The Labels that Define us

Posted on by pdelsignore and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

The human mind is an incredible processing machine, and like any good storage software, it structures and categorizes information.

We naturally love to label and define stuff. It’s a way to make sense of things. Whatever we read, think, and experience, we subconsciously categorize in our brains. The stuff on the foundational level of our thinking is what makes up our worldview, but all the other stuff finds it’s way somewhere in our internal taxonomy.

So, using our minds we label stuff… and yes, we even label people.

The problem however, is when we allow our pre-defined labels to filter the information we take in. So, a typical example is when we listen to somebody who has an opposing viewpoint (political party, group, etc..) and we don’t give them the time of day because we have already defined them as wrong. They must be wrong because they fall into this label – Liberal, Conservative, Marxist, Capitalist, environmentalist, etc…

A good example is the current handling of the Norway shooter as played out in the news media. As soon as this tragedy happened, the media’s reaction was to label the person… why? to try to make sense of him (psychoanalyze him). So, first he was a Muslim terrorist, and then he was labeled as a Christian fundamentalist. The problem is, if you read the info on him, he doesn’t fit in any of our normal categories, because he isn’t normal.

The Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh, the Virginia Tech shooter, these are people that find ideas to feed their hatred and delusional desires. They don’t fit in the cultural boxes we define ‘people groups’ in.

How much of life are we missing, because we wrongfully label people and therefore disregard or ignore them? Do we stay away from authors because we have already labeled them as heretical to our worldviews? filmmakers, artists, celebrities? How often have we labeled somebody as odd or weird, and then after getting to know them, discovered how beautiful they are as people.

Labeling people is sometimes a way of defining them as ‘the other.’ distancing ourselves from them. It is the root of where racism begins.

Our mind needs to structure information, it’s natural. But true open-mindedness is allowing our labels to be questioned. People are far too complex to label. 

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50 Responses to The Labels that Define us

  1. operator says:

    Our mind needs to structure information, it’s natural.

    If you believe that minds exist to “structure information” and not “assess risks” or “maximize chances of survival”, you may be missing the point of all that structuring.

    But true open-mindedness is allowing our labels to be questioned.

    Why should “true open-mindedness” be a desirable thing?

    People are far too complex to label.

    How should a person who adopts your philosophy compensate for the increased complexity of making split-second survival decisions without handy labels as shortcuts for complex concepts? (i.e. “group of people approaching, wearing similarly-colored attire, scowling and jeering, using unfamiliar slang, brandishing weapons …” d’oh, too late – you just got mugged by some gang members)

    Not to say that one should never reflect upon the accuracy of the labels which one applies to others – the labels become useless (or hugely detrimental – as in “terrorists”) if they are not anchored to the reality of a person or group’s likely actions – but to flatly state that labels are useless is to ignore their utility in a world, often too complex to comprehend, that requires immediate action.

    • Fifi says:

      I’m not sure that pdelsingore is denying the utility of categorization, just pointing out that it can also be not as useful in some contexts where recognizing complexity is actually more useful/productive than simplifying things. Not all situations require immediate action or a reaction, not all require defensive action, sometimes this actually creates more problems than it resolves.

    • donk says:

      operator’s analogy highlights an important point, though: the action of applying labels to others can be dangerous, as pdelsignore’s examples indicate. But even more dangerous is the action of self-applying a label, as operator’s gang members have each presumably done. Once one is to oneself a Christian Fundamentalist or a Knight Templar or a Crip, all further actions are a downhill motion. Those gang members are mugging you not because the ultimate content of their character is poor, but because they are “gang members.”

      • operator says:

        See, it’s the crucial split-second between when you see an idea and choose to deconstruct it – that’s your reaffirmation of the reflexive “post modernist” label.

        If it weren’t somehow key to your survival, (even if only to stave off madness or rum) you wouldn’t be here.

