My friend Darrin (not his real name) goes to great pains to eliminate labels from his life. He will not purchase clothing with a brand name or logo displayed on it. If branding is unavoidable, he removes it. For instance, I once saw him buy a new pair of Levis jeans. He brought the pants home and took off the tan tag at the waist and the little red tag on the pocket.
Grocery shopping is problematic for Darrin because everything, including the little stickers on produce and “generic” items are labeled.
What really gets his goat are labels that people use to categorize other people. He dislikes the terms Jew, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist, Democrat, Republican, and so forth. The worst ones are insulting labels like libtard, conservatard, moron, creep, and the like.
There are many people who dislike labels, albeit not nearly to the extent as Darrin’s level of aversion to them. However, I am not one of them. Because I appreciate labels as tools as stepping stones to understand concepts and other people, labels are welcome parts of my vocabulary.
I did an on-line search of the DSM-5 to see if there is a psychological category for people who have a severe dislike of labeling. A superficial search came up empty. I’ll just call the condition “labelphobia”. If any of my readers has expertise in psychology, please help me out with a comment.
On the one hand, I understand why we generally dislike the depersonalization that labeling and pigeonholing people can cause. On the other hand, labeling is an important shorthand tool that can enable effective communication.
While thinking of Darrin, the polar opposite of his “labelphobia” came to mind. There are millions of people who love labels. Prestigious brand name clothing, jewelry, vehicles, and so forth are important to them. They buy products from luxury cars to sneakers that prominently display logos and brand names. There are millions of others who freely label and categorize people into politically correct and politically incorrect boxes. For sake of convenience I’ll call this “labelphilic”. The label I’ll use for them is “labelphile”.
I’m guessing that most of us are somewhere in between labelphobic and labelphilic. We are not insensitive to the dignity and traits of others, so we don’t use insulting labels to describe people. We also use certain labels to help us understand others. What are especially useful are the labels we use to describe ourselves.
Unlike my friend Darrin, I’m glad there are labels like Jew, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Atheist, etc. These terms are introductions to how people view themselves. Knowing how they view themselves gives me some insight about how to be better friends and allies to them or what I need to know if they present themselves as my adversaries. The need to distinguish between friend and foe is a basic, primal requirement for survival.
People cannot help noticing consumer products, logos, national flags, and symbols. We are a species that seems to naturally categorize everything. Categorizing harms us and helps us. When labeling is used mindfully and thoughtfully, we can empower ourselves and grow.
Ironically, my circle of friends have labels for Darrin. He is a human male Caucasian of Estonian ancestry who is an Iowan. People perceive him as agnostic, libertarian, stubborn but lovable, someone who disavows any attempts to define him with labels, and a blonde.
I categorize myself as someone in between a labelphobe and a labelphile. Some of my labels are private and useful only to myself. A few of my other labels are in the public domain. It’s no secret that I am a human male of Swedish-German ancestry, a free-thinker, liberal minded, and an easy-going Nebraskan. For better or worse, these labels help or hinder. Knowing how others may view me or how I view myself brings insight and fosters inner and outer growth. These labels can either repel or attract other people.
My labels are thumbnail sketches that do not represent my total being. The same goes for the labels that are attributed to Darrin, whether or not he accepts or disavows them.
Labeling will probably always be a part of society and civilization. Effective, compassionate use of labeling is one way towards better understanding of ourselves and others.
The Blue Jay of Happiness quotes filmmaker/director Sebastián Lelio. “This idea of walls, segregation, labels, and ‘You against us’ and ‘We are superior and you are inferior.’ Which people are legitimate? Which relationships are legitimate or not? Who declares that under which authority? These are things that are hugely important.”