We live in a society and culture of labels. I’m not sure when that happened. Maybe it’s always been that way. The first experience for most of us likely began on the playground.
Labels aren’t inherently negative, but we learn to use them early on positively and negatively to include and exclude people. We use labels to define desirable groups (like “cool kids”), and we label others to attempt to distinguish and distance ourselves from groups we find undesirable (like “losers”). We use labels as leverage and as weapons.
We become much more adept at labeling as we grow up. The most sophisticated use of labeling, perhaps, is in politics and “the cultural wars”. The terms gays and queers, for instance, are like playground labels compared to homophobes, xenophobes and misogynists. The latter labels were coined as a way of fighting back and gaining societal leverage for a new set of ideals. The labels helped define who was to be excluded from the new ideology.
The words, most of which have existed for eons, took on new meaning as labels, and new words, like homophobe, blazed the way for cultural revolutions by defining the who was in and who was out. Labeling used in this way is quite effective.
The recent election, I believe, underscores the downside of labeling and the ultimate ineffectiveness of labeling when taken to extremes. Labels draw lines in the sand. Labels signify us and them. Labels are also caricatures, like their cousins, stereotypes. Continue reading “The Messy Politics of Labelling”