I Am in Favor of Labels

There.  I said it.  I am in favor of labels. 

It’s impossible, as human beings, NOT to stick labels on things.  No, I’m not talking about the cool-looking sticky white strips of glossy paper that are spewed around office environments and receptionists’ desks.  I’m talking about good, old-fashioned, calling a spade a spade, human labels.

Our brains are wired to discriminate.  They are wired to determine patterns and lump similar items, people, inferences together.  Our brains have done this for eons and eons as a survival mechanism.  So, I am in favor of labels because they are necessary.

Also, they are helpful.  Labels provide descriptions.  Labels give me a baseline of information and assist me to syphon off irrelevant information or assumptions quickly. 

We teach children to label from a very early age and we even get excited and proud when they are able to label accurately.  They label by color and size and texture and temperature, etc and we clap our hands and radiate pride.

So, why do we have conflicting feelings about labeling humans?  Why such a backlash about labels like disabled?  Gifted?  Intelligent?  Crabby?  Mean?  Kind?  Black?  White?

I can determine one significant difference between labeling objects and labeling humans.  When labeling humans, we assume and assign value to the labels. 

Pointing out that one birthday card is green and another is blue does not automatically assign value to those cards.  It does not presume superiority.  It is simply accepted as an observation of a difference.  Descriptions of cards.

But when we point out differences and assign labels to humans, we presume a degree of value.  We presume that the label determines and affects the worth of the person.  The descriptive words used to describe the birthday cards did not determine value, but for some reason, we do this with people.

The truth is, labels will always be helpful.  Knowing that someone is of higher or lower intelligence when they walk into my office helps me, as a therapist, to choose my words and interventions appropriately.  Knowing if someone is anxious or depressed or grieving allows me to adapt my interactions accordingly.  Labeling my daughter as a child with sensory processing disorder, allows me to alter her environment to minimize pain and overstimulation.  Labeling my son as gifted allows me to help him build on the strengths, provide challenge, and modulate the difficulties. 

I am good at playing piano.  I am good at writing.  I am a gifted adult.  I am a good mom.  I am a good therapist.  I am a good wife, but I also struggle to prioritize my energy to give my best to my spouse.  I am crap at mechanics.  I am mediocre at technology.  I am crap at sports.  I am awful with time management.  I could go on and on labeling my strengths and my weaknesses.  The thing is, none of these things determines my worth.  None of these things is inherently good or bad.  None of these things makes me better or worse than someone else.  Knowing these things, claiming these labels, merely allows me to fully accept my reality and live accordingly.

Labeling others, merely allows me to accept the full reality of the person in front of me.  Labels do not determine value.  Labels simply provide information.

So, yes, I am in favor of labels.  And I am in favor to spending less time and energy trying to create a label-free world.  Perhaps diverting our energy onto trying to create a more accepting world, a world that can see difference and appreciate difference and understand that difference does not determine worth, would be a far more valuable pursuit.