One of the most common terms used by young people to describe others is "loser." That’s not a description, it’s a label. Some examples of the countless other labels we freely use to ‘describe’ others include fundamentalist, delusional, perfectionist, idealist, realist, extremist, terrorist, Catholic, Jew, Muslim, pessimist, pacifist, narcissistic, optimist, racist, liberal, homophobe, jerk, stupid, pro-life, pro-choice, two-bit punk, and loud-mouth.
The problem with labels is they are merely shells that contain assumptions. When we are taken in by a label, we are taken in by opinions and beliefs. That is, we willingly accept statements without evidence of their validity. The assumptions become stereotypes, which soon become put-downs. Before you know it, we are engaged in name-calling or verbal abuse.
People are complex, multifaceted, and multidimensional. When we apply labels to them, we put on blinders and see only a narrow view of an expansive and complicated human being. Did you ever buy a plastic container or bottle of food at the super market with a huge label on the lid and sides that prevented you from seeing the contents? That’s what the labels we use to ‘describe’ people do, they obscure the contents of the individual.
When speaking about others, there’s nothing wrong with using descriptions. Novelists do it all the time. But there is a big difference between descriptions and labels. For example, think about the difference between saying "Tom is tall." and "Tom is a liberal." ‘Tall’ is a description because it is based on a fact; it’s just another way of saying "Tom is six feet, four inches." When we call Tom a ‘liberal,’ however, we empty the word of meaning. Here’s what I mean. What are you, a liberal, conservative, or other? The answer is on some issues you are liberal and on other issues you are conservative or other. Right? So, how can I describe you by a single term? If I were to do so, I would reduce you to a one-dimensional artifact of the profound person you really are. Wouldn’t that be grossly unfair? Isn’t that good enough reason to avoid the consumption of assumption?
The use of labels is more than unfair. It is hurtful as well. Despite the nursery rhyme about sticks and stones, words can be painful. Take 16 year old Holly, for example. Here’s what she has to say, "I’m kind of shy, so people often label me as stuck up or snobby. It bothers me to see people defame those who can’t help whatever is being said about them. Hopefully, if people see it put into words, they’ll realize how stupid it is to stereotype people they’ve never even met."
Once we understand the power of words, we will want to do more than avoid using them to diminish others. We will want to use them to encourage and inspire them. Yet, if we don’t remain vigilant, we can inadvertently slip into using labels. Here’s an example taken from my own writing. In my previous column, I wrote, "Those who make the effort to follow their dream, whatever it is, never regret it. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the slackers, do-nothings, and loafers, for they will live with regret, disappointment, and sorrow."
I wanted to forcefully express how regrettable it is that some people are not willing to make the effort to improve their lives. But I didn’t have to resort to name-calling to do so. Instead of writing about ‘slackers, do-nothings, and loafers,’ I could have (and should have) written the sentence as, "Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of those who don’t, for they will live with regret, disappointment, and sorrow." After all, suppose a reader is stuck in a rut and can’t get out. How would he or she feel about being called a ‘slacker, do-nothing, or loafer’? Wouldn’t they rather be encouraged than put down? So, if I offended a reader, I apologize. Admittedly, sometimes a little ‘tough love’ may be called for. But the problem is it is far easier to be tough than to be loving.
Why do we resort to or accept the labelling of others? Here are some reasons. a) It is easier and requires less effort to assume something is true than to look up the facts. b) If we’re uncertain of the facts, we’d rather go along with others than admit our ignorance. c) It may be a hollow attempt to raise our stature by trivializing, ridiculing, and demonizing others. d) It may be due to carelessness and bad habits. e) We may fear and be suspicious of others. f) We may lack critical thinking skills. g) We may have been brought up with prejudice. h) We may use labels to control others. i) Whether we agree with them or not, we may accept labels to remain part of the ‘in’ crowd. j) We may not be assertive enough to come to the defence of others.
Once we understand why we do so, we can work on eliminating the habit of labelling others. We can overcome it by cultivating unconditional acceptance, compassion, and understanding. We can learn to observe and experience the world without judgement. We can remain detached from expectations and demands. We can learn to accept what is and people as they are. We can grow in humility.
Labels are judgmental. However, like it or not, sometimes we will be called upon to judge others. Perhaps it is in the role of a parent evaluating their daughter’s suitor, a supervisor evaluating an employee, or enemies preparing to negotiate. What then? How can we judge others fairly? If you are to judge and wish to learn the heartfelt feelings of another, don’t listen to what others say about him or her; rather, listen to what he or she says about others. For as Author Jane Porter wrote, "I never yet heard man or woman much abused that I was not inclined to think the better of them, and to transfer the suspicion or dislike to the one who found pleasure in pointing out the defects of another." Also, never judge the actions of others until you know their motives. In other words, judge them with your heart and mind, not your eyes and ears.
While the emphasis has been on avoiding judging others unfairly, we cannot stress enough the importance of applying the same degree of fairness to ourselves. I know someone a little older than I who believed he was inferior because his education did not go beyond the sixth grade. "I have nothing of value to say because I’m uneducated." he used to say. He labelled himself as ‘uneducated.’ However, I explained how it was impossible for that to be so because life itself is an education. Fortunately, he no longer hesitates to venture his opinion and we all benefit, for he is wiser than many college grads. Our self-applied labels can bind us or free us. Compare "I am powerless" with "I am enthusiastic and confident." If you must label yourself, stick to positive ones, but not to the point of becoming arrogant or acting superior.
Finally, if you don’t mind changing gears and returning to the subject of assumptions, not all assumptions are harmful, just negative ones. For instance, I have discovered that if we assume everyone is good, regardless of his or her behaviour, we will find that our assumption was correct. After all, goodness is our nature; we are all inclined to be good, and given the chance, we will prove to be so. Strictly speaking, this is not an assumption since it is based on and verified by long experience. On the other hand, if I start out assuming Lawrence is not to be trusted and has malicious intentions, won’t I treat him with contempt? And how will Lawrence respond to my contemptuous behaviour? Won’t he react with hostility? So, MY ASSUMPTIONS CREATE THE REALITY THAT I ASSUME TO BE TRUE. That may be something worth thinking about.
© Chuck Gallozzi
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