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The Diminishing and Enhancing Power of Labels

Dr. Dana Segev

Coming from a background in criminology, I spent ample time thinking about labels. The lenses through which I analysed the impact of labels, focused on the negative consequences of assigning them to people. For example, Becker (1973) and Goffman (1991) illustrate how labelling and stigma are constructed within societies and shape social identities for those who are labelled. Becker (1973, p. 181) notes that definitions and labels applied to a person will make a difference ‘in what everyone, audiences and actors alike’ eventually endeavours to do. That is, for Becker (1973), labels do not only shape individual’s perception; rather, they influence subsequent action. If I label a person ‘a criminal’, I differentiate between him/her and others who are not labelled as criminals (Becker, 1973), as well as limit his/her potential to live a life that contradicts that stigma. A label places focus on one idea and draw boundaries around what is expected and which opportunities are possible. Ex-offenders in the UK, often point to the obstacles that negative stigma pose when they desist from crime, noting immense impediments related to employment, insurance, and housing (Henley, 2015).

The biggest obstacle that labels pose for individuals and societies is that reality is far more vast, mixed and dynamic then the innate reductionist nature of labels and categories. When a label is ascribed to a person (for example, shy, drunk, cheap, criminal), it minimises a person’s complexity into a highlighted definition or idea. Yet, the truth is that things, as they are, are always beyond categories and labels, because individuals and circumstances are multilayered and complex. It is common to hear this argument, noted above: that labels are reductionist and limit possibilities. At the same time, however, adopting a label has the faculty of revealing knowledge and ‘expanding’ people's ways of life, as well as helping people navigate in the world; rather then strictly reduce and limit reality — a point of view that has been given less attention. In this essay, I explore labels from a flexible vantage point that offers a quick but deeper understanding into an element that pervades the social and personal lives of societies and individuals.

Labels are impossible to avoid (almost), as people understand the world and experiences through categories, patterns, language and definitions. Labels orient behaviour and people make decisions based on what they hide and what they reveal. An aspect explored herein is that there is both freedom and restriction in adopting a label and there is both freedom and restriction in resisting labels. While a label hides or reduces something or someone, it simultaneously reveals and enhances other things and their particular ‘flavour.’ Adopting a label will both deepen knowledge and experience into something, as well as limit and reduce it. In conclusion, I argue that, at times, the use of labels can create unnecessary pain and diminish authenticity by limiting potentials and complexity; yet, simultaneously, adopting labels can be indispensable when individuals seek to be be attuned to (and gain a deeper understanding of) the ‘flavour’ of the moment, revealing authenticity in this manner as well. Adopting labels is another way to alleviate the creation of pain and confusion by providing clarity and, simultaneously, can be a source of pain and a constraint. I note that a greater hinderance, then labels themselves, is the attachment we have to the labels we ascribe and the ideas that are associated with each label. Finally, I propose that a more helpful way of life is to adopt labels but to hold them ‘lightly’ — minimising attachment and being more flexible to change.

Leaning on labels

As societies, we favour assigning labels and tend to ‘hold tightly’ on to them. Once a label is assigned — such as married, alcoholic, dyslexic — effort will be needed to peel off or untangle from that idea. This is partly because people that surround a labeled-individual (as well as the individual themselves) tend to attach to the ideas and expectations that each label brings forth. For example, it can be a long process for a person recovering from an alcohol addiction to no longer identify as an alcoholic person (or recovering alcoholic), even if much time has passed since the last drink was consumed. The same goes for how people around an ‘alcoholic’ label behave and view someone with a history of addiction; how they expect that person to act and orient behaviour accordingly.

