General Question

Earthgirl's avatar

What purpose does it serve to put labels on people?

Asked by Earthgirl (11189points) February 26th, 2012

We all do it. Of course there are many practical reasons to do it but, putting aside the obvious practical reasons, what are the advantages, what are the pitfalls, and how can we make use of one whilst avoiding the other?

Do you think labeling people as far as race, religion, personaliity traits, philosophies, politics, ad infinitum is more beneficial or harmful?

Please elaborate to your heart’s content! I love long answers.

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49 Answers

talljasperman's avatar

To help lazy closed minded people sort and organize 7 billion people into small manageable groups.

HungryGuy's avatar

Well, if, for example, you’re looking for someone with red hair, you take a look at all the labels hanging off the people around you (hopefully the sticky hasn’t worn out and the label fallen off) until you see a label that reads, “red hair.” See? Labels are useful.

john65pennington's avatar

Good if only to tell us the ingredients inside are all natural and not fake, like boobs.

Earthgirl's avatar

HungryGuy Lol, that would be an example of an “obvious practical reason” in my book.

KatawaGrey's avatar

First of all, I would like to beg the question: what exactly is a label? People talk about how horrible labels are blah blah blah, but no one every actually gives a clear-cut definition of one. One could argue that calling someone tall is a label just as surely as calling someone gay or white or Catholic.

I think labels are in the nature of language. Part of it is laziness, yes, it is easier to say, “Ed is gay,” than it is to say, “Ed likes to engage in sexual activities and romantic relations with men.” but I think the bigger part of it is to be able to understand the world a little better. I have often heard that Eskimos have many different words for “snow.” Well, this is an inherently inaccurate statement. Each word describes a specific kind of snow, thus economizing the language. Rather than using many words to describe one thing, they already have a word locked and loaded.

I think the same can be true of labels put on people. If we take Ed from my above example and his sister wants to introduce him to another man whom she thinks will be sexually and romantically compatible with Ed, which makes more sense, to say, “Ed, there is a man I know who I think you are more likely to be sexually and romantically compatible with than other men because he also enjoys engaging in sexual activities and romantic relations with other men,” or “Ed, I know a nice gay man you might like”?

There is also the issue that what people consider to be labels can be just basic identifiers. For example, if Ed our friend from above is white that is to say, his more recent ancestors come from Europe and continued to breed with Europeans exclusively or almost exclusively until Ed was born and he has a friend named Ed who is black that is to say, the greatest portion of his recent ancestors come from Africa and/or the Caribbean and continued to breed with mostly others whose recent ancestors also come from Africa and/or the Caribbean until Ed was born, is it lazy or offensive to quickly differentiate between them in conversation by using race? Some would say that it is. I say it is simply easier.

Sample conversation:

Jerry: “I saw Ed the other day.”
Sylvia: “Oh, which Ed?”
Jerry: “Black Ed.”
Sylvia: “Oh, how’s he doing? I heard he got a new job.”

Tell me, how was it offensive or lazy or close-minded to refer to Ed by his skin color when both of these people are friends with both men?

Similarly, labels viewed as only negative can have quite an important role in conversation. For example, Sylvia and Jerry are still talking, but their conversation has moved away from Ed and his new job In case you were wondering, he’s adjusting well to the work environment and went out with his good friend Ed to celebrate getting the job.

Sample conversation:

Jerry: “On my way here, I met your neighbor, Diane.”
Sylvia: “I don’t know much about her. She’s new to the building.”
Jerry: “She’s very pretty. Do you know if she’s seeing anyone?”
Sylvia: “I don’t think so. She always has men coming and going. She seems like a bit of a slut.”

In this sample conversation, Sylvia called Diane a slut. First of all, this is goes back to my previous point. Calling Diane a slut is easier than saying, “She seems like she engages in numerous sexual activities with numerous men with no intent or desire of romantic attachment.”

Second of all, this shows Sylvia’s ideas about Diane. “Slut” is considered one of the bad labels, the kind that people want to abolish simply because of its negative connotation. However, by using the word, Sylvia has given Jerry a lot of information, and not about Diane. Sylvia has shown that she disapproves of this kind of behavior from Diane. She shows that she thinks Jerry should disapprove too. However unfortunate or judgmental it may be, she also shows that Diane has indeed been having sex with a lot of men, or at least it appears that way to Sylvia.

I think this is the longest answer I have ever written and I heartily appreciate all who read it.

filmfann's avatar

I totally get this question.

