We Don’t Like Labels - Even When We Use Them
Labels are convenient. They're easy-to-use shortcuts.
They allow us to make a point, to convey meaning without additional, wasted effort. They’re also a means to put something (or someone) in a box - a box that’s familiar to us, one that allows us to - in our mind - better understand and relate to them.
But they’re also, many times, an excuse for laziness. The boxes they create allow us to rationalize a perspective or a decision. To jump to judgement. In so doing, they effectively allow us to maintain the sanctity of our worldview, because disturbing it would mean relearning how we think, how we talk and how we evaluate.
We certainly see this in the media around us, especially these days, with all of the hate speech and incidents against minority groups of all types - whether Muslim or Jewish, Hispanic or African-American, and beyond, not just in the US but across the globe.
But we also see it in our own communities. In the casual conversation that takes place one-on-one with the different people we come across in one social circle or another. For example in some of the social circles I’ve personally been in.
Such as when Pakistani-Americans speak about the prejudice they face from other communities, including (in their words) “from Indian-Americans as well”. While the prejudice is real, the use of “Indian-American” is exasperating - and wrong. Because what it really suggests is that all Indian-Americans are Hindus, and that all Hindus are anti-Muslim. Yes, I know that may not be the stated intent but labels have a way of sticking, and embedding themselves into our subconsciousness. (And not just ours, but those of our kids.)
Or when there’s a conversation about a fellow South Asian who recently got married to a Caucasian, and when someone else asks who he married, the answer is, “Oh, he married an ‘American’.” Because, apparently, Americans can only be white. And to think that one could change one’s nationality would require us to rethink what the idea or concept of national identity is (“It’s surely tied to the color of my skin!”), and hence render many of the labels we use (and their implications) meaningless.
Because to label otherwise would require us to rethink the “other” and maybe even question the foundations of our core beliefs.
I say all of this as someone who was born in Pakistan, who is married to someone who was born in India, with both of us naturalized as Americans. As someone who has sat through countless conversations where both Pakistanis and Indians have made subtle (and not so subtle) comments about the other, not realizing I or my wife is one of that “other”. As someone who has had to listen to a sermon about the “cultural bankruptcy of the American”, until I am compelled to point out that that is, in fact, complete bullshit.
Because every culture and community wants desperately to believe that it is the best, that their way is the right one. And frankly, the only one.
Even though the reality is that one particular culture is no more or less ideal, no more or less bankrupt, than any other community or culture. Because we’re all human. We’re all real people. We’re all fallible.
And despite our best efforts to use labels as a means of convenience and certainty, those very labels do us more harm than good in the long run.