Random Ruminations | Labels


I’m not a fan of being classified. I don’t like being put into category A, B, or C and henceforth presumed to embody that columns predefined descriptions and characteristics. I don’t like it. I don’t like someone thinking they know me and what type of person I am due to the weight of one measly word. But without a label, how do I define myself?

While it’s true that a label may be a good general indicator of some things that an individual stands for, it’s also a stereotype that others tend to take too much to heart. They either dismiss you as an outsider or accept you as “one of their own” because of it. There’s no need to know you or anything else about you. They merely need to know what team your name is associated with. Their feelings on you are then based on whatever preprogrammed opinion they have about that team.

Liberal, Conservative, Atheist, Christian, Hipster, Gamer, Nerd, Redneck, Blue Collar, White Collar, Poor, Rich, Addict, all these terms have a place in the world. They exist for a reason. They describe something about you. And we accept them happily. Simultaneously, though, it feels no different than racism. Just because you’re black doesn’t mean you love basketball and just because I’m liberal doesn’t mean I’m overly sensitive to every social crudity imaginable. For that matter, not all Christians hate gays, not all atheists hate Christians, not all conservatives are bigots, and not all nerds are virgins. Are these things true sometimes? Definitely. Are these things true most of the time? Maybe, I don’t know (stereotypes become stereotypes for a reason, after all; there’s usually at least a grain of truth in there somewhere). Either way, these things certainly aren’t true all the time. But we can't seem to help ourselves from acting as if they are even when, intellectually, we know they can't be.

When I describe myself as a liberal these days, for instance, I feel a tinge of self-consciousness and a need to quickly clarify “but not that kind of liberal”. I can feel the preconceived notions building, the opinions of me materializing as clearly as a thought bubble in the air reading “Oh, alright, I know all about you people”. I try to nip it in the bud when I can, I try to read their mind and what they're thinking and jump in there and establish my individuality while still holding onto the label I've chosen. Frantically scurrying to explain how I’m not who they're thinking. But, more often than not, they’ve already put me into the stack of "people like this" or "people like that". There seems to be no avoiding it.

I recall watching the Ken Burns documentary on Vietnam and seeing American and Vietnamese soldiers talking about how racism helped them fight. Dehumanizing their opponents by thinking of and referring to them as some species other than human made it easier for them. The Americans called the Vietnamese “gooks” and thought of them as monsters. One guy said, "In basic training they taught you that you were going to be fighting gooks. It was part of the songs that you sang as you jogged down the road. As you went through bayonet training, you were not talking about Vietnamese, you were always talking about gooks.Vietnamese might be people, but gooks are close to being animals." Another one said, "I said I will never kill another human being as long as I'm in Vietnam. However, I will waste as many gooks as I can find... Turn a subject into an object, it's racism 101." (episode 05) Meanwhile, the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese called the GI's "invaders", "imperialists", and "American bandits". One Vietnamese soldier having seen American soldiers helping and mourning each other and being shocked that they had feelings just like the Vietnamese did. This is what happens when faceless terms are used to define others. We lose perspective that an actual unique and complex person exists along side of it.

To me, it seems like this non-individualistic, dehumanizing effect of labeling others is apparent everywhere. Not just racism, not just politics, not just religion, but everywhere. Grouping people and looking at them as either less or more based on a term. A term specifically designed to explain one tiny aspect of a complex individual but somehow becoming the defining factor of who they are when others hear it. I remember this even being a thing in school. You weren't a person. You were either popular or unpopular, or a "goth", a "nerd", "emo", a "burnout", or a "prep". You were a thing. And other kids chose whether or not to be your friend based on the opinions they'd already established about that thing. When we got older the terms changed but the mentality remained the same.

I can't say that I blame people for utilizing labels. I, too, utilize labels. I embrace them myself and refer to others by them. Sometimes I do so in a fair way, sometimes not so much. It just comes natural to organize others like this. It's second nature to think of them as being either good or bad, evil or benevolent, wrong or right, smart or stupid, with me or against me, black or white. And it's such a quick and easy way to make decisions. Maybe this is the problem? Part of it being the fact that we don't have time to get to know the intricacies of each individual we meet, and part of it being the intellectual laziness of it all, and the convenience of calling someone something you already understand rather than having to work to learn and get to know them in a more complicated manner. Maybe that's just how it is. Maybe it's impossible not to label. Maybe it's impossible not to stereotype.

I dunno. I'm sleepy though. Not sure why this thought popped in my mind.

(Oh, here's that documentary I referred to, by the way. It's pretty awesome. And shockingly relevant, and somewhat eye-opening to our current situation in America. This is the box set, of course, but I believe you may be able to find a free stream of it available from PBS. They're usually cool like that.)