Why We Should Avoid Labels

There was a good while where I didn’t know whether the phrase “Don’t label me” was a joke or if it was a serious statement. That phrase would usually come up during situations where people say “Don’t be such an X” or “If you believe that, then you must be X”. For the most part people can say this phrase jokingly, but we can’t ignore the fact that a growing number of people try to avoid labels in some sense. Even if it’s just an attempt for that person to feel unique there must be some validity to this idea.

The main issue with labeling certain ideas is that there is no inherent meaning in the label itself. To illustrate this we can look at two of the most common labels used in politics, the split between liberal and conservative. When I speak of a person who is liberal, I myself have a very specific idea of what that word means. The problem is, the person I’m talking with may have a different conception of what liberal means. For instance, I may have in mind that I’m speaking of classical liberal political philosophy as a whole, while the person I’m talking to may think of being liberal on a specific issue. Even then, if we were to agree on a single definition there will still be confusion. Say that just for convenience we decide to use the Oxford Dictionary definition of liberal:

Favouring individual liberty, free trade, and moderate political and social reform.

Given this definition there is still room for miscommunication. In the first part of the sentence it begs the question, “How much individual liberty are we presupposing?”It could be the difference between the freedom of speech or having mandatory house searches every day, depending on what each person views as a good amount of individual liberty. The point here is this: We generally have no clue what someone else means when they use a classifying term, and even when we define that term two people may have miscommunication based on their own understanding of the definition. Another way to think about is, that even if an anarchist and a fascist both agree on that definition of liberal, they both have very different conceptions on what that definition implies. A fascist may support free trade and political reform, but if you ask me that does not make him a liberal.

But these are merely labels about ideas, we can also analyze the labels for concrete groups. For instance there is the statement “I am a democrat.” What does this mean? Well it could mean both that I am a registered democrat and go vote democrat every election, or it could mean I am a registered democrat but have never voted in my life. Or if a person says they are a democrat they could mean that they aren’t even registered to vote at all but they still support the ideals of a democrat. If this turns out to be the case, which ideals do they support? Do they support every single ideal on the democratic platform, do they support the majority of them? Maybe they really only care about a single issue, such as the environment, and that’s enough to call themselves a democrat even if they don’t care about any other issue. Maybe a person doesn’t even know what he means by democrat, and he just uses the word because he heard a friend say it, how do you continue the discussion from there?

The point is when somebody asks “Are you an X?” they are really asking just so they can make a set of assumptions about you based on their own personal understanding of what that term means. For this the only proper response to avoid a complete misunderstanding is “I would avoid calling myself X, but this is what I believe.” Of course there will always be some kind of miscommunication, but this is the first step we can take to avoid it.

I understand that to an extant labels are useful. Humans have some innate need to categorize everything so that they can make sense of the world, and despite this need it’s irrelevant. I can argue all day whether a certain artist was a modernist or a postmodernist, and it doesn’t matter. Those are subjective labels. What really matters is the content that the artist produces and how we can better enjoy and understand it. Therefore, it doesn’t matter if a person is liberal or conservative, what really matters is the specific beliefs that they hold.

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27 thoughts on “Why We Should Avoid Labels

  1. Well said. I wish the news was presented in the same way your essay was written. I was left agreeing with your conclusions and appreciating your questions. I also could not concretely guess your own ideological leanings.
    I’ve been against labels my whole life. They are divisive and cause turmoil where none might not need to exist.
    The hardest part is to not label oneself. If I label myself as “smart”, then I seek to affirm that label through other’s eyes. Yet, if they disagree, then it can shatter my self-image. If I have no label at all, then I can live more freely, unbound by what others may think of me.
    Great post!

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Label’s are not only useful, they are necessary. Labeling is hard wired into how the human brain works. We experience massive amounts of sensory data every second. We can only process it by labeling it broadly at first, then more specifically in a step-wise fashion until we have a more finely detailed perception of what we are seeing or experiencing. How finely we perceive anything depends on how important that thing is to our well being. Just as our eyes can’t focus on everything at once, neither can our perception of the world. We have to make choices as to what we perceive and make due with a blurry perceptions of everything else.

    So when someone says, “Don’t label me,” what they are really saying is, “Take a closer look at me. Focus on how I am more nuanced than your current level of perception.”

    The problem comes when we refuse to respond to these requests and mistake out labels for truths. Labels are not truths, they are transitional points to help us see the big picture so we can decide where to focus our attention..

