They’re everywhere and on everything. They tell us where to go, what to do and what not to touch. Labels are an inescapable part of our lives. When it comes to determining what to do, what we ingest certain chemicals or how many calories to subtract from our daily intake if we were to eat the correct serving size of Girl Scout cookies, labels are an important and needed thing (but who eats the recommended serving size of Girl Scout cookies anyway). However, we’ve adopted this labeling ideology to unnecessary situations and worse, people and used it to disenfranchise, demean, and discriminate against one another. Stereotyping, bullying, gossiping, judging, profiling, it’s all based on labels and the meanings behind them.
In certain cases like police investigations, it’s not so much of a bad thing. But when we use labels as a compass of whether or not someone is worthy of our empathy and connection, the problem has shifted off of the object of our discernment and onto us. Webster’s Dictionary defines label as a piece of paper, cloth, or similar material that is attached to something to identify or describe it, but what identifies or describes someone is not indicative of who they are. A demographic is not a definition.
Consider the issues of racism, homophobia, and transphobia. They all stem from preconceived notions based on a questionable source labeling the thing that is being described or identified as bad, less than and/or unwanted, as if the sum is equal to its parts. History proves that it is not always the case. Consider how many young black men are profiled in spite of the content of their character. Actions may speak louder than words but not always when it comes comparing each other.
The most dangerous labels we use are the ones we accept for ourselves. Society has a way of labeling us as one thing or another. The problem is we allow our identity to become attached to said labels and do our best to adhere and live up to the criteria encapsulated by them. In the process, we negate and compromise the uniquely individualized parts of our being that makes us a unique individual. Trying to silence, stifle and ignore those qualities of our person is the cause of most addictions and cases of depression and suicide. Sometimes it’s insidious and sometimes it’s blatant but trying to live up to labels that don’t represent our authentic selves and the potential for infinite possibilities ultimately leads to a painful death, whether it be physical, mental, or spiritual.
The most important thing to remember about labels is this: they are unable to describe who you are as a person. To say someone is a black, straight Buddhist is not enough to differentiate from another black, straight Buddhist. They say nothing about your character. Another something to remember about labels is it is not personal when someone labels you one thing or another. That is simply their perception of you, good or bad. It only becomes a cause for concern if you concern yourself with it. So worry not about how you are labeled by someone else or even yourself because no one has life figured out to degree and beyond that, we are all learning how to be human.