“Once you label me you negate me.” ~Soren Kirkegaard.
Standing before the camera was an elderly woman holding a yellow star with some faint handwriting on it that I could not read. This woman, who was much older than I, stood before me on the screen, explaining that when she was a very young girl of 8 she wore this star upon her clothing so that all who saw her would know what she was: a Jew. She lived in the time of Hitler’s rule, a time when people were forced to wear labels. People lost their identities in their labels. Once you label me, you negate me. Kirkegaard was right.
If it weren’t for the labels on grocery items, we would have a lot of surprises at the dinner table. Without a label, I wouldn’t know how to use a product safely. If I want to choose clothing that is my size, it is more helpful to look at the labels than to try on 10 different pairs of slacks hoping to find something that fits. (Though I’ve done that on occasion even with labels) Things need labels so we know how to use them properly, so we know what they are, and so we know what ingredients are in them. Do people require labels, as well?
Many years ago I became very ill and underwent testing for a specific illness. My body showed all of the markers for a particular disease except for one, and because of that missing item I could not be diagnosed. That was so important to me because I knew if I were diagnosed I would be labeled– forever. No doctor would ever look at me without seeing the label on my file. In fact, I would come to see myself as the label. Labels are dangerous things, and we use them to define people when the only definition we actually need is to get to know a person.
There are many things I dislike about social media, but I really like that I can get to know people in a group based on whatever the common interest is that brought us there. I have learned through social media that when we get to know people through the types of things they write and the way they conduct themselves, we often know more about them than people who have met them once and placed a label upon them.
White, Black, Mexican, Asian, Gay, Phobic, Fat, Religious, Hippy, Loud, Quiet, Sleezy, Stuffy, Stupid, Brainy, one of ‘them’( whomever that might represent)…these are ways people label people, and while they are not words we might want to use, they are used more often than you might think.
How we treat people is largely based on the labels we’ve given them.
In this year of becoming a better person, I’ve learned the importance of listening more and complaining less, caring for others and for myself, and in all of the good that I know, even I find times that I jump to a conclusion about a person and find myself labeling them. Labels feel so permanent, and the truth is people change. That label you put on them today might not fit tomorrow.
I’m around a lot of people of different age groups, and the most constant group for being labeled is the teenagers, the younger generation. Oddly, I know people who are 60 years old today, but if you ask someone who has known them since they were kids, they’ll tell you what the person was like as a teenager: “Oh, Bill, he’s a great guy today, but he sure gave his parents a run for their money when he was a kid–talk about a wild kid!” “Oh, Mary, she’s a great lady, but when she was growing up she sure had a reputation for being free and easy.” I’m not making these things up. These are the things I hear people say, having labeled adults when they were mere children trying to figure out life; keeping them in a different group, always a step away from the person telling the story. Labels negate people.
Look around at the kids you see, the ones who are struggling to figure out life….don’t label them, reach out to them and offer some encouragement.
Look at the people who are different than you in religious or political beliefs….don’t label them, reach out to have a conversation with them.
Look around at the people who drive cars that are nicer than yours or junkier than yours…don’t label them as certain kinds of people, reach out to them and get to know them as more than a type of vehicle.
People have been labeled for more years than you and I have been alive. If they look a certain way, dress a certain way, talk a certain way, we tend to put a big label on them for the rest of the world to see–negating them as people.
That lady in the video wore a star upon her clothing when she was a girl of only 8. She lived in a concentration camp in Germany because she had been labeled, not as a young girl with a beautiful smile and great dreams, but as a Jew. Just like that, she was labeled and removed from the rest of society.
What if that is how you lived for a day—removing everyone with labels: Grumpy old men go over there, nosy women over there, whiny kids way over there, people who think we should have him (or her) for President need to be over there, and all of those people who wear baggy pants can go over there. Pretty soon, you’ve labeled everyone. Of course, someone has labeled you.
As you and I seek to be better people, let’s be mindful of how we want to label people and then stop short. Let’s take some time to get to know people and hope they will do the same for us because once we label, we negate.