We use labels to identify and organize our daily lives, something increasingly important in this ever-shifting and information gorged world. We need to use extreme caution, however, when applying labels to people. The impulse is rooted in the ‘friend or foe’ survival reflex hardwired into the reptilian brain but human beings are complex creatures comprised of countless moving parts. No solitary cog in the machine can ever truly define or sum up the entirety of a person and yet all too often we as a society fall into the habit doing exactly that. A label should never be a brand.
Bob is an ER nurse, a single father to an adopted son, asexual, an antique model car collector, a Pisces, and a diabetic. Each individual aspect has an importance of its own as well as being a part of the greater whole, the person Bob is. Some play a greater role, some much lesser, and they all have different contexts in which they are more or less relevant at any given time.
Letting any single contributing aspect become an over-arching qualifier, however, not only narrows the scope of identity we can have access to but it also forces that aspect to demand relevance in situations and spaces where it usually wouldn’t or shouldn’t at all. Bob’s asexuality would undoubtedly have a profound impact on his sense of identity but has nothing to do with how he conducts himself in an emergency room situation.
Labels can serve an important purpose in the search for, and exploration of, identity but we have to be vigilant against treating any singular label as a complete answer or definition whether we are applying them to ourselves, other people, or having them applied to us by others.
Minority groups have a particularly fraught and complicated relationship with labeling. Being labeled as a part of the smaller group brings with it the segregation, feelings of isolation, and all too often feelings of oppression. Many who find themselves in that situation will then embrace the label, in part to claim it away from those who had assigned it in the first place but also for solidarity and safety.
The need to belong is deeply rooted in us as a species. A small group is better than complete isolation and even small numbers offer a measure of protection. In these extreme instances societal stigma and bigotry can make that one label immensely powerful and embracing it can truly be a matter of survival but even the presence of other dangers does not erase the inherent risks of allowing one aspect of ourselves to become a superseding definition of us as a whole.
1 — Forced Relevance
When we elevate a single aspect to the level of defining identity we force that aspect to be permanently and universally relevant at all times and in all contexts, even when it in truth has no place whatsoever. We end up forcing all our interactions with anyone we encounter into a singular context and we can never be anything but that aspect, at all times and in all circumstances. Race, faith, sexuality, and political affiliation are the broad ranging types of aspects which can encompass several layers of our identity but even they are not always relevant all the time.
2 — Distorted Vision
Not only can this forced relevance distort our interactions with others, and theirs with us, but it can also severely distort our perceptions of the world. We can wind up placing that one aspect ahead of us as a lens through which all information and experience must pass either blocking out anything which isn’t directly related or warping everything to seem related whether it actually is or not. Not only does every conversation and interaction wind up being about this one singular thing but every thought in our own minds ends up revolving around a single subject stranding us in a state where there is nothing more to life, nothing more to the world, nothing more to us.
3 — Subservient Existence
When that happens we become a ‘cause’ not a person. Granted there are many causes which are worth devoting ourselves to, worth fighting for, but there must always be a ‘self’ to devote. Even setting aside the distortions and limitations of that kind of state if our entire sense of self and identity has been supplanted by a single label, self-assigned or not, what happens if that label is ever removed or changed? To return to Bob, if he allowed being a single-father to become just such a superseding definition of himself what happens when his son grows up and moves out to start his own life?
There are certainly aspects of us which are more potent and broad ranging in their influence but as all-consuming as those things can feel there is always more to us and to our lives than one solitary concept. In the case of oppressed minorities embracing the label is often done for survival but if we are not careful, if we allow that single aspect to supplant our sense of fulsome identity, then we cease to exist as a person and the attempt to combat oppression winds up doing the oppression’s work for it.
4 — Forced Permanence
If we fall into the trap of branding ourselves with a single defining label we not only distort all of our interactions with the world but we also empower that label with a false, and desperate, sense of permanence. We are only ever that one singular thing and we will always have to be that singular thing, forever. There is no room for change, growth, expansion, or the development of anything new.
Human beings are a lot of things but static and unchanging is not among them. Life is an ever shifting process and as our experiences grow and change so do we, so must we. If we allow one definition to consume us then we become stuck in one place, one time, and one way of thinking. We end up defining ourselves by the struggles and hardships of the label as it was when it was first applied.
If things change there is no place for us even within what we thought to be our cause, which is partly why those who lead the initial riots are rarely the people who sit at the pursuant negotiation tables. The only constant in life is change. If we allow one label to define us we risk losing the ability to change and find ourselves perpetually and needlessly at odds and conflict with the world around us.
Labels are not intrinsically evil. When used as the organizational tools they are meant to be they can be invaluable. But if we give them permanence and falsely inflate them to the level of superseding definitions we end up distorting our view of ourselves, of the world, of our interactions, of our very sense of self. Category is not definition, identification is not identity.