Why Do We Need to Socially Label Each Other?

The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” – Chimamanda Adichie

Labels can be immensely helpful, they bring clarification and they help us to make judgements and decisions. For example, if wool has a tendency to irritate your skin, you’re unlikely to purchase clothing labeled as woollen, unless it is specifically designed with sensitive skin in mind, which will also be indicated on the label. Other labels I find useful are those that you might find on a jar of peanut butter stating that what you are consuming or purchasing, is in fact, peanut butter – perhaps with no added sugar and a 97% peanut content.

My point here, is that labelling something that isn’t going to change, makes a lot of sense, but we have developed this system of social labels which tend to be single words or small groups of words that make large generalisations about a person or activity. These statements often relate to diet, lifestyle, political stance, religious belief or gender identity – and many more I’m sure. I think that as a society we’ve become far too reliant on these labels and as a result have created a kind of ignorant toxicity that thrives so easily because of the internet, where it’s also a lot easier to create a false image for yourself or others.

So, whilst it’s very easy, and relatively obvious to say that a bottle of gin is a bottle of gin, or a one-legged man is a one-legged man, people often forget to label themselves correctly – for example, ‘I am a vegan’ is a label that indicates that one does not use or consume animal products. Many people who identify as vegan actually do use or consume animal products of some sort, so a more correct label might be ‘I am a vegan but I wear leather shoes and I’m also finding it really hard to give up cheese so I eat that occasionally too’. Now this creates a bit of a dilemma because for starters the initial label of ‘I am Vegan’ is now null and void, not only for the people using it incorrectly, but also for the people using it correctly, because it’s now become difficult for others to distinguish what a person actually means when they label themselves as something. Because of this, you’re likely to spend more time trying to work out the finer details of a label, like which parts of the bible a devout christian chooses to adhere to, than if they had briefly explained what matters to them – if it’s even relevant in the first place. To put an end to a social tide of ignorance, like the incorrect use of hashtags or other such labels, would be like trying to use sign language to convince an iguana that it was an Eskimo – so what’s the solution?

For starters I think it would be much simpler to explain our own personal values when making a point. For example, you have decided to share a post on the internet about cruelty to whales and in the description column you post #vegansagainstanimalcruelty. Instead of this, you might use words like #Icareaboutwhales which can only really mean what it says, so that when you later post a picture of the steak dinner that you made for you and your bestie, you don’t look like a complete tosser.

Now for the more serious stuff. Peoples everyday lives and emotional states are subject to such immense change over the course of a lifetime that it honestly seems silly to place specific labels on everything. While the fish I purchased from the pet shop is likely to remain a fish, the cisgender male I met last week may well be identifying as transgender now.  When we label ourselves, especially publicly, we subject ourselves to immense personal and social pressure to live up to the standards of these labels. This can very easily slow down or limit our personal progression, and whether it be spiritual or intellectual, change and growth is important to us as human beings. While I believe that it’s important to have values, and to uphold them – I think it’s also important to evaluate those values and subject them to positive change as we grow and learn individually, or in the case of organisations like the church, as a collective. I’d also like to point out that flippant use of labels regarding things like mental health or sexuality can have very serious emotional consequences, especially when talking about other people, because labels stick – and when they’re stuck to our back, we often don’t find them for a while.

A brief personal example could be that I am writing this post because I think that the way we label ourselves is creating a more narrow-minded public rather than an open-minded one. I could of course say that I’m writing this because I’m a #liberal4life but what that means to me, most certainly isn’t what it means to you – I can’t even begin to imagine what it might mean to other people if I said I was a liberal – given the amount of information there is on the internet about politics. So I’m just saying what I mean in a few words that are true to me, rather than putting a label on myself that could be interpreted as anything.

