I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness. I left that church many, many years ago, but not before I had learned the power of a label. For anyone outside the church, being a JW was associated with the visual of an unwelcome someone knocking at your door, usually on a Sunday morning. Or an association was made with those JW’s who refused blood transfusions and got a lot of unwanted press about it. But very few people really knew anything else about us. Our label was a form of shorthand for the few things anyone knew about us, or most likely, ever wanted to know. Our label was sufficient for others on occasion to be mean to us, especially as children. We knew we were outsiders.
When I left Jehovah’s Witnesses, I lost my lifetime label. I was now faced with the onerous task of figuring out who I was. My label had defined my identity up to that point in my life. I didn’t know anything else. (For more of this story, go here.)
When Self-Labeling Becomes Self-Destructive
We also label ourselves, sometimes to our own harm. We may develop a certain self-image and then we will live either up to it or down to it. If we see ourselves as a loser, poor, fat, sexy, brainy, pretty, or superior, we often tend to behave in a way that conforms to our self-label, either owning it or over-compensating for it. Labels have power. When we adopt negative labels, we become co-conspirators in our own destruction.
If you want to try an interesting exercise with self-labeling, try to make a summary statement of your own identity in one or two sentences. Be generous with yourself, but make sure it will pass the snicker test of your best friend or spouse. Emphasize your core values, what you stand for, what matters, so that someone who just meets you could quickly evaluate whether they would welcome further interaction with you; your signature statement. This exercise may be more challenging than you expect yet everyone you meet subconsciously performs this exercise and reaches conclusions about you within minutes. Try doing it for yourself! It is very difficult to project who you really are if you are confused about the subject yourself.
When we find ourselves among kindred spirits we tend to feel safe and welcome, and when among strangers we turn up the voltage on our social radar, scanning the group for our probable status, the likelihood of acceptance or rejection should these people learn more about us.
When we meet someone new, we ask them what they do for a living. This may be nothing more than an opening line in an attempted conversation, or we may be looking for a label, a shortcut to identify as quickly as possible where this person will most likely fit in our socio-economic hierarchy, so that we can better judge how to interact with him or her. We size them up: are they powerful or weak, rich or poor, well-educated or dropped out of school in fifth grade, doctor or drug dealer, above us or below us, smarter or dumber than us, incredibly attractive or flawed in some important way, a safe companion or a threat to me or my marriage, a benefactor or a competitor for resources?
Sometimes we create the label, and often we buy into pre-existing labels. Someone who graduated in the bottom 5% of his Harvard class (5% do!) trumps another who graduated summa cum laude from Podunk Community College. (The person who graduated in the bottom 5% will conceal this—if s/he is even aware of it; the person who graduated with honors may be sure to mention it.) Someone who showed up in a late model Mercedes outshines the family in a ten-year-old station wagon. We all bear price tags. We buff our price tags on the way to our class reunions. Without our price tags it is very difficult to make snap judgments about others. I live in North Dakota where there are a lot of very wealthy landowners who confound the labeling process by living in old farm houses. In the summer they are easily confused with the rednecks because both groups drive dusty pick-up trucks.
The social meaning of a label changes with context. In most places in America, to state publicly that you are an atheist will elicit some type of social opprobrium, the assumption being that an atheist could not be a moral person and therefore is suspect. An atheist may be shunned, or become the object of extended kindness from those who are sure he can be won back to sanity. An atheist in America could never be elected to high office. The label would defeat him. Conversely, in many parts of Europe, confessions of atheism would more likely be met with “. . . and your point is???”
We may attempt to acquire a label by parroting certain phrases that we think will accelerate our acceptance into a group. We can say inane things like “I’m all for limited government”, whatever that means. That phrase is devoid of meaning because its currency has been, first hijacked, and second, devalued. It is the sort of politically correct thing that can be said at a any party with a reasonable expectation that there will be knowing nods of assent at the shared wisdom. It is a label valued for its emptiness and safety; something each can put their own spin on. Everyone believes in limited government as long as they don’t touch our own particular cherished benefits.
Labels as Closure
Adopting a label can be a form of closure, so that we don’t have to think about a person or topic anymore. Using a previous example, we could justify our cutting off contact with a former friend by using a label, such as “he’s an atheist anyway” or “I can’t believe he’s become a rabid liberal” or “she’s so selfish” or “I’m done with him—he’s gone conservative “. . . We use these labels in much the same way that we would invoke the label “sexual offender”– to end the conversation or close the book on a possible relationship. Once the label has been pronounced, it becomes a judicial sentence, and no further thought or conflict need be entertained. Everyone to the barricades!
We also use labels in a constant effort to determine if we are “normal”. Much of life occurs in a continuum. We live in a world of gray, and we attempt black and white to clarify our sense of identity. For most of us life refuses to be so tidy. A silly example is our bizarre effort in this country to find the perfect word to describe black people. When I was growing up, first they were Negroes, which was an all-encompassing term. That term was actually the most scientifically correct label, in the same way that Caucasian is. Then we called them colored, which was rather colloquial but acceptable to everyone it seemed. I don’t know who decided they should be called blacks. I suspect that change came from the militant segment of the colored population, when black became an emblem of rebellion against the white man’s aggression, black power type of thing. Black was adopted as an extreme non-white label. But that’s just a guess. Where I grew up the most notable characteristic of some in the neighborhood was not their blackness, any more than my defining characteristic was my whiteness. In our innocence, we saw each other as individuals with personal names and personalities.
