Well, looks like I’m not a ‘true’ environmentalist. I still have a car, I still don’t buy 100% organic, I haven’t eaten the carbon-intensive blind cat, I’m still on the grid, and yep, there’s even still a roll of paper towels (recycled) in my kitchen — mostly for said cat’s occasional hairball.
I have a bone to pick with the word ‘true.’ I’ve seen it slapped on a bunch of different labels recently, and a certain pattern is emerging. I’m not a ‘true’ feminist because I have reservations about Slut Walk as an expression of equality and a demand for respect. Bill Clinton, who chooses not to eat animal products for health reasons, is not a ‘true’ vegan. Hell, I’m not even a ‘true’ vegetarian because I have clam chowder once or twice a year.
Let’s decode this. Can I suggest that, in each of these cases, by ‘true’ the speaker simply means conforming to beliefs s/he personally holds, things that s/he already does? By implication, anyone we don’t consider a ‘true’ [insert label here] is, well, lame. I won’t deny that there are different levels of commitment. There are. But using ‘true’ to describe difference isn’t about one’s own commitment to a set of values. It’s about stepping on other people in order to feel superior and exclusive.
Worst of all, it doesn’t help anything. Instead of encouraging the people who are most receptive to learning and perhaps committing more to a cause, it alienates. Making people defensive is a terrible way to promote your cause. Instead of reaching out, it closes off. And worst of all, people are more likely to judge an entire cause as being preachy, intolerant, and close-minded after even a few bad encounters.
I’ve been on both sides of this problem. I used to scoff at buying organic because most of the people I knew who did so were self-righteous Whole Foods shoppers. After an unpleasant encounter with vegans on my college campus, I chowed down on a hamburger. At the same time, I’m pretty darn judgmental myself. I judge the people in my condo who don’t recycle their plastic water bottles, people with lots of kids in tow, people who accept a plastic bag when buying a single item, people who still think they can somehow shop their way into sustainability. Not judging, not labeling — now that’s hard. But shouldn’t we try?
Labels are convenient, but they present the appearance of unity without acknowledging that one person’s idea of being an environmentalist or vegan or whatever will not totally coincide with anyone else’s. (And that’s good, because adopting a label does not give you the right to stop thinking for yourself.) Deeming a ‘true’ anything is completely subjective and particularly unhelpful. Let’s cut it out already.
Have you ever used ‘true’ with a label you identified with? What did you really mean by it?