Labels are good things, when it comes to identification and organization that is non-human. However, I disagree with the idea that we, as humans, rely on systematically labeling one another as a function of our brains. Not all labels are bad, but the vast majority of them are. Stop for a moment and think about some people who are a big part of your daily life.
Labeling & Prejudice
Labeling, as it is known today is considered, by most, to be a form of discrimination. A select few people who are prejudiced see it as a means to an end, believing that a certain person or group of people (stereotype) deserve to be labeled. In some cases, I can see an exception being made in the instance that a person made a conscious decision to label themselves (hence the case where some labels are positive).
Some Labels Are Good
Some examples of positive labels might include College Graduate, Successful Business Person, Doctor, Lawyer, Scientist, etc. Alternatively,some examples of undesirable or negative labels might include Rapist, Killer, Child Abuser, etc.
Most labels are used to describe certain personality traits. Most notably, people who suffer from mental illness, such as bipolar disorder for example (a condition that has been getting a lot of media attention lately). This label translates into Bipolar; we then group and label this person as a Bipolar Case, or as a person with Bipolar Disorder.
Originating in sociology and criminology, labeling theory (also known as social reaction theory) was developed by sociologist Howard Becker. It focuses on the linguistic tendency of majorities to negatively label minorities or those seen as deviant from norms. The theory is concerned with how the self-identity and behavior of individuals may be determined or influenced by the terms used to describe or classify them, and is associated with the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy and stereotyping. The theory was prominent in the 1960s and 1970s, and some modified versions of the theory have developed. Unwanted descriptors or categorizations (including terms related to deviance, disability or a diagnosis of mental illness) may be rejected on the basis that they are merely “labels”, often with attempts to adopt a more constructive language in its place. -Wikipedia
Labels Stemming From Sexuality
In recent years, personality traits related to sexuality have become very popular. One example that remains prominent in my mind was when my best friend from college came out as being gay. As soon as he told all of his friends about being gay, their perception of him changed. He came out to be before anyone else, and his coming out only made our relationship stronger, but for a handful of other friends, it made their relationship more distant.
I’m reminded of an episode of The Real World: Brooklyn I watched last night on MTV. Historically, every season, at least one of the cast members chosen has been gay. This season, the producers decided to cast Katelynn Cusanelli, a transgendered person, who just months before the show, underwent sex-reassignment surgery to become fully female. When I meet someone for the first time, such as Katelynn, for example, I don’t automatically label them according to superficial nuances. I think the diversity of the cast members is what makes the show, not the associated labels.
If I did decide to start labeling, I might list all the cast members and then attach labels to their sexuality, but what would be the point? The Real World is an interesting show in that we get to see what happens when folks label and become superficial. Nobody had a problem with Katelynn, and she fit in quite well with the other females on the house until it was discovered that she was in fact transgendered, which caused a lot of questions to be asked of her. It makes no difference to me whatsoever, but apparently there are still a select few people who have a huge problem with it. They shouldn’t.
I wrote this article because as far as labels are concerned, I’m sick and tired of them. I clearly remember high school in the mid 90’s when being gay was, at the time, something that you just weren’t. And if you were gay, you kept it quiet. I have always been a open-minded person (damn! another label!). I was born and raised in New York City around all sorts of different people; being gay just wasn’t a big deal to me. For the record (not that it matters), a am straight, but the majority of my friends are Lesbian/Bi/Gay.
When I started my high school years, being so open-minded and accepting of or amused by difference opened me up to a whole world of labeling. I was labeled Gay, Queer, and Faggot, all because I was free and refused to judge others. Apparently although we’ve advanced quite well in our technology and understanding of difference, as a society, we still have a long ways to go in terms of acceptance.
It took me a long time to realize that those who actively judge and label openly are those who are insecure about themselves and in doing so, are only trying to put others down to make themselves feel better.
Instead of labeling, I make a conscious effort to see people for who they really are instead of placing labels upon them. Obviously, I label people according to their jobs, and whatever they decide to tell me about themselves, but at the same time, I don’t use labels in a way that places blame or results from judgment or prejudice.