I am a geeky teenage atheist heterosexual British-born-Chinese cis-female feminist.
As I wrote that, it felt weirdly artificial, as if I was trapped in a box that was being held shut by my own hands. I know that these words will have conjured up a disjointed image in your head, as it did for me. All these adjectives describe me, but somehow, they don’t capture my identity (which is why you won’t find any of these on my ‘Who’s Jess?’ page).
That is the problem with labels. Society is obsessed with labels. It’s so easy just to put someone else in a box – oh, he’s a Muslim from Canada. She’s a Christian who’s an advocate for gay rights. He’s a metrosexual with ADHD. These labels flatten people into 2D making them easier to handle, which is why we like labels for other people but not for ourselves.
Labelling Things, Labelling People
Labelling things is an important technique for identifying things easily and making them easier to deal with – for example our sources of stress, happiness or other emotions. This is because by naming things, we pin them down and disempower them, meaning that we know exactly how to deal with them (read this beautiful blog by Chiara Mazzucco on how to deal with your monsters). This is why labels cannot apply to humans.
We are all so multi-dimensional, so beautifully intricate, full of our own flaws and insecurities, emotions and triumphs. By putting people into pigeonholes, we strip away their humanity, disempower them, ignore their individuality. By labelling others, you have done them an injustice and lied to yourself – labels do not help you understand who they are or how you can deal with them. People are too complex to fit into neat pigeonholes.
Even if you tried to categorise people by their skin colour, you would soon bump into problems. According to this article by Psychology Today, “If you lined up 1000 randomly selected people from across the earth, none of them would share exactly the same skin tone. You could arrange them from darkest to lightest and there wouldn’t be a single tie.” Yet we still call people “black”, “white”, “Asian” etc. and we let these arbitrary names that aren’t based at all in biology determine their social, political and economic well-being. Psychology Today goes on to prove the scary fact that how we label people determines what we see in them, for example in the experiment below where a group of white college students were asked to describe the face of a racially-ambiguous man to an artist, who drew what he was told. Half the students thought he was white – the other half thought he was black. The difference is startling.
What’s worse, not only has society has injected each label with a series of expectations to do with appearance, but als0 everything else from behaviour to personality. Take the first label I tagged myself with: geeky. What sort of person do you think of when you read the word geeky? Perhaps someone wearing the obligatory glasses, with too many teeth? Perhaps someone who likes to stay in all day on their computer, writing lines and lines of code? Perhaps someone who would rather be staying in at night studying than going out with friends?
When I label myself as geeky, I am none of those things yet all of them at the same time. Of course, geekiness goes far beyond the shallow appearances of glasses and buck teeth. Of course, I lead an active life playing sport as well as spending time on the computer. Of course, I love going out with my friends. Yet I am short-sighted (but hate wearing my glasses), love spending time on my computer, and sometimes prefer spending a night reading than going to parties. I contain multitudes, just like you.
However, I would hesitate to say that stereotypes are entirely false, and something to be discarded. I will do a later post on the truth in stereotypes.
The Danger of Labels
The danger of labels used by society comes when they are used to cause harm. Branding people cause many different types of harm: the most extreme, of course, is when it is used to segregate people. There are too many instances in history when this segregation has led to violence, suffering and death.
Another type of harm is more subtle and more pervading in today’s society. I have heard the phrase ‘cis white male’ thrown about as if it was an insult – ‘since when should that be an insult rather than a statement of fact…?’ (Aleksandra, bunnies are magic). Not only can labels be denigrating, they can also be stigmatising. There are too many cases of mental health illnesses being trivialised. Just because you’re feeling a bit down does not mean you have depression. If you have a habit of lining up your pencils in colour order, that does not mean you have OCD. If someone drops something, they are not spastic. Be kind to others, even the people that you aren’t calling names.
As I have said before, labelling people strips away their other characteristics that make them unique – this is especially true of objectification. It doesn’t matter whether you are a man or a woman, judging someone purely based on their body or how they dress is never accurate or helpful. What about their sharp wit? Their deep fears? Their proudest moments? Shallow beauty gets boring. Deep beauty is what makes people interesting.
Labels Aren’t All Bad Though
When we use labels on other people, yes we are doing them a big injustice, but the benefits of communication that come with labelling people and things is huge. We learn and remember information by making connections between ideas in our brain, so if something or someone is easily identifiable, they are easier to recall. This is especially useful for marketing or promoting yourself, which is why the blogs with the most followers specialise in one particular aspect and have a particular style or feel.
(This is also the reason why I refuse to classify my blog – I don’t want to be restricted by one particular subject. It also means that my blog won’t ever get famous because it’s less googlable, but I’m OK with that.)
The Power of Labels
Many people are more than happy to associate themselves with a particular label; within each label, there is a seed of truth. Labels mean that someone else has experienced what you’ve experienced, someone else has pinned it down to a single word, someone else has acknowledged your existence: THERE ARE OTHER PEOPLE LIKE ME!
This reassurance of not being alone in your struggles is what makes labels so appealing. For some people, a label becomes a recognition of their identity and thus something to celebrate. A label is a badge of freedom when you choose it for yourself. A label is a mark of connection with others who know what you’ve been through.
It also makes explaining your story a whole lot easier.
Choose Labels That Fit
Labels can give power, as well as take power away. Choose your labels like you would your clothes. If they resonate with you, and they fit with your identity, wear it with pride. If you don’t find any that express who you are, feel free to go (figuratively) naked! You should never be stuck with a label – change your chosen label whenever you want. Your personality changes, so your label should be able to change to suit it. You can even reframe a label so that it fits better – choose your own definition.
In the end, it doesn’t matter. We are each and every one of us humans after all. Embrace your differences, express your individuality!
Are there any particular labels you associate with? Let me know in the comments!