Our fascination with labels is making things a little complicated
We live in an era—in a generation—that fights for inclusivity and just wants everyone to be accepted as they are. Identify as queer? Lovely. Are you mixed race? Great! Have a May-December romance going on? As long as you’re happy, we’re happy. Nerdy? We love nerds! Basically, everyone is good as long as no one steps on each other’s toes.
And while this is great, I can’t help but think of the irony that comes with this when we’re all pretty obsessed with labeling each other anyway. Wouldn’t it be better to just accept everyone as they are without needing to know ~what~ they are?
In a study entitled A Handbook for the Study of Mental Health: Social Contexts, Theories, and Systems, authors Bruce Link and Jo Phelan dissect how labels are put on people. Their theory is three fold and defines the act of labeling as influenced by 1) social characteristics of those labeling, 2) the person being labeled and 3) the social situation.
It’s a cycle that works this way: Let’s say that I pick up a book to leisurely read once in a while and am then labeled a bookworm. Because I hear it enough, I eventually start to define myself as such and take on activities that would be labeled as something a bookworm would do. I will choose a bookstore over an apparel store, I will read on the beach instead of kick a ball around, I will consciously have an unread pile of books beside my bed—you get the idea.
This thinking is called Labeling Theory, wherein one’s self-identity and behavior is determined or influenced by the terms used to describe them. But again, why?
It’s human nature to compartmentalize; it makes it easier for us when we can associate a person with one thing (or, hopefully, more). In labeling, we find a sense of control and understanding, which we might not be able to grasp otherwise. It limits us and those around us, but it makes things simpler.
“Oh, let me introduce you to my friend! She’s super chill.”
“You know why their relationship is so impressive to me? She’s Chinese and he’s American.”
“OMG THE KARENS OF THE WORLD.”
Now that we know why people label us, it’s time to ask why we label ourselves. Why do people insist on such specific representation? I’m not just a 28-year-old female; I’m a 28-year-old straight female in the business of digital publishing, the youngest of four children to two parents whose marriage is still going strong, living in a third-world country with arguably liberal political inclinations. I was raised with an all-girl Catholic education, went on to get a degree in a private university.
Why do we do this? Why are we so hell-bent on boxing ourselves, no matter how right these boxes are? Why are we so insulted when someone assumes we went to the “opposing” school?
It’s because it’s a way of saying who we are, of validating ourselves and making ourselves feel there’s space for us. It’s how we demand space. Because unless it’s stated—correctly—are we seen or heard or understood?
There is no problem with labeling people and everyone has the right to be properly addressed. It’s only right that we are irked by wrong pronouns, wrong descriptions, wrong assumptions—but it’s not right to limit someone based on their labels. It’s not right that we let labels limit ourselves. No matter how strong the word is, we can be more than their definition.
And while (or if) I have your attention, let me also say: Don’t let someone’s label be the filter you see them with. If you are more than the stereotypes of your race, your gender, your generation and your upbringing—as you should be—then so can other people.
Art Matthew Ian Fetalver