Societies and individuals lean on labels because they provide a sense of understanding of what is going-on around us, how to behave with others, as well as a way to organise the social life. As mentioned earlier, labels orient and shape action. For example, once my student is labelled ‘dyslexic’, I approach his or her exam, submitted essay, or work habits in a way which accommodates certain ideas that the definition of being ‘dyslexic’ holds, in order to provide my student with ample opportunity to excel. A ‘dyslexic’ label is attached to a person indefinitely, in such a way that discourages people from challenging and reexamining this definition over time. Passive acceptance limits individual’s ability to notice or forgo change, thereby recreating the label assigned even when there is an opportunity for a different experience. Other than structuring and organising the social and personal life, labels act as a compass that directs people’s attention, an element I turn to next.

A simultaneous action of limiting and enhancing knowledge

Ascribing a label has the potential to widen, rather than only limit and reduce knowledge. Without labelling phenomena, such as cancer, it is not possible to do cancer research, have labs and invent treatments, for example. It is the act of focusing and naming that allows engagement, experiences and knowledge to ensue, in a way that is not feasible in the vast expenses of freedom and abstraction that a label-less existence offers. Cancer research is a good example of how we both gain and limit knowledge by using labels: we gain knowledge on a particular phenomena by labelling it as cancer. The label acts as a compass, helping to carve out a particular behaviour of the body and learn it in detail; yet, simultaneously, knowledge is lost on how the whole body works in conjunction with cancer, which limits the ability to do research on how lifestyle can impact this disease (for a similar argument see research into Systems Biology Approach to cancer). Although abstraction is a far more authentic feature of reality — that is, cancer is not a separate entity, completely detached from the body it inhibits and the daily actions and environments of that body — the ability to know something (or an aspect of something, a shape and tendency) is lost when a label is not assigned. Even if it is knowing one aspect in a manner that is removed from the interwoven complexity of life biology; it will be known in a way that was not possible otherwise.

Resistance to labels

An example of a social momentum towards abstraction and resistance to labels is the politically correct (PC) culture. There is an element within this movement of seeking to be unfettered from labels and their biased disposition, with popular resistance to gendered identities, as well as ethnic and cultural heritage labels. The PC culture negotiates and reframes the use of language; the naming of things; and which definitions are acceptable. In an effort to embrace equality, which underlies the political correctness movement, there has been an act of eroding labels. Eroding a label of, for example, being Jewish or a woman also erodes a ‘flavour’ in a whole collection of ‘flavours’ that is a part of a person’s sense of identity. It neutralises context and free-up a person to become whatever he/she/they desires. Resistance to labels can eliminate possible misconception; provide freedom from social expectations; and curtail the reproduction of biased discourse through language (on the reproduction of discourse see Foucault, 1978), thereby providing an opportunity for greater equality between people. At the same time, the elimination of labels will flatten context; mask different shared ‘flavours’ of people around us, different shared ‘flavours’ of cultures, societies, and sexualities. This, in turn, limits people’s ability to get to know particular aspects in a particular form in others, even if these aspects are temporary, illusionary or deceiving, reductionist, or perhaps emblematic at times. The desire for a more equal unbiased society is a noble one; yet, resistance to labels can come with a cost.

Limitless potential of a label-less existence?

The idea of shrugging off all labels and restrictions — free, in a sense, with limitless potential to be who ever we want when ever we want — is an attractive one. The barrier here is that everything we do in life is intrinsically linked to attention. Nothing exists in peoples’ consciousness unless and until we give it attention; unless and until we become aware of it. While labelling can block insight into factors that are outside the label ascribed, a label-less existence can exhibit the same affect by ‘blurring’ what individuals understand, because people’s ability to store and process information is limited. Unlike the limitless potential that exists in life, attention narrows people’s field to one or several things at a time (Miller, 1956). When we live our lives, we are encapsulating or aware of only a fraction of a limitless multilayered reality. People are not capable of holding all knowledge about everything in the universe in their minds at one time.

