Why Our Labels Always Fail To Define Us
What is an Atheist? What is a Christian? Why our labels always fail to define us.
By Thomas Keane
A·the·ist (ā’thē-ĭst): noun, One who disbelieves or denies the existence of God or gods.
Chris·tian (krĭs’chən): noun, (1) One who professes belief in Jesus as Christ or follows the religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus. (2) One who lives according to the teachings of Jesus.
Which of these labels define me? Which of these labels define you? Does the fact that I went to church and Private Christian School for the majority of my life define me as a Christian? Does the fact that I no longer worship the god depicted in the bible or any other god define me as an Atheist? Can you be an Atheist and have doubts about the Theory of Evolution or the Big Bang? Is it possible to be a Christian and question the validity of the story of Noah and the Ark or whether or not there was ever an actual Garden of Eden? Just how accurate and reliable are the labels we carry and for whom do they really exist? Who do they benefit the most? Is it the person being labeled or the person doing the labeling? Clearly it depends on the label.
People might be surprised by how many labels they carry. Are you pro-life? Pro-choice? Democrat? Republican? Christian? Catholic? Atheist? Feminist? Chauvinist? White? African American? Man? Woman? Parent? Child? Teenager? Senior Citizen? Upper-class? Middle-class? Experienced? Inexperienced? Employed? Unemployed? Blonde? Brunet? Bald? Obsessive Compulsive? Manic Depressive? Chemical Dependant? Drug Addict? Alcoholic? Anal? Slob? Neat Freak? Irresponsible? Punctual? Aries? Sagittarius? Husband? Wife? Heterosexual? Homosexual? Vegan? Carnivore? Stubborn? Open Minded? Anorexic? Obese? Buff? Ugly? Beautiful? Average? Victim? Criminal? Citizen? Immigrant? Doctor? Patient? Sweetheart? Asshole? Prude? Whore? Do any one of these labels truly describe who you are? Does any combination of them describe you in your entirety? I would bet that if each and every one of us sat down with pen and paper and tried to list all the labels that we currently carry; first, none of our lists would be complete, and second, no matter how inclusive we may have managed to make our lists, the list still wouldn’t paint an accurate picture of who we are.
Bill Gates, Penn Jillette, Sam Harris, Salman Rushdie, Diane Keaton, Warren Buffett, and Gore Vidal are all self described Atheists. However, none of them have the exact same beliefs about religion, the bible, Evolution or the origin of life. Just as an Evangelical Christian, a Jehovah’s Witness, a Mormon, a Presbyterian and the Amish don’t have the exact same belief about Christianity, the bible and the origin of life. All of us are far more complex than any label or combination of labels could ever hope to encapsulate. So again we must consider who it is that benefits most from a label’s simplification of a complex set of opinions, or a lifestyle, or a belief system, or a pattern of behavior, etc.? Certainly not those who find themselves constrained by the implied boundaries of whatever category they’ve been assigned. And yet, it isn’t unusual to find that someone has assigned themselves with one or more of these labels, often times embracing them. Clearly it takes a lot less effort to describe oneself using a single word rather than an entire paragraph but aren’t we slighting ourselves when we chose to do so? Aren’t we being slighted when someone else does the same? If my personal list of labels came to a total of twenty-three (and those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head), how can being referred to by any one do me any favors? And what about those people who assign themselves a label they don’t deserve. How does the cop who plants the gun on the body of the pimp, he mistakenly thought was armed, warrant calling himself ‘just’? How does a Pope call for the assassination of the Queen of England and still call himself ‘pious’? How many teenage girls regard themselves as ‘fat’ or ‘ugly’ when they aren’t? How many of our self imposed labels would be considered accurate?
A label can change not only the way others perceive us but how we perceive ourselves. It was once thought that the labels applied to an individual influenced their behavior, particularly the application of a negative or stigmatizing label (such as criminal or deviant), creating a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. A person would become a criminal if society were to label that person as a criminal. This was commonly referred to as Labeling Theory (also known as Social Reaction Theory). If a parent calls their child stupid enough times, will that child grow up believing that they are, indeed, stupid and, as a result, neglect their education and avoid anything that would test their intelligence? You can see a similar, self imposed reactionary response from those who believe in Astrology. Someone is labeled an Aries, reads that an Aries is aggressive, willful, powerful, and assertive, and actually alters their personality traits accordingly. And consider how many people identify themselves as black even when one of their parents was Caucasian, or Spanish, or Asian. Often times these children will have skin that would be considered tan at most, but if they have ‘black features’ inevitably someone will label them as black regardless of their actual racial makeup or pigmentation. These children commonly grow up identifying with blacks, focusing on black issues and embracing black culture. They practically ignore, and certainly neglect, the fact that they have a white parent. But do bi-racial people really have a choice? Society labels you as black, therefore you are black.
