Peel Back the Label


By Zach Schepis

Photo coutrtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

“It ain’t what they call you, it’s what you answer to.”
– W.C. Fields

When you were growing up, your parents were always the first to tell you that you were “smart.” Over the years, you have fulfilled a set of qualifying distinctions that many yearn for. You have become a “doctor” who is “organized,” “diligent,” and “hard-working.” Friends describe you as “carefree,” “honest,” and “noble.” You are a “white” “handsome” “male” who has finally become “successful.”

But when you lay awake at night and sleep won’t come, a smattering of other words pang against your heart through the darkness. You feel “inadequate,” “bookish,” and “insincere.” You feel like a “phony.”

It’s true that the majority of us will never become doctors, but that doesn’t stop the surge of intimacy from flooding our insides with recognition and doubt when we hear these all too-familiar labels.

The very shaping of our being springs from an extensive dichotomy of classifications. The first words uttered about our existence immediately place us along one of two paths, each with inherent worlds of opposing associations, definitions, and assumptions. “It’s a girl,” the doctor says to the mother. To another, “it’s a boy.”

Early adolescence, stretching headlong into the entire education system for that matter, is replete with sets of social labels that don’t change no matter how each passing decade seems to whisper new beginnings.

Nerds, jocks, cheerleaders, goths, stoners, skaters, Christians, over-achievers, band kids, hipsters, hicks, preps, outsiders…

We might call them cliques; awarding a label to a set of labels in an attempt make us feel more assured of their existence. Doing so, we give power to a transient limitation and forever etch it into stone. The stone grows over time, becoming a burden we carry along with us each day; not unlike the boulder Sisyphus was forced to roll up his eternal hill.

These words float through the air, seemingly harmless, but solidify into associations that we allow to define us.

So what exactly is a label? And why the hell have they become so important to us?

I’m not going to argue that they don’t serve a necessary function in our lives, because I’d be lying if I did. It would be almost impossible to catalogue the information we process everyday without the likes of qualifiers such as “harmful” and “friendly.” There would be virtually no way for someone to convey information to another without first attaching a series of definitions and qualifiers. The very nature of language demands it.

So we have created labels to better “understand” the world around us. But, through relying on them as absolute truths we risk rendering our perspectives on “reality” into a black-and-white picture.

Let’s rewind briefly to the 1930s, when the linguist Benjamin Whorf first introduced his linguistic relativity theory. His hypothesis claimed that the labels we use to define what we experience aren’t just inconsequential memory tools, but actually create what we perceive.

Even farther back, in the late 1880s, anthropologist Franz Boas travelled through the arctic tundras of Northern Canada. It was there that he stumbled upon the Inuit peoples. To his astonishment, he discovered that they had over fifty words to describe snow–while we have only a few.

Lera Boroditsky, a cognitive psychologist, followed a similar path and sought to understand how language affects the way we shape our experiences. Her team assembled a group of English and Russian speakers and asked them to distinguish between two subtly different shades of blue. The English language allows for one word to describe the color, while in Russian the spectrum is divided into lighter variations (“goluboy”) and those that are darker (“siniy”).

When the subjects were asked to describe a shade of blue that occupied a middle region of light and dark, the English speakers were unable to distinguish the difference. The Russians, not surprisingly, were quick to point them out.

What’s the big deal? You might ask. It’s just snow, after all.

Similar notions were discovered by researchers John Darley and Paget Gross when they created a study in which participants had to determine whether a young girl, Hannah, appeared poor or wealthy. A group of college students watched footage of the girl playing in her neighborhood while they read a sheet that explained her background.

Some of these students observed her playing in a low-income housing development, and her parents were described as blue-collar workers with high school diplomas. The other group watched footage of Hannah in a nicer, gated community, and read that her parents were middle-class college graduates.

The students were then asked to determine her academic abilities after watching footage in which she answered achievement test-questions. Her answers were designed to be inconsistent, so that an academic ability would be difficult to discern.

The groups, however, used her socioeconomic status to asses her academic abilities. Those that labeled Hannah as “middle-class” proclaimed her abilities to be much higher than those who labeled her as “poor.”

These results should hardly feel shocking to most readers, which is a regrettably sad truth. What many of us forget is that we create the universe blink-by-blink, and not the other way around. A human being is a beautiful portrait of intricate stories that cannot be bastardized by a single all-encompassing excuse of an explanation.

Maybe it’s because we’re lazy. It’s so much easier to write someone off as “privileged,” to explain away someone’s criminality because they’re “black,” to shrug off harmful tendencies because of “depression.” But to be honest, I don’t think it’s laziness at all. I believe it’s fear that keeps these labels in place and continues to feed them with more power.

We’re afraid to see the garbage man picking up our rubbish in the morning and realize that he’s just another person like us trying to get by. We’re afraid to look at the convict on death row and see a brother or sister reaching out in desperation to be loved. We’re afraid to look at the police officer and see another human being afraid of losing control. We’re afraid of seeing the homeless woman beaten down on the sidewalk and realize that she could be our own mother.

We’re afraid to look one another in the eyes, and see our own reflection staring back at us.