  2. Fifi says:

    Nice post, it recognizes a basic way our mind functions (and how it simplifies for expediency), identifies the utility and the problems this function causes, and then offers a potential way to work around the limitations related to the expediency. The other part of it is that it’s not just about how we label others, it’s also about how we label ourselves and this also influences how we relate to others (and view ourselves). People can also try to reduce or deny our own complexity and internal conflicts (or perhaps contradictions would be a better word here) by assigning ourselves a label. It’s a form of self objectification (what am I?). When we define ourselves by “what” we are, we’re apply the label internally and then seek to conform to it (repressing and denying things that contradict the label) and expect it to also define us externally to others (even if our actions contradict it). We’re an object we and others can identify. It gets more complex when we look at “who” we are because it’s subjective to both ourselves and others…who we are to ourselves is changeable, based on our experience of ourselves and dependent upon context, who we are to others is tied in with their subjective experience of what we express through our actions and the other person’s filters, expectations and experience of us (it’s about their experience not our experience of ourselves)….though I may just be label and categorizing here again ;-)

    • Comus says:

      When you construct yourself by labels to define what you are I think you’re already on firmer ground than when you construct yourself by what you are not. Whenever we define ourselves as “not this”, we already have created a “them or the “other”. We are already on the cognitive bias foxhole. And the only identifier gained is “not-them”, an absence of other, not anything by itself. That leaves us in a paradoxical situation, a sort of self-destructive loop, where we try to abolish the very thing defining us, leaving behind nothing. That’s why it is dangerous to be anti-terror and not pro-democracy (hypocrisy to be added), against war, not “for peace”. This is why the double negation of against anti-immigration is so dangerous. It is not pro-immigration, it is against the people who oppose immigration.

      There is nothing bad in reinforcing your personality and identity with part-objects or a mac or whatever. Consumer goods are designed to work as a scaffolding in identity development just like religious views, ideology, underculture, sexuality etc. It is only problematic when there is nothing underneath to strengthen; nothing to reach, when, if you take out all the excess, all you have is nothingness. When the self as a subject has not fully formed or separated, and can only be reached by part-objects that are an end in themselves. Sure, there is safety and a sense of control in identity construed of objects; you can always reinforce it by doing something, not being something.

      • Fifi says:

        “It is only problematic when there is nothing underneath to strengthen; nothing to reach, when, if you take out all the excess, all you have is nothingness. When the self as a subject has not fully formed or separated, and can only be reached by part-objects that are an end in themselves. Sure, there is safety and a sense of control in identity construed of objects; you can always reinforce it by doing something, not being something.”

        Very nicely said.

  3. MarcusB says:

    Although I think that one of the reasons that we pre-filter using biases and whatnot is because it’s much easier for us to say “Oh, I’ve seen this before, it must be this and that”, I think the real reason we do this is because we can’t stand the fact that the worldview we’ve spent so much time constructing could be possibly wrong. It’s personal; we place so much emphasis on ideas and believe that ideas are what define us and separate us.

    • eqv says:

      I thought it was because when our ancestors were in the jungle and a tiger jumped out, the ones who stopped to think, “wait, maybe that’s not the same kind of tiger/vicious predator, it doesn’t look EXACTLY the same etc…” got eaten. People who used their past experience with tigers and ran like hell were the ones who escaped. Filtering intellectual ideas using biases is just a higher-level version of that. That’s not to say you shouldn’t be vigilant about it preventing/being aware of it, because obviously ideas aren’t going to bite your head off.

  4. Or says:

    “The Unabomber, Timothy McVeigh, the Virginia Tech shooter, these are people that find ideas to feed their hatred and delusional desires. They don’t fit in the cultural boxes we define ‘people groups’ in.”

    Or as Scott Adams might say, they are “round pegs in a society full of square holes”. So which is more dangerous, their frustration over being unable to find round holes, or our unwillingness to recognize them as round pegs?

    • Comus says:

      The problem might very well be that they imagine themselves, not as pegs, but as the holes, to which others must adjust. Also the peg/hole -dichotomy is a false metaphor, as it instinctively dehumanizes and groups everybody (the square pegs) as less individual, as with less of humane value. It can also be stretched to ad absurdum, when no matter how inclusive and tolerant the society is, every frowned-upon act (from piercings to child-murder) can be seen as systemic oppression. It is a strawman that shifts responsibility to the Other.

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