What’s in a Name? Living Life Without Labels

PART I: WHAT’S IN A LABEL?

Take a look at this picture.

unnamed
credit to Ben Hoffman

What comes to mind?

Like me, you probably instantly came up with a bunch of labels for him (e.g., male, late 20’s, Caucasian, dark blonde, fairly attractive, punk/alternative, etc.). There, we put him in a box, slap on the appropriate labels, and tie it with a nice, little ribbon. Done.

We. Love. Labels!

Yes, the fashion kind, and also the people kind. Labels make life so much easier.

Of course, some labels are necessary for our survival. For example, “My brain has recognized that this piece of sushi in front of me is food, which will nourish my body so, I will assume it is safe to eat it.” Or, “My brain has determined that the approaching object is a car, which could injure me so, I shall not cross the street at this moment.”

But for the purpose of this article, I will only discuss non-essential labels that we often associate with people.

Of course, labels for people have a purpose, too.

They give us identity:
  • I am a vegetarian.
  • You are a Catholics.
  • They are homeless.
  • We are Canadian.
They tell us how to (and how not to) generally behave and/or present ourselves:
  • Vegetarians shouldn’t eat meat.
  • Catholics should go to church on Sunday mornings.
  • Homeless people should graciously accept donations.
  • Canadians should love the snow.

Labels help us to comprehend complex stimuli. Within a split second, the brain uses tried-and-tested cognitive processes to identify the stimuli’s attributes, and subsequently, deposit them into their appropriate mental categories (e.g., vegetarian, Catholic, homeless, Canadian, etc.). Ergo, we can efficiently and effectively make decisions about any external stimuli, especially people, according to how we’ve sorted them and which label we’ve consequently thrust upon them.

Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.


PART II: JUDGEMENT PASSED

Labels also help us to determine whether a stimuli is appropriately identified over time. When we first observe the behaviour and/or physical features displayed by a person in question, we initially fit them with a befitting label, but as time goes by, we assess whether their behaviour or appearance is deserving of particular label. Of course, being our own worse critics, we use the same method to judge our own inclusion within a group. Judgement has been passed! And once it has, these assigned labels dictate how we think of, feel about, and behave towards ourselves and others; sometimes positively, sometimes negatively.

Don’t believe me?

How would you react to the following people:
  • Even though I identify as vegetarian, I once ate some chicken.
  • Even though you identify as Catholic, you don’t attend church.
  • Even though they identify as homeless, they rejected a donation.
  • Even though we identify as true blooded Canadians, we can’t stand the cold.

In the above cases, we would probably judge them as hypocrites, undeserving of their labels. Talking from personal experience, most of us would just laugh off these one-off situations, but some of us might feel and/or act a little negatively towards them.

But, what if I told you that…

  • the vegetarian ate the chicken because their friend, with their limited funds and unknowing of the friend’s dietary preferences, prepared a meal for them in honor of their newly formed friendship?
  • the gay Catholic feels unwelcome when they attend church because their beliefs don’t coincide seamlessly with the beliefs of the congregation?
  • the homeless person didn’t accept the food because they have an allergy to an ingredient in the food that was offered?
  • the Canadian has a physical condition that makes it difficult to regulate their internal body temperature?
Without knowing a person’s full story, labels have:
  • influenced our perception of self and of others,
  • limited our empathy for others, and
  • allowed us to excuse our and other’s poor behaviour.

Herein lies the problem of using a simple method of categorization on more complex situations.


PART III: OBSESSED WITH PUNISHMENT

Strangely enough, we also LOVE to punish people for their labels. We point our fingers and do the jury dance, “They are x! They are y! They did it! PUNISH THEM!!!”

In June 2016, news outlets had been inundated with labels, used to condition the public’s reaction to the Stanford rape and the Orlando massacre. Headlines read:

  • Stanford all-star male swimmer raped unconscious girl
  • Islamic sympathizer assassinated LGBT party-goers

Like trained seals, social media ate up these labels and went wild. Some cheered the culprits while others condemned them. Yet, many of the reactions were based solely on the given labels to determine whether the behaviour was merited.

Those for, wrote:
  • “Boys will be boys! Plus, he’s a young, celebrated Stanford swimmer.”
  • “Damn those homos! They deserved it.”
Those against, wrote:
  • “Great! Another white male taking advantage of the system.”
  • “He’s a homophobic, ISIS sympathizer. Nuff said.”

These two offenders were caught in a superfluous label war. What about seeing people simply as people? No labels needed. Then, we can dole out fair verdicts.

How do we do this? Empathy might be our answer.


PART IV: WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH EMPATHY

What is empathy? If you’re unsure, check out this fun, animated 2-min video [here] narrated by Dr. Brené Brown.

