Labels: good or bad?

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We are living in 2016 during a huge trend of tolerance. Even though it is a very positive thing, it still might lead to some confusion and negativity. Let’s take labels, for example. I am not talking about merchandise, since those are undoubtedly helpful in distinguishing between this variety of stuff we produce. I mean societal labels, which are way more controversial. They might be vague and lead to misinterpretations or help us put things into place. They contribute greatly to how we view the world around us. So, let’s see how much of evil they really are.

From the well-known Stanford prison experiment and many other examples people have learned that it is not very hard to elicit behavior from someone just by labeling them as part of a certain group. People accept stereotypes attached to that group as a part of their identity and think it is how they are supposed to act. The labeling theory states that this phenomenon is connected to self-fulfilling prophecy. For example, a very active boy, let’s call him Jack, in his first year of school might be labeled as a “bad student” because he is easily distracted and prefers playing outside rather than sitting in a classroom. It is not hard to imagine what happens to Jack when he is constantly told he IS bad: he will most likely internalize this label and will behave according to it thinking it is impossible to change. Therefore, a negative label might stop someone from developing their good qualities and focus them on those they are constantly blamed for. Then do positive labels benefit individuals? It might help you be considered as one of the brightest students as teachers will put more energy in educating you, but it probably will be done in expense of the rest of the class because it inevitably produces comparisons.

So, labeling someone as a “lost cause” from undesirable behavior prevents people from reaching their full potential. Even a worse case is when we label people by something they cannot change (e.g. race, skin color, sexual orientation) and expect them to act in a certain manner based on our own assumptions. Apart from many awful consequences for the person, the label itself acquires a negative connotation. The only thing people should think after hearing my label “Russian” is that I am from the Russian Federation, and not that my usual family dinner includes vodka and singing with bears. Of course, this is a fun example, and silly stereotypes might serve as an ice-breaker in a conversation, but the problem begins when you are not able to see farther than the stereotype. When you cannot believe and accept that a particular person does not fit into your idea of a certain group. It causes cognitive dissonance and it is way easier to say that they will eventually show the expected behavior than open your mind and see the person for what they really are.

Some people take it to the extreme demanding elimination of labels, but I personally have a hard time imagining how it would work out. I think people are not afraid of labels per se, but of stereotypes and expectations associated with them. Because if they do not fit into a certain definition, they are better off without it at all. An example of such situation is when people don’t want to label their relationship. It seems like a good idea because it diminishes discomfort and responsibilities associated with being someone’s boyfriend\girlfriend, but in my experience, if you don’t label it, the people around you will (e.g. “friends with benefits”). Doesn’t matter if you care about others’ opinions or not, the point is – it’s hard to escape labels. Categorization is extremely useful for our brains, we need heuristics to not go crazy every time we meet or talk about someone. Basic information behind any label such as “blonde = a human with light hair color” is nothing bad. However, our natural tendency to group objects by similarity is contaminated by adding unfounded facts to those objects. Therefore, not the labels, but the way we interpret and use them is problematic, and a lot of it has to do with stereotyping, which is another big topic.

The whole debate around labels is a bit ironic in that we are trying to label labels themselves as good or bad. So, I do not believe that we can wipe away our tendency for categorization, but we are more than capable of opening our minds to what lies beyond someone’s label.

Also, I would like to know how do you feel about societal labels. What kind of labels do you think are appropriate to use for yourselves or others?

By Inessa Khemii

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