Monday, December 14, 2015

On Labels

This was a Facebook re-post of a conversation that happened on Paranoiascientist's tumblr: 

Whenever someone insists that people should not use labels, I remember a psychology lecture on language acquisition where the lecturer described the process by which we learn all nouns: First, kids learn a word ("dog.") They then apply that word to everything that vaguely resembles a dog (cats, pictures of other animals). As they're corrected, they learn to create and subdivide new categories that may share traits (e.g. distinguishing between "dog" and "horse," but also between my dog Ralph, and my neighbor's dog Betsie).

What I took away from the lecture is that from the very instinctive beginnings of language, we need labels. Our entire thinking process is based on categorization of traits, or putting things in mental boxes. The entire function of nouns is to use labels as shorthand for entire complex concepts and entities. Not only is "no labels" silencing, we cannot really function as human beings without them.

There is a difference between labels as a tool for communication and labels as a stereotypic reduction that impedes communication. It does help to be able to say "I'm Genderqueer," as shorthand for non-binary gender activist. It becomes a problem is when I assume that all people who use the same shorthand mean the same thing (or share traits not encompassed by the shorthand). But that's true when using ANY language. Human brains are structured to think in categories; it isn't always a bad thing.What they really mean is "don't reduce people to stereotypic and rigid preconceived notions you have about X." But trying to get rid of labels as a communication tool simply because it is sometimes misused is like insisting that no one ever use their hands because sometimes we hit each other.

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