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June 10, 2012

So many of our social issues come down to the insidious power of labels. The labels that others apply to us, the ones we apply to others, and the ones we apply to ourselves.  It makes me frustrated that we seal away our true potential under the opaque lens of labels and instead cast the shadows that people want to see of us on the public wall.  All the while we hide our authentic selves, the very authenticity that when showcased instead of hidden allows use to interact with  people, not their masks.

The most apparent misuse of labels is how we categorize people by using parameters that don’t exist: notions like racism and nationalism.  A while back in a discussion thread on the RUDU group about racism Asher wrote what I think points directly to the issue of not just racist labeling, but all labels:

“I don’t think the problem with racism is merely that it hurts feelings, rather that racism destroys individuality. By making racist comments about an individual or a set of individuals, you are creating a (usually false) generalization. This ignores both the positive and negative aspects of said person.”

But 95% of us already know the evils of racism.  You didn’t need to read this for that revelation.

However, there is a type of labeling that is even more prevalent than racism and at least in my own social context, more destructive. It’s the social labels that don’t have the same superficial layer of malice of racism.  The labels that everyone may seen as benign or even necessary. But these labels have the same problems. They apply a universal persona, despite true actions.

I feel the best way to showcase what I’m talking about is to examine some of the social norms that a lot of you reading are familiar with, mainly those in RUDU. Granted, I love most things about the team. But a huge tendency of RUDU is to assign a label on someone to define them.  I had one for a short while when I first joined. It was that I was very ‘moderate’.  People quickly stopped calling me that after my first in a series of rants about topics ranging from dogs to the like button on Facebook.  I can see how these labels could possibly be fun. People could apply them to someone they’ve known for a long time and it acts as a funny crutch when conversation slows.  The issue arises though when the debate team more then doubles in size.  You suddenly have new members coming in, people that are brought up to speed on everyone in a crash course manner.  When they hear you reference a label they don’t share the same field of experience you have with the person.  Instead people come to be defined by their label, even if the person who originated the label never intended it to be this way.

Although the people being labeled may laugh politely when it’s referenced or give a nervous grin it’s felt below the lens. Often when I’m talking with people from the club 1 on 1, away from a larger group, I get a feel for what they truly are.  And what they truly are is never what the label is. Instead I’m told of how they feel hurt by the label, how they don’t feel open to people or know how to address the issue. Often times there is anger at the originator of the label.  This is an issue in itself because whoever the originator is they never want to cause ill will.  Yet now there is this misplaced anger at them, and they don’t understand why, causing further relationship breakdown.  In the context of RUDU, in such a large team, people have a hard time breaking past these labels.

Beyond the the personal harms comes what I believe is the biggest issue. They create a fake reality. Someone who has the label of being good with directions will always be asked to hold the map even if they get the group lost more than anyone else.  The irony is not lost on me that although I’m decrying the use of labels in this post I was the one who created a RUDU superlatives game for our end of year banquet.  However, I would not be writing this post if I had not run the game and saw how people voted. Creating that activity gave me wonderful insight of how labels influenced people’s voting decisions vs. my own personal empiric. It showed that this fake reality had more power than actual reality.

It reminded me of how labels invite exploitation and harm. When I was in high school, I wore the label of being competent, timely, efficient, and a good student. Most of these weren’t true. Yet even after I had not been in class for a week straight, teacher’s would give me the benefit of the doubt even though it was so obvious I was skipping class.  They refused to remove their notion of me as a good student.  Despite missing deadlines in my film class my teacher still assumed that I was the most efficient person there because that’s the label I had.  When someone’s constructed reality is disproved by reality they almost always defer to the constructed.

This is bad.  Instead of people willing to confront the truth, I was allowed to hurt myself academically and personally.  Instead of people going past the filter and meeting the authentic I was left, as are so many, to be myself, but alone under an opaque lens.

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