Owl's Nest

On Labels


The Dictionary

When I first entered the plural community back in 2017, I was met with an onslaught of words. Traumagenic, caretaker, tulpamancy, endogenic, walk-ins, subsystem, persecutors, polyfragmented, protectors, littles, fictive, introject- the words went on and on. It was confusing and unintelligble to an outsider, but I learned how to speak the lingo quickly enough. Understanding plural terminology became second nature. As the years have gone on, more and more labels have cropped up to describe experiences ranging from the specific to the general, and the fighting over who can use what words has continued unchanged. The community's dictionary has grown significantly, and this dictionary's problems have grown with it.

There's nothing inherently wrong with having plenty of labels to choose from. It makes it easier for people to have words that describe their specific experiences in shorthand, saving time and effort explaining over and over. It comes with a learning curve, but newcomers can pick up the lingo well enough thanks to dictionary websites and helpful explanations. The main problem with labels in the plural community isn't their number. The problem is that there is intense pressure to use these labels, and it's nearly impossible to interact in many sections of the community without choosing a label or having one (or more) foisted upon you. Even newcomers to the plural community tend to notice this intense pressure, and they interpret it as a need to know everything about their system right away so that they know which labels they should use.

Under Pressure

The pressure to use labels is more obvious in some areas than others, but it's present in nearly every corner of the plural community. In some places, it's rather blatant. Discord (a chat program) in particular tends to insist that people use labels, even though it's rarely intended to be pressuring. Many Discord servers for systems require or strongly suggest that their members take roles describing their origins, functioning, system composition, and more, even when it's not relevant to the server's purpose or environment. In some servers, there are so many labels that an entire section of the server is dedicated to listing their definitions so that people can choose the correct label.

In other corners of the community, the pressure is less obvious but still present. Everyone lists their labels in their profiles, and sometimes not having these labels is treated as a red flag or sign you're new. People will outright ask what labels you use, and it's assumed you do use them. You're expected to know and provide information about your system and how it works to strangers. When you introduce yourself, there's an unspoken expectation that you will use at least one label to describe your experiences, if not list off several.

A sizeable proportion of discussions in large community spaces surround labels in some way. As an example, here's a sample of anonymized topics in the #pluralgang tag on Twitter (#pluralgang is the main inclusive plural space on that site):

  • Whether one label can coexist with another label.
  • Discourse over whether a type of system exists.
  • Someone needs resources on a label.
  • Someone asking why some people dislike a label, or why people use a label.
  • Someone wants an explanation of a labelled system type and how they work.
  • Discourse over whether it's okay for certain people to use a label.
  • Someone wants a dictionary of plural terminology.
  • More discourse over whether a type of system exists.
  • Someone upset about how their label is treated like a slur.
  • Asking if someone actually fits a label, or if an experience invalidates a label.
  • Someone reassuring people that their experiences do fit their label.

It's not just Twitter. The exact same topics also crop up under #plural on Tumblr, r/plural on Reddit, and elsewhere. Popular discussions center around labels and their usage, or whether a certain label actually exists, or whether a word fits someone. There's comparatively little discussion that doesn't revolve around one or more labels in one way or another. Is it any surprise that there's such pressure to choose and use these words, even if you don't know enough about your system to be confident that the label fits?

The substantial pressure to know and use labels presents a unique problem to those new to the community. These systems are often still figuring themselves out, and they may not know enough about their system to comfortably use any labels. Despite this, they are asked to know their origins, structure, functioning, and other details. As a result, many newcomers rush to understand their system rather than taking their time and respecting their limits, which is stressful at best and may dig up trauma at worst. I've seen many newly-discovered systems that were anxious about this expectation to know and share everything right away. Expecting them to know their labels certainly doesn't help them accept themselves or function as a group. It causes unnecessary stress at a time that is already overwhelming for them. It's far more important early on to learn to cooperate with one's system members than it is to know where they came from- in fact, I would argue that systems should not dig into their origins until they are able to cooperate with one another, as digging into origins may unbury trauma that requires a good internal community to handle well. Pushing newcomers to share their labels when they're only just beginning to meet themselves properly is not a good idea.

Older members of the community are not immune to this pressure. It does manifest differently, as most systems have found labels that suit them after a few years in the community, but the pressure to know and identify with one's labels persists and creates new problems. Arguments erupt constantly over which words are acceptable, and these arguments turn personal. It's common for labels to become a key part of systems' identities rather than a tool of expression that can be used or discarded as needed. This turns disagreements over words into personal attacks. People harass each other over using a different label regularly- as an example, look at the ongoing traumagenic and endogenic discourse. There's no winning fights over words. People can and do change their labels to escape this fighting, feeling as though they are unable to use specific labels safely but must use something else to avoid awkward questions. Others choose to dive into the fight, taking it personally that someone would insult their label of choice. Neither approach solves the problem: pressure to choose and identify with a label regardless of one's preferences. There is no other option presented. Everyone is pushed to use the community's words. Old hats know how much arguing goes on over what words are acceptable, or who can use what word. There's no escaping it.