And then there are the labels, the uses of which have provoked some of mankind’s most shameful acts. In 1231, Pope Gregory IX instituted the papal inquisition for the apprehension and trial of Heretics, heresy being defined as a deliberate denial of an article of truth of the Catholic faith. The atrocities committed against those labeled as Heretics are legendary. And although many were reportedly killed long before this; as the result of a judicial sentence of an inquisitor, the first documented Witch (Hugues de Baniol) was burned to death in 1275 in Toulouse, France. Do I even need to mention the Salem Witch Trials? In many parts of the world women are still being assaulted and murdered as a result of being labeled a Witch. And to be labeled a Jew in 1940s Germany was the equivalent to being labeled a dog. Many were even forced to wear their label in the form of the Star of David, their own version of the scarlet letter. And, as we now know (holocaust deniers aside), millions of those labeled Jew were executed for this reason alone. Even being called a Christian or an Atheist was once a potential death sentence in certain parts of the world. Some could argue it still is.
As a group, children are clearly the most affected by being labeled. Almost as soon as they enter the school system they are placed in some sort of category. Even when children are left on their own they will often split off into groups, groups based on some sort of perceived similarities (usually race, sex, and/or class). And when a child joins any type of distinctive organization; whether it is the A/V club, Chess Club, Basketball Team, Band, they will almost immediately be branded: Jock, Nerd, Band Geek, Brain, etc. The school bully just loves to pummel their victim with a good, vicious label. But perhaps the worst distinction a child can receive is one that has almost become an epidemic. A child misbehaves or acts out and they are promptly labeled as having ADHD and are encouraged to begin taking a medication infamous for its detrimental side effects. Is the ever increasing percentage of children being identified as having ADHD the result of more and more children actually suffering from this illness or is it the result of too many people too quickly embracing a blanket diagnosis that clearly benefits the person doing the labeling more than the one being labeled?
According to Bruce Perry, co-author of The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog and Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s Notebook, “There is no doubt that we are labeling children more. [In Fact], in order for clinicians to get reimbursed, they have to label. There is also a tendency on the part of both educators and parents to want to get an answer. They are very uncomfortable with ambiguity.”
Robert Sternberg, psychologist and Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Tufts University, says there are numerous, complex factors involved in the increasing use of labels. “One reason is that in order for them to get special services, kids often need to be labeled. A second reason is for testing. In order to get accommodations like extra time, they need that label.”
Because a diagnosis is often required before insurers will cover medical treatment, the rising use of psychiatric medications is also tied in with the trend toward labeling. Is it any surprise that over 3 million children in the United States are taking medication to control behaviors associated with ADHD? Since the year 2000, the use of Ritalin has increased 700%, a trend that is assuredly bolstered by pharmaceutical advertising (AKA drug pushing). These figures are not likely to decrease until parents force themselves to resist the urge to shove their children into neat little categories. Sometimes that satisfying label only serves to conceal more problems behind its supposed answer. And we mustn’t forget that when labeled individuals are separated into groups that serve to establish a sense of disconnection between “us” and “them” a label can quickly become a stigma. The end result of stigmatization is always discrimination.
When something occupies a neat little category, we are comforted, believing that everything that resides in that category can be defined by it. This is rarely, if ever, the case. We must never forget this. If someone identifies themselves as an Atheist, it may mean that you can rightfully assume that they don’t believe in a god, but it doesn’t mean that you should assume you now know their feelings on religion, yours or anybody else’s. Nor can one assume they know who a person is simply because they call themselves a Christian. If history has taught us anything, it’s that many of those who have referred to themselves as Christians, if judged on actions alone, would not have been labeled as such by anyone else. And just because a person doesn’t worship a god doesn’t mean that they are more likely to live a life filled with drugs, drunkenness, tax evasion and promiscuous sex.
No single label or collection of labels will ever be able to completely define any one of us. Our complexities are what individualize us. It could be argued that each person’s collection of labels are as unique as their fingerprints. Even two of the most pro-life, vegan, P.E.T.A. supporting, Feminist, Texas native, Republican, Born Again Christians are going to find themselves on opposite sides of an issue at some point. Inevitably when we dismiss someone, or accept someone, simply because they share the same label as us, eventually we will find ourselves with a disastrous mismatch. On the other hand, if we refrain from making hasty judgments, the list of potential mistakes we could avoid making is endless; joining that law firm, dating that coworker, moving in with that roommate, marrying that significant other, going ‘All In’ with two pair, etc. We must learn to never be satisfied by the label someone has assigned themselves or one which we have assigned to someone else. Encounter someone on a Friday and you would most likely form a completely different opinion of them than if you had met them on a Monday. Remember there is always something new to learn about a person, something that could possibly completely alter your perception of them. Imagine how the world would benefit if we would all just stop assuming we knew who a person was based on the fact that they were labeled an Atheist or rich or a Democrat or a woman or overweight or Mexican or a police officer or pretty or an alcoholic or a teenager or a homosexual or a Sagittarius, etc. So the next time we encounter someone, whether they be a friend, an acquaintance or a stranger, let’s take a moment to reconsider what we truly know about them, sans labels, and perhaps marvel at how much more there is to discover.
Please visit my main page (https://doubtingthomas426.wordpress.com/) to gain a better understanding of where I am coming from. There you will find all my observations regarding religion and the bible categorized on the top Right hand side of the page. Please feel free to read through them and leave a comment or two if you like.