Field of Science

Don't like labels? How inhuman of you

Just a few ingredients that might be on the label for the average human.
Via Wikimedia Commons.
Humans like to classify things so much that we've got entire disciplines and subdisciplines devoted to the practice. Labeling helps us in any number of ways, from communicating in shorthand--a term that itself is a label based in a now-lost art--to corralling ideas or people or things or regions in ways general (white people) to specific (Homo sapiens). We like to categorize, and we start doing it in infancy [PDF]. 

But our relationship with labels is one of love alloyed with hate. As much as we use labels--words themselves are labels--for everything around us, within us, and about us--we also despise them. One google search on the phrase "I don't like labels" in quotes tells you as much. It seems that most of us have a little of that maverick in us--speaking of maverick, that started out as a label for the unlabeled--to want to break free of whatever labels we bear. We also have some understanding that no matter how hard we try to pigeonhole (which once literally meant a hole for pigeons) people, places, and things, nature has a way of spreading beyond those confines and expressing the uniqueness of the whole, if not of the parts.

A label is, in essence, of a reflection of assumed properties. If I label myself as female, most people will automatically assume that I have a number of associated physical and chemical properties typically accompany that label. I could say I'm an "ovary-bearing, monthly cycling human being with breasts, a uterus, and a vagina," but really, "female" tends to encompass all that.

Except. As many people know, females don't all have ovaries. Many don't cycle monthly. Some never have breasts, some lose them in transit. Ditto the uterus, sometimes even the vagina. On occasion, a female acquires a vagina as part of becoming female. Does that mean that the label "female" no longer applies? No. But it does illustrate how the shorthand of the label can belie some aspects of its reality while still being generally accurate and useful. 

And sometimes, the meaning of a label changes. Only a couple of hundred years ago, telling someone they were "nice" meant labeling them as a bit overly fussy or precise in their needs. Today, it means they're kind or pleasant. Meanings and relevance change.

These changes and the malleability of labels and their boundaries can make us think that labels, in the end, are meaningless. Take the sum of an individual's parts, and you'll find that what emerges from those parts transcends the inherent properties of each part. A single neuron's just a neuron, but from a pack of them interacting with internal messages and the world outside emerges each unique individual. Can we deny, though, that that emergent individual traces back ultimately to those parts, the individual neurons? That's where it starts.

So a label is a starting point. It's the place to begin, from where we work outward, incorporating the variations that expand beyond the label to the individual. Yes, labels tend to dissolve on close examination, allowing us to see past them and into deeper relationships, but that doesn't negate their importance as beginnings or identifiers or shorthand in the wider world.

Think of groups or social circles of which you may be part. Why are you in them? If you're a mother, you may be in some kind of "mom" group. A scientist? In a scientific society related to your discipline. Someone who's battled addiction? You may participate in a group of others with that shared experience. You come together in these groups because of a label--mom, scientist, addicted--and even though each member of the group is an individual, these labels form a shared commonality and produce the emotional glue that built the group and keeps it together.

As a mother myself, I fall under a parental sublabel known as the "special needs parent." My children, because of their identifiable needs, have labels. My oldest son is autistic. That's his label. Is he exactly like all other autistic people? No. And they are not like him. But their commonalities are sufficient to warrant the label. The label itself implies a suite of shared sensory sensitivities, behaviors, and communication deficits. Whatever else my son is--smart, funny, tall, blond, male--he is also these things, and that label applies. 

That label is also useful. For him and for his brother--who has the Tourette's trifecta of ADHD, OCD, and tics, lucky kid--these labels serve any number of positive purposes. I can search them online and find other people whose experiences overlap. I can tweet a question with a hashtagged label and obtain insights from people who have been there, done that. I can find summer camps, therapies, social communication classes, homeschool groups, online groups, blogs, and news stories, all potentially related to my children, thanks to the existence of these labels.

These are only a few of the benefits. Because of the need for a starting point, to receive intervention services in school, a label is required. We no longer receive those because we homeschool, but our oldest son couldn't have received the in-school therapies and aide support he had without his "autism" label as a beginning. It also serves as a shorthand in the wider world, even if that world has yet to fully understand how much each individual expands uniquely beyond the label of "autism" or "ADHD."

Can labels carry negatives? Absolutely. First, there are the backlashes against them. For whatever reason, people who don't have these labels or have any relevance at all see fit to challenge them, sometimes with appalling ignorance (the stupid at that last link burns so hot, you may want to don protective goggles). When a label is particularly pervasive in popular culture, the tendency among the vox populi seems to be to denigrate it, dismiss it, demean it. Is that painful? Sure. Does it make the label any less valid that a few noisy, uninformed people don't "believe" in it? No.

My children are more than their labels. Of course. They each exist as the unique emergent property of the sum of a seemingly infinite number of parts, like every human being does. That doesn't mean, however, that they don't have sufficient basic components in common with some others to duck a label--or make a label irrelevant to them. In the aggregate of groups or communities bound by these commonalities, these labels are deeply meaningful, even as the disparate individuals that emerge from them remain unique. And for that reason alone--that deep meaning, the emotional glue that a label can be, the starting point that takes us in many a useful direction--you'll never find me saying, "I don't like labels." After all, I used 1100+ of them writing this post.


  1. Labels such as "Autistic" or "Dyslexic" or "ADHD", for example, are a very useful tool since they signify the neurocognitive profile of an individual. Insights into such profiles have allowed us to identify learning strengths and weaknesses and thereby design and deliver learning processes and environments that enable and maximize achievement and quality of life.
    However, there is also the social side of labels to consider. Processes of pathologization, stigmatization, de-humanization and infantilisation all create barriers to social inclusion, social mobility and long-term social, economic, physical,, mental and emotional well being.
    In order to achieve the best outcome, this aspect of being the proud processor of a label must also be taken into consideration and strategically addressed.


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