We Are Not Our Labels

by James Krivacska, Psy.D.
(reprinted from Reflections from the Jetty: Using Reason to Reform Your Life, available as Kindle Book).

You’re not going to find a lot of pictures of me without a shirt in my childhood photo albums. Even snapshots of me at the beach in Manasquan, unless they’re of me wading in the surf, are likely to show me in at least a T-shirt. Now partly, this is because I was cursed with incredibility pale, fair skin. I was incapable of tanning as a kid, my “pigmentally challenged” condition leaving me a token albino amidst a sea of golden pucks and pixies down at the beach. I’d spend a half an hour in the sun, turn red with sunburn, peel a couple of days later, and revert back to my pale self within a week. We didn’t have sf 70 back in the 60s, and even liberal and frequent applications of Coppertone weren’t enough to ensure that, after spending a day at the beach, I didn’t emerge like a lobster fresh out of the steamer.

But, oddly enough, that wasn’t the main reason I kept my torso covered. In truth, I was skinny; Biafran waif, Save the Children Crusade-style skinny. I was a walking anatomy lesson in the number of ribs in a chest cavity. As an adolescent, my upper arms scarcely exceeded my wrists in breadth even as I barely breached 145 lbs while standing 6 foot tall. I rarely swam at the local municipal pool, at least not without a shirt, because of the teasing and taunts of my age mates who found my ectomorphic/anorexic form the wellspring of comments like, “He’s so skinny, turn him sideways and he doesn’t even cast a shadow!”

Because I didn’t really know anyone at the beach, other than my family and cousins, I wasn’t subjected to the same incessant commentary on my physical shortcomings. But back home it was different. I was “rail,” “slim Jim,” “scarecrow” to list some of the kinder labels. Because I was so skinny, my classmates found it easy to make assumptions about me, such as that I was absolutely useless at sports (certainly true for contact sports like football, which I avoided at all costs).

In actuality, I was decent at baseball, proficient at tennis, and quite a fast runner, unburdened as I was by superfluous weight. My peers largely ignored my intellect, valuing more the scholar-athlete than the scholar-anorexic. The proverbial 98-pound weakling (and I was well into 8th grade before I could claim as my own even that much weight), my classmates paid me little attention except for the few stand-up comics in the class for whom I provided raw material.

Labels. They are ubiquitous, are they not? And not just as we apply them to others. Consider how easily we label ourselves. If asked who you are, how would you respond? Would you identify yourself as an American? Or perhaps your religious affiliation comes first to mind? Do you think of yourself as primarily a Hispanic, or African-American, Caucasian, Asian, or some other racial label? What about Democrat or Republican?

What if an old neighbor of yours was asked who you are? How do you think he or she might respond? A friend, a good neighbor? A father or husband? A liar, adulterer, or bully? A curmudgeon, charmer, sap or fraud? A gambler, slut, gigolo, or an addict? A humanitarian, politician, philanthropist, or statesman? And exactly what would any such answer truly say about you?

When I was in training to become a psychologist, psychiatry and psychology, as helping professions, were just coming to grips with the ramifications of labeling individuals with mental disorders. A leading critic of psychiatry, Thomas Szasz (himself a psychiatrist) challenged his profession to abandon the practice of labeling the mentally ill, arguing that such labels consisted of nothing more than social constructs based on popular notions of normality.

For Szasz, normality was defined too narrowly by concepts of conformity. Those who failed to conform to societal standards of “normal” behavior are labeled mentally ill as a means of stripping them of status in the broader community. So I was trained to see the person, not the disorder. I was trained not to see the “schizophrenic” in Room 512, or the “manic-depressive” in intake whose husband had just left her, or the “mental retard” just dropped off by his parents at the clinic.

