How Labels Shape Our Reality and Limit Our Ability to Reason

"The definitions belong to the definers, not the defined."

The late New York Times media columnist David Carr led a complicated life.

When I read his articles in my college journalism classes, he was a celebrated writer whose prose we all worshipped. He was also a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who had abused women.

In his 2008 memoir, The Night of the Gun, he writes: "If I said I was a fat thug who beat up women and sold bad coke, would you like my story? What if instead I wrote that I was a recovered addict who obtained sole custody of my twin girls, got us off welfare and raised them by myself, even though I had a little touch of cancer? Now we’re talking."

One identity labels him a destructive drug addict while the other celebrates his achievements in getting clean. Which one stuck? Luckily for Carr, it was the latter, but there are many people who don't get a second chance.

I've been long fascinated by subject of labeling. There are many labels, ranging from political affiliation to occupation to cultural background to socioeconomic level.

Sometimes, we voluntarily label ourselves, and sometimes society labels us. When we do it, labeling can act as a compass to our values. When someone else does it, a label can be a lifelong prison sentence.

In the 1930s, linguist Benjamin Whorf proposed the hypothesis of linguistic relativity. He believed that the words we use to describe what we see are not mere labels, but they actually end up determining our reality and view of the world.

In one experiment, psychologists showed a group of people a video of a girl playing in a low-income neighborhood. Another group of people watched a video of the same girl, playing in the same way, but in a high-middle class neighborhood. In both videos, the girl was asked questions, and some of her answers were accurate while others contained mistakes.

The psychologists found that people used the socioeconomic status label as an indicator of academic ability. When the girl was labeled as “middle-class,” people believed that her cognitive performance was better. The point is that the truth about her cognitive performance doesn't matter — the way society treats her will inadvertently have an effect.

My whole life I've hated labels. I get extremely uncomfortable when I'm put in a group where other people get to decide what my values are. I was born in Bulgaria, grew up in the South, and currently live in New York. I don’t fit neatly in any one box. For as long as I've been alive, my world has been colored with nuance, complexity, and context.

But in 2020, it feels as though we live in a society that doesn't believe people can be two things at the same time. It's not a matter of ideological difference; it's a matter of sloppy, dichotomous thinking. We want simplicity while we resist ambivalence.

Here's the thing: Labels can lead to tribalism, dogma, and mob mentality. When we crave connection, we join groups in order to feel a sense of belonging. But it becomes dangerous when that group limits what you can and cannot say to the point where you forfeit independent and rational thought. It's worth asking yourself, "Is this my own original thought or have I just blindly accepted someone else's beliefs and thought patterns?"

In a time of extreme divisiveness, the problem is that we don't even give each other a fair chance. When we've labeled someone in our heads as a certain type of person, we have a hard time hearing them out.

One columnist described her experience as such: "Recently at a roundtable policy discussion on a timely topic, the speaker finished a presentation and opened it up to comments. One of the participants spoke up, and prefaced his comments with 'I'm a Republican.' Looking back, I don't even remember what he said after that."

Fellow Profile reader Peter Levin pointed me to a bizarre new startup called SecondBody that aims to change the way we label each other based on our human biases. "We’re quite good at telling who fits into our particular 'tribe'—which was probably a great proxy for threat-level a few thousand years ago—but we’re less good at judging objective truth," the company's blog states.

Many times, our labels are simply wrong, and they can lead us astray. Imagine if you could hear a political candidate's ideas coming out of the mouth of someone of another race and gender. If things (or people) are packaged differently, could we hear them differently?

Labels filter what we hear and can even shape the reality we see. My world could look dramatically different from yours because you see the world in black-and-white terms while mine is multi-layered.

Simply notice how you talk about people. Do you label your colleague as "stupid" or can you accept that they made a mistake — just like how you have before? I've previously written about how the language you speak can influence your mental frameworks, noting that if you communicate often with people who don’t look like you, speak the same language, or believe the same things, you might find yourself breaking out of the egotistical thought patterns so prevalent today.

Social media only exacerbates the problem. We label people as fixed characters — ones incapable of change. So we label — sometimes entire swaths of people — as "addicts," "racists," "socialists," and "criminals."

Remember, every time you slap a label on someone and put them in a box, you filter what you see. You make your world smaller, simpler, and less reflective of reality. As novelist Toni Morrison once wrote, "The definitions belong to the definers, not the defined."


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