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Labels: The Blessing And The Curse

bunky’s pickle, flickr Creative Commons

When I was in high school in the 1980s, well-meaning grown-ups set about trying to break down labels and stereotypes. The destructive categories of race and class, the social strata of jocks and geeks, goths, stoners, and punks, they thought, were destructive to our young psyches and to the orderly running of the school.

I suspect the immense failure of this campaign had less to do with the fact that teenagers are natural contrarians and more to do with what's good about labels: labels offer us identification without much ambiguity. Teenagers get a whole lot of pressure, not just from each other, but from marketers and parents and cultural norms, to spend their teenage years “finding themselves.” Aside from perhaps JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, there are few guides detailing how to go about finding yourself, so, pushed around—sometimes literally—teens find themselves in the groups where they feel safest and fit the best.

We'd like to think that this kind of self-labeling ends at adulthood, but our teenage labeling is really just practice for labels of profession, cultural identity, political affiliation, and socio-economic status. The young jock morphs into the adult executive, the young nerd into the grown-up techie, the young goth into the mature artist. This isn’t inevitable, of course, and counter-examples abound, but for as much trouble as labels cause us, their protective effects also remain in place throughout life.

When those labels go against us, however, and become epithets of limitation and discrimination, we have to start looking for other ways to help people identify and feel safe.

When we call someone a thug or a schizophrenic, when we call someone a loser or a junkie or a 'ho', we risk that person's identification becoming a self-fulfilling prophesy. Much worse, we reinforce the injustices that keep those who are so labeled disempowered.