I hate birthdays. I don’t like all the attention, but I especially don’t like getting gifts. It seems that when someone gives me a gift, it’s a little window into how that person sees me. A movie trivia book? Is that all I am? A CD? Is this the music you think I like?
I was a bit hesitant to even mention being a Christian on here, because people will immediately put a label on you, and that limits their perception of who you are.
Yes I work for the phone company, I like movies, lots of different music, and I enjoy humor. I am also a lot more than that.

thorninmud's avatar

Some labels have to do with predicting behavior. Psychology uses such labels all the time to describe personality, on the premise that an “introvert” or an “extrovert” or a “narcissist” will tend to behave in predictable ways in given situations. That can have its uses. Employers and college admissions officers use labels like “leader” and “creative” to predict success in their environments.

One huge danger is when we make false correlations, such as attributing certain character traits to racial groups. These are then assumed to be reliable predictors of behavior, when they aren’t at all. That was the error of phrenology, as well.

Things are a little different when it comes to self-selected labels. If I say that I’m a Democrat, for example, or a Goth, then that is a shorthand way of saying that I embrace a certain set of principles or a particular lifestyle or a particular aesthetic. While I may reserve the right to deviate from the program in certain particulars, I think the label says something valid about me.

The greatest problem with labels is the way they tend to dehumanize, by which I mean that they reduce the infinite complexity of a human being to a simplistic abstraction. If I know that someone is a “conservative”, I may already be predisposed to dislike that person, even though their political beliefs are only a tiny aspect of their full personhood. It makes me think I know more about them than I actually do.

john65pennington's avatar

2nd Answer…........................

Would these labels show an expiration date?

Could be helpful down the road. Good time to take a life insurance policy on this person.

Earthgirl's avatar

Believe me when I say I have no bone to pick here. I honestly want to know how everyone sees the good and bad uses of labels and how we can maximize the good and minimize the bad. I am not against labels, per se. Sometimes I dislike it when people try to use a label to instantly “size someone up”. It is the use of them for making snap judgements that I hate.

JilltheTooth's avatar

I think that it is a shame that the very word “label” has been…er…labeled as negative. I appreciate what @KatawaGrey says about economy of language, with 7 billion of us we’d go mad trying to individualize millions of folks that we don’t even know. I probably know 10 Chinese people, I mean by that people who are actually Chinese citizens. When I characterize them as “Chinese” I don’t feel that I am “reducing” at all, I am just giving a nutshell assessment to others about nationality and cultural possibilities. If one of the Chinese persons so mentioned is an artist, I will characterize him/her as an artist if that is the appropriate context.
@filmfann : If I give you a present of a film I think you might like, I am addressing an area I know is of personal interest. The chances are pretty good that I can’t possibly give you enough gifts to cover all of your interests.
The act of “labeling” is not, in and of itself a bad or negative thing. The use of labels in a bad or negative way to promote a negative agenda is a bad thing.

Earthgirl's avatar

I am also speaking of the labels we use to describe ourselves. Do they lead us to being more closed to other possibllites because they become an inherent part of our identity? Are they helpful to understanding ourselves? Are they helpful to our self-development?

Earthgirl's avatar

JilltheTooth “The act of “labeling” is not, in and of itself a bad or negative thing. The use of labels in a bad or negative way to promote a negative agenda is a bad thing.”

This is the sort of differentiation I am looking for.
I completely agree. There are many practical reason to use labels and I don’t deny that. I don’t think labels are inherently bad either. However, I find sometimes that people feel a need to label when the purpose is not to understand things better or deal with things on a practical level but just as an end in itself.

JilltheTooth's avatar

@Earthgirl : I don’t disagree with that at all, but I think it may be more of an effort assessment issue. I don’t find most people to be consciously stopping at the label and going no further, I think we would explore further but for the increasing levels of “noise” in our everyday lives.
I think a far greater problem may lie within ourselves as you said above your last post. I think the greater danger is how we limit ourselves and our own potentials by perhaps taking more seriously the labels we hear others use to describe us than they were intended. I know that is a problem that I personally have. I have been often described as “lazy”, which has a very negative index, when perhaps I simply have a different set of priorities than is the social optimum. I much prefer to read than to houseclean, to stroll than to stride, to quietly contemplate than to be out there being a socially mandated form of productive. Many see that as “lazy” and judge me harshly.
GQ, @Earthgirl , I am enjoying this

Aethelflaed's avatar

I think it’s actually really useful to label people.

