TED Conversations

Andres Aullet


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What is in a label? Should we change the way we use them?

We humans are experts at classifying things. We can sort and find patterns even when they are subtle, and sometimes we even invent patterns where there are none.

Many experiments have highlighted our strong drive to clearly define the groups we belong (or don't belong) to, and this definition has a very tangible effect on our behavior towards others.

Naturally, when we meet someone, our first hand experience is very limited, and this causes an uncertainty and ambiguity that feels uncomfortable. Labels are shortcuts we use when we don't have enough time to learn more about a particular individual, yet we need to reduce this ambiguity and uncertainty to a tolerable level.

Yet it appears as if once we attach a label to somebody, it is very hard to "un-label" them. So, in a sense, we "paint" them with characteristics that they may or may not have in reality, and this paint is very "sticky".

What is the purpose of these labels? are we using them for that purpose or are we over-using them? And if we are, is there a way to use labels differently to reduces the risk of over-using them?


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    Nov 26 2011: Very good question Andres.
    I think labels are often a euphemism for prejudice, particularly in the two forbidden topics of conversation, religion and politics. Often truth gets shut-out by the untimely, and usually needless, application of labels. I tthink you have touched on one of TED's real attributes; open-minded exchange of opinion, knowledge and experience free of labels and prejudice.
    I love baseball and, believe it or not, I've learned a lot even from N.Y.Yankee fans! Go figure.
    Ben Hecht characterized prejudice as ". . . a raft onto which the shipwrecked mind clambers and paddles to safety."
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      Nov 26 2011: Hello Edward.

      Indeed I see labels many times used as mere reflection of our prejudices. And the characterization of these as the safety rafts where our shipwrecked mind clambers is quite on point.

      Needless to say, labels that are demeaning not only obscure the truth, but destroy any possibility of real communication.

      However, taking the simplistic definition of prejudice as a judgement a priori in the absence of more evidence, I can say that our brain is plagued with a multitude of these biases and shortcuts that must serve a purpose of allowing action when knowledge is limited. Do you see some use for labels as shortcuts? maybe with some caveats?
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        Nov 26 2011: I advocate the use of judiciously applied (the caveat) labels as a shortcut for expressing relevant fact(s). At the same time I condemn the capricious, needless application of labels.
        Take a look, Andres, at a conversation currently underway here on TED Conversations about "abolishing the word 'atheist' ".
        Here is a quote from Fredrich H. Jacobi: : To lay aside all prejudices, is to lay aside all principles. He who is destitute of principles is governed by whims."
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        Nov 26 2011: If I "attach an identifying slip" to your jacket, Libbey, I have an obligation to determine beforehand if that label is useful, true and relevant.
        Sadly, labels are often thrown around like confetti, improving or facilitating nothing, only making a mess.
        Words are powerful! Amen!
        • Nov 26 2011: whoops! OMG! so sorry - i just accidentally submitted and deleted my comment.
          label me: Clumsy.

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