Empathy requires conscious intention to:

  1. Take another’s perspective as their truth
  2. Stay out of judgement
  3. Recognize their emotions
  4. Communicate your understanding of their emotions

Empathy is a choice; it’s a choice to connect WITH people and feel WITH them. That being said, some of us will refuse to empathize with the perpetrators while some of us will refuse to empathize with the victims, depending on our judgement of their labels and how they coincide with our own labels. I think we’re afraid to emphasize with the other camp.

Please note, expressing empathy does not in any way excuse people from the consequences of their behaviour. After all, we live in a civilized society. You do the crime, you pay the time. Also note, empathizing with the miscreants does not shift empathy away from the victims. Many of us, spent days crying, reflecting, and empathizing for the victims of Stanford and Pulse. Some of us have even been in similar situations. Nevertheless, the brain is an incredibly versatile instrument, and it is capable of empathizing with both parties; obviously, one will be easier than the other.

Empathizing is simply a method of thinking. When you choose to elicit empathy, you put your own emotions, judgments, and agendas on hold and consider the situation from all possible perspectives, especially the perspectives of those involved. When you practice this thought process more and more, you’ll become a bit more objective and a little less prejudice. Perhaps you will even discover the underlying reason that the unwanted behavior occurred in the first place.

Let’s practice!

The Stanford Rape:
  • Toxic masculinity is a real, debilitating issue
  • The perpetrator lives in a society that coddles young, white males
  • Most 20-year old’s think they’re invincible
  • The perpetrator might have had insecurities
  • The perpetrator must have believed that his own enjoyment was more important than showing compassion for his victim
  • The perpetrator was taught by society that one’s value is found in external sources and one must prove that value to the world
  • Media is saturated with hypersexualized, often submissive images of women
  • Sexual consent is not taken seriously among young adults, and is not emphasized in school issued sex education
  • The victim should have been able to socialize in a safe, respected place without fear of being taken advantage of
  • The perpetrator’s sentence was considered unfair, yet thousands of marginalized youth are disproportionately incarcerated by this “fair” justice system
  • Some want the perpetrator’s sentence to be longer, but that’s like putting a band-aid on a stab wound; it won’t put a stop to ALL future occurrences of sexual assault
The Orlando Massacre:
  • Homophobia is a real, debilitating issue
  • It’s possible that the perpetrator was a closeted homosexual
  • The perpetrator might have had insecurities
  • Perhaps the perpetrator lacked emotional support in his closest relationships
  • Witnesses report the perpetrator’s father was physically abusive towards him
  • The perpetrator must have believed that his own feelings and opinions were more important than showing compassion or at least understanding
  • The perpetrator was taught by society that one’s value is found in external sources and one must prove that value to the world
  • Males are encouraged to express aggressiveness and repress their emotions
  • The victims should have been able to socialize in a safe, respected place without fear of being killed or hurt
  • Americans can purchase and wield a weapon without a licence, training or background check

As much as we want to believe that we have the rightful culprit in handcuffs, we’re forgetting who created the environment for these crimes to happen in. Shouldn’t we, as a society, accept part of the responsibility for these events? Aren’t we responsible for creating this label war; this method of appraising each other’s value; this system of intolerance, superiority, disconnection, and anti-socialism; this unspoken doctrine that says, “My views are more important than yours”? We are in fact the culprit, too. And yet, we act so damn surprised each time someone actually plays along with the farce, accentuating its ridiculousness.

Imagine if the perpetrators were keenly aware of their insecurities and had just one person to turn to, and that one person simply reached out to them and said, “I’m glad you talked with me. I know how you’re feeling. You might feel like you’re not enough, but you ARE enough. You are valued for being you, despite what society might be telling you.” But unfortunately, they chose not to exhibit any empathy before, during, or after their misconduct.


PART V: LIVING LABELLESS

Now, let’s consider people for the sole fact that they are people, and look at what happens when you take away their labels.

  • The vegetarian [The person] ate the chicken because their friend with their limited funds and unknowing of the friend’s dietary preferences, prepared a meal for them in honor of their newly formed friendship.
  • The gay Catholic [The person] feels unwelcome when they attend church because their beliefs don’t coincide seamlessly with the beliefs of the congregation.
  • The homeless person didn’t accept the food because they have an allergy to an ingredient in the food that was offered.
  • The Canadian [The person] has a physical condition that makes it difficult to regulate their internal body temperature.
  • The Stanford all-star male swimmer [The person] raped unconscious girl [another person].
  • Islamic sympathizer & closeted gay man [The person] assassinated LGBT party-goers [other people].

Look beyond the labels and we will find the truth. Search for the person of value within; a person worthy of empathy; a person responsible for their behaviour.

From now on, when people ask, “Are you x, y, or z?” I will say “I’m proud of the labels that I’ve approved for myself, but I am more than my labels; I believe I’m a valuable member of the human race, deserving of your empathy, willing to empathize with others, and accountable for my actions.”

It’s as simple as that.

As always, thank you for reading and joining me on this #internationalcoffeejourney

That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.
William Shakespeare

4 thoughts on “What’s in a Name? Living Life Without Labels

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