To better explain by example, when I walk down a street of a major city, I only have access to as far as the human eye can see; what I can hear, smell and touch. I am incapable of getting complete knowledge of the entire city and everything happening in it all at once. Hence, at any particular moment, an individual has access to what she or he captures at this particular moment. As I move through the city, I reach different points in space which will shift my perspective, reveal some aspects and conceal others. Something is narrowing in a person’s field of attention and that ‘narrowness’ allows a person to capture an aspect of life, gain insights, learn it, know it, move with it, choose how to act. If I did not narrow my field of vision to focus on what I am seeing and if I did not label the things I see, I would be incredibly uncomfortable walking through a busy city, with little insight to what is happening. In short, individuals’ attention will limit what they perceive and consume in their consciousness at any case, whether they label it or not. A label-less existence will ‘blur’ what individuals see, without necessarily increasing their ability to capture more things. In contrast, a label will focus an individuals’ attention and, at times, the focus will be too much, to the point where that individual sees nothing else.

Attachment, resistance, pain, and lightness

What produces more complications than the act of labelling is the attachment people have for labels. Labels, in themselves, can be valuable tools to explore ideas or the object of our attention, which can provide further insight and clarity, while limiting other ideas that are ‘out of focus.’ Labels also provide a feeling of ease when individuals navigate with their surroundings. Although this may seem an obvious statement, individuals do not always utilise labels in the most beneficial way and either resist or overly attach to them. Both resistance and attachment to labels can bring pain and conflict to individuals’ lives as well as to societies. On the social level, attaching to labels can begat discrimination, limit possibilities and bring pain for a whole group of individuals. On the other hand, complete resistance to labels, does not only flatten cultures and ‘flavours’ of individuals, but could, for example, bring forth health complications for people with gene mutation associated with their ethnicity (if the notion of ethnicity is eroded), or health complication when the sex of a person is unknown. Furthermore, it would make it difficult to do research and develop policies, for example, without the use of labels and categories. On the individual level, labels are often linked to expectation of behaviours, as well as assumptions about others and the future. Romantic relationships are a good example which elucidates possible complications, enrichment, and pain of both adopting and resisting labels. This is a vast topic yet particularly important to mention because romantic relationships elucidates how labels touch our most personal lives (relationships with others), as well as underly our social life (linked to institutions such as marriage). In the interest of saving time, I turn to a more abstract discussion and minimise the use of examples.

Labels in romantic relationships: negotiating spontaneity, authenticity and imagination

Romantic relationships are repleted with labels and are coupled with ideas about the elements that are attached to each label. For example, the label of boyfriend and girlfriends hold ideas about the involvement in each other’s life; regularity of meeting and spending time together; which opinions are allowed to be voiced; how much is shared; sex; relationships with others; behaviour and introduction in public; how much ‘invasion’ to one’s personal space is okay; and so on. There are, of course, variations in any relationship where both partners agree on a style that suits them. The removal of labels in relationships can allow something spontaneous to arise, in an authentic way that is not modified by the expectations attached to labels. Simultaneously, it scatters individuals attention in such a way that reduces the ability to see the ‘shapes’ and recognise the ‘flavours’ present in a given relationship and a given moment.

Individuals seek to gain something by ascribing or resisting labels; yet, the paradoxical thing is that with or without a label, a similar range of events and emotions can be experienced by the individuals involved. A label, such as wife, will not guaranty the couple staying forever and a label-less romantic involvement will not free a person up from experiencing or inflicting the same pains, such as a sense of loss, as for those in a ‘label-filled’ relationship. Two people can be romantically involved without ascribing a label, but develop the same patterns, desires or even expectations as those who venture to label.

As noted, the removal of labels from a romantic involvement can ‘free’ a person up from fixed social ideas and expectations, allowing for what-ever ‘feels right in the moment’ to be expressed and, thus, an authentic connection. It can promote creativity and encouraged the individuals involved to be attuned to one another, rather then staying ‘fixed’ on socially constructed ideas of what a relationship should look like. It is worth remembering, however, that the act of expression and authentic engagement often involves a need to feel safe which is harder to achieve when there are no labels. Moving freely in public (same as in relationships) requires knowing where you are at and what surrounds you. Without that knowledge, moving in public becomes uncomfortable, difficult, with a sense of uncertainty as to what it is your attention is ‘capturing’, leading to (sometimes mistaken) assumptions.