Take, for example, the label “feminist”. It tells me sooooo much about you. It tells me that you’ve specifically chosen “feminist” over “egalitarian” or “humanist” or “I’m not a feminist, but of course, I believe in gender equality”. For younger women, given how controversial the label has become, it tells me that you’ve spent some time thinking “is this the best way to identify myself to the world? Am I willing to take on the immediate backlash some people will have to that word?” and figuring out why it’s important to you to identify that way and not others. When you use “womanist” instead of “feminist”, I know that you think feminism is for well-off white ladies and feel excluded by it. When you’re a man and identify as a feminist, it tells me a lot more (occasionally, that you just think it’s a great way to get some easy bootay). When you qualify your feminism (eg “postmodern sex-positive feminist”), again, even more info. And really fast. Because, it’s exhausting having to have really long conversations every time you meet someone new just to cover some really basic info.

In dating, labels help me know if there’s a chance in hell we would be compatible. If you’re a 28 year old Christian virgin, that’s great for you but we’re definitely too different to have a successful relationship – but an atheist? Mmmm, date one. If you’re a foodie, we’ll probably be able to stand each other’s company for at least one meal. If you’re a self-identified nerd, again, I learn some things about you and know that if everything goes south, we can at least discuss Picard vs Kirk. I don’t want to have to spend 4 dates just learning about the most basic info about people; I just don’t have that much time on this planet.

Earthgirl's avatar

Aethelflaed Yes, thanks. Lots of good examples of postivie uses of labels. A label like feminist does say a lot. It’s not a simple adjective at all.

Dutchess_III's avatar

I make it a point not to know my student’s educational “history,” to avoid those labels that might cause me to treat them differently, whether I mean to or not.
I have a student who was doing fine for two months…he couldn’t read very well, or write (with practice though, he’s doing much better now,) but he really was doing fine…Solid B work. Then one day he suddenly fell to pieces! His sentences just went to absolute hell, he couldn’t seem to read the simplest words. I said, “What is WRONG with you!”
He says, “I’m LD. Didn’t they tell you?”
I said, “Well, you weren’t LD in MY classroom until just now, so knock it off!”
And he did. :)

tinyfaery's avatar

It’s what humans do: judge, label and categorize. It’s not only what we think, but how we think.

Dutchess_III's avatar

@Earthgirl I think the problem with labeling is if you know what label others have put on a person, you THINK you see pattern recognition, whether it’s there or not.

linguaphile's avatar

Labels can be really useful, economical way to communicate, yes, but like many other things they become destructive when taken to excess or when used to hurt others.

When I found out yesterday that there was a jaw-dropping 6 year old rumor at work that everyone believed all this time, I said this: “I’d like some f’ing input in how I’m interpreted or defined.” Realistic, no… but wishful thinking!

Earthgirl's avatar

Dutchess ll Yes, agreed. And even if the pattern is real, it’s only part of the story. And besides, people are changing all the time. We need to stay open to what they are in the present moment and not put them in a category or a box of our own making.

tinyfaery's avatar

I don’t want to read all that. What I mean, is our minds (whatever that is) are constantly judging what we see, putting it in to categories so that our everyday stimuli does not muck-up our higher brain functions. It’s probably an evolutionary trait that once served to protect us from danger. Now, it serves to gives us time for that higher brain functioning.

dabbler's avatar

Like they say, there are two kinds of people in the world, those who put people into groups, and those who don’t.

@Dutchess_III What a great story (the LD kid) ! It’s usually so unfortunate to label kids, because they are so impressionable. Unless you’re telling them they’re polite, smart, charming and beautiful (which hopefuylly will rub off on them!).

Dutchess_III's avatar

Exactly. We so cripple the kids with those damn labels.

whitecarnations's avatar

There are labels and there are taxonomic charts. Labels created by society are a loose form to describe the misperceived form of a particular culture and highly subjective. Taxonomy however is used strictly for purpose of organization in the field of science.

CaptainHarley's avatar

Humans are categorizing creatures. It’s a survival trait. Imagine if you had to determine, largely on a trial and error basis, whether each animal you met was a predator or not. It’s much safer to know that any animal with forward facing eyes, canine teeth, and other common characteristics falls into the category “predator” and should be avoided at every opportunity. Unfortunately, we tend to apply that same generalizing principle to our own species, which forms at least a portion of the basis for discrimination.

In my opinion, labelling is more detrimental than it is beneficial, but only if we can be selective about it and not use it on ourselves.

wundayatta's avatar

Yesterday, I was talking to my sister about some work my son had recently done. She told me a friend had thought the work was probably the basis for a business.

Well, what father isn’t thrilled at the idea that his son of a dozen years of age already has some useful talent. But who was this friend of my sister’s? Was there any reason to take her opinion seriously?

