Labels, labels everywhere

Literally everywhere. Signs, labels, brands on everything we see. They serve an obvious and valuable purpose in helping us define the boundaries, compartments of our world, and communicate effectively with one another. Like trademarks (specialized labels themselves), labels help us gauge quality, identify source (of origin/manufacture), and reduce complex items or concepts to their essential components. They also help us distinguish between individual examples of any given thing (Coke vs. Pepsi; abrasive vs. astringent; Spring leaf vs. Autumn leaf; chunky vs. smooth peanut butter, etc.).

Not so obvious are the labels attached to people. Some are easy to guess (Black, Caucasian, adult, child, etc.), but ‘self-evident’ categories of people are more misleading and misunderstood than is commonly thought (male, female, straight, queer, professional, amateur, healthy, unhealthy, able, disabled, etc.).

Still, we use labels to describe ourselves and the others around us. The results are largely mixed; a label aptly applied may be refreshing to one, insulting to another. The only sure label (if there is such a thing) is the label one selects for oneself. But even that is ever-changing and often fluid or context-specific. Too often, labels are equated with the entirety of one’s identity. But labels are tools to describe a thing (or person), not the thing or identity itself.

So, if labels are needed, yet dynamic, how can they be relied upon as a tool for self expression? First, no system is perfect and therefore must be regarded with a healthy skepticism and used cautiously. Second, communication is always hard work and never as effective when relying on a short-cut as when employing complete expression. But, even if there is no perfect label, and no proverbial standard lexicon, labels still form a conceptual vocabulary for communicating identity. This essential language is the gateway to achieving understanding among people from every walk of life. By repetition, constant experimentation and communication with the intent to inform, educate, humanity continually adds to this language of identity and discovery.

All over the blogosphere, however, the debate rages over what labels are good, right, acceptable to apply to ourselves and each other, and whether they are needed or wanted in the first place. In the context of identity, self determination and authenticity, labels can be particularly incendiary and divisive.

In any given demographic, there will be those who, feel they typify one or more defining characteristics of their chosen group. When this belief in one’s own status as an archetype is over-emphasized, too often the result is the policing of use of labels associated with that identity by others who similarly identify. Conflict over who is/isn’t entitled to employ a particular label can result in fragmentation of the subculture associated with the label at issue. It’s a fascinating dynamic and I hope to continue my informal study of it throughout my lifetime.

Wow! that’s a lot of words on a topic I’m not really qualified to discuss. But a guest post today on the Butch Wonders blog really got me thinking about all of this. You should check it out.

Here are a few of the labels I apply to myself or are applied to me daily. What are some of your chosen/imposed labels?

Chosen: woman, attorney, sister, aunt, masculine, decisive, independent, smart, plain, strong, large, leader, deliberate, opinionated

Imposed: fat, introvert, nerd, trans*, weird

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2 comments so far

  1. Victoria Oldham on

    Beautifully said. A friend of mine says, “I don’t mind if people label me, as long as they don’t limit me.”

    • Searching4Self2013 on

      Hi, Victoria! Yes, that’s it exactly. Limits being imposed from outside, rather than definition being chosen. For me, that’s where the trouble comes, when those internal/external lines get fuzzy.


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