I hear: "I want all of the benefits that come from gender equality, but wish to distance myself from the associated stigma that, through this very statement, I myself am propagating. This is most likely a selfish and intellectually dishonest act of image crafting. Respect that. Feminism means you have to respect that because I said so that's why."
And when you follow this with, "Whatever. I just don't believe in labels. Labels are used to divide people."
I hear: "I do not believe in words that have been stigmatized. By which, I mean that I do not want to apply any to myself. I will gladly, through this act of rejection, further stigmatize this word and the many millions of other people it applies to, because I think it will make other people like me more."
And when you say, "I think it's more inclusive to call myself a humanist, but not a feminist.* Feminism has become a bad word."
I hear: "I surely mean well, and I make a completely valid point about connotative meaning in a living language. But I am incredibly naive about the future prospects of any other word chosen to represent the same concepts, particularly given my own willingness to cede the fate of its predecessor. I have also very likely prepared an incredibly moving speech about how marginalizing one of the most important forces of progress in human history somehow makes me more enlightened, inclusive and progressive than people who do not."
If these statements are made by a woman, I note that they are quite often followed by: "You, lady, are exactly the reason I do not want to be identified as a feminist. Here you are, pointing out how ridiculous I sound. That isn't very feminist. Feminism means agreeing with all women, always. Except feminists."
Or: "You, sir, are a misogynist. How dare a man point out the denotative meaning of a word, to a woman, when that word is feminism? It is sexist to say that word to a woman. Besides, I already know what it means. I just don't want to be associated with feminists, because they go around doing ridiculous things, like calling every man who disagrees with them a misogynist."
If these statements are made by a man, I note that they are usually followed by a demonstration of social cognitive bias far too long to approximate here.
Not everyone hears the same things, of course. When I told Joanna Schroeder of The Good Men Project that I was about to write this post, she said, "Let's also be honest about why some women don't want to call themselves feminists: they're afraid boys won't like them!"
*Do note, of course, that the two are not mutually exclusive. Though there are several definitions of humanism, the one most people mean in this context encompasses feminism as a core belief. Nearly everyone who claims to be a humanist in this context is also, by definition, a feminist. It is the hesitance of so many people to acknowledge this that troubles me. For the record, I myself rather happily identify as both.