Labels, simply put, are identifiers used to describe or explain something or someone.
“We, as a people, we have a strong need to categorize everything. We put labels on everything and it’s a totally understandable need because we are animals and we need to understand order and where to fit in.” – Armin van Buuren
As Armin van Buuren’s quote indicates, labels can be helpful. They can make things easier for us to comprehend. They help us to make sense out of things by allowing us to fit them into our own experiences. Labels give us a common language to speak about things. They help us organize information about all the things in our world. And they can help us make sense out of new learnings.
The problem comes, however, when we rely solely on the label as a means to “know and understand” someone or something…when we make judgments and decisions based on the label exclusively.
“I don’t like labels. I don’t understand the need for them. When you define yourself a certain way, people have expectations.” – Eddie Huang
The power and invasiveness of labels in our society is undeniable. The divide labels can cause is unquestionable. We are taught from a very young age what the labels are, what they mean, and how to use them. Again from the stand point of strictly utilitarian use they can be helpful in some circumstances, but when we are taught that the labels also tell us very specific things about ALL those who fit under that label (those judgments that get attached to the labels), it all starts to fall apart.
Labels are limiting, yet are regularly used as if they were the whole truth wrapped up in a neat little package. As a society we frequently develop assumptions, overgeneralizations, and stereotypes about ALL the people assigned to a particular label. The development of those assumptions, overgeneralizations, and stereotypes is often quickly followed up with our tendency to levy judgment based on them. But we need to remember that we can only see what is on the outside. We don’t know all that is inside of a person – the label doesn’t tell us who they truly are. And we need to remember that labels get applied to groups of people who are often as diverse as they are similar. Just because people share one particular label doesn’t mean they are alike in all aspects of their being. I know lots of Men and Women, Whites, Blacks, and Asians, as well as Christians, Muslims, and Jews (just to offer a few examples of our labels), and in no way do those labels alone tell you everything about the people who have been assigned to them by our society. Those labels merely hint at one aspect, out of many, about those people. Labels can’t capture all the nuisances of the individual – they can only help us describe some of the surface stuff. They cannot serve as the definitive, all-encompassing descriptor for all people placed under a label. Labels just don’t work that way. And as a result, no one label, or any combination of labels assigned to one person, will ever be sufficient for accurately describing or identifying an individual person. We have to dig deeper, get to know the actual person, in order to achieve that level of knowledge and understanding about someone.
“Labels are for filing. Labels are for clothing. Labels are not for people.” – Martina Navratilova
My hope, my prayer, is that we become more conscious of our use of labels and, even more importantly, the judgments and expectations we attach to those labels. We each have the power to decide how we use labels and what, if any, judgments we assign to them. There is so much more to each of us than any label that we or others may assign to us can ever hope to encompass. May we all find a way to break down the judgments, stereotypes, and assumptions we have been taught to believe and in many cases to also fear. May we find a way to see each person for all of who they are as an individual, not just for the societal-based labels we have been taught to see.