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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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    Dec 8 2011: A label is a name for a definition that already exists. It is the reverse of words that exist and need to be defined in a context. When people use labels they tend to believe they already have the context and now they are giving it a title or a headline. The problem is that quite often the people we label are actually more complex than the context itself. I like to naively assume that people label for simplicity and speed not because they think the sum total of a human being rests in one or two very limited descriptions of them.

    However I have often encountered people who seem to think it actually feasible for people to be the sum total of the label we place upon them. Part of me thinks that the problem with labels lies with the priority of simplicity and speed over truly understanding someone. However this would overlook the perception question. Ultimately everyone is blinkered by their own subjectivity. To argue that there is an objective version of ourselves that others could see if they really tried is erroneous. Thus even if labels did not exist, misrepresentations always would. Perhaps they would be more nuanced or more varied but they would still be in existence.

    As a black female who has been a victim of many a misplaced label I am tempted to hate labels on principle. Some earlier has actually used the phrase 'i hate labels.' But by hating labels as a whole are we not 'labelling' labels as intrinsically bad? Generalising, stereotyping and sweeping statements are why we find ourselves uncomfortable with labels but not all of them do this. Sometimes certain scenarios, especially research-based ones, deem labels relevant. If we refuse them all and claim humans are individual in every single sense that will certainly soothe our egos but what else will it attain in terms of greater human understanding? We must have some sense of commonality between us, surely. Discrimination is overcome by realisation of this -- labels can reconcile as much as they can divide.
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      Dec 11 2011: Hi Victoria,

      Thank you for your very interesting comment!

      I am with you, I tend to be an optimist and give people the benefit of the doubt, in the sense that i assume they use labels for simplicity and speed.

      Unfortunately we have been raised to believe that time is money, and that we should always be optimizing the way we use our time. This places a burden on real understanding and i suspect it causes people to stay with whatever context a label brings and assume that is all there is. Few are willing to spend the time to understand the other and discover the real context

      Hating labels is indeed labeling them "bad" (i like that nice recursiveness). I think that as humans we will need to learn how to live with the ambiguity of of using labels and find this balance.

      And I fully agree with your last statement. Labels can reconcile as much as they can divide

      cheers!

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