One of the more destructive habits that our society excels at is labeling. We routinely attach negative labels to all types of people, actions, or events:
These destructive labels have become so commonplace that most people absorb them without ever giving such words a second thought. Few stop to consider how this labeling might be affecting their everyday lives. This is unfortunate, because there are several ways that labels work against our common human interests:
- Labels aren’t accurate
Labels, by their very nature, attempt to reduce people or things to a single stereotype that is loaded with negative meaning. Thus they preclude an accurate understanding of the world. No matter what the label, it’s the equivalent of saying something like “all men are dirty little pigs.” It reduces a complex world to a simple, inaccurate message.
- Labels exaggerate the negative and harm everyone involved
The very purpose of labels is to apply negatively charged words to something in order to make that person, event, or experience seem worse than it might otherwise be perceived. But as you might imagine, deliberate attempts to make things seem worse than they have to be through emotionally loaded language doesn’t actually help people…it hurts them.
For an example of this, read the following statements, and tell me which one makes you more angry and upset:
- I was hurt by an imperfect person who made a mistake without intending to be cruel or wanting to hurt me.
- I was hurt by an evil, predatory monster who set out to get me because they are a sick person who enjoys tormenting others.
Not a very tough decision, is it? The second statement stokes our anger and makes us feel much worse about whatever happened, because the labels preclude a more accurate understanding of what took place. They shut out empathy, understanding, and compassion. If someone is an “evil monster,” then we are forced to assign to them the most malicious motives and hostile intent. If they are “predatory,” then we must think of what occurred as an intentional and malicious act against our being, while simultaneously painting ourselves into the role of helpless victim.
Such beliefs are not only inaccurate, but destructive to boot. Whenever people are still struggling from isolated, non-life-taking events years into the future, it is typically because of these negative beliefs more than the events themselves.
- Labels alienate
Labels promote an Us versus Other mentality. Therefore they separate and divide us rather than promote understanding or compassion.
- Labels get in the way of more effective solutions
Labels prevent us from seeing the situation for what it really is, which makes finding a productive resolution all but impossible. As psychologist David Burns, M.D., states, “this labeling (prevents people) from defining the real problem, breaking it down into its specific parts, and applying appropriate solutions.” *1
- For as you do to others, so will be done to you
Perhaps most importantly, as people are exposed more and more to these labels in the outside world, they inevitably tend to turn them more and more against themselves. It’s a well-established principle of psychology that the more judgmental a person is towards others, the more self-hatred they tend to build towards themselves. Labels affect us all by creating a more negatively charged and intolerant society, even when we’re not directly involved.
Why this matters, and what you can do about it
This is more than an intellectual argument. The effect of being constantly exposed to all this labeling has a very real, very measurable impact on our lives. On a personal level, we spend more time feeling helpless, angry, confused, and afraid. We become more suspicious of others. When we fall short in any area of our lives, we have a harder time forgiving ourselves. When others fail us, we are hurt more deeply and have a harder time forgiving them and reconciling the situation. We create more internal and external conflict for ourselves.
As a society, it means we actively promote prejudice in our communities, since labels are merely a sophisticated form of prejudice. It means spending a lot of money on antagonistic “solutions” that usually only aggravate our underlying problems. It means fostering a national lack of compassion toward those who seem different or whose actions we don’t immediately understand or sympathize with, which quite literally threatens our very survival as a species. (These problems scale up, and our tendency to label others makes it easier to consider the rational means to annihilate them, such as nuclear warfare.)
The biased, judgmental, and psychologically abusive media environment we’ve created for ourselves isn’t going to change anytime soon. But there are things you can do as an individual to fight the tide and stop these negative persuasions from creeping into your own life:
- Avoid labeling yourself. The more you do it, the worse you’ll feel about both yourself and life in general.
- When you are exposed to it on television, consciously say something to yourself such as: “labels are always misleading” or “people are more complicated than a few labeled traits or experiences.” It may seem silly, but each time you consciously refute a label like this you diminish its impact.
- Whenever your kids are exposed to labels through the media, talk to them about why labels are wrong and how they teach an inaccurate way of viewing things.
*1: David D. Burns, Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy, New York: Signet, 1980, p. 72