Labels… They Shouldn’t Matter, But They Do
Today, I read about a college baseball player who called a middle school teenage girl a slut on Twitter. She happens to be an outstanding pitcher, who made it to the Little League World Series last summer. There was no provocation on her part, only grace and maturity in dealing with its aftermath. Mo’ne Davis is an exceptional young woman on and off the baseball diamond. She continually impresses me.
But this whole ugly incident got me thinking about our obsession with labels. -M.
We love to label things, don’t we? We categorize and generalize and group and label. It helps us make sense of the world around us. It makes us feel safe.
In fact, we not only label things, we label people, as well. It makes it easier. Us against them.
Labels help us put each other into the “us” or “them” groups, the good or bad groups, the right or wrong groups. We know who to like, who to fear. Labels make things easy for us. We know what to expect because each label comes with a sub-group of adjectives assigned by us or others. One word, one label, can say so much.
So, does it matter that we carelessly litter our communications with labels, seemingly tossing them out a moving car not caring where they land? It seems all the easier to do on Twitter or Facebook, like graffitti on the side of a building. Impersonal. Anonymous. Public.
Why are we so careless with our use of labels?
Is it because we don’t know how powerful words can be? Is it because we do not fully appreciate the meaning of the labels we use? Is it because we willfully wish to hurt and incite? Is it because it is too easy to throw them around and not suffer the consequences of their impact on others?
Some labels are so horrific, most of us prefer to not say them or to refer to them only by their first initial, like “the N word.” We do this because we understand its historical significance and its power to hurt and humiliate. And, yet, some of us use that word willfully and defiantly for our own purposes.
What about other labels? Gay, straight, bi-sexual; Catholic, Jewish, Muslim; single, married, divorced; Democrat, Republican, liberal, conservative, capitalist, communist; lawyer, politician, stock-broker, plumber, janitor; soldier, terrorist, freedom-fighter, rebel, patriot; educated, nerd, dork, ignorant, retarded; white collar, blue collar, unemployed; disabled, mentally-ill, health-nut, anorexic, fat, athletic; top-1%, middle class, working class, homeless; immigrant, illegal alien, citizen; beautiful, ugly; slut, frigid, virgin; lazy, hard-working, assertive, demanding; old, young, baby-boomer; hipster, hippie, yuppie; and on and on.
What popped into your head as you read each label? Did you think of a specific person or a generalized notion of the type of people to whom those labels refer? Did you identify yourself in any of them?
Labels bring with them assumptions about people – generalizations that are often inaccurate or incomplete in describing a person, but they can guide our behavior toward them.
Over the years, I have had friends who were afraid to tell me that they were lesbian or gay because I was Catholic. They had made assumptions about how I would react, if I knew. Of course, they didn’t know that all through Catholic school I engaged in endless debates with the priests and sisters about my inability to accept that God would be so judgmental about his own creations, be they straight or gay. How could God be a kind, loving, and forgiving God and send any of his children to eternal damnation? It made no sense to me then, and it doesn’t now.
Many people have pre-conceived notions about “Catholics,” but in truth, some of us who are born Catholic and unable to reconcile the Church’s teachings with our own values, consider ourselves “culturally” Catholic, not so much practicing Catholics. Many of us are pro-choice, use birth control, have pre-marital sex, do not believe the Pope is infallible, and are not Republicans. (Shocking. I know. But perhaps every flock has its black sheep.)
Generalizations are not all bad, of course. They are a tool for survival. As cavemen, no doubt, it helped us to form generalizations about the wolf or saber-toothed tiger who ate our neighbor. “Hmm…best to stay away from those animals.” However, eventually someone must have befriended a timid wolf or saber-toothed tiger and we ended up with cats and dogs in our homes. It appears we figured out that generalizations are not a one-size-fits-all tool.
The problem is that our instincts to generalize, in order to make sense of the world and protect ourselves, can get in the way of relating to, getting to know, and understanding other people.
Would the impasse in Congress, in Ferguson, in the Middle East, and around the world be remedied by less labeling, fewer generalizations, less demonization, and more understanding? Would the bullying on social media stop?
I don’t know, but it sounds like a good place to start.
Martie Hevia (c) All Rights Reserved