What carbonated beverages have to teach us about identity politics

So I’ve been thinking about the whole “Bisexual vs. Pansexual” debates recently, and wanted to articulate something that I think is sometimes forgotten in identity label debates, which is that sometimes, a difference between terms doesn’t have to be a difference of meaning.

I think many people’s first impulse, when they hear about pansexuality and bisexuality, is to immediately ask “so what’s the difference between bisexual and pansexual identities?” And proposed explanations abound, along with accusations: “pansexuals are attracted to all genders and bisexuals only to two!” or “Pansexuals are gender blind, but bisexuals still see gender!” or many other claims that many bisexuals and pansexuals would likely disagree with. People see two different identity labels, and assume that they must describe two fundamentally different experiences, so they start trying to draw dividing lines, even when there are no clear divisions to be drawn.

But the thing is, sometimes (even a lot of the time), there can be multiple accepted labels for a single phenomenon – and these can coexist, without needing to deem one more correct/unproblematic/appropriate than all the others. And this isn’t a revolutionary idea – we deal with these kinds of linguistic differences all the time, without making a big deal of it.

Which is where we come to the subject of carbonated beverages. These are a pretty ubiquitous item, yet people have numerous different terms they use to describe them: In New England and the american southwest, they’re called “soda”. In the midwest or northwest, they’re called “pop”. In the south, they’re called “coke” (even when it’s pepsi). Cross the ocean into the UK, and they become “fizzy drinks”. And on the in-flight menu on the way over, maybe you’ll see them called “soft drinks”. And of course travel and cultural mingling and also just personal preference mean that even these generalizations arn’t hard and fast- you could perhaps hear all these terms used in a single place in a single day. Yet despite having all these terms, you can use pretty much any term and people will likely know what you are talking about. And while people often have strong loyalties to whatever term they prefer, you rarely see people getting into emotional fights about which of these is most or least “problematic”.

Perhaps because sugary drinks are less of a high-stakes subject, people are more forgiving of variance in these terms. I’ve never heard someone complain that using “soft drinks” to refer to carbonated beverages is problematic because it’s etymological history once referred to all non-alcoholic drinks, not just fizzy ones. And while people are often confused by “coke” being used as a general term when they’re used to hearing it refer only to coca-cola, they generally shrug it off and move on without a hitch.

So, why then do people get so up in arms about whether another person chooses to identify as “bisexual” or “pansexual”? Part of it is the high-stakes and high-emotions nature of identity politics, but i think part of it is that people sometimes forget that a difference in term doesn’t always have to be driven by or even justified by a difference in meaning – and that maybe if we can remember that, we can learn to be a little friendlier about the label choices of the people around us.

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About Sennkestra

I'm an aromantic asexual and a bit of an [a]sexuality nerd, recently graduated from UC Berkeley with a BA in linguistics. When I'm not reading stuff on the internet I like to cook fancy food, watch anime, and make costumes and other arts and crafts projects.
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