My wailing increased with the shock of the knowledge
That I often have needed something out there to blame. ...I'm nobody's saviour, and nobody's mine either
I hear the desert wind whisper "But neither are we alone."
Words matter. One of my taxi passengers recently said to his co-worker, “Tom is a terrible person. No. I shouldn’t put it that way. He’s a terrible team member because….” He then described specific behavior that hurts the team.
That distinction is important. Judging someone as a person -- as Trump did when he called Clinton “a nasty woman” -- is much different than judging their actions. One’s personhood is not defined by one’s behavior. When we label others, we don’t fully know their soul.
When I’ve asked my passengers what they think about Clinton calling one-half of Trump supporters irredeemable deplorables, most of them initially replied, “She was right.” But when I’ve commented on problems with labelling, they’re agreed with me.
This issue is not merely semantics. Unnecessary labelling hardens divisions, which makes unified grassroots action more difficult.
Labels are necessary. Calling a rock “a rock” is no problem. Describing the color of a person’s hair is rarely controversial. Objective reality is subject to scientific verification.
But subjective reality cannot be measured. The human spirit is not an object. Human behavior is not determined by simple cause-and-effect. Biological factors play a role, as does social conditioning, the unconscious mind, and other factors, such as free will. Countless factors “cause” our behavior. And over time, we evolve. We act differently.
Labeling personhood distorts reality by simplifying it. The human spirit can’t be described or confined by pigeonholes. But labels can be self-fulfilling prophecies that nurture the behavior they describe.
Another reason to be cautious about labels is the role they play in perpetuating social inequality and class domination (which persists from generation to generation, largely without resistance - or even much awareness of the advantages that certain people hold over others). Before we rank, we label.
Many sociologists have written extensively about “labelling theory,” which examines how the self-identity and behavior of individuals is influenced by the terms others use to describe or classify them. Émile Durkheim was the first to argue that labeling “deviants” helps to control behavior. People learn to conform in order to avoid being stigmatized and considered less reliable, even less human.
George Herbert Mead explored how our self-image, which is derived from what we think others think of us, is affected by how the group labels those who offend their norms.
Frank Tannenbaum studied how labelling juveniles “delinquents” leads to more “delinquency.”
Edwin Lemmert introduced the idea of “secondary deviance.” Labeling a deviant because of a deviant act can encourage more deviance by affecting self-image: “I do these things because I am this way.”
In his classic book, Outsiders, Howard Becker argued, “Instead of the deviant motives leading to the deviant behavior, it is the other way around, the deviant behavior in time produces the deviant motivation.”
In The Colonizer and the Colonized Albert Memmi described the deep psychological effects of social stigma:
The longer the oppression lasts, the more profoundly it affects him (the oppressed). It ends by becoming so familiar to him that he believes it is part of his own constitution, that he accepts it and could not imagine his recovery from it. This acceptance is the crowning point of oppression.
In Dominated Man, Memmi wrote:
Why does the accuser feel obliged to accuse in order to justify himself? Because he feels guilty toward his victim. Because he feels that his attitude and his behavior are essentially unjust and fraudulent....Proof? In almost every case, the punishment has already been inflicted. The victim of racism is already living under the weight of disgrace and oppression.... In order to justify such punishment and misfortune, a process of rationalization is set in motion, by which to explain the ghetto and colonial exploitation….Central to stigmatic labeling is the attribution of an inherent fault: It is as if one says, "There must be something wrong with these people. Otherwise, why would we treat them so badly?"
Erving Goffman, who served as President of the American Sociological Association, wrote several books on labelling. He lamented what he called society’s growing emphasis on the so-called “normal human being” and examined the complications that emerge when “normals” and “deviants” interact:
What are unthinking routines for normals can become management problems for the discreditable....The person with a secret failing, then, must be alive to the social situation as a scanner of possibilities, and is therefore likely to be alienated from the simpler world in which those around them apparently dwell….
[As] a resident alien who stands for his group,... it requires that the stigmatized individual cheerfully and unselfconsciously accept himself as essentially the same as normals, while at the same time he voluntarily withholds himself from those situations in which normals would find it difficult to give lip service to their similar acceptance of him…. A phantom acceptance is allowed to provide the base for a phantom normalcy.
Thus, whether we interact with strangers or intimates, we will still find that the fingertips of society have reached bluntly into the contact, even here putting us in our place.
And that is key: persuading us to accept “our place” in the social hierarchy. The primary driving force in our society is the urge to climb the social ladder, which involves looking down on those who are below. Society divides us in countless ways. In particular, assuming an arrogant air of moral superiority, we throw around labels, become judgmental, and resolve to defeat our “enemies.” Misled by the American Dream, we ignore our advantages, assume we have earned what we have, and blame the designated-enemy-of-the-day for our troubles.
The main problem, however, is our self-perpetuating social system. Once we accept that reality, we can no longer justifiably direct our anger at any one individual, group of individuals, or nation. Having no scapegoat removes an easy mode of release. But it is also liberating, for it opens us to compassion.
And fortunately compassion is another, deeper driving force in our society, one that is rooted in our 200-million-year history as cooperative hunter-gatherers. Modern society has suppressed that countervailing force, which many sub-cultures have kept alive. Our challenge is to bring it to the fore and make that which is now secondary primary. To do so would be a revolution that turns the table upside down.