Label time!

Well, she was a colleague of my sister’s. One point in favor. Not to mention my sister likes her, so that’s a few more points right there.

But hold on. She’s crazy! A crank. A mean cynic!

Hard to assess, now. These things sound good, if done the right way, but do they make someone any good a predicting markets?

So my own label algebra shows up. I’m guessing that since she’s a bunch of these things, that she’s probably single, like my sister. But if single, then she could well be a lesbian.

No. Wrong and wrong! She is married, with children, no less! So how cranky can she be? Not only that, she is Australian!

Well, by this time I am utterly confused as to whether she knows anything about business at all, so I ask about her class, thinking that if she is upper class, maybe she represents some taste that could be remunerative if one found a way to appeal to them. Alas, she is a miner’s daughter.

There was more, of course, but I don’t remember it.

RIght. So what’s the analysis? Inconclusive. She could have an opinion that makes sense, but the labels are too confusing and contradictory to tell. Worse, I might have the wrong understanding of the labels, so even if the labels were right, I’d draw the wrong conclusion.

That’s my story, and I’m sticking to it! We use labels to make instant assessments of people as to their reliability and as to how we might need to relate to them. The problem is that there are hundreds of labels for every individual, and many of them contradict each other. And even if we get the labels right (which is dubious, since they are all matters of opinion), we may have the wrong understanding of each label and may draw the wrong conclusions based on our understanding of the labels.

And yet? In the absence of personal experience with someone, and in absence of reading their words for years or months or whatever, what else do we have to go on?

Labels are a shortcut. But like all shortcuts, we miss a lot of territory by taking them. There is no knowing in advance if we miss information that is crucial to our relationship. So the key to using labels is to be cautious. Someone may misapply a label, because they don’t understand what it means. They may misassess a person. They may think we are talking about someone else.

We should always be open for information that goes counter to the label. We should not rely on them so much. They are a starting point, but we need to take care that they don’t lead us astray. If all you know is the label, perhaps you should still give a person a chance to be someone other than the label(s) suggest.

Damn! And I was going to try to give short answers today! You are an evil fluther seductress, @Earthgirl!

dabbler's avatar

It occurs to me that I find “labels” or generalizations or profiling or… useful in two ways:
– as a starting point for further evaluation. You see someone, you hear them, they remind you of someone or hundreds of folks you’ve dealt with in the past and had something in common with the person in front of you now. Seems inevitable that we do this when starting to get to know others.
– when it’s not important to have better information than an early impression, that’s just fine. A lot of us deal with lots of people daily in several contexts. It’s useful to categorize a lot of the people we deal with according to what boundaries and expectations can be reasonably expected from them.

woodcutter's avatar

It makes it possible to demonize groups when all the steam has run out of one’s argument.

KatawaGrey's avatar

Why don’t we do away with positive labels as well? Why don’t we stop calling people geniuses and artists and sweethearts?

It seems to me that the only time people rail against labels and say how evil they are is if they’re talking about negative labels. So, for all of you who claim that labels are such awful, divisive things, are you going to stop using positive labels as well?

Earthgirl's avatar

KatawaGrey I understand the point you are trying to make. It’s like anything in life, right? You have to take the good with the bad. Maybe we all strive to create an identity for ourselves that includes mostly positive labels. But anything positve can be a negative too. It depends on the lens it’s seen through. That lens is the personal perspective of the person applying the label. It may or may not represent the actuality or it may be based on a faulty, distorted or partial perception As such, it needs to be open to changing. So much depends on how the bare facts are interpreted.
The example that comes to mind is the name Nelson Mandela. His name translated means “tree shaker” i.e. troublemaker. That is a label many would think to be bad, yet in his case, it is a label he may be proud to embrace.

Pandora's avatar

I agree with @talljasperman. Our whole language is built on nouns and adjectives. How would you describe anything in science, or places or its inhabitants?
Can you imagine a novel. The non-specific person entered the room and spoke with the other stanger who was also non-specific in sex, height or any other description.
Or Mr Policeman the mugger looked like every other non-specific person and its skin color was normal, and it had hair, legs and arms and couldn’t run too fast because of another non-specific label I can not name.

KatawaGrey's avatar

@Earthgirl: First of all, thank you for getting my point. Labeling is good and bad and we have to put up with the bad in order to earn the good.

Second of all, I have a thought about bad labels. They are a symptom. If we stop using them, nothing is going to change. Bad labels come from bad behavior and bad ideas, not the other way around. We need to deal with the behaviors and the ideas. The labels are just silly ephemera.

