“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.” – Chimamanda Adichie
Labels can be immensely helpful, they bring clarification and they help us to make judgements and decisions. For example, if wool has a tendency to irritate your skin, you’re unlikely to purchase clothing labeled as woollen, unless it is specifically designed with sensitive skin in mind, which will also be indicated on the label. Other labels I find useful are those that you might find on a jar of peanut butter stating that what you are consuming or purchasing, is in fact, peanut butter – perhaps with no added sugar and a 97% peanut content.
My point here, is that labelling something that isn’t going to change, makes a lot of sense, but we have developed this system of social labels which tend to be single words or small groups of words that make large generalisations about a person or activity. These statements often relate to diet, lifestyle, political stance, religious belief or gender identity – and many more I’m sure. I think that as a society we’ve become far too reliant on these labels and as a result have created a kind of ignorant toxicity that thrives so easily because of the internet, where it’s also a lot easier to create a false image for yourself or others.
So, whilst it’s very easy, and relatively obvious to say that a bottle of gin is a bottle of gin, or a one-legged man is a one-legged man, people often forget to label themselves correctly – for example, ‘I am a vegan’ is a label that indicates that one does not use or consume animal products. Many people who identify as vegan actually do use or consume animal products of some sort, so a more correct label might be ‘I am a vegan but I wear leather shoes and I’m also finding it really hard to give up cheese so I eat that occasionally too’. Now this creates a bit of a dilemma because for starters the initial label of ‘I am Vegan’ is now null and void, not only for the people using it incorrectly, but also for the people using it correctly, because it’s now become difficult for others to distinguish what a person actually means when they label themselves as something. Because of this, you’re likely to spend more time trying to work out the finer details of a label, like which parts of the bible a devout christian chooses to adhere to, than if they had briefly explained what matters to them – if it’s even relevant in the first place. To put an end to a social tide of ignorance, like the incorrect use of hashtags or other such labels, would be like trying to use sign language to convince an iguana that it was an Eskimo – so what’s the solution?
For starters I think it would be much simpler to explain our own personal values when making a point. For example, you have decided to share a post on the internet about cruelty to whales and in the description column you post #vegansagainstanimalcruelty. Instead of this, you might use words like #Icareaboutwhales which can only really mean what it says, so that when you later post a picture of the steak dinner that you made for you and your bestie, you don’t look like a complete tosser.
Now for the more serious stuff. Peoples everyday lives and emotional states are subject to such immense change over the course of a lifetime that it honestly seems silly to place specific labels on everything. While the fish I purchased from the pet shop is likely to remain a fish, the cisgender male I met last week may well be identifying as transgender now. When we label ourselves, especially publicly, we subject ourselves to immense personal and social pressure to live up to the standards of these labels. This can very easily slow down or limit our personal progression, and whether it be spiritual or intellectual, change and growth is important to us as human beings. While I believe that it’s important to have values, and to uphold them – I think it’s also important to evaluate those values and subject them to positive change as we grow and learn individually, or in the case of organisations like the church, as a collective. I’d also like to point out that flippant use of labels regarding things like mental health or sexuality can have very serious emotional consequences, especially when talking about other people, because labels stick – and when they’re stuck to our back, we often don’t find them for a while.
A brief personal example could be that I am writing this post because I think that the way we label ourselves is creating a more narrow-minded public rather than an open-minded one. I could of course say that I’m writing this because I’m a #liberal4life but what that means to me, most certainly isn’t what it means to you – I can’t even begin to imagine what it might mean to other people if I said I was a liberal – given the amount of information there is on the internet about politics. So I’m just saying what I mean in a few words that are true to me, rather than putting a label on myself that could be interpreted as anything.
To conclude, I honestly think the best label you can have for anyone is that they are a ‘person’ – a person who believes in a God or Gods, a person who likes walks on the beach. Should any label for a person really matter more than our human connection? I think we could all benefit by simplifying labels back to their original dictionary definition and not attempting to use them as a means of understanding what a person is like as an individual – or to give an understanding of what you are like as an individual. I think we should un-simplify our use of language that we describe ourselves with, so as to stop confusion, prevent the feeding of internet trolls and most importantly prevent ourselves from ever feeling like we have to live up to a standard that we are not comfortable with.