A discussion of labels convinces me to never label myself
“Once you label me you negate me.” ~Soren Kierkegaard
Despite Kierkegaard’s quote, labels can be useful. Labels allow us to classify the world into categories –things with similar characteristics get lumped together and given a label, such as FRUITS. Our brains use labels to quickly process the enormous amount of information constantly bombarding our senses. If I see something labeled a FRUIT, I know (without having to think about it) that I can eat it, and that it should be refreshing, delicious, and nutritious.
Problems arise, however, when we apply labels ignorantly or when we presume that all things that share a label are the same: though both FRUITS, a pineapple is not an apple. If you bite into a pineapple the way you would an apple, you’ll injure your pretty little mouth. These problems can be especially harmful when the objects we’re labeling are people.
I’ve been hindered by libelous labels bestowed upon me by others. At work I once helped Maureen, a middle-aged colleague in a neighboring cubicle, solve a computer problem. She was impressed with my smarts, and she labeled me (in a friendly way, to her credit) a NERD. I could’ve lived with Maureen thinking I was a NERD, but she spread the word throughout the office. Soon some of the IT guys (the real NERDS) were trying to cajole me into attending a Renaissance Fair, and this really weird accountant girl invited me over to watch a Friday night Star Trek marathon. Worst of all, the pretty little call-center girl who I wanted to ask out wouldn’t even give me a chance because she already knew who I was: I was a NERD. Thanks a lot, Maureen.
I can’t be too mad at Maureen, though. I’ve done my fair share of unfair labeling. During my first week of college a guy on my floor, Peter, was prancing around with a pretty little smile on his face, singing fruity songs from Disney movies. I labeled him as CHILDISH, severely UNCOOL, and probably GAY. I even shared my labels with a girl who liked him, dissuading her from making advances. I may have done Peter a disservice by labeling him and inadvertently cock-blocking him, but it didn’t hurt him in the long run. Peter became one of my best friends and one of the most notorious lady-killers the campus had ever seen. Obviously, my labels were ignorant and wrong.
Most harmful of all, though, are the labels we place on ourselves. We define ourselves with labels, such as our gender, age, race, religion, nationality, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or profession. Each label we use to create our self-identity is like a layer that covers the core of our being, our true identity. All our experiences are filtered through these layers, and they distort our perceptions and our sense of the world. Defining ourselves within narrow categories may also limit who we are and who we can become.
I am a comfortably-living white male American. I think about the events of the world from this restricted viewpoint, so I never consider what the world might look like to a Muslim Syrian woman or a black teenage Zimbabwean boy. My own labels trap me and set me apart from others who don’t share my labels. But again, these labels are not who we really are. Beneath them, we’re all just human beings, citizens of planet Earth and children of the Universe. At the core we’re all the same, despite our surface differences. To help me remember this I’m going to stop labeling others, and myself. I will no longer think of myself as a man, or as white, or as a 35-year-old, or as straight, or as an American; I’ve never had religious or political affiliations. I will simply look at myself as a human being, sharing the world with many other human beings. I encourage you to do the same.
Have you ever labeled another unfairly, or been labeled yourself? If so, share your experience by leaving a reply below!