LABELS: the useful and the dangerous

We’re all familiar with labels: Care Content on clothing saves silk from being mistaken for rayon; Nutrition labels can save us from suffering fatal allergic reaction; asking someone to please pass the salt makes it likely we won’t be given pepper. These labels are all useful and make our days unfold in something less than chaos.

But there are other labels that, when used by the unscrupulous or evil, can bring horrifying results. To be labelled a Jew in Hitler’s Germany was a death sentence for 6 million. To be labelled a Rohingya in today’s Myanmar has brought torture, rape, destruction and death to more than 400,000. Today, in Donald Trump’s America, to be labelled Mexican, Muslim, immigrant (to name but a few) is to live in fear of expulsion, deportation and possibly worse.

Hitler, Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, not to mention religious fanatics of all stripes, have learned and perfected the use of labels to gain their own personal ends. Every single label that springs from the mouths of people such as these needs to be questioned and challenged.

Labels have had, and continue to have, tragic implications for millions of people throughout history and around the world but there are other labels that are no less pernicious – if on a personal level. We are thinking here of labels such as ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder), ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), OCD (Obsessive-compulsive Disorder), AS (Asperger Syndrome), BEH (Behaviourally/Emotionally Handicapped), CAPD (Central Auditory Processing Disorder), DD (Developmental Disability), GAD (General Anxiety Disorder), HFA (High Functioning Autism), LFA (Low Functioning Autism), IED (Intermittent Explosive Disorder) …. the list goes on and on.

It is interesting to note that not one of these disorders is mentioned in the Home Medical Encyclopedia published in the mid-1970s. And for all this labelling no one really knows the cause(s) of any of these conditions; therefore no one knows what to do to remedy them.

The problem here is that young people live with these labels as though this is the totality of who they are. This confusion tends to be expressed in one of two ways: the label is used as an excuse for others not to expect anything good or productive from the child – “I’m autistic so don’t expect me to participate, do my homework…”, etc. or the label is internalized and transforms into “I’m a loser”. Either way this is a downward spiral of failure and exclusion.

Let’s follow the use of labels one more step. A very personal one: our names.  We might introduce ourselves to a stranger by saying “My name is John what is yours”. They respond by saying “My name is Heather” and we attach our personal perceptions of that person to the name – their label; and they to ours and now we have a neat little box that will summarize the complex and vast totality of that person. In an instant, we decide whether we like that person, or not. We think back to a “Heather” in fourth grade we didn’t like and that colours our perception of this person. The truth is no one of us is ever the same from one moment to the next – so how could a name, a label, be an accurate perception of that person? But we use these labels all the time.

To conclude: there is a famous painting of a smoking pipe hanging in a famous art gallery in Los Angeles. At the bottom of the painting  are written the words “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (this is not a pipe). True. This is a label. We need to look beyond the labels.

By ian hepburn,

Guest editorial

  • About
  • Latest Posts