Earthgirl's avatar

Pandora Yes, that would pretty much dry up language and deaden it! But I don’t think an adjective is the same thing as a label. I think a label implies more of a tag attached to a person that attempts to sum them up and pigeonhole them. Simple functional adjectives don’t cause as much trouble as these type of tags which rely greatly on stereotypes for their power to harm.

linguaphile's avatar

Useful labels: man, woman, blonde, brunette, tall, short, bearded, etc.
Good labels: friendly, driven, exciting, smart, hard-worker, sweet, etc
Bad labels: dumb, slow, lazy, arrogant, sloppy, careless, etc
Evil, destroying labels (if untrue): liar, cheater, thief, wife-beater, kid-raper, addict, abuser, unreliable, etc

It goes back to the intent of the person labeling—to describe or to destroy?

Earthgirl's avatar

linguphile Yes, intent is so important.I never thought of name calling as a form of propaganda but I came across this in Wikipedia:
Name calling is a cognitive bias and a technique to promote propaganda. Propagandists use the name-calling technique to incite fears or arouse positive prejudices with the intent that invoked fear (based on fearmongering tactics) or trust will encourage those that read, see or hear propaganda to construct a negative opinion, in respect to the former, or a positive opinion, with respect to the latter, about a person, group, or set of beliefs or ideas that the propagandist would wish the recipients to believe. The method is intended to provoke conclusions and actions about a matter apart from an impartial examinations of the facts of the matter. When this tactic is used instead of an argument, name-calling is thus a substitute for rational, fact-based arguments against an idea or belief, based upon its own merits, and becomes an argumentum ad hominem.[1]
name calling

linguaphile's avatar

@Earthgirl Thank you for that—I’ll definitely use that in my classroom. I, too, never thought of name calling as propaganda but it definitely is. What an eye opener!!

likipie's avatar

It serves no purpose except to separate one “type” of people from another. All labels do is point out who’s different and in what way. We’re all different, therefore we’re all the same. Labels are pointless.

rooeytoo's avatar

Isn’t labeling someone the same as judging them, or at least the result of judging? I have no problem with judging or labeling, I do it all the time. I think most people do it whether they choose to acknowledge it or not. I think I have the right to determine who I want to be a part of my life and there are some people that I feel would not be a good part of my life.

GQ by the way and interesting answers. Most disapprove of judging but think labeling is okay.

likipie's avatar

@rooeytoo Labeling is a form of judging but I wouldn’t consider it to be the same thing. We all judge people in our minds whether we want to admit it or not, but not all of us verbalize our judgements. It’s not ok to judge people but we all do it, we’re all human.

rooeytoo's avatar

@likipie – I judge and I am sure that I myself am judged by people around me whether they admit it or not. I do not think it is a bad thing to do. If I were to make an unkind judgement about a person and then spread it around, that would be bad. But for me to think it to myself is perfectly alright in my book.

likipie's avatar

@rooeytoo I guess that’s why we all have our own “books” then.

fundevogel's avatar

It’s funny. I’m with @rooeytoo on this…but we’ve got our unavoidable differences highlighted by how we label a particular type of person. It’s not the labeling that bothers me. It’s the judgement that leads to such a label.

Avoiding negative (or potentially negative) labels doesn’t change much, it just hides an issue that might otherwise be more exposed.

rooeytoo's avatar

@fundevogel – aren’t you the one who is always on me for making judgements?

I don’t understand what you are saying, you don’t mind the label, but the process of labeling i.e. judging bothers you???? How can you assign a label unless you make a judgement or an assessment of some kind? Assessment being judgement by another name.

fundevogel's avatar

@rooeytoo What I mean is that going after the label is treating the symptom, not the problem. You do that and you make certain viewpoints socially unacceptable, but that doesn’t mean they go away, just that they go underground.

I would rather accept labels as a basic part of communication, one that can be positive or negative, and concentrate on what issues they raise rather than sweeping them under the rug with the elimination of their verbal signifiers.

rooeytoo's avatar

@fundevogel – I have no idea what you are saying to me.

fundevogel's avatar

@rooeytoo Labels can expose the user’s thoughts on the subject. Eliminating labels that expose hurtful thoughts just keeps thoughts hidden. It doesn’t address the actual problem.

It’s like when racists learned they couldn’t use the “N word” without consequences. It doesn’t make them less racist for them to stop using that label. It puts a layer of camo over them.

rooeytoo's avatar

@fundevogel – your thinking gives me a headache.

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