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Define or Be Defined: On Labelling Ourselves

Emerge | Essay

Published on 7 July 2021

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Hello lovely people. This is the first of a new series of monthly reflections on what is emerging in the social change space. I’m still new to your world, so my perspective combines that of an only recently initiated collaborator with that of a curious visitor who has set foot in a strange new land, populated by many enchanting tribes, each with their own distinctive customs, codes, belief-systems, and language. While my viewpoint is therefore marked by a quasi-anthropological sense of marvel, as a cultural historian, I am also deeply curious about context – the specific cultural and historical soil from which what is emerging arises. How can we explain what is emerging right now, and why, and how does it compare to what was before?


The first thing I was struck by is your titles. Self-labelling is not just an exercise in branding, but a deeply revealing cultural practice. The titles we choose reflect our sense of identity, how we view ourselves, and how we want to be seen by the outside world. Like the clothes we wear, they have a performative function, signaling our status, convictions, and tastes, as well as the tribe with which we wish to identify and be recognized by. They are also indicative of dominant social and intellectual trends. Miniature cultural barometers, they can yield fascinating insights.


Of course, there is no shortage of eyebrow-raising titles in academia, my other homeland, such as Director of Knowledge Exchange Excellence, Administrator of Human Affairs, Vigilance Officer, and Professor of Thought. And it is well-known that Google used to have an in-house Jolly Good Fellow, whilst other companies have appointed Innovation Evangelists, Dream Alchemists, Happiness Engineers, Time Ninjas, and Content Heroes. But in the social change world, there is an abundance of particularly innovative labels for our increasingly complex identities, activities, and roles.


While titles that are bestowed upon us by others in the public sector and in the corporate world are one thing, the matter becomes much more interesting when we are choosing titles for ourselves. In the social change sphere, and in the gig and passion economies more generally, in which freelancers, coaches, activists, think tankers, and social entrepreneurs vie for attention, constantly having to market themselves on LinkedIn and Twitter, there is real pressure to find catchy labels to describe what we do. Often, this is far from an easy task. Both what we do and how we do it have become more complicated to define, often bleeding into various different terrains of activity and expertise. The days of clearly delineated professions, such as blacksmith or governess, are largely a thing of the past. And while our self-labels need to appeal to our target audience, they must also adequately capture our particular sphere of activity – however multifaceted it may be.


In the past, and depending on our specific fields and theories of social change, we would probably simply have called ourselves activists, educators, guides, healers, or philosophers. Many still use these terms, but various new labels have also emerged. Modern change agents operate in many different cultural domains, including politics, the economy, the environment, technology, science, the arts, the terrain of values and beliefs, and that of the structure of our thoughts and emotions. In addition to choosing our places carefully on the do, be, think matrix, we all believe in different methods for effecting change at scale.


The general term ‘activist’ applies to some in the social change sphere but not others. In the popular imagination, activism is aligned with physical action, and often also with marching, protesting, shouting slogans, erecting barricades, and blocking traffic. It is a hands-on form of demanding change, one that may involve making noise and getting into scuffles with the police. Past examples include the suffragettes, whilst today, we are most likely to associate activism with XR, Black Lives Matter, or Occupy.


Activism, however, doesn’t adequately capture the activities of those who approach social change largely as a theoretical problem, to be solved with new models, metaphors, or insights. Activism also tends to be associated with single-issue initiatives (even if these issues are highly complex), such as climate change, women’s rights, and anti-racism. Nor does it aptly designate those who choose slow, incremental, person-centred means of transformation, such as teaching, coaching, or preaching. Focused on structural change in policy or legislation, activism can fail to capture the forms of inner change that affect our values, beliefs, behaviours, and emotions.


In characteristic serious play mode, Jonathan Rowson sought to bridge this gap by calling himself an ontological activist. And a fast-growing number of people are reviving older Bildungs-models that rest on the assumption that inner and outer change are inseparable. It is partly for this reason that activism has recently been replaced with the term ‘system changer’. This latter term signals a more holistic approach – one that is based in complexity, systems, and network theory. It indicates a recognition that the various global crises that we now face are interconnected, and that we need approaches that grapple with this interconnectedness in new ways. The rise of the term ‘system changer’ is, of course, also an indicator of a wider systems theory renaissance. As our globalized, high-tech world becomes exponentially more complex, ever more people seek to find ways of responding to this complexity in more nuanced ways.


