Writer’s Block: Limit the power of labels with cautious use

Staff Writer
Since 2013, I have primarily covered the Anoka-Hennepin and Spring Lake Park school districts as well as the city of Spring Lake Park for ABC Newspapers.

Society’s compulsive need to label people has to stop.

Olivia Alveshere
Olivia Alveshere

We are alienating one another with labels, forcing each other into neat boxes that cannot begin to contain the complexities of personhood.

We do it with race. We do it with economic status. We do it with gender and sexuality.

I was glued to the television several weeks ago when a “Survivor” contestant was outed as transgender. Yes, “Survivor” is still on air 17 years and 34 seasons later.

Jeff Varner, sensing he would be voted out at tribal council, attempted to cast doubt about player Zeke Smith. He asked Smith in front of their entire tribe and millions of viewers, “Why haven’t you told anyone you’re transgender?”

Smith sat quietly while the rest of the tribe reacted with immediate fury, attacking Varner’s decision to make something so personal part of the game. Varner said he was trying to show that Smith was capable of deception, but recognized he had crossed a line.

“One of the reasons why I didn’t want to lead with that was I didn’t want to be the trans ‘Survivor’ player. I wanted to be Zeke the ‘Survivor’ player,” Smith said.

He knew society would all too eagerly tack the trans label on him.

Labels aren’t inherently bad. They sometimes help us organize and understand our world.

But often, they only serve to confine our worldview. Many psychological studies suggest that we will alter our perceptions, even subconsciously, any time a label paints someone as “other.”

I read a powerful opinion piece on The New York Times’ website recently: “My daughter is not transgender: She’s a tomboy.”

Writer Lisa Selin Davis’ 7-year-old daughter has short hair and chooses to wear track pants and T-shirts. Her pediatrician, teachers and others have asked repeatedly if she sees herself as a boy. The answer is no: She is not gender nonconforming, but is gender role nonconforming, her mom wrote.

“It is considerate of adults to ask her – in the beginning,” Davis wrote. “But when they continue to question her gender identity – and are skeptical of her response – the message they send is that a girl cannot look and act like her and still be a girl.”

That’s highly problematic.

When we obsess about labels, we prevent people from being themselves. They feel the need to hide who they are, or certain parts of their identity.

Many of our labels have become so laden with baggage.

Think about today’s political divide: The labels “Democrat” and “Republican” carry a lot of weight.

But are they really useful anymore? Can the United States’ millions of voters each define their political leanings with one of two words? Absolutely not. There are other parties, but many feel pressure to check one of two boxes to have any chance of effecting change.

In recent years, society has demanded new labels to fit within existing party labels. We have “Alt-right” and “Tea Party” Republicans, as well as “Main Street” Republicans. “Alt-right” was a contender for Oxford Dictionaries’ 2016 international word of the year, but too appropriately in this day and age, the prize instead went to “post-truth,” defined by Oxford as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

The 2016 election sideshow provided some interesting examples of name-calling backfiring.

The now infamous “nasty woman” label, hurled at Hillary Clinton by Donald Trump, was meant to hurt Clinton’s campaign. Instead, her supporters plastered themselves with “nasty woman” merchandise, reclaiming the insult as a positive.

The same thing happened when Clinton said she would put half of Trump supporters into “the basket of deplorables.” Soon afterwards, Trump arrived at a campaign rally to the song “Do You Hear the People Sing” from “Les Misérables” and welcomed “the deplorables” to raucous applause.

Words have power, but only as much power as we let them have.

[email protected]