I just read this excellent post by a fellow 200wad writer, and it got me thinking about all of the implications of applying labels to ourselves and others. If we are to look at ourselves and others as a collection of ideas, emotions, attitudes, and relationships, then labels can be viewed as a way of quickly processing someone's identity at a lower resolution.
Our tendency to apply labels is quite natural, and has its roots in the process of natural selection. Our ancestors, without the shelter of eons worth of technological advancements, existed in a near constant state of peril. They weren't physically gifted like many of the predators that likely hunted them. We believe that what truly set them apart and allowed them to thrive was their brains. They could coordinate themselves better, create tools to make up for their physical shortcomings, etc. But, in a constant state of peril, the ability to make complex decisions is hardly as useful as the ability to make safe decisions quickly. And so, labels began to form. Friend, foe, edible, inedible, and so on.
There are many harmless examples of this today, like the way in which you unconsciously begin sorting peoples' faces into categories as you grow older, and suddenly so many fresh faces remind you of so-and-so from high school or that one newscaster you used to see on TV. All too often, though, we naturally apply broad labels when it is entirely inappropriate.
Labels are a core part of racism, after all. You meet one person of another race, and you may quickly, and erroneously, assume certain attributes of theirs are racially universal. And, if you have little to no experience with persons of another race, the media is more than ready to provide you with plenty of stereotypes to internalize. All the worse if those stereotypes imply that a given race presents a threat to you, as this more fully engages some of those instinctual (and deeply irrational) responses left over from our ancestors.
Labels are also the quickest route to pointless ideological fights. I've lost track of the number of times that I have made a statement in favor of, say, LGBTQ rights, and had someone in earshot immediately call me a "Communist," even though the social issue I was addressing has absolutely nothing to do with government structure. These two disparate issues, however, fall under that person's label for a "liberal" or "leftist." And, since I fit one descriptor, to them, I am entirely aligned with that label. It's absurd! Perhaps this person and I actually hold very similar ideas about economics and government structure, but now, we'll never know. In applying a label to me, he has missed so much nuance in who I am and what I believe. More than likely, I've done the same to him.
The problem isn't only found in the labels that others apply to us, but also in the labels that we apply to ourselves. In such a commercially driven society, we are encouraged every day, in countless ways, to subject our own sense of self with some sort of label. Sometimes those labels are ideological (i.e. Baptist, Muslim, Democrat, Libertarian, Patriot), and sometimes they are about social archetypes that we develop as children, like "nerd," "jock," etc. I've often found that, in accepting and internalizing labels like these for myself, I've created a sort of dissonance in my identity, as these clunky identifiers simply don't fit together into a cohesive whole.
Labels certainly have their use, but, in modern society, the need for snap decisions about ourselves and others is significantly reduced. We've learned that what is natural is not always best, that "going by your gut" without engaging in rational thought can get you into trouble. Instinct doesn't die easily, though. And, in some cases, our instinct for labeling is amplified by our apathy. Taking the time to fully understand a person or situation is work. Often, you won't actually have the time or opportunity to get the full picture, through no fault of your own. That said, there's no harm in admitting to what we don't know. If we are unable or unwilling to take the time to dig past the labels, perhaps we're better off leaving things blank. It certainly wouldn't kill us to do so.