I think the label “black” was the black man’s choice as a statement of pride, not a pejorative foisted on him by whites. Then blacks became African-Americans, although most of them had never been anywhere near Africa and maybe had no desire to go there either, at least not to stay. So they emphasized their ethnicity and roots, and indeed there was a bestselling book by that exact name, Roots, by Alex Haley, published in 1976 and aired on television the next year.
Now we are back to “people of color”. Again I am guessing, but perhaps this is an attempt to be more inclusive of many black people who are not all that black. Once again we are back on one of life’s continuums. I know I would rather be referred to as white than Caucasian only because my phylogenetic nomenclature sounds a little pompous and overdone for ordinary conversation. I am sure blacks must feel the same about being called Negroes. “People of color?” I don’t know, will whites become “People without color?” There is black and there is white, but what do you do when the majority of the population doesn’t really belong to either extreme end of the racial continuum? What will we call each other when we finally realize that our blood all runs red? How will be label ourselves? And in some cases, how will we know who to hate? How will I know where I fit, if I belong, if I am accepted, if I am normal? No one wants to be a loner in search of their lost tribe.
Labels and Xenophobia
We cherish our labels because it helps us figure out who we are, a sense of identity that is largely formed through feedback from our community. That community, and therefore our identity, can come as an accident of our birth, or by adoption. We can live our entire life more or less on auto-pilot by the simple expedient of accepting the heritage, and labels, of our forebears. We can be fiercely loyal to our group or faction, religion or political affiliation, and even give our lives to those who neither know nor particularly care about us, except as a means to their ends. And we could hate our neighbor living across the street, who might be the only guy on our block who would pick us up off the street when we fell down. We can miss a lot by limiting ourselves to labels. That is what xenophobia is all about.
Fear of Assimilation
Some folk’s attachment to labels is so intense that their greatest fear is of potential assimilation of their group into another, perhaps larger group. If enough black and white people intermarry, how will we know who is black and who is white anymore? And then who will we have to hate, or to blame our wretchedness on? That is why everywhere in the world, there are very strong taboos about intermarriage between races and ethnicities. Assimilation is the enemy for many, because it dilutes the sense of group identity. And it is always good to have an opposing group, an enemy, a Great Satan, on whom to blame whatever we don’t like about our life or what we see as being wrong with the world. This is also why people everywhere are encouraged to keep a distance from those outside the group, because we can hate or fear them as a group, but when we meet individuals we often form friendships and bonds. That can weaken the cohesiveness of the tribe. Who could forget the Capulets and Montagues?
Survival Advantages to Tribal Identity
Humans are very tribal, and we all draw strength from being “among our own.” We draw comfort from our brand identity. Some tribes, such as the Jews, have apparently drawn great survival advantages from resisting assimilation. When I dated a Jewish girl and we went to Jewish parties, everyone wanted to know right away if I was Jewish or not. They needed to “place” me on their cultural map. They were very welcoming and kind and I knew that I was accepted–on the margins. To be fully accepted I would have had to convert. Otherwise, a goy is still a goy. Some Jews, especially Reform, do intermarry, but overall the tribal or ethnic integrity is considered very important to them. Many of them fear assimilation as a threat to their identity.
Other tribes quite literally died out, became extinct, because of a failure to assimilate. The Vikings who settled in Greenland died out, probably in the 14th century, but the Eskimos survive to this day. Perhaps if the two ethnic groups had intermarried, there would still be Viking blood in the far North. The opposite of assimilation is often war, so perhaps the Eskimos wiped out the Vikings. We don’t know.
Survival Advantages to Mongrelization
When a cross-bred dog loses some of the distinctive characteristics of its forebears, it becomes harder to identify. It’s size, coloration, and behavior may be different. We are no longer sure what to expect. We either don’t know what to call it, or we invent a new breed. We have label confusion. Intensive in-breeding, such as what was done to create chocolate labs sometimes produces unanticipated genetic weaknesses. The same thing happens with too much inbreeding among humans; hence the near universal taboos on incest. Genetic diversity often brings strength and resilience.
America, the melting pot of the world, went on to empire.
The same can be said of the evolution of language itself. English is a mongrel language; it has borrowed remorselessly and unconscionably from most other languages it has come in contact with. It has assimilated. Partly as a result of this, it has become the dominant global language of business and air travel. There are more people in China learning English than the entire population of the United Kingdom.
Assimilation can convey survival advantages through genetic diversification and intellectual and cultural cross-pollination. Mutts can be healthier. Class distinctions and undue emphasis on pedigrees can lead to extinction. Labels can weaken us.
The Exceptional Individual
At the end of the day, our labels are our instrument for branding ourselves and everyone else, our accounting for differences and similarities. Our heritage may be of the utmost importance to us, or we may be citizens of the world, finding common cause with humanity everywhere. History seems to suggest that belonging to groups strengthens our survivability, but vast populations of groups have repeatedly been victimized and enslaved by their own group leaders. Group identity comes at a price. It is not always as safe as it appears.
It also seems the world is moved forward periodically by extraordinary individuals, who dare to step away from the group and challenge the status quo, usually at great personal risk. Their courage and originality does not mean necessarily that they were blessed with happy, fulfilled lives. In many cases they paid an awesome price for their uniqueness. We may be grateful to them for their contributions, but make very different choices for ourselves. Well, enough rambling for one day. I’ve got to get back to my group . . .