The Language of Labels: A Conscious Rant

Language creates our world. If enough people say that they believe something is wrongful, eventually you might find a law passed to prevent this “wrongful thing”. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? If society shares a common view, shouldn’t it become ‘the norm’? Not necessarily: what happens if it’s only a few voices, but they happen to hold all the power? Apartheid in our beautiful country is an exemplar. Or what happens if it is in fact most of society, but no-one saw the possible negative consequences? The ecological crises created by the ineptly named free-market speak for themselves.

What happens when we feel the need to label something, someone, or a group, just because they share a set of characteristics? Is this obsession with labelling something to do with our deepest need to belong? Or indeed to not belong; to differentiate ourselves from that which is somehow undesirable or unacceptable?

Labels are entirely necessary: they describe qualities, skills, characteristics, even geographies. Yet I cringe at the language of labels – and simultaneously find myself prone to their traps. The problem with labels is that while they might describe a certain set of shared characteristics, we then tend to do two things with them. Firstly, we have the proclivity to project all the other characteristics of those who fall into that category onto everyone else within that category, irrespective of whether that is valid. In this way, all Catholics become gay-haters. Every blonde woman is dumb. Environmentalists are either sappy bunny-huggers or raging green terrorists.

Secondly, we tend to define the label by only a few characteristics, and ignore other qualities that are inconvenient to our perceptions. After all, what is a hippie? Someone with long unkempt hair, excruciating body-odour, a dope-fiend, with loose sexual morals, and who wears gigantic tie-died handkerchiefs? Or is a hippie someone who believes that the world runs on love, that we should act with forgiveness and try and create peace, who understands that the world is one huge interdependent ecosystem of living beings, and that singing chants in large gatherings is a productive use of time? If so, please welcome his grace The Dalai-Lama, a.k.a. The Hippie.

I write this at a time when I have been wrestling with my own ‘labels’ for myself, particularly in my professional life. A scientist. An incipient sociologist. A coach. A facilitator. A photographer. A consultant. A mentor. A writer. Just basically confused? These labels all describe certain parts of my skills and qualities, yet none capture the essence of who I believe I am. Even more confusing is that my personal experiences have contributed immensely to my professional offering, but how do I capture that in a label? Survivor? Glass-half full worldview? Hopeful humourist? I don’t have the luxury – and curse – of a ready-made corporate label to append to my business card. Which leaves me appallingly free to choose.

What has been most interesting to observe is others’ reactions to these possible labels of mine. Facilitators reportedly don’t really do anything. I was told with considerable disdain that I could do leadership development work in my sleep after supper. Coaching? Apparently every 20 year old and their dog is a coach.

Perhaps what I’ve learned in my meanderings through Label Land is that labels are completely necessary to make sense of the world, to be used with caution, extrapolated thoughtlessly only at one’s own dire peril, and not to be taken too seriously. Finally, irrespective of our public labels, it’s our internal labels about ourselves and life that affect us the most, whether or not we share them with others.

About Julie Courtnage

With training in environmental science, I facilitate 'naked conversations' about sustainable wellbeing. Using facilitation techniques, systems thinking, art, music, writing, movement and photography, we explore the active creation of our uniqueness - personal and collective, as individuals, organisations and society - and our relationships with others, with sustainable wellbeing, and with genuine happiness. This journey of creation is a journey of Love. And fun.
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