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How Labels Are Destroying Society

Kwade is a freelance writer who is always in pursuit of education. He feels every subject is fascinating and worth studying.

What Is a Label?

There are the labels we see on products. Warning labels, directions on use, and labels that tell us something important about a product. We use this kind of label to help us understand more complex information quickly. These are not what we're talking about today, but the idea is much the same.

We're talking about the labels we attach to people, places, and things that don't actually come in the form of a sticker or tag.

"So, we're labeling people now?" A woman with a high pitched, whiny voice asks.

"We're talking about the labels we use all the time, Nancy." A surf-boarder says, "like when someone says they like to surf and you assume he must be a dumb stoner."

It's not just about assumptions, though. Labels are based on truth. From specific labels to more broad-reaching labels, we use them every day to describe our surroundings. They make life easier and safer by creating a sort of shorthand for reference. We create these labels by finding ideas that fit the people and things we encounter. Our labels help us understand very complex ideas quickly without having to overthink them. We use them as a natural part of being human. Much of the time, they work quite well. So well, in fact, we take them for granted and many of us don't even realize when we use them.

"Like all pirates love rum?" The pirate asks holding a non-descript jug.

"That would be a generalization." The man in glasses says, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose. "The label would be 'pirate' and one idea about pirates is that all pirates love rum."

"Aye. That one be true." The pirate smiles.

"True for you."

Labels are a quick description so we know what we’re dealing with. They help us bypass a need to learn every detail about a situation and make it easier to move forward with life. In this way, they are a tool for survival and time management.

How Does a Label Fail?

When we use labels, we make assumptions. These assumptions are usually broad and serve to keep us going in the right direction. However, like any word, we all have our own personal definitions for our labels. Our understanding of the world is a very personal thing. To you, "man" means one thing. To me, it means another. Both our labels mean many similar things, but there are bound to be differences.

Why is this important?

Let's pick on two groups, Christians and Atheists. Christians tend to think Atheists are godless and never read the bible. Atheists tend to think Christians are uneducated hicks. Often these two assumptions are part of the labels people use.

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"Christians are uneducated hicks." Glasses says with a long-suffering tone.

And Christians tend to think Atheists are a-moral humans who don't understand religion at all.

Believe it or not, Glasses, there are many Christians who are college graduates with degrees in fields like physics, biology, horticulture, computer science, chemical engineering, pharmacology, and more. Being religious doesn't stop people from being highly educated. Or intelligent.

Likewise, every Atheist I've met has read the bible multiple times and typically knows it better than almost every Christian I've met. The same Atheists care deeply for others and treat those around them with deep respect. Almost every one of them also told me they didn’t have that same respect or compassion for others when they were religious.

Labels are subject to our personal biases. This is a natural part of processing languages and ideas. A consequence of this is that two sides of a debate often cannot understand each other. They're working off different views, and the more we polarize, the worse it gets.

The failure comes in when we try to use our labels regardless of the situation. Labels work for dealing with groups. Accurate labels work better. They fail when we try to apply them to individuals. Making assumptions about someone because they identify as “Democrat,” or “Republican,” or “Pirate” causes a lot of friction between people.

Are Labels Just Stereotypes?

If you're paying attention, labeling may sound an awful lot like stereotyping. Stereotyping is taking labeling to the extreme. When we assume a stereotype is true, we simplify the person we're stereotyping and fitting them into a box of our own design. Some stereotypes have a lot of truth to them. That's why people hold to them so much. However; they're only accurate to a point.

When our experiences prove something to be a certain way, we think there's no reason to question it. Step outside the relevant situation and a stereotype is nothing more than a biased view created from presuppositions. Dealing with someone on an individual level makes most stereotypes fall apart.

As I said above, the same is true for labeling. Labels are great for dealing with groups. Be it customers, cows, cars, and groups of people, labels make life easier. Dealing with an individual, labels quickly fall apart.

Why Do I Say Labels Are Destroying Society?

Partly because of easy access to each other through social media, we’re making more snap judgments about each other. We just don’t have the time to get to know everyone we meet, right? This causes some serious issues.

People are using their labels in two ways that completely destroy their usefulness. First, people assume their labels are accurate for everyone they fit. Second, they act as though their labels explain everyone who might fit them. Suddenly, anyone who doesn’t agree with you is now your enemy and cannot be reasoned with.

This not only causes friction between people, but also shuts down communication. We can’t have a productive conversation when think we know what others believe. This can only lead to worse relationships.

The only way I see to fix this issue is if we all stop relying so heavily on our labels and instead take the time to really learn about who we’re communicating with. When we can’t take that time, we need to have true empathy for each other. If nothing else, assume the other person is just doing the best they can and know they’re part of the world you share.


Thank You for Reading

I appreciate you taking the time to read this. Feel free to weigh-in in the comments. I enjoy hearing your thoughts and having feedback.

© 2019 kwade tweeling

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