While labels do serve several purposes (convenience, easy explanation when needed, basic identification), more often than not, they instead tend towards shortchanging us of the beautiful complexity of all that is human experience and life.
Labels offer only minute levels of understanding of much bigger and infinitely more complex pictures.
Allow me to please explain.
1. The same labels are used and applied as blanket titles of sorts when actually, they are likely being used on what are vastly different types of relationships, connections, and experiences.
Such as the labels of boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, wife, sister, brother, and friend.
In considering the word “husband,” while one husband might be kind-hearted, doting, loving, and in love with his wife, the two of them sharing a deep emotional connection and friendship. Another husband may routinely ditch his wife, be an inattentive or unkind partner, one who is often emotionally disengaged and not especially caring.
Those are two opposing extremes, I realize. However, the point is that both are called “husband” when the nature of what they mean to their wives, as well as the roles they tend towards these women are worlds apart from one another.
So why is it that they both earn the same title? When they are, in fact, almost nothing alike beyond the simplistic label of “husband.” This label which ultimately tells us nothing about the quality or health of their relationship, which tells us nada about how good of a partner he is, nor anything about their depth of connection or authenticity of love for one another.
How is “husband” applicable to both of these men?
What then does “husband” even mean?
Seems like it can mean just about anything, no matter how loving and wonderful, or how disengaged or awful he might be.
How does it make sense then that we so hinge our hopes and certain opinions on certain labels, when in reality, those labels tell us nothing?
Such as, “oh my gosh, they are married! Wow. How wonderful!” It might be.
It also might not be.
Some marriages are healthy, inspiring, joyous, and growth-inducing. Other marriages are resigned, co-dependent, emotionally unhealthy, and just generally not great. That label of marriage? It tells you nothing. Getting married in and of itself is not necessarily awesome or healthy. Whether or not this is true requires peering far below the surface to assess.
The problem with labeling is exactly this. Labels like “husband”, “wife”, or “married” give us zero insight into the depth of love between two people, how emotionally close they are, and the health or happiness or that relationship.
Labels lead to misunderstanding, to false assumptions, to thinking that we know something when it’s highly likely that we do not, to assuming that one label implies the same or similar things across the board, when in fact, there is most definitly a wide range of variety within all which is labeled the same on the surface.
Additionally, take the label of “friend.” While one friend in our life might be consistently there for us, loyal, kind, fun to be with, and puts in much effort to the relationship, another friend by whom we call the same title might be generally kind and fun, someone we like and sometimes confide in, but also who is frequently flakey, someone who lets us down a fair amount, and who isn’t especially awesome a fair amount of the time.
Yet, how is it that both of them are given the same title of “friend” when these are clearly two friendships with significant varying nuances to them?
The words “brother” or “sister,” tell outsiders nothing about the nature of that relationship. Some siblings absolutely hate each other. Others have soul mate like depth and closeness between them. Many others have some graduation in between. One sibling might be toxic and thus, the other sibling sadly though resolutely distances themself from their brother or sister. Not out of want, out of a means of self-protection.
Thus, the labels of “brother” or “sister” don’t tell you much of anything with regards to the emotional closeness, health, or happiness of those connections.
2. Labels are narrow and immediately conjure up certain assumptions, which may or may not be true. In fact, very likely much of the time, they will not be.
A few examples: one with regards to human sexuality. The main labels we have available for use are “straight,” “bisexual” and “homosexual.” That’s mostly it. When in reality, human sexuality exists on a wide swinging spectrum.
Something more realistic is likely along the lines of a 1–20 type of rating (1 being straight as an arrow, 20 being homosexual, with much possibility in between).
Most people are not a “1” or a “20.” The majority of humans fall somewhere along the continuum. Someone might be a three, another person may be a seven, while another is a sixteen.
Someone can generally be attracted to one gender while experiencing fleeting moments of attraction to the other. This doesn’t make them “homosexual,” nor even necessarily “bisexual”, depending on the level and depth of attraction briefly felt for the less commonly attracted to gender. This is just the mystery and inexplicable layering of human desire and attraction at work.
We live in a culture that loves labels though, so most people would respond to such a situational with something like, “well, then that means he or she is bisexual. If they feel attraction, ever, to the other gender as well, then they are bi. End of story.”
But does it? What if they have merely fantasized about kissing the same gender once or twice, while the idea of going further with someone of the same gender feels over the line and un-arousing. That isn’t as cut and dry as being bisexual.
Our society is not one that likes ambiguity. We need to label things clearly, in neat little boxes. It makes us feel more comfortable. Safer. We like logic and order. We like to be able to understand, even if that understanding is forced, overly simplistic, and even inaccurate.
Black or white. Good or bad. Right or wrong. Ugly or beautiful. Gay or straight. Hot or not. In love or not. Fair or unfair. Mean or nice. We like to separate things into one or the other. Yet, most situations in life or people are actually a mixture of the two (instead of one or the other).
