Labels usually contain useful information about a product, but may not contain all the information you need to know about a product. Likewise, labelling other people might give us a general idea from the social stereotypes or common knowledge surrounding such labels, but which will not provide us with a full understanding of the person.
Drawbacks to Labelling
There are drawbacks to labelling people.
Labelling reinforces expectations by applying stereotypes or expected beliefs to the person the label is given to, and which is compared against our perception of that person. Calling people who receive medical care for instance, a patient instead of a consumer/customer uses a different framework for perceiving, understanding and forming opinions about behaviour. See here “Watch Your Language! - Patient” for more.
Consider the Attention-Deficit Hyperactive Disorder (ADHD) label. Many people believe ADHD is a questionable diagnosis and think because ADHD kids appear normal, but behave inappropriately in society, they are merely “naughty kids who need to be smacked”. Such other related labels are often brought into the picture - for example that kid’s mother must be a “permissive parent”. Labels like these bely a lack of social support for parents who are struggling with children who have problems but appear on the surface to be like every other neuro-typical kid.
What about the label of “domestic violence” or “abuser”? Immediately comes to mind physical violence and beatings - and there is a good reason for that. Our society obscures other forms of violence, opting to make physical violence salient in the media. So if there isn’t newsworthy broken bones, bruises and bleeding to photograph and splash across the papers - then it just is not news. It is truly amazing how the stereotypes of such labels negatively affect abused women who have to stand strong against their abuser and the society in which they live.
Benefits to Labelling
After such dire consequences to labelling, it may shock you to realise there are indeed benefits to labelling. For example, when children are diagnosed (given a label) on the autistic spectrum, it gives the parents a broad stereotype to draw on which can be beneficial. Using labels this way can be an effective way to shut up rude people who make unsupportive comments about a child’s spectrum behaviour - “My child is ASD, she can’t help it”.
Medical labels can open the door for people to access funds or support which might not otherwise be given. Everyone is expected to conform to society you see, so unless there is a genuine reason for being different, there is no support or tolerance of one’s differences. It is quite something to turn around and see an irate person saying “Are you ignoring me!? How dare you!?” only to quickly backtrack and actually apologise upon hearing you are deaf.
Self-labelling also helps people connect to other like-minded individuals and groups. Feminists find each other. Mothers with young kids form mothers groups. Homeschoolers find it easier to network and connect with likeminded people when they use sub-labels of the home educating genre - eg. Unschoolers, eclectic homeschoolers, Christian homeschoolers and so on.
Throwing labels out the window
One such man - Mark Haddon - did just that when he wrote his book “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time”.Read the book review here. It is truly a fantastic piece of work which neatly avoids labelling yet manages to convey the main character’s quirky nature as being nothing extraordinary or odd.
Labels - take them, leave them, or opt out altogether!