My feeling is that labels are for canned food… I am what I am – and I know what I am. – Michael Stipe
If we randomly selected a thousand people from across the globe and lined them up, what we will find is that none of them will have the same thoughts, sexual orientation, religious background, understanding and so on. Of course, we will still find similarities based on their genetic traits such as eye color, skin tones, biological sex (male or female), and will continuity of assigning human beings within these categories like height and weight. Categories that only have the basis in basic biological makeup of the species, but, nonetheless socially we have found other ways to create a similar categories determine the sexual persona, their personal likes, political and economic wellbeing. We, in short, have created a social labeling system.
Within these label we have created a short words or phrase descriptive of a person, group, intellectual movement, etc. Thus, creating a new class system based on these created sub classes or categories. Essentially putting these new groups into a stereotypical category of people. For example, if you like heavy metal music someone might automatically label you as a “metal head’’ which would be stereotypical if you aren’t in fact a metal head. This, in some way, is a form of bullying, when you take into consideration that people with mental illnesses, different gender identifications and so on are continuously being labelled, perhaps making them social outcasts in their community.
The “Social Labels” are merely shells that contain assumptions. When we are taken in by a label, we are taken in by opinions and beliefs. That is, we willingly accept statements without evidence of their validity. The assumptions become stereotypes, which soon become put-downs. Before you know it, we are engaged in name-calling or verbal abuse, such as “Die, cis scum”, “loser” or “toxic masculinity”.
We tend to forget that people are complex, multifaceted, and multidimensional and when we apply labels to them, we put on blinders and see only a narrow view of an expansive and complicated human being. Have you ever bought a plastic container or bottle of food at the supermarket with a huge label on the lid and sides that prevented you from seeing the contents? That’s what the labels we use to ‘describe’ people do, they obscure the contents of the individual.
When we are speaking about others, there’s nothing wrong with using descriptions. Novelists do it all the time. Yet, there is a big difference between descriptions and labels. For example, think about the difference between saying “Tom is tall man, fair in complexion” and “Tom is a cis white male.” ‘Tall’ is a description because it is based on a fact; it’s just another way of saying “Tom is six feet, four inches.” When we call Tom a ‘cis white male,’ though we may have a degree of fact in this statement, we also manage to empty the words of their meaning. Here’s what I mean. What are you? Is Tom just a cis white male or is he other possibilities? In a very generic term you could be “cis” or straight in sexual orientation, Caucasian in taxonomy and a biological male, though, these may be true, but, are you anything else beyond that? So, how can I describe you by a single term? If I were to do so, I would reduce you to a one-dimensional artifact of the profound person you really are. Wouldn’t that be grossly unfair? How would you feel knowing that your life and every determining factor hinges on the facts that you are Cisgender, Fluid gender, “White”, “Black”, “Smart”, “Slow” and so on.
The long-term consequences of labeling like “smart” or “slow” are profound. In another classic study, Robert Rosenthal and Lenore Jacobson told teachers at an elementary school that some of their students had scored in the top 20% of a test designed to identify “academic bloomers”. That students who were expected to enter a period of intense intellectual development over the following year. In fact, the students were selected randomly, and they performed no differently from their unselected peers on a genuine academic test. A year after convincing the teachers that some of their students were due to bloom, Rosenthal and Jacobson returned to the school and administered the same test. The results were astonishing among the younger children: the “bloomers,” who were no different from their peers a year ago, now outperformed their unselected peers by 10-15 IQ points. The teachers fostered the intellectual development of the “bloomers,” producing a self-fulfilling prophecy in which the students who were baselessly expected to bloom actually outperformed their peers.
Once we understand the power of our words, we will have a better understanding of the how to avoid using them to diminish others. We will still need these words if we want to use them to encourage and inspire them. Yet, if we don’t remain vigilant, we can inadvertently slip into using societal labels negatively.
Labeling, in general shouldn’t always a cause for concern, and it’s often very useful. It would be impossible to catalog the information we process during our lives without the aid of labels like “friendly,” “deceitful,” “tasty,” and “harmful.” But it’s important to recognize that the people we label as “black,” “white,” “rich,” poor,” smart,” and “simple,” seem blacker, whiter, richer, poorer, smarter, and simpler merely because we’ve labelled them so.
Once we understand that certain labels can be considered judgmental, we will also have to accept the fact that, like it or not, sometimes we will be called upon to judge others. Perhaps it is in the role of a parent evaluating their daughter’s suitor, a supervisor evaluating an employee, or enemies preparing to negotiate. What then? How can we judge others fairly? If you are to judge and wish to learn the heartfelt feelings of another, don’t listen to what others say about him or her; rather, listen to what he or she says about others. Also, never judge the actions of others until you know their motives. In other words, judge them with your heart and mind, not your eyes and ears.
While the emphasis has been on avoiding judging others unfairly, we cannot stress enough the importance of applying the same degree of fairness to ourselves. I have a friend is a little older than I and believed he was inferior, simply because his education did not go beyond the 10th grade. “I not as smart as you ’cause I dropped out and I’m uneducated.” he used to say. He labelled himself as ‘uneducated.’ However, I explained how it was impossible for that to be so because life itself is an education. Fortunately, he no longer hesitates to venture his opinion and we all benefit, for he is wiser than many of the college/university grads that I know. Our self-applied labels can bind us from the positive features that we have. Going from “I am powerless” with “I am enthusiastic and confident” can make the world of difference in personalities. So, if you must label yourself or anyone else, stick to positive ones, and not to the point of becoming arrogant or acting superior.
Labeling people negatively is horrible and hurtful. It’s like lying about a person because it does not show the whole truth of how they are, just like on a can of goods, and think how much more than a can of goods each person is.
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