    Liked by 2 people

  3. You certainly touched upon something that has bothered me for years. Our modern attempts to create metaphor rather than articulate our given language is something I rail against at every available occasion. Great piece.

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  4. Labels also lose their power when people throw out labels such as bigot, sexist, racist, and homophobe like it’s candy. Giving people certain labels, especially ones like these, for simply disagreeing with you on policy is dangerous.

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    • Labels like racist, misogynist, Islamophobe, and xenophobe are a dodge, a way to avoid grappling with the substance of a dissenter’s arguments while presuming to know their motivations. The words by themselves are not what I would describe as dangerous, but overuse has a way of negating their shock value.

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  5. Economic recession or even slowdown since 2008 worldover brought untold miseries to the working class & peasants! They were on roads & in streets in protest but they failed to defeat the bourgeois class & as time passed, the latter became aggressive enough to crush any movement.
    Religion, nationality, personality cult, caste, etc were potent weapons in the hands of the bourgeoisie and above example is small one to see worsening conditions of the working class and even the middle class!
    Solution of course is to destroy capitalism and birth of socialism!

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  6. “Liberal” and “conservative” aren’t the best examples to use for discussing the merits of labels in general. “Liberal” has developed more meanings than most, “conservative” is inherently a relative term, and a lot of people incorrectly assume the two are literal opposites.

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  7. I enjoyed your post. I also understand where “dataheart” comes from. His name says it all. (smile) Some people cannot function without labels and to a certain extent perhaps that is what has caused this gender revolt. It was odd that that came to mind for whatever reason.
    Aside from that, I understand how you feel from the political aspect. I resist the idea of being either or Republican even though I may favor some of it’s ideology as well as that of Democrat. My conservative friends may say I’m liberal and my liberal friends think I’m conservative. Perhaps being balanced and able to see both sides is not in my favor from a political point of view, so in this case I too am adverse to labeling.
    Unfortunately, it isn’t the real world and it is something we can work on. I think you did a fair job of starting us to consider how we think and look at this more closely. Perhaps in the future we may not be so quick to judging one another harshly.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Good post. Who said that the way to destroy a culture is to destroy its language? Language pollution in all its guises may explain why there is so much miscommunication between different groups.

    Words themselves are labels for something we perceive. The word “tree” is a label, for instance. The words you use for a person show more how you perceive that person than what he is. To call someone “conservative” may describe only one facet–the one you consider most prominent–yet there are so many words you could also use, such as “tall,” or “well educated,” or “married.” All true, maybe, from your point of view.

    Medical diagnoses are labels, especially psychiatric diagnoses. That is dangerous, because they are judgments, unkind judgments, that worsen any mental conflicts. They lead to heartless stereotypes, as do the intentional insults mentioned above.

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  9. “The medium is the message”. The world of globalised mass communication has the inevitable effect of labelling. We all receive vastly increased amounts of information conveyed in sound bites and the very labelling you talk of is just such an effect. The world liberal is an excellent example, it also means a free thinker, someone open to new ideas. Now its just a political label.

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  10. Excellent post. I dislike labeling also, but I believe they’re imposed on us for the sake of control. A good example is the census, talk about labels. Why must race be defined? But, that question is simplistic because it raises a lot of other subjects . . . Labels simplify things.

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  11. Definitely a must-read for those who judge and ‘label’ things. The real issue is the nonstop stereotyping because of people using labels as descriptions for things when it should not be the case.

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  12. I understand your point, “Labels” can be “bad”. But let us look at human development for a moment. The brain operates, for the most part on pattern recognition. How we see and hear is through pattern recognition. The sense of smell tends to operate on a continuum, why does a particular molecule fit in. It can recognize several different molecules and fit them into patterns. Why is this important? For the simple reason that we use patterns everyday. They become essential for our survival and for our ability to live in groups.

    Well, why should pattern recognition be essential for living in groups. Because we join groups that tend to share our goals and values. And members of that particular group will either accept us based on those similarities or reject us. As we try to articulate our values and our goals we give them names or labels. One cannot avoid doing that. And we also notice that our values and goals lie somewhere along that sliding scale. Jane may be an introvert but not as introverted and John and Mary is an extrovert far more than David. We order our own sense of belonging according to where we are on a multitude of sliding scales. In short, we always compare ourselves to others in whatever manner we find necessary.