Labels are often policed and monitored, preventing people from using them out of fear. There's a reason that so many newcomers ask if they're allowed to use a label. The criteria for who can call themselves what word are arbitrary, specific, and restrictive. Some labels are treated as mutually exclusive despite their definitions working alongside one another, and those that choose to use both are harassed. When a system chooses to use one label despite another's definition fitting better, people will attempt to persuade them to change their minds regardless of that system's reasons for using the word. Definitions are narrowed to the point of very few people fitting them. The choice of what labels to use should be left up to the individual system, but the community takes it upon themselves to decide for others what words fit best.

There's not much room for fluidity of labels in many areas of the plural community, either. Changing labels often is seen as a sign of "faking" one's plurality and often leads to harassment or mockery, which prevents some systems from freely expressing themselves with language or exploring their experiences. If someone's system structure shifts, they're expected to choose new labels or stick to the old ones (depending on what corner of the community they're in), with either option potentially screwing them over. More fluid systems are forced to choose concrete labels for fear of being called fake or cast out.

Confusion Central

There's another issue with the labels the plural community has created: they're becoming increasingly confusing to those not familiar with them. Early labels were simple and immediately understandable with little to no explanation. Multiple, midcontinuum, median, headmate, and similar labels take very little effort for the average person to understand. People don't need to whip out a dictionary to understand them. Even the slightly less obvious labels, such as introject, can be understood with a moment's thought and are learned quickly. These labels are easy to pronounce and read. In short, they are effective communication tools.

More recent labels are far more difficult for an outsider or newcomer to understand without tracking down a dictionary or searching up word roots. Fluitien, mesosian, scribstrata, växer, praesigenic, previme, and other newer labels are not immediately understandable and can be quite confusing when first encountered. They're not easily memorable, either, and it takes time to learn what they mean. For those new to the community, they're unintelligible and confusing. These labels cause people to ask for a dictionary of plural terms in hopes of understanding them. They're also difficult to pronounce and read, which poses both a communication problem and an accessibility problem. People with difficulty reading might struggle with these terms, and even the average reader may need to slow down. Screen readers might stumble over or botch these words. Dyslexic readers may be unable to parse them or struggle to use them. Most people will need to look up pronunciation in order to say them out loud. The purpose of labels is to communicate meaning to others, and these labels do not communicate any meaning without research and effort on the part of the listener.

There's nothing wrong with microlabels. It can be good to have words to describe specific experiences, partcularly those that others share. The problem is that these newer labels are unintelligible without research or repeated explanation. Good labels are easy to understand with minimal research required. Their purpose is to quickly and efficiently communicate something to the listener. When creating a label, it's a good idea to pretend you've never seen it before in your life; if it still makes sense with only minimal context, it will be more useful than a label that does not immediately make sense. Requiring the listener to have extensive knowledge of Latin and Greek roots to understand a label is not good practice.

Finding Balance

I want to be clear that there's nothing wrong with having or using labels. Language is a tool for communication, and words are what we use to convey meaning. Inevitably, words will be created to convey specific meanings to make it easier to describe people's experiences. It's a good thing to have words that allow people to share their experiences quickly and easily. Labels only become a problem when they no longer convey meaning or are forced on those that do not want to use them, and this is an enormous problem in the plural community.

As a community, we need to work on not expecting everyone to know or use their labels. They need to be presented as a tool rather than a core identity piece that everyone needs to know as soon as possible. It needs to be more acceptable to share less information about oneself rather than putting everything out there for strangers to see (which is as much a social problem as a safety hazard). Not using any labels needs to be an acceptable option. Words need to be made an optional means of expression, not an expectation.

We also need to work on keeping labels accessible so that they're usable for those that want them. In an ideal world, people wouldn't need to reach for a dictionary of word roots to understand plural terminology. Most words should be understandable quickly and easily for the average person with minimal explanation. This benefits everyone, both inside the community and out, by improving accessibility and outreach. It makes it much easier for newcomers to understand conversations and feel included when the words are accessible, and it makes it easier for outsiders to be understanding of our experiences.

In short, we need to rethink how we treat labels as a community. The current paradigm is overly reliant on labels that not everyone can or wants to use in the first place. For those who do use and are comfortable with their labels, there aren't many problems, but the rest of the community is left in an awkward position indeed. The pressure to fit into boxes has become a serious problem. We need to allow for choice and variation in how people describe their experiences, and to accomodate those that would prefer to use no labels at all. We need to give newcomers space to breathe and find themselves, and allow discussions to open into topics beyond what words people use and why. We need to find a balance between using labels to communicate meaning and allowing for personal choice. It's time we stopped putting each other in boxes without asking whether the box is wanted by its inhabitants.


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