Labels

I find it nearly impossible to negotiate in this world without attaching labels.  That labels help us organize and categorize, thus giving us a sense of order, I understand.  It’s the extension of that practice beyond the need for context that causes me to question my reality.

While labels are beneficial they can also negatively impact our ability to objectively enter into a decision about a person or thing.  From an early age, I remember being taught which behaviors were good or bad.  This included labeling a person as good or bad based on their actions or reputation.   Not until middle age, did I soften my opinion enough to question its absoluteness.  I was able to then understand that we all function on a continuum of behaviors and, while some cross the line of what we label as acceptable or not, some are closer to the cut-off than others.  In fact, even if someone fits into my label of good or bad or supports a cause I won’t, the range of differences within that group are often more broad than I would think.  And, the similarities they have with me are also likely greater than I would anticipate.

Yesterday I went to town hall to pay my local taxes.  It was cold and rainy and as I exited the door a man of similar age was entering.  I held the door and said hello and he smiled (at least his eyes did as his mouth was also covered by his mask) and begin a friendly conversation.  As I walked to my car I was quickly reminded of how warm and friendly people are and how this person could likely become a friend if we had more time to get to know each other.  Next to my car was his vehicle with a bumper sticker of the political party I don’t support.  For a brief moment, my perception of him immediately changed.  Then, it got me thinking about how quickly I label people.  What if I had seen the bumper sticker and then met the man.  Would I still see the potential for a friend then, or by grouping him with all the other members of his political party, see that as an impossibility?

For years my business partner and I consulted with school districts and social service organizations.  Part of our work was to help leaders understand and deal with conflict.  In the process we helped participants recognize that even if they had an issue/conflict with a colleague or client, it was usually around a particular behavior or action not with the entire person.  Sometimes we would sketch an outline of a person and then shade in a small portion to illustrate that point.  We hoped to help them understand that the mistake of labeling the whole person as a problem because of a behavior or incident was diminishing their ability to maintain the relationships that were so important in their work and personal lives.  Given a mix of strategies, positive intention, and patience most relationships could be maintained if not strengthened.

As with many things in life, it’s easy for me to understand and even to explain positive principled behaviors.  To consistently practice those desirable beliefs is clearly a work in progress.  Today I’ll remind myself to be more aware of what labels I might use that are unnecessary and replace them with simple observations.  It won’t be the first time I’ve tried and I’m sure it won’t be the last.  And that’s neither good, nor bad!

Tag – You’re It!

Let’s step back from the term “label” for just a minute and substitute the term “metadata”. Sounds more dispassionate. All of us check off little boxes of these attributes – companies have made fortunes using little pieces of information that describe our physical measurements, social affiliations, economic status, spiritual and political leanings, food choices, fashion tastes, and more. Thousands of ways to be assessed.

And we do assess – and make judgments – and rather quickly as it turns out if you’ve read The Tipping Point.  John Hume, the Scottish philosopher, believed that the intellect serves our emotions. And if our passions wish to raise up some while denigrating others, we can use that intellect to select a few specific descriptors to caricature others, as well characterize them. I believe that this is what Hen refers to when he talks about labeling. It’s the root of what some would call profiling – or its sibling by a different parent: cancel culture. Both only need one or two pieces of data to make major assumptions. Tag – you’re it!

Yet each of us has many facets: in any given situation, we could be the goat or the G.O.A.T.; the hero or the jerk; the thief or the benefactor; the lover or hater. Already a lot of labels!  

In my last post, I tried to make a topographical analogy about people: we’re more asymmetric than spherical. We grow unevenly: we feature breath taking mountain views and hide dark crevasses, contain placid lakes and strong ocean riptides. When we make connections with others, we first look for common ground. From that initial vantage, it is easy to assume we know the entire territory – but that would be a mistake. (Now cue in background music from Sting: Nothing ‘Bout Me). The view from 50,000 feet is different than the view from 100 feet. Labelling is the act of retaining the view from 50,000 feet without ever feeling the desire to explore with boots on the ground. The trouble is that the exploration is where all the fun lies.

Label Here, Label There, Label Everywhere

When I was a kid, a teenager, someone got me one of those hand held machines that you could make labels with.  Being a wiseass even back then I went around labeling everything in my house to the chagrin of my parents.  When they lifted the lid there was a label that said, “toilet.”  I labeled our seats at the dinner table.  I even labeled my brother’s Ford (Found on Road Dead) Falcon on the steering wheel.  From childhood we are taught to label things and we are taught that we ourselves have been labeled.  My smart friends in Junior High School in the NYC public schools were selected for SP or special progress completing 3 years in 2.  They were labeled as the smart kids.  My IQ didn’t qualify me for that distinction!  In high school we were labeled “Regents” or “Commercial.” That meant college bound or not.  And our social groups were even labeled.  There were the jocks, the hoods, the beatniks (hippies hadn’t evolved yet) and the clean cut/penny loafer set.  Everyone fit neatly into one of these groups.

All labeling depends on making judgments, placing people into categories that define them. First impressions often categorize people even if it seems too judgmental or spur of the moment.  As a result I grew up being a judgmental adult who feels comfortable compartmentalizing people until they prove me wrong.  It is definitely one of my shortcomings, and I know it.  I chose my friends that way, even courses of study, even the school I was employed by.  All of these decisions depended on my judgment. With judging people, I question myself more than with other decisions.  It is so ingrained in my fiber that it happens automatically and only afterwards do I question if the labeling was accurate or not. 
I have been the subject of much labeling over the years, scaredy cat, momma’s boy, queer, liberal, ad nauseum…  Some labels I wear proudly, some make my skin crawl but all too often I fall back into the old patterns of judging and categorizing before taking the time to evaluate more fully. That’s why I wish I could be more like Henry when it comes to this because most of the time I don’t even realize I’m doing it!

2 thoughts on “Labels

  1. Ah, labels! George, I too, have a labeler and I have been known to label all kinds of things (but not toilet seats!)

    All kidding aside, one of the hardest “habits” I have tried to break as I have gotten older is the labeling habit, especially as I know some people (in my congregation at church, no less!) who have voted differently from the way I voted. I have tried to cultivate what the Buddhists call a “beginner’s mind.” I haven’t always been successful, but I have often been surprised. Pema Chodron, the Buddhist nun, reminds us that things just “are.” We label them “good” or “bad” but those are only labels.

    Thanks for the reminder that we all label things, and for the chance to pay attention to when *I* do!

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    1. Connie, thanks for the comments. When you figure out how to be non judgmental please pass the secret along to me. It just seems like I am never atuned to the fact that I am making a snap judgment and labeling accordingly until after I have already put it in the neat bundle and filed it away!

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