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Are Labels Just for Clothing?

July 25, 2018 | by Chayi Hanfling

Understanding the positive and negative usages of labels.

“Labels are for clothing not for people,” goes a popular saying. A more honest version would go like this: “Labels are for clothing and other people, but don’t you dare try to label me!”

Most people hate to be labeled but love labeling others. As complex human beings, we resist being reduced to a neat little package. Our souls yearn to be free, unbridled and authentic, so we chafe at being boxed into the constraints of societal categories.

But labels do serve a purpose, (aside from just clothing) and a world that is overly resistant to labels is also perhaps a world that is uncomfortable to a fault with boundaries and definitions. The desire to not limit yourself is positive to be sure, but if you never limit and define yourself, then who are you really? A word is meaningful because it means something, but it only means something because it does not mean everything else.

Take the label “Jew”, for example. If the word Jewish means whatever anyone wants it to be then the word loses its meaning. That doesn’t mean that the definition of certain terms and labels won’t be contentiously debated, but the starting point must be that a definition is necessary and not intrinsically offensive. In a world of ever-increasing subjective definitions it becomes increasingly difficult to discuss ideas. After all, if we each have our own unique definition of words, then how can we use those words to discuss ideas and have meaningful communication?

Labels are constructive when they provide clarity and help foster dialogue and understanding. Too often they’re used to shut down communication.

This is the core distinction between a positive use of labels and a negative one. Labels are constructive when they provide clarity and help foster dialogue and understanding. But all too often people use labels for the exact opposite purpose – to write someone off and shut down communication. Substantive conversations are cut off because one or both sides refuse to see past the identity or label of the one they are conversing with to actually discuss the content.

How many times do we see someone trying to make a meaningful point in a political discussion that is shut down by a simple reply of “leftist!” or “Trumpist!” The desire to label others, in this context is clear. If I can demonstrate that someone if from the “other team” then I can simply and conveniently dismiss them based on their identity, without actually engaging with the substance of what they are saying. Introspective thought or nuanced conversation is far more difficult than remaining in the echo chamber. The same dynamics often occur when discussing religion.

We recently completed the period of the three weeks and Tisha B’Av that mourn the destruction of the temple. Since the temple was destroyed due to baseless hatred, the way we can counteract it is with an abundance of love. To overcome our ego and biases, judgments and narrow-mindedness and to instead open our arms, minds and hearts. That may seem impossible, today more than ever, but we have always been a people that embraced the impossible.

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