To conclude, I honestly think the best label you can have for anyone is that they are a ‘person’ – a person who believes in a God or Gods, a person who likes walks on the beach. Should any label for a person really matter more than our human connection? I think we could all benefit by simplifying labels back to their original dictionary definition and not attempting to use them as a means of understanding what a person is like as an individual – or to give an understanding of what you are like as an individual. I think we should un-simplify our use of language that we describe ourselves with, so as to stop confusion, prevent the feeding of internet trolls and most importantly prevent ourselves from ever feeling like we have to live up to a standard that we are not comfortable with.

Thoughts?

Sean

Respecting People As Individuals

Firstly, I’d just like to say that I believe respect to be the core foundation of any positive relationship and I also believe that respect, especially for a person as an individual, is incredibly undervalued in society today. I’d also like to mention that everyone is different, and as a result we can’t possibly expect to get along with someone if we only like and respect them for the labels we place on them or the assumptions we make about them.

Respect is an interesting concept. You can show respect for someones abilities with words like “That was very impressive, well done!” and really mean it, however this doesn’t necessarily mean that you respect them as a person, or individual. Respect for someone as an individual means accepting who they are, who they might be, what they do and what they might do in the future. Obviously it’s hard to know all of these things for sure, which is why respecting someone is essentially like having faith in them. Now you could be wrong about a person and they might, in your eyes, change for better or worse. This is not of major importance because if you respect yourself then you can accept that you could be wrong, things might change and that it’s ok either way.

Respect is very give and take. You’ll often get respect from those whom you respect and vice versa. The trouble we often run into is expecting or perhaps demanding respect without first offering it. Giving respect to someone as an individual – having faith in them – can feel a lot like giving the benefit of the doubt. It doesn’t matter what experiences you’ve had in the past that might cause you to make assumptions about a person – allowing your assumptions to dictate the way you treat them is, in my eyes, incredibly disrespectful. I’ve seen it a lot between children and adults, where the adult will demand respect from the child in a totally disrespectful manner. These conversations tend to manifest from the assumption that ‘this is how you speak to children’ – as if there’s some sort of formula for dealing with a child like you were mixing concrete or calculating your tax return. I’ve often found that this demand for respect comes in varying forms of verbal and/or physical abuse, and the resultant behaviour from the child is either retaliatory or mindlessly obedient – neither of which I would view as healthy. I’ve seen it between couples, where one party is being totally unreasonable or difficult and just expecting the other person to know what they want without explanation. The response is, again, retaliation of some description, or mindless obedience. In both examples the underlying problem is the same. You have a child who is responding to a lack of respect with, you guessed it, a lack of respect, or perhaps they are too afraid to confront the disrespect and simply accept it. By doing this they are essentially admitting to themselves that they don’t deserve to be treated better. Having been a child in this situation, I know that sometimes you feel powerless to question things so you just accept the situation and the baggage that goes with it. Exactly the same applies to the couple, only in my experience irrational expectations are often caused by feeling disrespected in the first place – interesting thought huh?

In regard to these examples, my solution consists of two parts; firstly you have to respect your own feelings and values. I believe this is absolutely imperative to being able to respect others. If you don’t respect these things, or you compromise your values, the result is generally just giving in and quietly accepting the situation as mentioned in the example. If you only respect your own feelings then you end up retaliating in an attempt to defend yourself and your values – which brings me to part two; respecting the feelings of others. If you can do this then you put yourself in a position where, even though you may feel the desire to retaliate, (chances are they’ve said some hurtful things), you are able to give them the benefit of the doubt and allow them accept that their feelings are their own. Whether you want to or are able to help them or not, your respect for their feelings will, at the very least, never worsen a situation. For couples it generally only takes one person to break the negative back and forth, and as time progresses I think you learn to help each other, even when you’re both having a bad time.  In my experience with relationships of any kind, the ones that last do so because mutual respect is present. If one party in the relationship believes themselves to be above (or perhaps below) the other, a bitterness tends to develop between them that will inevitably end the relationship, often not on good terms. In the case of children (at least young children), I think it can be different and more difficult because the responsibility lies primarily with the adult to initiate a respectful interaction. You can’t teach someone to be truly respectful by demanding respect disrespectfully – am I right?  I’d love to know what you think.

Thanks for reading!

Sean