Do Labels Inform or Conceal?

 

labelsOne definition of a “label” according to the Oxford Dictionary is “a classifying phrase or name applied to a person or thing, especially one that is inaccurate or restrictive.”

I was reminded of this definition as I read David Brook’s editorial today on “partyism,” a word coined by Cass Sunstein at Harvard to describe discrimination based on political affiliation.  Brooks’s comments were prompted by surveys that indicate that discrimination based on political affiliation is now greater than discrimination based on race.  He noted, for example, a comparison of polling data from 1960 with 2010. In 1960, the percentage of people who indicated they would “be ‘displeased’ if their child married someone from the other party” was about 5 percent for both Republicans and Democrats. By 2010, it has risen to 49 percent for Republicans and 33 percent for Democrats.

Much of Brooks’s article focused on the destructive impact of what he called hyper-moralization (the automatic association of moral and ethical values with party labels) on the political process.  His conclusion, on a higher philosophical plane, is worth repeating:

“This mentality [of hyper-moralization] also ruins human interaction. There is a tremendous variety of human beings within each political party. To judge human beings on political labels is to deny and ignore what is most important about them. It is to profoundly devalue them. That is the core sin of prejudice, whether it is racism or partyism.”

Or, I might add, sexism.

The subject of labels and the damage they do has been a recurrent theme in discussions with book clubs and women’s groups about sexual fluidity as it relates to the same-sex relationship that occurs in my novel, A Fitting Place. I’ve been surprised at the number of women—a relatively small percentage of my audiences, but more than I expected—who flatly reject the notion of sexual fluidity, and insist that any woman who has had a same-sex relationship at some point in her life must be lesbian (or at least bi-sexual) because “a straight woman would never do that.”

When pressed for why they insist on these labels, the typical response boils down to: “Well, I’m straight, and I’d never do it. I just don’t get why any one else would—unless they were gay.”  A few will add that they simply aren’t interested in learning any more about the subject of sexual fluidity or same-sex relationships.

I never cease to be amazed when people assume they can speak for the world at large, based on their own individual experience. But the more disturbing aspect of these responses is that words that seemed descriptive in my college days—words that opened up a discussion about a different approach to sexuality—have become labels that all but eliminate the possibility of talking about diversity of human experience.

In Brooks’s words, these labels—lesbian, bi-sexual and even straight—have the effect of devaluing what is important about one of the most significant lifestyle decision that most of us have to make.

Notwithstanding my comments above, I have to keep reminding myself of the difference between a description that starts a conversation and a label that closes conversation off.

How often do you use “labels” in a way that shuts down the possibility of a conversation?

Comments

  1. I try not to use labels, but I catch myself using them anyway. That my daughter is a “Lesbian,” can shut down a conversation in a heartbeat and says nothing about her brilliant work as a life coach to both straight and lesbian women, as well as being a loving mother to her two kids. Labels are simply words that mean nothing concrete. Awareness of how we use them is something to keep an eye on.

    • Mary Gottschalk says

      Joan … you have obviously lived up close and personal with the problem of labels … when other people assume that they know everything there is to know about you (or your daughter) from one single aspect of her world. It’s heartbreaking sometimes!