So what do these labels mean?

September 1, 2007

Recently, I have had discussions with my broadband provider because they’ve decided that no individual user should send one email to more than 20 people. Apparently, they consider an email sent to 21 people as spam. Sadly, as executive secretary of XN Foundation, I have a mailing list of 207 people. So, I’m a spammer. Probably a spammer in the big league.

I explained to the agent of the broadband provider that I’m a blind person. We’re a minority in every country, we have suffered because we’re blind. If I (or those before me) accepted what our society considered to be our place, I wouldn’t even be able to use a computer, let alone complain that I can’t send emails to 207 people who have expressly permitted me to send them updates from the Foundation. I concluded my defense by arguing that just as the fact that blind people can’t see doesn’t mean they can’t use a computer, the fact that I’m sending an email to 207 people doesn’t mean I’m a spammer. He wasn’t impressed.

But then, I’m a spammer, what do you expect. Before this great debate, I thought spamming meant sending unsolicited emails. I get so many of them, that I’m beginning to get frustrated. On this occasion, I’m sending updates to people who filled out a form and stated that they’d like to be kept informed. According to my broadband provider, they have a lot of satisfied customers because of their new ruling. So, maybe I won’t get spam again … you wish. I’m still getting them, despite their best efforts.

I never knew I was a spammer until a few days ago. Now what does that mean. On a practical level, it means I can’t change providers, because they say I’m still in contract and must pay a penalty charge, and it’s not a technical problem beyond the abilities of their experts.

I promised to give them all assurances, to show them the email I wanted to send so they’d know I wasn’t advertising Viagra or asking for their bank accounts. Nope! As far as they’re concerned, it’s policy, and I’m a spammer. What about all those who had been asking me why they hadn’t heard from XN Foundation? They’ll have to wait till I’ve sat out my 18 month contract. If I was a footballer, dissatisfied with my team, I’d be speaking to my agent and finding out if a rival team could buy my services.

The interesting thing is how calling me a spammer has suddenly shut down my options. I’ve been reading a friend’s MA dissertation on social exclusion. People have been labelled as belonging to a caste, or being old, or HIV positive, and immediately, they’ve found shut doors. It’s so very simple, so taken for granted by the rest of society. Sometimes, in lesser ways, each of us is labelled too. I know I am, for skin colour, disability, etc.

And it doesn’t matter that I don’t always conform to the general rules around my label. Sometimes, the labels only tell part of the story, yet we think they’re the whole picture. I remember Bosnia Herzegovina. I used to hear of the Serbs, Croats and muslims. I thought they were three distinct groupings, speaking different languages. Perhaps the muslims spoke Arabic or something. I was more than a little shocked to learn that they all spoke the same Serbo-Croat, that the real difference was that some were Russian Orthodox, some Catholics, and some muslims.

I can think of many times when labels and generalisations have been used to define me. Maybe you can too, I’ll leave that to you. One day, the head of the department of politics in my university told me something very special. I’d been doing a doctorate and had asked him if I could tutor first year undergraduate students. All my fellow doctoral students were doing it, and were even getting paid, money I badly needed at that time. The year after I’d made my request, he told me of how surprised he was that I’d done a great job. He said he’d been hesitant at the beginning, because he didn’t know how I could cope, … being a blind person. He wanted me to know he was dead impressed. I felt cool, empowered, highly satisfied. What would have happened if he’d just thought, ‘blind, no way, he can’t teach first year students. It would be too hard, perhaps impossible’.

The thing is, what can we do about it? Once everyone has decided that you’re something, and therefore you should only be able to do something, be something, or whatever other limitation they’ve imposed, what can you do? You either have to accept it or fight. How can you fight? If I accept it, then I’ll forever be a limited person, defined by my label. If I was a Serbian in Sarajevo, everyone will just label me a war criminal, and I’d have to accept it, maybe hide from everyone, or keep protesting my innocence to the deaf ears of the world media.

You know, nobody likes spammers. Maybe I should start hiding. Perhaps I should wear a hood … but no, I’d be called a hoody … and what would that mean?