#14 Watch the Labels

Right now it seems the question you like to ask whenever we watch a TV show or movie is: “Is he a good guy or a bad guy?” There is a strong inclination for you to separate the world between Black and White. “Bad” and “Good”. “Right” and “Wrong”. “Smart” vs “Dumb”.

For us parents, we cater to that inclination because it’s a way to pre-digest the complexity of the world and regurgitate it for your consideration. Even so, even after prompting for a classification, you often will ask questions about the world that belie the lost nuance and real shading. “Well, if he’s so bad why does he do X? Does his mommy love him?”

(Good questions. Necessary questions. But complex and nuanced. Because the very exercise of classification is inherently limiting – and your current age makes it difficult to explain otherwise – it’s so tempting to fail back into authority mode. “Why? Because I say so, that’s why.”  Doing so fails you, so I’m sorry for those inevitable times that I did. And will.)

But labeling – or naming- something is an especially powerful process.  It’s natural since it gives us a ready-made index on how to handle people or situations. “Oh, this person is a [BLANK]? Okay, I can flip my mental page to page 78 and use that script!” It saves us mental processing power. It gives order to our mental landscape and the world at large.

But it is so limiting.

Back in the stone age of computers (i.e. my youth), computers could show a maximum of 16 colors. That’s it.  Black, Navy, Blue, Green, Teal, Lime, Aqua/Cyan, Maroon, Purple, Olive, Gray, Silver, Red, Fuschia, Yellow and White.  Can you imagine taking a picture of someone and trying to represent them in just 16 colors? Sure, you could do it. But it would be at best a very rough approximation of who you are trying to depict.  Even if you waited until the next generation – 256 colors! – you lose the fidelity of the many important details.

I can tell you though as someone who lived through the progression of technology, we thought each generation was amazing. 16 color King’s Quest? Outstanding! 256 colors of Wing Commander? The epitome of experience.

That’s what labeling is like. It’s helpful at times, but it only roughly approximates reality. But if you only knew the world of 256 colors, you’d THINK it was all there is. That the label actually reflected the reality, and not just a generalization.

I wish I could tell you that the tendency to label goes away as you get older. In reality, the opposite happens. The distinction between the label and the reality of what it is supposed to represent blurs. The label ossifies and hardeners. Liberal and Conservative. Democrat and Republican. It gets really ugly.

But all that isn’t really the worst part of the whole thing. Do you know what’s even worse than labels you apply on other people?

Labels you apply to yourself.

I think the dangers of negative labels are easier to understand. Calling yourself “dumb” or “slow” or “clumsy”  – all self -limiting, harmful. But there are other labels that are seductive to use, but dangerous to implement. Like “Smart.”

“Smart”? What’s wrong with that? It seems as if it should be right up there with “good”. (As in, what a “good girl!” That might warrant a separate post.)  The problem with “smart” is that it’s an adjective that describes an innate sense, not a learned sense. As opposed to “educated” (which you can attain), “smart” is something you are or aren’t. (Setting aside the debate on the various types of aptitudes/smarts that actually exist as opposed the generic, simplified version that pervades our culture.)

Once you call yourself that, suddenly you’re on a treadmill stuck on “run”.   It can be maddening and exhausting to keep up, lest you fall and bruise your sense of self. The stronger you identify with or internalize that label, the harder you’ll run to keep up. And the more painful the reckoning is when you inevitably fail in some way. Or the more tortured your life becomes as you filter out reality to maintain the plausibility of that label.   (What? Am I talking out of personal experience? Um, ask me when I’m older.)

So, my dear – watch the labels. You can read them and apply them when you need to, but please look beyond them.