Instead, I saw Craig, the 20-year old, homeless man, suffering from such a severe, untreated case of schizophrenia that he simply self-medicated, drowning his delusions with alcohol. I saw Virginia, a young woman whose husband could no longer cope with the drastic mood swings caused by her bi-polar disorder, and whose departure triggered a depression so deep it prompted her to attempt the suicide that brought her to the clinic. And I saw Sean, a formerly happy and carefree young man in his early thirties, whose elderly parents, incapacitated by old age and illness, could no longer care for him at home and whose cognitive limitations prevented him from understanding why he couldn’t go home with them.

By seeing such individuals as persons, potential agents of change in their own lives, rather than as static and unyielding diagnoses, their humanity is preserved; and, in no small measure, so is our own.

We are not our labels
Surprisingly, I didn’t really need to be taught this in graduate school. I already knew it at age ten. In the winter of my tenth year, my parents signed me up for advanced swim lessons at the YMCA in New Brunswick, in New Jersey. The class had about a dozen students in it, all within a year or two of my age, and all white except for one short and shy, black boy. Although his name is lost to my memory, I shall call him Chris for the purpose of this recollection.

While waiting for the swim instructor to arrive the first day of lessons, most of the kids jumped into the pool. Having previously taken lessons at the “Y” I knew it was against the rules to go into the pool without the instructor present, so I sat along the pool’s long edge, feet dangling in the cool water as I tried to adjust my body temperature before taking the plunge. Also seated about 10 feet away along the same edge was Chris. A third boy stood stoically alone at the shallow end, looking quite convinced that at any moment a sea monster would emerge from the depths to swallow him. Everyone else was in the pool, splashing about gleefully.

Sure enough, when the instructor arrived—a young college kid who clearly would have preferred to be at the beach with his friends—he screamed at everyone for getting in the pool without a lifeguard, and ordered everyone out. I noted, with curiosity, that everyone got out on the side of the pool opposite to where Chris and I were sitting, including several boys who were obviously much closer to our side.

The instructor explained to everyone the buddy system (at which I was an old hand) and told everyone to pick a buddy to pair up with for a drill. Most of the kids quickly paired up on the other side of the pool. Well, I didn’t know anyone there, but since Chris was the closest to me and I would have had to walk to the other side of the pool to pair up with one of the other kids, it seemed logical to pair up with him. So I got up, walked over and offered my hand, asking him if he wanted to be my buddy. Somewhat surprised at the smile I elicited from him, I was equally surprised by the reaction from the other side of the pool. Keeping in mind this was 1967, a wave of giggles and sneers came across the pool from the other side. And amidst the snide comments, I heard one of the boys call me a “nigger lover.”

I had never heard the phrase before. I had grown up in a small New Jersey suburb in which not a single person of color had lived. Chris was, in fact, the first black kid I had ever talked to or even stood next to.

Still, I could not mistake that this was meant as an insult. I also immediately realized, as I saw the smile vanish from Chris’s face and watched him quickly cast his eyes downward in acknowledgement of some deeply felt shame, that while they directed the insult at me, its target was Chris. I understood, even at ten, the implications of those words: that Chris, as a Black child, was unworthy of being loved. And that seemed inherently wrong.

Now, I was not embarking on some grand, Gandhi-like mission here; I just needed a swim buddy. But the comment had cemented a disposition of defiance quite uncharacteristic of me at that age. I gripped Chris’s hand hard and, with a little self-pride in my gumption, jumped into the pool, pulling him in after me. We were committed to being buddies for the next 10 weeks.

When I got home later that day I eagerly told my parents of what I had come to see as something of a heroic act on my part. To my dismay, their reaction was less congratulatory than I had hoped. In fact, they seemed to side with the other boys, very concerned what others would think of my behavior. As someone who already struggled with acceptance among my “Christian” parochial school classmates (remember the ridicule over being skinny), my parents felt this would hand them more ammunition to use against me. They politely suggested I get a different buddy next week.

Now, sooner or later, we all come to the point in our childhood when, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz, we draw back the curtain of our youthful innocence to discover the sad truth that our parents are, indeed, merely human. In fact, we learn that they can even be wrong. But for some of us, the moment of that epiphany strikes with greater force, resonating deep within our being a recognition that on some fundamental issues, even those of immense moral magnitude, our parents can be wrong, grossly wrong, so wrong that, even as a child, one is left pitying them for their lack of understanding.