A sense of uncomfortable ‘oblivion’ can be balanced with ample continuance communication between partners. That communication will very likely involve the use of language and narrowing of ideas (as we do when we label, but without the act of formally labelling), so both partners can check whether they understood each other correctly. Adopting labels in relationships is helpful in that that they ‘gather’ and appropriate attention, bring comfortableness in action, and making it possible to learn more (dig deeper) about the connection created between the individuals involved. As noted above, raw engagement and exposing oneself is more easily done within a sense of safety that labels can provide, even if that label is an illusion or subject to change later on.

A key point to highlight here is that both attaching or resisting labels in relationships will not solve common complications on either a personal level or a social level (marriage and divorce). Attachment to ideas that no longer serve us or ideas that do not fit the authenticity of the moment can be a source of pain and conflict. Similarly, pain and conflict comes when there is resistance, which also hinders authenticity between people, by scattering individuals’ attention. That is, when there are no boundaries and multiple positive and negative events are more readily ‘allowed’ in a label-less connection, people’s imagination is invoked. Imagination can work overtime for better and worse and has a tendency to wonder about things that are tied to one’s own insecurities. In vast freedom, scattered attention and imagination, it is harder to focus on what is in front of you and there can be an overlay of fears, hindering authenticity in the process. In a fixed reality, narrowed by labels and inflexible ideas, pain can quickly come when dynamics change.

How to approach labels?

As noted, the act of attachment to labels (also in relationships) can bring pain and the act of resistance to labels can bring pain. A more authentic experience that reduces pain (by relaxing the tension that exist when people attach or resist an experience), is to adopt labels when they naturally arise and hold them ‘lightly’, allowing for a more comfortable release when and if they naturally fade. This will maximise individuals’ ability to know and embrace the experience they are having, lean into it, make decisions, and adjust when needed. It is also important to reiterate that labels create boundaries that places attention on one possibility, while blurring other aspects of a person and possibilities — hence, a label can never mirror the full truth about a person or reality. Yet, we can be more capable of knowing an experience we are having in the moment if we utilise labels but hold them ‘lightly.’

At the start of this essay I mentioned how labels act as an obstacle for ex-offenders desisting from crime. At the same time, ex-offenders often turn to labels in an effort to leave a life of crime behind. Maruna (2001) notes that some ex-offenders he interviewed adopted a sense of identity he refers to as the ‘wounded healer’ in their redemption script — a person who had multiple hardships in life, who turned to crime, but is essentially a good person and is now shifting their life around and seeks to ‘make good’ on their past, often by adopting the role of ‘the helper.’ Sampson and Laub (2005) found that individuals who desisted from crime involved a shift in a sense of identity, whereby ex-offenders now saw themselves as a ‘family person’, for example. That is, in the case of ex-offenders (as in other situations), labels acted as an obstacle which limited possibilities, yet, at the same time, as a tool which widened possibilities. Labels can both diminish and enhance individuals’ lives and societies.

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The Diminishing and Enhancing Power of Labels
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Becker HS. (1973) Outsiders: Studies in the Sociology of Deviance, New York: Free Press.

Foucault M. (1978) The Will to Knowledge: The History of Sexuality vol. I, London: Penguin.

Goffman E. (1991) Stigma, New York: Simon and Schuster.

Henley A. (2015) Abolishing the stigma of punishments served. Criminal Justice Matters 102: 57-58.

Maruna S. (2001) Making Good: How Ex-Convicts Reform and Rebuild Their Lives, Washington, D.C.: American Psychological Association.

Miller, G.A., 1956. The magical number seven, plus or minus two: Some limits on our capacity for processing information. Psychological review, 63(2), p.81.

Sampson RJ and Laub JH. (2005) A Life-Course View of the Development of Crime. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 602: 12-45.


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