    So the question is not about labels, for they have a usefulness. The question is how do we use labels so that they are more help than hindrance. Remember, labels are perceptions that have some formalize function. If I perceive someone as a threat then I must need some process to change that perception. And because my perception depends somewhat our your behavior then you are part of the process that helps me to change my perception. This is what living in groups is all about.

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  13. I agree with the overall premise.I hate being labeled or “put into a box”. The media, hollywood and those in “power” use labels to control us and to make us better “consumers”. Im too free spirited for labels, and I believe that labels are destroying society. Excellent post.

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  14. This is exactly correct and and will enhance a point I need to make in my new Asexual Perspectives book – that labels are subjective and we have no right to tell another asexual what they are and are not. We can help people to identify themselves based on certain criteria – but it’s still up to the individual how they think and feel at the end of the day.

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  15. Couldn’t agree more. We label people to find a commonality that we might or might not have with them, put them safely in a box and move one. We do that in life also where we limit the possibilities of what could happen because we are so accustomed to neatly categorizing based on our very limited experiences.

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    • You’re oversimplifying the concepts big-time. I don’t like residing in a box, but consider myself closer to being a conservative than a liberal on the ideological spectrum and have no problem at all considering different ideas. Frankly, I’ve seen just as many closed-minded “liberals” as “conservatives.”

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  16. Very good article. I certainly agree that we should not use emotionally laden words to shut people up because we do not agree with them. Even if they show prejudice toward another group or religion they have a right to freedom of speech. How will we learn anything or teach if people are unable to say what they want to say. Also, by allowing people to voice their opinions I think this is good therapy – more especially when they are in a group where they have validation vs. someone who socially isolates themselves with their opinions which we have seen causes destruction to others. If we don’t like what someone’s opinion is why can’t we just say “I disagree” and give our opinions instead of “You are a racist,” because after all what is a racist? Is this person the next Adolph Hitler (doubtful) or just a poor sod who is angry with society and angry with what he/she sees in our society? Shouldn’t an angry person have the right to vent their frustrations? This too is healthy and important to our growth as a human being.

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  17. Labeling goes with absolutist thinking. An absolutist puts ideas (and, worse, people) into labelled boxes, and then treats them according to the label on the box. An absolutist might say, for example, that you can’t be a Christian and accept evolution (despite the small fact that most Christians in he world actually do just that).

    The worst of it is when we label ourselves, and end up swallowing whole packages professionally prepared for us, however incompatible the components. Thus someone might prove their conservatism by opposing abortion and assisted suicide (because life is precious), while favouring the death penalty and military adventures. And you know what such a person is going to say about gun control.

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  18. I think that we (as humans) need to think of labels as guideposts. If I say I’m liberal, I’m trying to give everyone an idea of where the majority of my opinions are on a spectrum. Not everything I do will be considered liberal, and those whose ideas or opinions are more liberal than mine might not consider me a liberal at all. Yet the idea of the label is merely to guide people to understand me in a general way, so that they can then take the time to get me know me in a more in-depth way.

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  19. Yes. very cool

    I half jokingly blame Facebook, online dating , Twitter and all of the other “social networking” because there are little boxes where you have to pick an option. If you and I met at a party and you said “I’m a liberal” I would be able to ask questions and also the environment is not hostile which unfortunately the Internet is. So I would learn actually what you are talking about and also why you have those ideas which is important for me. Your context is different from mine because we are different people with different histories. Then we can dialogue and actually learn things that may or may not change her own beliefs but will give us a greater understanding of how other people think and we are not going to leave the party screaming you support Hitler like on the Internet. We would be able to run into each other on the subway and say hello it’s really hot and did you know so-and-so is pregnant? You wouldn’t be defined in my head as one word . When you have “300 friends” that you don’t really know and you’re just looking at labels that some online place decided to give them to choose from you probably are not going to have an easy-going, interesting conversation about it especially because the Internet makes people inherently defensive. There’s something dehumanizing right away with it. But at the party I would also know what friends we have in common and how you met them. He would know the same about me and then they would probably be something from that to discuss or people could just be talking about movies they like and we would’ve started talking because of liking the same one or having totally different opinions about it and again it’s not like online where that defines you . We probably are not going to leave the party screaming “you are Hitler!” Which is how a lot of online conversations seem to end. 🙂

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