It was a lazy, sunny day.
American author, Robert Persig, was hiking a dusty footpath in the back country of a Cheyenne reservation in South Dakota, John Wooden Leg, the tribe’s chief, guided the way for Persig and a woman companion; she, too, a visitor.
A ragged dog sauntered past them, and as quickly disappeared. Persig’s companion turned to the Chief, “What kind of dog is that?”
Chief John deliberated. Eventually, he replied, “It’s a good dog.” He turned to continue their walk.
Persig says that his mind fairly exploded. We Westerners, he thought, lay claim to the world by dividing it into categories. This a bird; that is a mammal. This is a dachshund; that is a poodle. He is a Muslim; she is a Jew.
Mastering the World Through Labels
We associate knowledge and sophistication with a command of categories. If you want to understand something more deeply, refine your categories. Add more labels.
The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, famously described this approach in his essay, “Categories”. The Catholic Church and crowns of Europe exploited categories to control everyone and everything. You could be flogged for wearing the colors or fabric of a nobleman. You could be horsewhipped for entering by the wrong door.
But Chief Wooden Leg was not raised in a culture governed by Aristotelian logic. He did not reduce the dog to a species, a size, or a color. He described what he considered to be its most essential quality: its goodness.
Our media and our political conversations are awash in labels. They are emoticons disguised as words.
My generation derides millennials for their use of emoticons and texting abbreviations. We accuse them of dumbing down the language with terms like LOL, POS, and BFF.
But aren’t we worse? We use emoticons, too. We merely disguise them as words. We label someone a Mexican or a Black as though it describes something essential about them.
Such labels are far worse than emoticons. Sending someone a smiley face may not capture my feelings with eloquence and precision. But it does describe my feelings. Labeling someone Latino uses a shorthand that robs them of their humanity. Does knowing that someone is gay tell me anything about their honesty? Their intelligence? Their work ethic? Their love of family? Does it tell me whether they are loving, funny, or loyal?
The Ultimate Selfie
Social labels do not define the person being labeled. They define the person and the society that label them.
When I describe someone as Black, I am either revealing my own racism or acknowledging the racist society I live in — or both. The only reason that it is important to label Martin Luther King black is because of the prejudice and injustice that our culture has heaped onto people of color. The only reason that I need to understand his “blackness” is because our society made it an issue. He didn’t.
Every day, our actions are guided by questions of labeled identity. Are you male or female? Black or white? Christian or Muslim? Liberal or conservative? Are you tall? Beautiful? Old? Gay? How we label one another plays a major role in how we regard and treat one another.
To some extent, labeling is unavoidable. Our brains are wired to categorize. But is it helpful? Is it what we should aspire to?
Our media and our leaders thrive on labels that appeal to our basest fears. “Let’s wall off the Mexicans . . .” “Let’s ban all Muslims …” “Let’s criminalize the gays …”. Tall men are often assumed to be better leaders and more intelligent – especially if they are white. Pretty, dainty-looking women and assumed to have pretty, dainty thoughts.
Are all Muslims bad or angry? Not by a long shot. Are all Christians good family people? Hardly. And yet this is how our sound-byte driven leaders and our media try to manipulate us. And we allow it.
The Book of Genesis captures our love of labels. “And out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the air, and He brought them to the man to see what he would name each one. And whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2:19).
When reading this recently, I noticed something that had hitherto escaped my attention. It says, each one. Not each type. When you love something, you give it a name. When you prepare it for slaughter, harvest, or study, you give it a breed. We assume that Adam named a fox a fox. But who is to say that he didn’t call it, Charlie?
So, what are we to do? We could try to eliminate labels. I have attempted such an experiment.
I considered my son, an impressive young man pursuing his future in journalism, film and Asian studies. What, I wondered, would happen if I removed the words “my” and “son” from this wonderful man whom I had helped to bring into the world?
At first, the mere thought of such an experiment terrified me. Was I exploring something that ought to remain unthinkable? Was I removing an intimacy between us? Was I dishonoring him by even considering such a thought?
It proved quite the opposite. When forced to regard this young man without these labels, my mind opened more fully to all the possibilities within him. What an extraordinary person! What a complicated soul. I realized, too, that there were a million things that I did not know about him, largely because they have nothing to do with him being my son.
“My” and “son”, I suddenly realized, referred to me. They literally define this person in terms of me. I love my son all the more dearly for having considered him without these labels. And I find myself eager to get to know him more fully. I still describe him as my son. But I realize now that I am describing my pride, not his person-hood.
I have repeated this experiment with my other children, with my wife, even my ex-wife. It left me eager to know each of them for who they are.
I conduct this experiment regularly now — with people at work, with my neighbors, with people I meet at parties. I find the same thing: I know almost nothing about other people except for their labels. I know their profession, their education, their nationality. I know their accent, religion, political party, gender, and color. But I know little of their hopes, desires, passions, and fears. I know little of their hidden talents. Most of what I “know” about them is extrapolated from the labels I use. And the meaning I give to each label describes me, not them.
Learning from Labels
I don’t think it possible to do away with labels. Much as I enjoy my little thought experiment, it is too demanding and time-consuming to conduct routinely. Labels are a necessary mental short-hand.
But there is something we can do. We can use our labels to learn about ourselves.
I continue to label people. But, rather than assume that my labels describe the other person, I assume that they describe me. They describe what I love, hate, and fear. They describe what I focus on and what I overlook. They describe how I have been taught to filter the world. The labels I use tell me a lot about myself. They tell me next to nothing about other people.
If am walking through an iffy neighborhood and see a tall, black man in a hoody, I confess: I feel a momentary fright. And that’s OK. It tells me something about me. But it tells me little about that man. For all I know, he is a classical violinist from London who is trying to blend in for his own safety. And even here, why did I just choose “violinist” and “London” to describe someone who is safe? Once again, I am revealing my own prejudices and experiences. A paragraph later, and we still know nothing of this man.
The labels we use define our blindness to the humanity within one another.
Labels Do Matter
Do you want to be a more moral person? Then focus on the labels you use – especially the labels you use to dehumanize or demonize someone.
Chances are, your basic morality is fine. The problem is the way your mind trades on labels. You treat people differently based on the way you label them. If your labels are false, then your application of your morality is corrupt. Your morality is no better than the accuracy of your labels.