Labels are part of everything we buy or use everyday – they are on groceries, clothing, boxes that contain our purchases large and small. Labels are useful because they tell us what is inside the item they are on. We even label people – both groups and individuals.
Labeling people is nothing new. Probably the first recorded case was when the Hammurabi Code was adopted around 1750 BC. It was the one of the earliest set of laws but they were different depending on your label – Property Owner, Free Man, Slave. As time has passed we have created all kinds of labels:
Political – Democrat, Republican, Independant, Libertarian
Ideology– Liberal, Conservative, Progressive
Religious – Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindi, Jewish and subsets such as Fundamentalist, Evangelical etc.
Sexual/Gender Identity – Straight, Gay, Lesbian, Transgender, Queer, Bisexual
Racial – White, Black, Asian, Middle Eastern, Native American
Generational – Baby Boomers, Gen X, Millennials
Regional – Urban, Suburban, Rural
Those are just a small sample of the labels used to categorize people (I didn’t even get into some of the other subsets or the hateful ones meant to demean). They are in the newspaper, news broadcasts, social media and everyday conversation. When used to describe groups of people these labels can be very useful. In a political discussion these labels immediately give you an idea of the core beliefs, viewpoints or life situation of the group being discussed. That is because when used as data points, these labels are pretty accurate.
The problem is when labels are used in a negative way describe THEM – someone who is different than US. Not only is it meant to degrade or somehow lessen the worth of a group or an individual, it also strips away the individuality of a person. Humans are complex creatures who have ideas and beliefs that make them unique. Very few people fit conveniently into the cubbyhole of a label.
Take politics for example – most people who identify as a Democrat or Republican believe and support some of the stance of that party but rarely do they support all of them. I might support three or four policies and reject the rest. You may support one or two. I even may support some from both parties. You can apply this principle to almost kind of grouping or label – very few things are black or white. We humans are many shades of gray when it comes to who we are and what we believe.
Nowhere is this is more abused than social media. As you scroll through your feed the labels are in post after post. Someone has a point to make or just a arrow to sling and they hang labels on people they don’t even know. It’s as if they think they know about someone based on one post or comment. Then the person responding adds a label to the other person and back and forth until all parties are soon falling into the abyss.
I am guilty of this just as I am sure most of you reading this are. It comes so naturally that we don’t even realize we are doing it. It is so easy to try to pigeonhole someone by sticking a label on them. It lets us make all these assumptions and of course we hope that everyone else in our group will use that label to make the same assumptions thereby reinforcing out belief that the label is correct.
If there is one thing that could make discussions in all kinds of forums, whether it be social media, around the water cooler at work or at your favorite after work spot better and less adversarial is if we stopped using labels and instead consider that we all have opinions, ideas and beliefs and just because you don’t agree or don’t like them that doesn’t make you right and them wrong. I welcome your comments.