On Labels and Identity

This will probably be a controversial post, but I’m willing to take the risk.  Here goes nothing.

When we think somebody is being very silly, such as doing funny movements and acting in weir ways that we don’t normally do just for the fun of it, we will tease them for being ‘gay’ or ‘retarded.’  When we’re angry at others for a mistake that shouldn’t have been made, we call them ‘stupid’ out of the impulse that is governed by our boiling emotions.  Sure, in these situations, emotions can get the better of reason.  We will do things that we may end up regretting only because we feel that way at the time, only for those feelings to vanish shortly afterwards.  That’s the thing about emotion.

Only when reason comes to the picture, when we start to call people certain things because it becomes a ‘deduction’ that we make, then it’s a problem for me.  I mean, I understand that we tend to call things the names we do when we make such observations, but are labels really necessary?  Have we gone too far to label people to the extent to which it can become their identity — the only things they can identify themselves with?

Take homosexuality, for instance.  A controversial topic, but it needs to be discussed one way or the other because it’s a subject I’ve contemplated over on numerous occasions.  Here I am, a straight, Asian, 17-year old girl who is talking about the necessity to label sexuality.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m not trying to spark a debate over whether or not homosexuality is ‘right or wrong,’ but here’s the question I’ve been asking for a long time.  Why do we need to consider those who love people of the same gender ‘gay’ or ‘lesbian’?  Why do we even need to call them that?  Is it to deliberately set them apart from the rest of the heterosexual world to create a distinct identity that is not related to his or her DNA?  Is it so that we can effectively call their ‘traits’ and ‘style’ a different type of ‘culture’?  I’ve always wondered, if we’re supposed to be starting to appreciate the lifestyles of homosexuality, then why do we still need to set them apart?  Why do we still need to call them gay — why do they even need to identify themselves as such?  Is there something wrong with a man to saying “I’m in love with Bob,” as opposed to say that “I’m gay”?  In my opinion, the whole idea of labelling sexuality seems to be tarnishing the definition of love.  When we’re in love, then we’re in love; yet, when others believe that there’s something ‘ethically wrong’ about loving the other due to their gender, then what’s the point of loving in the first place?

I mean, maybe we label people so we can diagnose them to be suffering from a disease or a psychological disorder.  Sure, it’s necessary to call the bald girl on the hospital bed a cancer patient because if we didn’t know why she’s even there, then how can we treat her?  Sure, we’ll probably need to call some kids autistic or ‘mentally challenged,’ if you will, so we’ll know the ‘appropriate level of education’ for them.  To be honest, I don’t really know how to effectively phrase or express the latter point…my apologies.  But when we get all DSM-5 (I don’t have sufficient knowledge to elaborate on this, so I hope this will do the trick — it’s a TED Talk, so please don’t kill me) and things go out of hand when just about every aspect of life is seen to be putting you in a precarious situation, then that would be going too far.  That being said, where do we draw the line?

I really don’t want to make this as verbose as it already is (though I may elaborate on this further in the future), so let’s just cut to my conclusion or concluding question.  Based on my (twisted?) seventeen-year old logic, labels can just hurt.  We know the superficial details of who we are based on our names, families, and birthdays.  But how necessary is it to make ‘homosexuality’ or ‘atheist’ or ‘feminist’ a part of our identity?  Are there any other reasons why it could or could not be necessary to use labels to be an assumption for one’s identity?  Let me know.

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3 thoughts on “On Labels and Identity

  1. I think labels *can* be helpful. Not to say that they’re helpful for everyone, and not to say that it’s okay to label other people, but labels can be really helpful for people themselves.
    Your homosexuality example: A man can say “I love Bob” and that’s fine, but he can also say “I’m gay” and that means something rather different. I think that there can be a lot of value to people when they claim certain identities, because of having the legitimacy of their oppression respected (taking away the label risks erasure of their struggles), finding community with others who share the label, having a word to describe their experiences etc.
    Labels for psychiatric conditions are important, too, but not just for treatment. Struggling with depression and anxiety or really any other invisible illness can be difficult and lonely. Having the labels really helped me accept the legitimacy of my experiences, they helped me believe that I deserved professional help and that my problems weren’t too small or insignificant, and most importantly, they helped me to accept that some things are hard for me, so I can forgive myself for not being able to do certain things (there’s a fine line between this and using the label as a crutch or an excuse to not try to recover, but I think that it’s important to not berate myself for not being able to do things that non-depressed, non-anxious people can do).
    The autism label can be important for determining what constitutes appropriate education (although there are autistic kids in our school…given the huge range of functioning, the autism label isn’t always particularly useful in an educational context) as can the ‘mentally handicapped’ label.

    tl;dr labels can hurt, but they can also heal. I think in the end it’s a really personal decision, and that labels should only be used when necessary (for professional/formal reasons) or when a person decides *themselves* that the label will help them.
    I’ve got two posts on labels and identity that I’ve had scheduled for a while, I’ll move them up to post in the next two days.

    Side note: ” Sure, we’ll probably need to call some kids autistic or ‘mentally challenged,’ if you will, so we’ll know the ‘appropriate level of education’ for them”. Autism isn’t a great example in this case because of the really wide range of functioning and the fact that ‘autism’ doesn’t really tell you whether the person is one of the allistic-passing students in our school, or completely nonverbal like some of the students at the Sarah Roe school.

    1. “tl;dr labels can hurt, but they can also heal. I think in the end it’s a really personal decision, and that labels should only be used when necessary (for professional/formal reasons) or when a person decides *themselves* that the label will help them.”

      (Not that I didn’t read the huge chunk, but I think it’s easier to cite that) If it’s for professional reasons to use labels, then that’s completely understandable. Then again, whether or not it’s necessarily helpful to the individual is a different story because it’s affected by both the perception and the emotions felt by certain individuals at a certain point of time. Their purpose behind giving such labels also influence such, in my opinion. Then again, it’s a debatable issue because some believe that labels are necessary for the world to ‘function.’

      Oh and yes the autism example isn’t the best. I honestly couldn’t think of anything else to justify my ‘argument’ (thoughts) and I was thinking of this article I read in the summer about an autistic boy who was considered to be unlikely to succeed, but is now just doing some really intense stuff with Physics and whatnot…just to be concise. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/11/jacob-barnett-autistic-14-year-old-nobel-prize_n_3254920.html Of course, my knowledge of psychology isn’t top-notch — I only know what I know, and what I know is usually flawed (despite the countless conversations our favourite psychologist/metal-head has with me pertaining to psychology)

      1. I absolutely agree that whether it’s helpful or not is going to depend on a lot of factors, including how a person emotionally responds to that label (for example, by forgiving themselves for being different or using it as an excuse/crutch) or how others respond to that label (for example, by being more tolerant of a person’s differences, or by considering them ‘less’ or ‘other’ and discriminating against them). That’s why I think that people should be allowed to decide for themselves whether or not they want the label and all the possible things associated with the label. I don’t believe that they’re necessary for the world to function, but since they can sometimes help people function in their daily lives, I don’t think they’re inherently a bad thing, just something that needs to be used only in the right circumstances.
        Does our favourite psychologist/metal-head talk about autism much? I can’t profess to be an expert on psychology either, but I have been rather interested in learning about certain conditions (generally ones that affect me or the people around me).

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