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Labels are Important

You grab the can of beans from the shelf ready to make a spicy bean burrito. You have the tortilla on the burner getting warm, the salsa and cheese standing by. The can spins round and round as the tiny little blade severs the lid so you can get to the contents. CORN! you find corn in the can, but the label indicated “beans”! Frustrated you try again, still corn. Did the whole world go mad?

Words mean things. When you ask for an apple, you have an expectation of what you will get. If you are handed a long yellow fruit instead then you may be confused when what you expect is a red round fruit. Every word that you utter is a label. It stands as a symbol for a concept, an idea, or object in time and space.

Why labels matter

Labels, are important, and not just for beans.

One indication of just how important labels are is to see how frequently they are used in politics. So much so that there’s an entire branch of politics dedicated to the subject that we commonly call “identity politics”. The goal there is to have discrete categories of people and then pit them against one another.

More recently labels have cropped up to define unique states of being related to gender. In this case it is not one group assigning the label to another and using it to divide but rather it is self-labeling. Those who have claimed the label then seek to pick a fight with anyone who refuses to use it.

Perhaps because labels can so readily be used in the fashion many people have developed an aversion to them. It is common to hear people who are the target of labeling push back against it. They don’t want to be labeled and consider themselves far more complex than the label assigned to them. To label someone, “black” for example isn’t really meant to simply describe their skin color or race but instead is meant to indicate how that person thinks and feels. As such, of course, it’s a terrible modifier.

Even though it happened before most of us were born there still exists in our collective memories the McCarthy hearings during which Senator Joe McCarthy labeled people as “communists” and proceeded to try to root out the red-devil amongst us. Today, we have so overused the label “Nazi” that few remember that it too is a label for a type of socialism.

Add to this a concept that men like Dr. Benjamin Whorf researched in the early 1930’s that for some people their labeling determined their perception. This is known as “linguistic relativity”. This theory party explains how differences in language can produce differences in thought and thus cognition. For example in English we have many words to narrowly define what we are speaking of. However, in some languages, Spanish for example, there are fewer words which means some words must double up.  Perhaps we’ve seen a character on a TV show, playing someone from another country or planet even say something like, “there isn’t a word for it in your language but the closet meaning is…” An example of this that has become more well-known is the German word “Schadenfreude”.  Literally translated it would be “harm-joy” and what it means is a sort of taking pleasure in the misfortunes of others. We can work out what it means in English, but it has no exact counterpart. While English speakers can adopt the word, as often happens in English, how they process that meaning will be different from someone who grew up knowing not just the definition but also the cultural connotation of the word.

All this to say that labels, are very complex, and sometimes dangerous.


When you hear someone say not to get hung up on labels that just means doing so is inconvenient for them in some way or there are a certain set of labels they would rather you not use.

We all get hung up on labels.

Because labels serve to be both inclusive and exclusive they make some people feel uncomfortable. This is especially true of people with a certain temperament or ideology.

Those who don’t like conflict, often don’t like labels. If you are wrong about the label you give them they might get upset. If you tell them they are wrong about the label they give you, or themselves, they also are likely to get upset. Avoid labels and you avoid the conflict.

Also, those who don’t like being pinned in, don’t like labels. Some people would rather remain untitled. The reasons for this are many and varied. It could be as simple as wanting to keep their options open or as complicated as trying to avoid letting people know just what it is they really believe.

Others consider a particular label a vital part of their identity. Most certainly if this were not true we would have no need to discuss gender terms at all. Since these terms mean something vital to both the people using them and the people refusing to use them they are argued over. In the case of those seeking unique genders the standard terms are not convenient. They force them to confront a reality they don’t want to face.

Some people want to belong to a group but their behavior doesn’t match.

Take the label “liberal” for example. It’s a word that is based on liberty. If a person is liberal it is supposed to mean they are strongly for freedom. Democrats wanted to be known as liberals. Their behavior didn’t match. Rather than promoting freedom they promoted expansive government. The more they did that the more the term liberal shifted to mean someone who was for social programs and government control. As the term liberal became a pejorative Democrats decided to shed that label and started calling themselves progressives. They wanted to signal to everyone that they stand for progress, moving forward.

Others want people to know that, while they share similarities they are not exactly the same.

For example, there is a difference between an anarchist and an anarcho-capitalist. The difference is highly meaningful.


Humans must and always will use labels.

A person who thinks about the world around them will utilize labels. It’s how humans make sense of the extremely complex sets of information we have to process on a daily basis. We build a play, a drama, a comedy, a tragedy, around complex ideas and we give that play a title. Once that title is firmly affixed to the schema of that play in our minds all that I need to say is, “Phantom of the Opera” and the entire play unfolds in the mind in that instant.

Labels make conversation possible. Imagine the discussion we have here and on Facebook concerning politics without using words like: leftist, right-wing, Democrat, Republican, socialist, communist, pro-life, pro-choice, libertarian, classical liberal.

Without those labels I would have to say, “he’s an individual who supports social equality and egalitarianism, and is against the social hierarchy and social inequality and who is concerned for those he perceives as disadvantaged and he feels that the disadvantages must be equalized using the power of government control.” That wold be a mouthful when “leftist” will do.

Have you ever heard someone say something along these lines? “Don’t get hung up on labels. Date people who you find attractive and like.” Sounds reasonable. More recently this clause gets added to it. “It shouldn’t matter if they have boy parts or girl parts.” That seems a bit less reasonable doesn’t it? Suddenly the label matters more. What if we add? “It shouldn’t matter how old they are.” Suddenly the label “adult” matters a great deal.

What’s in a name?

Ah, young love. Shakespeare’s play is often held up as a romantic ideal. Labels keep them apart so they decide that labels don’t matter. They are wrong. The only solution is suicide. Labels mattered to them after all.

’Tis but thy name that is my enemy; Thou art thyself though, not a Montague. What’s Montague? it is nor hand, nor foot, Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part Belonging to a man. O! be some other name: What’s in a name? that which we call a rose By any other name would smell as sweet; So Romeo would, were he not Romeo call’d, Retain that dear perfection which he owes Without that title. – Romeo and Juliet

Of course this is a play and not real life. In real life we can overcome labels. We just can’t avoid labels. We should be especially conscious of those labels people give themselves. They have deeper meaning than it may seem on the surface and perhaps even deeper meaning than the individual understands. Since it’s so prevalent in our national consciousness right now, take gender terms again as our example. Even if you are a person that refuses to use them they still tell you a whole lot about the person. Even if someone chooses a gender that is neutral like, “Neutrois” it tells others something about them. Because labels are so important that they can stir a national, actually, international debate it should be no wonder that people get upset when being mislabeled or when someone tries to use a label that they may not deserve.

Labels aren’t meaningless nor are they trivial, just ask Romeo and Juliet or, better yet, just imagine if John McCain started calling himself a libertarian.

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