Labels are an everyday part of our lives. We are all given labels, give labels, and seek labels. Sometimes the labels are just part of life. Consider the labels of: mother, father, daughter, son, wife, husband, young, old, child, … Sometimes we “earn” labels. Consider the labels of: rich, poor, president, student, athlete, valedictorian, doctor, employed, prisoner, soldier … Sometimes our demeanor results in us having labels attached to us. Consider the labels of: happy, sad, vivacious, sullen, bubbly, … The point is that labels are an unavoidable part of our lives.
I think labels are important since they help us order our lives. Consider the label of soldier. The instant we learn that a person has the label of soldier, we know a lot more about the person than before. We are able to put that person in a category and better understand her/him. I think the same is true for any of the above-listed labels.
Let’s consider the label of rich compared to poor. How do these two labels help me order my life? Well, when I hear or see those two labels, whether used for my condition or someone else’s condition, I immediately start an ordering process in my mind. I see the label as a description of human condition. I think the rich person has different needs than the poor person. The rich person’s needs might be related to status in society, whereas the poor person’s needs might be related to food and shelter. There are many other “pre-judging” thoughts related to the two labels, but I think you can see my point.
Labels help bring order to our lives by giving us a way to categorize and understand things. But, they also make it easy for us to “pre-judge.” Of course, pre-judge is a term that is often written without the hyphen and therefore, is better known as prejudice. Many consider prejudice to be a negative word. I have often heard people say that, in general, we should not be prejudice. Personally, I think that’s impossible. Simply stated, we must pre-judge or be prejudice in order to think.
Consider what it would be like if we never pre-judged and/or was prejudice. Consider an extreme example of a person walking alone on a dark street and noticing a group of people who, from her point of view, have the appearance of being mean, rough, seedy, unkept, dirty, etc. Should she pre-judge or be prejudice? Absolutely! Some say prejudice is pre-judgement without reason. Well, how much time for reason would she have? Most likely, very little. Should she walk up to the group and ask each a question about his personal beliefs? I think she should pre-judge or be prejudice and remove herself from the area as quickly as possible. The point is, we all are prejudice, BUT we must be aware of our prejudices and constantly work toward verifying those judgements.
Ok, so let’s consider how labels can be bad. As a teacher, I would often hear others talk about students who had various labels. For example, there were labels of: smart, slow-learner, learning disabled, nerd, jock, and social butterfly. These students would usually have characteristics that allowed me to see how they got their labels, but usually, the labels were only a one-dimensional description that didn’t fit holistically.
Labels are often temporary. Sometimes the person labeled slow-learner turns out to be a genius. Sometimes the person labeled jock turns out to dislike sports and is great in a non-sports area like the theater. Now, I realize that as you read this, you might be thinking about the old saying of: “If it looks like a duck, swims like a duck, and quacks like a duck, then it probably is a duck.” Of course, we might put a label on something when we first encounter it AND that label might be the best overall description of it, no matter how much reasoning we use. The key is, we need to be aware of how much evidence we have about the correctness of the label, how much good reasoning we have used to verify it, and what the standards for assessing the correctness of the label were.
Consider how labels can cause us to literally stop our thinking if we aren’t careful. I’ve heard of Catholics who refuse to talk with Protestants. I’ve heard of Americans (non-Muslim Americans) who refuse to talk to Muslims. I’ve heard of liberals who refuse to consider the ideas of conservatives.
In 2000, the media started using the labels of red states and blue states. Texas is a red state and California is a blue state. What does that mean? Ok, I know that it implies that a red state voted predominately republican and a blue state voted predominately democrat. But, are the labels fair? Fair in the sense that if the media uses such a label to describe a whole state, does the label correctly describe the voters of that state? Does the label correctly describe the population of the state when less than 50% of those eligible to vote did so? I think these types of labels do little more than attempt to give a simple, and often, incorrect description for a complex situation.
What about labels that we give ourselves? What label have you used for yourself. I often say that I’m obsessive compulsive. Really, am I? I have compulsive tendencies at times, but should I label myself as obsessive compulsive just because I sometimes have these tendencies? I don’t think so. Now that I think deeper about saying I’m obsessive compulsive, I think I definitely don’t fit the definition. It’s simply a label I use in order to excuse some of my behavior. Notice I wrote “excuse” and not “give a reason for.” It’s an excuse, not a reason! :-)
Using this post as a writing for learning exercise, I now think I have learned something valuable regarding how I label myself. I shouldn’t use labels for myself that are negative. What good will it do? There is a chance that the effect will be to lower my self-esteem and perhaps, become a self-fulfilling prophecy. And, by using that label, I’m also encouraging prejudicial thinking about who I am. Ouch!
So, is prejudice the result of labels? I think it can be. Do labels often encourage prejudicial thinking? Absolutely!
How about a comment, even if it is prejudicial? :-)