The upside of labels

Growing up, our mothers and teachers taught us that it’s not nice to call other people names.  And we’ve all probably recited the quote “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

But the fact remains that despite the sage advice from our mothers, we continue to label people, particularly those that we view as different from ourselves – also known as “others”. The question is… well, why? And is there any benefit to the practice of labeling?  After all, aren’t we all human beings?

In a way, it’s a silly question.  I mean, asking why people need labels for other people is much like asking why we need names for objects.  For example, imagine how much time it would take to describe the sun if we didn’t have a word for it.  “That bright shiny thing in the sky that provides us warmth and light” is a lot longer than saying “oh that’s the sun”. It also allows for easier and more universal communication – everyone who speaks the English language knows that the sun is the sun.

Sociologists and social psychologists tell us that human beings devised labeling as just one tactic to help us process the complex world that we live in.  Labeling allows us to break down the constant barrage of data thrown at us by a complicated world into discrete categories and clusters.  Labels are a short way of describing these complex concepts or identities.  It’s a lot easier to process a lot of information when it’s broken down into chunks, and putting a label on those chunks makes it easier to understand the next time one encounters the same type of data.  For example, think of learning the colors when you were growing up.  Someone showed you the color “blue” and you learned what that label meant.  The next time you encountered an object that was a similar color, you knew that it was blue rather than having to relearn what it all meant.  Similarly with objects like plants and animals – these labels help us put things into categories to better understand our world.

One could argue that we put labels on people in order to fit them into categories as well.  Not necessarily for a malicious reason but in order to better understand the complexity of humanity.  We label because it makes it easier for us to recognize similarity the next time we encounter similar people.  But labeling people serves another function as well – it allows us to identify and find like-minded others.  Someone who identifies as Catholic or Jewish can seek out others who are of a like-minded faith community because they use the same term.  When we call an establishment a “gay bar” – those of us who identify as homosexual generally know that we’re going to find other homosexual men and women at the bar.

If there are any upsides to labels – they pretty much end there.  And the upsides are also the main reason behind their downsides.  Putting people into categories robs them of their individual humanity.  Assuming that all people who fit into one category are identical robs them of their individuality, and we all know that, for example, not all Catholics are the same, just like there are a multitude of shades of “blue”.  The obvious downside is when we attach unintended and negative meanings to those labels.

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