When I sat down to write my first piece for Queer Majority, I knew it would be difficult. I wanted to grow the queer movement by making it more welcoming, so that sexual and romantic freedom and equality could truly become mainstream values. Cultural forces have made it nearly impossible, however, for different sociopolitical groups to communicate effectively with each other. One such obstacle is what I refer to as sociopolitical identifiers, which are the words, phrases, and other symbols that signal the user’s allegiance (either real or perceived) to a particular sociopolitical group. This becomes a problem when discussions rely heavily on these identifiers, as they often do, because it traps people into one-dimensional thinking that writes off anyone flagged as belonging to another faction, thereby stifling any hope of productive dialogue between sides.
Sure enough, even though I did my best to circumnavigate this problem, reader reactions to my first essay were a mixed bag. Although this result was to be expected, the response to it on social media revealed an instructive pattern. Most readers tended to fall into one of three categories: they either understood my intention (regardless of whether they agreed or disagreed with my argument), or they misunderstood my intention because of left-wing sociopolitical presumptions, or they misunderstood my intention because of right-wing sociopolitical presumptions. For those in the second group, identifiers in my essay had prompted them to interpret my argument as a threat to the political left (i.e. their side), whereas those in the third group instead interpreted many of the very same identifiers as a threat to their side, the political right.
For something to qualify as a sociopolitical identifier, it must have a meaning that extends beyond its literal definition(s). This added meaning is derived from the associations people have with an identifier and a specific political ideology, movement, party, nation, etc. (some have labeled these words and phrases tribal identifiers, but due to this term’s own associations, I have opted instead for something more neutral and descriptive). It is important to note that due to its subjective nature, something can be an identifier for one person and not for another, since many are interpreted as signals only to certain in-groups and/or out-groups.
The responses to my first essay illustrate this point. Consider the term LGBT. For many on the left, support for LGBT rights is often presumed to be exclusive to their side. Consequently, my efforts to broaden the movement with my essay by making it more inclusive of right-leaning folks were (mis)interpreted by some as a threat to these rights and a cynical ploy to welcome the enemy into the sanctum sanctorum. At the same time, many readers on the right also read the term LGBT as a marker of the left (i.e. the enemy), but in doing so they (mis)interpreted the piece as an insincere attempt to undermine conservative economic politics by appealing to what many perceive as a social wedge issue. In both cases, these readings led people from these groups to dismiss the essay without really engaging with its argument, all because of their associations with the sociopolitical identifier LGBT.
This problem is further complicated by the fact that identifiers often intersect with other identifiers. For example, as in the above discussion, some individuals associate LGBT with the left or left-wing; however, these terms are sociopolitical identifiers themselves. For some, left and left-wing signal allegiance to the United States Democratic Party, whereas for someone else they might signal socialism or communism. For the latter, the United States Democratic Party might instead be associated with liberalism, laissez-faire capitalism and the right or right-wing, which positions it in direct opposition to the meaning understood by the first. Through these associations, LGBT could therefore theoretically serve as a symbol of allegiance to either communism or capitalism, depending on the politics of the person you ask.
This complex relationship between allegiances and meanings is what separates this Identifier Problem from mere semantics. Whereas semantic misunderstandings (which arise out of a term’s multiple possible meanings) can usually be resolved by simply clarifying which meaning is intended, the murkiness tied to sociopolitical identifiers is the result of more than just a mere ambiguity. Because their meanings are derived from an intricate web of very personal associations, specific to each individual, the Identifier Problem presents a unique (and occasionally frustrating) challenge to effective communication.
The reality is, of course, that LGBT rights can be supported or opposed by any individual across the political spectrum. However, the association of LGBT rights with the so-called political left (whatever that means to each person) is such an ingrained societal assumption that these readers tend to assume any essay supportive of LGBT rights must emanate from the left. Similarly, any essay even remotely critical of the dominant LGBT dogma is often assumed to be motivated by right-wing ideology. The complicated and often contradictory nature of the correlations people develop can make communication between parties holding different associations for the same identifier extremely difficult.
The solution to this problem seems to be, whenever possible, to use different words and phrases that do not carry these strong associations, and to purposefully work toward recognition and avoidance of such identifier-based misinterpretations ourselves. However, as was the case in both my first piece, “Queer: A New Narrative”, and this essay, sometimes such identifiers cannot be avoided. In these instances, the best we can do is to engage with them mindfully and explicitly acknowledge this relationship, and by doing so hopefully minimize their effect as barriers to communication.
The challenges of the Identifier Problem have grown even more apparent as we continue to progress in the twenty-first century, where the Internet in particular increasingly makes such cross-party exchanges inevitable. Today, not only are we more likely to encounter the written or verbal speech of individuals with sociopolitical identifiers that are different from our own, but we are also less likely to know what those identifiers are because, among other factors, we are not always able to identify the speaker. As a result, navigating the current media landscape in a way that is productive for society means that each of us must make an active effort to overcome obstacles like the Identifier Problem. Failing to do so is a major source of polarization and other social ills. Perhaps it is naive, but I am hopeful that as we become more familiar with the ways this modern media landscape intersects with our sprawling web of identifiers, we will all grow more adept at understanding one another.