The Ethics Of… Labels

Part of my series of short holiday posts. All written in one night and crammed down from 4 pages into one and a half. Frankly I’ll count myself lucky if any of it makes sense whatsoever.

I want you to try a simple little experiment with me. I’m going to throw out one word and I want you to describe the first thing that pops into your head when you see it:


Okay, you can quit giggling now.

So… who immediately thought of a muscular guy in a G-string, cowboy hat and ridiculous sunglasses, dancing on top of a float that legally required an epilepsy warning? Or maybe a seven foot rugby player in 9-inch heels, a metric shit-ton of make-up, and a dress even Lady Gaga would consider slightly excessive? Or maybe, like me, you just immediately thought of this for some reason;

No this isn’t some bullshit pseudo-psychological trick where I try to judge you based on your reaction to a word. What you immediately thought of is going to depend on a hell of a lot of things and might not really reflect on you personally, so much as it does your social group, the media you consume or just the various stereotypes that are common in your country. Hell you might have just thought of a person in normal clothes for all I know – that’s not the point. The point is that the simple word ‘gay’ was able to evoke such a complex idea in you at all. Such is the power of labels.

Labels have likely been a part of society as long as it has existed, but they’re not exactly a popular notion these days. Where once upon a time a person might have been fat or thin, black or white, smart of stupid, now you have to be careful about how you speak, just in case the wrong person hears you and has an instant psychological breakdown. You can’t call people fat anymore – now they’re ‘overweight’, or perhaps just a little ‘heavy’. And you don’t want to go around calling someone ‘thin’. What if your comments trigger an eating disorder? Nobody’s ‘stupid’ anymore because such demeaning language will crush their self-esteem! And if nobody is stupid then obviously no one can be ‘smart’ either, because how is that going to make everyone else feel?

Stop trying to put me in your neat little boxes, man!

Now before you mention it, this isn’t political correctness we’re talking about here (that’s a much bigger topic for a much longer post), but rather the idea that using simple, loaded words to describe other people. Gay, fat, short, Hispanic, redneck, intelligent, whatever, all these words provide us with a lot of useful information very quickly and simply – it’s no surprise that people feel pissed off when they’re not allowed to use them, just in case someone’s feeling might get hurt.

It’s even more irritating when most of those words are simple statements of fact. Are you above average height? Then you’re tall. Are you sexually attracted to the same sex? Then you’re gay. Did you grow up in a nice house, go to a good school and get a good start to your career? Then guess what mate, you’re middle class. And the fun part about those statements is that your opinion has absolutely no relevance whatsoever. If you fit the specifications for the label then I don’t give a rat’s arse if you’d prefer to be considered a robo-sexual, trans-physical comrade of the proletariat – if the facts do not support that description, then that description is friggin’ wrong.

No. No you’re not.

But if the issue was that simple, I wouldn’t be writing about it here, would I? If labels were the purely practical tool I’m making them out to be then what’s with all the protest over their use? Sure the bluntness involved might hurt some feelings, but if all we’re talking about is a simple statement of fact then what is there really to complain about?

Well remember what popped into your head when I said ‘gay’ up there? Remember how that wasn’t so much a statement of fact, as it was a massive raging stereotype? There’s your problem right there. See using a simple word to classify someone is indeed an extremely useful, sensible and necessary thing to do, it doesn’t take long before those labels start to pick up context.

If a person is above average height then they are ‘tall’. People in this category have similar experiences because of their tallness – specific problems (smacking your head on doorframes) and advantages (being able to see over crowds). Apply these characteristics to the entire group of people that can be considered ‘tall’ and now we’re not just talking about a purely factual statement, are we? Now we’ve got ourselves a stereotype.

The same goes for any label: fat people are most often fat because of poor eating habits, which lead to health complications, but run with those facts and now we’re assuming that everyone who can be labelled fat is an unhealthy slob who’s given up on life. Gay people may indeed get about in normal clothes during the day, but there’s no events where straight people get glitzed up and dance semi-naked down a major city street, is there? Only gays do that, and therefore how much of a stretch is it to believe that all gays do that?

Not going to be forgetting this in a hurry, are you?

There’s twisty little phrase you hear around that goes “Stereotypes exist for a reason”, and yes, stereotypes do exist for a reason – because they’re (usually) statistically true. But as I’ve written before, what is true of a group is absolutely NOT true of an individual in that group. Simple maths; statistics are a guide only, not a rule, and mixing the two up leads to some truly stupid behaviour.

So where does that leave us with our handy little labels? Well right back where we started really; thinking about the language we use, because the way we describe other people doesn’t just tell others who they are – it also tells them who they should be.

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