useful umbrella term to be used alongside it. Certainly, queer has the merit of being shorter and easier to say than LGBTQIA+, but more importantly, queer has a more cohesive and inclusive meaning. For this reason, I prefer to embrace the term queer in its broadest possible sense—in reference to one who does not conform to rigid social norms around sexuality, gender and relationships.
When I reflect upon this clear definition of queer, it occurs to me that it can easily describe most people. After all, even most straight individuals do not conform 100% to their society’s prescribed sex, gender and relationship norms. In the twenty-first century, a broad spectrum of phenomena ranging from polyamory to BDSM to stay-at-home dads have collectively rendered the mythical norms extinct, or certainly, at least endangered.
With this in mind, it is no wonder that a seemingly endless supply of identity labels has been invented in recent years. What better way to celebrate our newfound freedom than to seek out new language that better reflects our unique qualities as individuals? This is a positive development that must be part of any new narrative. So, let’s use these terms as adjectives that describe parts of us rather than as all-encompassing identities that must pit us against one another. And let’s stop classifying people into the community and allies. Instead, let’s welcome our straight counterparts as members of this same queer community, because they too know what it is like to be an individual whose life is hindered by rigid sexual, romantic and gendered norms.
Therefore, I propose we replace the current dominant paradigm of division with one of inclusion: embrace yourself and welcome others to do the same, because one thing we have in common is the fact that we are all different. The old narrative—the paradigm of division—much like the abbreviation LGBTQIA+, as noted above, is a coincidence of history. As we first began to assert our right to be individuals, we necessarily set ourselves against the so-called mainstream. But today, at least for those of us lucky enough to live in the more liberal parts of the world, that narrative has run its course. We’ve hit a point of diminishing returns. Habitually perpetuating the narrative of division is alienating people who otherwise would gladly join our community—not as mere allies, but as full-fledged partners.
Critics will find much with which to take issue in this new narrative—this is inevitable. For one thing, they will rightly point out that there is nothing particularly new about this approach. In a sense, it is merely a return to how things were before we started dividing everyone up. However, that is only superficially true. These labels are here to stay, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But we should see them for what they are: adjectives, not all-encompassing identities for tribal warfare. Differences can divide people, but the celebration of difference can also bring us together. Thus far, the LGBT movement has used a divisive narrative of difference, which was necessary to stake our claim in the cultural landscape. Now that we have done so, however, the time has come for us to embrace a new narrative that celebrates differences instead of dividing us on their basis. In this narrative, queerness should be recognised and extolled as a human universal, because the fact that each individual is unique is precisely what makes us all the same.
The time has come to end the infighting. The developed world is coming out of a civil war of ideas, and the LGBT community has emerged victorious. Our community has more rights and enjoys more acceptance today than we did before we proclaimed these labels, so it is time for us to humbly accept victory and rebuild the peace. Certain words and phrases can be used as weapons. Let’s not disarm ourselves, but at the very least, let’s sheathe our swords and only draw them when we face our actual enemies. In this last remaining skirmish, the only difference that matters is the one between those of us who support freedom and equality, regardless of sexuality or gender, and those who stubbornly oppose it. Straight people are not our allies in this fight. They are our compatriots.
So, going forward, let us use labels as colourful adjectives, not to differentiate teams. Let us welcome everyone who shares our vision into our community, not relegate them to an outsider status as mere allies. Most of all, let us choose our words more wisely, reserving fighting words for those who are truly our enemies, rather than turning them upon one another. Wittgenstein was right when he wrote “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.” A narrative persistently steeped in division cannot bring us back together again. If this paradigm shift requires a new linguistic framework, so be it. Get to it. If anything, our community has proven itself perfectly capable of rethinking language. Narrow conceptions of sex, sexuality and relationships are holding society back. Only by freeing ourselves from the bewitching spell of semantic argumentation can we finally take full advantage of the sexual and romantic freedom we have long sought. Let’s broaden our scope and welcome everyone to participate in this great queer renaissance.
This piece is published as part of a partnership between Areo and the publication Queer Majority. You can find the original source here.