The Double Bind of Labeling

It has been said,

If you label me, you negate me.

I take this to mean that when you try to reduce a person down to a category that you think you understand, then you are likely to lose important nuance about them.

That’s the best case scenario if you’ve somehow managed to attach the correct label to the person.

Of course, if you’re wrong about their label, then it’s even worse because you’ve misunderstood them and found reason to stop listening all at once.

Labeling gets a bad reputation for good reasons, but I’d like to suggest a seemingly contradictory corollary:

If you remove my label, you negate me.

Both can be true.

Negative connotations you associate with a given label may lead you to tell the person, “Oh, you’re not that,” or to minimize it, “Nobody really cares about those distinctions these days.”

See, if someone identifies with a given label, but you try to deny the label, then you undermine something important that person is trying to tell you.

There’s a chance that the person is using the label differently than how you understand it. So, even if you think you know what the label means, it’s a good idea is to ask more questions about what that person means by identifying in that way.

I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve had times when someone else put a label on me that didn’t really fit. I’ve also had people make wrong assumptions about me based on a label that was important to me.

In either case, I’m always grateful when I get the chance to talk it over and tell my story.

When we think we know what labels do or do not fit others, we too easily dismiss them or discount them. It’s hard work getting beyond labels, but we do best when we keep the conversation open even when labels seem to make understanding complete.

Labels aren’t all bad, but they’re not all good either.

Labels can be helpful when we:

  • honor the ways others identify.
  • take the time to learn why someone chooses a label.
  • assume the best about others as we seek clarification.

Labels can be harmful when we:

  • use them as an excuse to end conversation.
  • assign negative motives to the person based on preconceived unfavorable associations with the label.
  • discount someone just because of the label chosen.

As with dealing with differences, it’s best to talk openly about the labels. By continuing to dialog about what we really mean with labels, we can avoid the double bind of labeling.

Dealing with Differences

Most people deal with differences by not dealing with differences. They try to avoid conflict at all costs. If a disagreement arises, they change the subject and make a note to self not to bring up that topic with that person in the future.

But me? I’m weird. Rather than being repelled by conflict, I want to dive in and deal with what appears to divide us.

Over the long haul of relationships, it actually does more harm than good to ignore conflict. When we deny important differences, we are essentially saying that the relationship with the other person is not worthy of our attention.

I have always had a unique ability to see valid points on all sides of an issue. That’s probably why I’m relatively at ease about conflict, because often I can see where someone else is coming from.

I understand this easy-going attitude about conflict is not automatic for other people. All the same, I think the best way through conflict is through it.

The best way to honor our relationships is to deal with our differences. And the best way to deal with differences is through respectful dialog and attentive listening.

Listening is usually the harder part, but it is important to listen–really listen–to one another. When we find that we differ, we need to listen harder, get behind the words used, and get to the heart of the other.

When we look into the heart of an opponent, we may find ideas & insights, hopes & dreams, or fears & nightmares that we would otherwise have missed. Each person has a unique collection of stories, experiences, and passions that are driving that person’s stances.

It takes courage–I mean real guts–to choose to empathize with someone with whom we disagree instead of remaining locked in endless debate.

And it’s possible we may look closer, dig deeper, and still find nothing with which we can relate. But the more we practice staying alongside one another, truly listening and talking through our conflicts, the better we get at noticing the value of each others’ perspectives.

In this way, when we “go deeper into our differences” (a phrase I learned from a fellow deaconess, the Rev. Dr. Norma Cook Everist), when we get past the surface arguments that divide us, we often find more in common with one another than we first imagined.

And even in the times when, after all our digging, we still can’t find total agreement, we may have at least gained greater understanding of another. We may even find something to actually like about the other person’s perspective.

It’s not easy to forge through conflict, but relationships are worth the investment of our time and energy. We can show others how important they are to us by dealing with differences.