Label Me a Fool

I recently had a very enriching conversation with my friend/coworker about the current culture in America. We discussed Donald Trump’s narcissistic behavior, reductionist undertones within the English language, and the left/right Republican/Democrat divide.

To an ease dropper, our conversation might have felt scattered and disconnected, but I sensed a pattern emerge in our exploration of the American culture—I believe that we have a dominating urge to label, blame and shame people rather than systems and ideologies.

It all starts with our tendency to quickly label people. We claim that a person is a lier, racist, bigot, sexist, feminist, fascist, liberal, conservative, narcissist ect as if their character is always in line with their given label. Some labels are more clearly defined and distributed than others. For example, if you are convicted of even one felony, you become labeled by the court system as a felon. If you tell a lie, you are a lier. It seems simple and straightforward, right? If only that were the case.

Most of our definitions for the labels we throw around are very limiting. For example, a common usage of the word “sexist” refers to a man who objectifies and demeans women. But the term is actually much more complex than that including attitudes about power between the sexes. And this is just one example. So, without going into too much more detail about personal biases and mental models, we can at least agree that human judgement is very flawed. Now couple our human error with today’s environment and we’ve got a culture of insecure people on high alert.

Today, we are less tolerant, have more to lose (our reputations) and have way more ammo (labels) to throw at each other. Actually to say we are all on high alert is definitely an understatement.

And, we aren’t just shaming each other with our labels, we are shaming ourselves. Many times, we claim events that happened to us as a part of our personhood or our identity. For example, if you don’t finish school, you might call yourself a “dropout”. So, rather than owning our life events and embracing them as a part of our story, we often fall victim to them and we label ourselves with shaming language.

I am learning that when we reduce our lives to labels, we become our own worst enemies. We owe more to ourselves and to each other. We need to think bigger about what it means to be human. Let’s explore when is it beneficial to use labels and when it’s not.

Think left and think right and think low and think high. Oh, the thinks you can think up if only you try!
— Dr. Seuss