How A Label Made Me Happy

by Evan on 2014/10/31


Labels Save Us Time and Effort

For instance:

  • In conversation I can refer to my friend “Christine” rather than; that person of a particular height, with a certain hair colour and style of dress.
  • I can talk about a political philosophy (say “Anarchism”) without listing its features and distinguishing it from other political philosophies.
  • I can refer to a species (say “cat”) without describing it in a way to distinguish it from other species.
  • Labels Are Part of Communicating


Generally our labels work pretty well. When we say things like:

  • I’m going to get a haircut
  • Did you see that car?
  • How was the meeting?

people know what we are talking about.

And labels can even part of ‘talking to ourselves’ rather than communicating with others. We like to make sense of our experience and know, “What was that about?”. And this usually means that we have a label that ‘tags’ our experience so it fits our understanding (or challenges it).


Labels and Prejudice

Labels can be particular (my friend Christine) or very general, “men” or “women” or even “homo sapiens sapiens”. The problem of prejudice is to do with these general labels.

General labels can be helpful – it may be useful to know if someone is male or female, tall or short, and so on.

The problem is that sometimes we mistake our labels for what they are labelling. So we think we have understood someone when we have labelled them “male” or “female”; “gay” or “straight”; “lawyer” or “social change activist”.

The problem with a label is an implied ‘just’ or ‘only’. So that a particular person is only (or just) a:

  • female
  • male
  • straight
  • gay
  • lawyer
  • activist

Several of these labels (and lots of others) can apply to the same individual.

This kind of labelling (the one where ‘only’ or ‘just’ is implied) is the first step of prejudice and injustice. When you start listening for it, it isn’t long before you get good at spotting it (it is very common).


How A Label Made Me Happy

[I've been presuming that the labels are words, this needn't be the case – they could be movement, diagrams, sounds or whatever.]

A label made me happy because it gave me a way to meaningfully label my own experience and communicate it to others.

We are meaning making critters. To see how true this is try this: recount an important experience you have had. But without any interpretation at all. I think you will find this incredibly difficult if not impossible.

We are social-individual. It feels good when someone understands what you are saying.

I’m an introvert with unusual interests. From childhood on I didn’t have a brief answer to: What do you do? From: What do you want to be when you grow up? To the adult versions of this when introduced to people. So I used to resorted to more or less lengthy  descriptions.

And I didn’t really have a label that worked for me internally either.

A little while ago I realised I was happy to wear the label “blogger” and more specifically “self development blogger”. This was quite a relief for me. It encompassed my own interests (self-development) and social activity (blogging). And because blogging is a new thing, the role isn’t too set yet – there is a good deal of room in how it is understood. This was quite a liberation – a dilemma that had been with me since childhood was resolved.

Labels are powerful. They can bring us happiness to ourselves and others or misery.

Are there labels you are happy with? Are there labels you find unhelpful or downright wrong? Let me know in the comments.


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