Yet system changers can remain stuck in a world of abstractions. And the term ‘system changer’, like its cousin ‘change-maker’, has always struck me as somewhat unhumble. Changing systems for the better is a noble aspiration, a worthy and ambitious intention. But is it something we can ever confidently claim to be? For changing systems requires not just impact (in itself hard to achieve) but systemicimpact – who among us can really claim that our interventions fall into that category? Is it not an overvaluation of both our agency and our power to call ourselves system changers?


I also struggle with the term ‘sense-maker’. When did we stop talking about making sense of things, and turn a fundamental human activity into a fairly meaningless noun? Everyone is a sense-maker, even a toddler, because our continuous attempts to make sense of the world is an, if not the most essential characteristic of being human. Sense-making is often used to designate a philosophical and/or spiritual quest for our deeper purpose, and I suppose it emerged to announce a less naïve, more systemically and scientifically attuned version of this quest. In that sense it is a clever act of rebranding, freeing the age-old endeavour to search for deeper meaning and more integrated ways of being from New Ageist undertones and also from the elitism connotations that can come with the term philosophizing.


Then there is a host of more overtly spiritual terms, such as seeker, quester, pathfinder, healer, and shaman. Some people get wonderfully creative. They call themselves social chemists, intellectual shamans, meta-metaphysicians, wisdom stewards, ontological strategists, epistemic commons engineers, gender futurists, conscious evolutionists, superconnectors, new civilization designers, emergence agents, and epistemic entrepreneurs. My favourite is probably devil’s advocate.


When I thought about equivalents in my own language (German), I noted that the two mainstream terms for social change activists are derogatory, as though the very attempt to create a better world needs to come with a warning that such attempts are idealistic and bound to fail, and/or serve the purpose of gratifying a selfish need for ethical superiority. The terms are Weltverbesserer (world improvers) and Gutmensch (roughly translatable as goodie two-shoes). What does it say about our society when there isn’t even an unironic term for people who want to generate positive change and to help others?


What, then, are good labels? Social pioneers, visionaries, or futurists? Evolutionary agents? Perhaps we need entirely new concepts to describe the entirely new approaches to social change that are emerging. The comparative mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote that “If you want to change the world, you have to change the metaphor.” This also holds for the metaphors we use to describe ourselves and our core activities – for, ultimately, our self-labels are just that, metaphors that try to capture fleeting meanings in a conceptual butterfly net, so that we can pin them onto our virtual boards.


How can we describe sincere efforts and intentions without sounding pretentious, cliched, or just odd? Maybe we should simply give up labelling ourselves. A Zen friend of mine thinks so. His motto is “no titles, just processes.” Our identity, he believes, is permanently under construction, and it is also context-dependent. Nothing is as reified as we like to think, and we should stop seeing ourselves as beings with fixed qualities that can be put into neat little boxes with a tidy label. He is probably right.


But it is also true that we live in a highly competitive free-market economy that is not attuned to such philosophical subtleties. And we are social animals, keen to communicate, to be seen, heard, and acknowledged. Our labels are public declarations of occupations in which we profess to be skilled. They are openings, first important signals of who we are, or want to be, and how we wish to be known and remembered. What is more, our identities have simply become much more complex than those of our ancestors. One of the consequences of social liberalism is that we have ever more theoretical options from which to choose – professionally and otherwise. With this freedom also come significant new psycho-social pressures and expectations, most notably in the form of constantly having to become who we are, to explore our potential, and to self-realize – whatever these nebulous but ubiquitous cultural diktats actually mean.


In dubious old Protestant fashion, we also tend to yoke our identity and value firmly to our profession. ‘What do you do?’ is very much the modern-day equivalent of ‘Who are you?’. And when our work is passion-driven and idealistically motivated, more on the side of calling than day job, the enmeshment of work, identity, and our self-narratives becomes ever more knotty. What is more, in the terrain of self-labelling, entrepreneurial imperatives contend with much deeper existential needs, including our desire for belonging, community, authenticity, uniqueness, meaning, and status. The matter is also not helped by the fact that the complexity of our missions is often such that two or three words can’t really capture it. It is no wonder, then, that our self-chosen labels sometimes buckle under all of these competing pressures.

The essay was published on the Emerge website, you can find it here.

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