Another example of labels being narrow and conjuring up certain (often untrue) assumptions is within the label of “mentally ill.” This carries, for a lot of people, much stigma. People make assumptions like “crazy,” or other detrimental, simplistic, more often than not incorrect assumptions about such a label. This, almost always, to the detriment of that person with a mental illness. All of which removes the possibility and complexity of perception from all that make up who that person really is.
3. Labels can be, sometimes, possessive. “My” girlfriend. “My” best friend. “My” husband. Connections between people are complex, layered, fluid, and yes, tenuous. Attempting to possess someone by calling them “mine” is both unfair and unhealthy. They are someone with whom you have a unique connection, whatever the nuances and depth of that might be. They are also a free, independent being. You do not possess them in any way. While I don’t think this is usually intentional, sometimes labels can carry this unhealthy and possessive tone.
4. While labels serve to quickly, conveniently convey to an outsider some fast, basic facts, and in a nutshell, they often equally serve in cheapening or shortchanging whatever they are attempting to convey.
Such as the labels of “girlfriend” or “boyfriend.”
Over the course of a person’s life, they might have had two, three, four significant others. Each of these has, of course, been wildly varying types of love, connections, and experiences, and have brought forth very different emotions.
For example, maybe significant other #1, while seemingly at first was an exciting and good thing, turned out to be an unhealthy, stressful, toxic, and generally negative match over the big picture after all. That what you thought was love, in many ways and in retrospect, was not.
Then, possibly significant other #2 was a happy relationship. Someone you cared for very much. It was a healthy, positive union, potentially a bit more so of a close friendship. Less lusty and sexy, more friendship-like and cozy.
Then significant other #3 may have been more short and sweet, though intense. This was someone for whom you felt strongly while knowing all along wasn’t going to work. Maybe it was an extramarital affair, maybe there was an expiration date on the relationship of some kind-of which you both knew going into it. Whatever the reason, while powerful, it was fleeting.
And finally, maybe within significant other #4, this one had potent, intense chemistry. The relationship was somewhat challenging, though equally such fun. It was healthy, supportive, and deeply emotional. This being the one that packed the most powerful emotional wallop of them all. The one for whom you felt the strongest.
Each of these connections and relationships and emotional experiences were quite different from one another.
And yet, we would label them all collectively as having been either “girlfriends” or “boyfriends.” A bland, blanket term which does nothing to acknowledge, imply, or honor all the variance and nuances of each of these different connections.
Don’t get me wrong, I get it. Labels serve as a quick, easy stamp on something to help convey some semblance of meaning and the nature of a relationship or situation to outsiders. Going into a detailed explanation about all the nuances, as in the example above regarding different relationship experiences, there are only specific times and places for such.
Thus, labels do serve a purpose. There are times when the label is needed and is the only appropriate explanation or answer for a given situation.
I am merely making the point that while they do serve a purpose, labels tend to severely lack depth or any true sense of explanation of all that lies behind such a label.
A label tells you nothing of what one person means to the other. A label tells you nothing about whether or not a couple is in love, whether or not they are well suited, how strongly they feel for one another, or the depth of their emotional closeness.
A label tells you nothing about the quality of friendship between two people. It tells you nothing about what two people really feel for one another, of the layers of their relationship or experiences with one another.
5. Labels are static, where life, emotional states, relationships, anything really, are not static at all.
If I say, “I have depression,” this is something that can ebb and flow, fluctuate, and even disappear entirely, depending on the day, week, month, or year.
Someone might be devastated, lamenting having lost the “love of their life,” only to realize later on down that road upon meeting someone else that actually, they were wrong about the previous one. That there were bigger and better loves to come. Having mislabeled that prior person as “love of their life.”
These are two examples of labels that, despite being given at the moment with certainty and confidence, can change and evolve.
Thus, labels in general, are rather narrow and limited. They do not make much room for complexity or layers. They don’t invite in possibility. Instead, they close it off. They do not offer or consider nuance.
Labels are simplistic, easy go-to explanations which, much of the time, tell us next to nothing about the actual thing which is being labeled (whether person, relationship, situation, sexuality, you name it).
There is a time, place, and purpose for labels. Sometimes, we need them. They offer a quick explanation in many moments when just such is needed and might even be the only socially appropriate way to go in a given moment. Labels, in this sense, can be a positive and functional thing.
However, I think we overuse them, as well as, rely on them too heavily. We allow labels to stand in for otherwise deep thinking and consideration of nuance and alternate possibilities.
Labels tend towards shortchanging, sometimes cheapening, or taking away from the explaining of and understanding people, things, and situations in our lives to the fullest. Whether it be our connections with others (friends, romances, family members, etc.), our sexuality, or other passions and loves in our lives.
There is a time and a place for labels. However, it’s crucial that we remember, labels only tell us so much. In fact, they don’t really tell us much at all.