Labels are insidious. I imagine them slipping around like lampreys and aphids, notching their toothless jaws to us. They slip into conversation, into thought, and spatter the world like sticky notes, categorizing, separating, allocating, and organizing. We can pry them loose, but they always seem to slip back and latch on again. They’re often at the foundation of how we operate, whether we’re aware of them or not.
One of my favorite–albeit “sketchy”–pastimes is to sit in a crowded place, especially on a college campus, and look at how people naturally sort themselves, fitting into tidy categories
The “jocks,” with short, blond hair, fit physiques, and exercise clothes sit together. So does the alternative crowd, people like “hipsters,” with quirky sweaters, weathered jeans, and sunglasses, or the lingering pockets of “goth” and “emo”culture.
The pre-med students group together, and the theater folk unite. The church-going flock together, filling the same long tables at meals with persistent regularity.
People separate and and sort by age, majors, music tastes, geographic locations– anything to segment and define–and looking at them, I, too, block people together under labels.
I often wonder where the label ends and the person begins.
A few perspectives come to mind.
Humans tend to separate and categorize in their nature. For example, an interesting study came out recently about newborns and facial recognition. Researches found that newborns before three months largely had the same response to faces of their parents’ race as they did to a foreign race. To them, a face was a face. But after three months, the newborn preferred the face of his or her parents’ race significantly more. Somehow, the researches concluded, the infant learned to distinguish foreign faces and separate them native ones.
Whatever it’s causes or effects, our proclivity to separate and categorize is pretty hard-wired. And as the case of racism shows, results can be serious.
Also, social labeling theory says social labels influences how the people views their own selves. Primarily focused on socially-charged labels, like criminals, the mentally ill, and minorities, the theory can also apply to the seemingly innocent labels of the college campus.
So, is a “hipster” born or crafted by social construction? Personally, I think both.
The German philosopher Martin Heidegger says that we find ourselves in an already interpreted world–or in his jargon, “Initially, ‘I’ ‘am’ not in the sense of my own self, but I am the others in the mode of the they.”
For Heidegger, we start out seeing the world and our own self how “they” see it, “they” being the dominant social paradigm at the time. Even in common expression, we say “you know what they say.”
I like to call it the “monoculture effect” after a recent book about it. Essentially, we find ourselves “thrown” into this world, getting bombarded on a daily basis to see things a certain way, as if that’s the only way to see things. Certain unsaid assumptions lace themselves into our worldview and solidify, like money and success equal happiness. Truisms.
Trouble is, things are much more complicated that most of these assumptions allow.
Labels are the perfect example. I think we’re born and influenced to like certain things and behave certain ways. It’s an ongoing debate that exceeds the space here to address, but still, I think certain images, activities, or labels appeal to us. We want to express them. It’s what Heidegger and the existentialists call “authenticity”: a longing to express our “authentic self.”
We may want to be a writer or an athlete, but we want to be someone.
Then, we enter the world, and those labels come with a line of baggage and interpretation dominated by the “they” of society. So we gradually blend into the norm trying to express the labels we identify with. Hoping to “be ourselves” we become a collection of labels society has already defined.
Also, viewing the world, we forget that each person has an individual perspective and expression on whatever label they pick up. Our desire to find acceptance influences us to seek out people who wear similar labels, and social pockets emerge.
We get lost in the names and separate.
However, I like theater people because I like theater. Why would I want to group with people who don’t like anything I do?
The real problem isn’t the natural sifting that similar interests and passion creates, but the judgement present in that separation.
Separate pockets of theater folks and jocks can coexist and be happy, even interact, but problems arise the moment someone says things like “theater people are weird and jocks are dumb.” Exclusion and prejudice suddenly turn labels into weapons and shrinking the world into black-and-white distinctions.
Mired in judgement, labels calcify and we lose the diversity individuals add to the labels–their own take on what it means to be an athlete or a theater person. We think all jocks are dumb or all theater people all weird, even if a good number are not. Blunt stereotypes tint our perception, and we judge people before we even meet them, sometimes negatively.
Therefore, labels aren’t bad in themselves. It’s all about how we use them or let them use us. We should celebrate our diversity and realize the inherent humanity in being part of the same species. Or as “the Brain” puts it in The Breakfast Club:
You see us as you want to see us. In the simplest terms. The most convenient definitions. But what we found out is that each of us is a brain, and an athlete, and a basket case, a princess, and a criminal.