So, for the next ten weeks I deliberately and willfully disobeyed my parents for the first time in my life. I remained Chris’s buddy throughout the swim course. In that time, I learned of the many things we had in common. For example, we shared a foolish devotion to the New York Mets, were captivated by the Gemini space program, and compulsively pursued model building as a hobby. He was in so many ways very much like me. Only one difference between us seems worthy of remark; his favorite superhero was Batman, mine was Superman. Such are the things of importance to a ten-year-old.

After the last lesson, I reached out my hand to say goodbye. He took my hand and grasped me in a clumsy half-hug characteristic of the awkwardness of an age that longs for status amongst the cool “tweens,” while still reluctant to abandon the oblivious and unjudging friendship of childhood. But in that tentative moment, I was left with no doubt that our parting would be more difficult for him than me, and in that knowledge understood what an important decision I had made ten weeks earlier.

We are not our labels
How do we define ourselves and how do others define us, and what are the implications of those definitions for how we live our lives and relate to each other? Too often, the labels imposed upon us, and the labels we accept or impose upon ourselves, dehumanize us. Too often, labels define us, whether by our disabilities, our shortcomings or our failures.

We are not our labels
Yet we label nonetheless, losing sight of how labels disconnect us, one from the other, and how they separate us by a wall of trivial and meaningless differences. Whether we label ourselves or label each other, the label itself, by its very nature, keeps us from knowing each other and accepting each other. In many ways, we use labels as shortcuts. We label people so that we don’t have to bother to get to know them.

If I told you I supported Barak Obama for President in 2008 and you label me a Democrat, you’ve saved yourself the trouble of knowing me as an individual. You also make assumptions about who I am and what I believe. So while it might not surprise you to know I support the rights of gays and lesbians to marry, you might not expect that I’m also a bit of a fiscal conservative who is rather skeptical of federally funded social programs.

We are not our labels
More than a form of social shorthand, labels also blind us to the fine contours that make up an individual’s persona. It’s as if we’ve drawn a shade between ourselves and those we seek to know, leaving us with little more than a silhouette to go by in measuring up the other person and discovering who he or she is; all of which makes it all the more strange that we rely so much upon them. They so impede our ability to recognize and accept the humanity of the person we label.

Those convicted of a crime experience this first hand, enduring insults, threats, even physical assaults for no other reason than the fact they are labeled convicts. Stripped of their humanity by people who know nothing about them but the fact of their conviction, it’s easy to ignore the fathers and husbands, the mothers and wives, they are; the sons and brothers, the daughters and sisters, they are; the artists and thinkers they are.

The public knows nothing of their politics, their religious beliefs, their morality, or their creativity. They know nothing of their personal lives, the personal struggles, personal tragedies and scars that many of them bear from their own childhoods. They know nothing of their triumphs in life, the moments when they overcame their shortcomings and succeeded where before they had only known failure. The public could not know any of this because they knew nothing more than the label convict.

And even that fact the public could not have known just by catching a glimpse of him. What can you know of a person by merely looking at him? Can you know his politics, if he’s Democrat or Republican? Can you know his creed? Can you tell if he is gay, straight, bi-sexual? Can you be sure of his nationality, or his ethnicity? Does any of this matter?

Indeed, we can only be certain of one thing, something undeniably evident with even the most casual of glances, the one attribute which we all share without exception: that we are all human beings. In nothing but this can you be certain by looking at another person, unless you take the time to talk to him and get to know him.

We are not our labels
When you accept any negative label—gambler, addict, dropout, loser, handicapped, queer, bum, bastard, punk, deadbeat—and allow that label to define you, you give the public permission to think they know everything about you. And not only do they think they know everything about you, they are just as certain that they are not like you. Not just in a “they-don’t-think-like-us,” “they-don’t-feel-like-us” superficial kind of way. But at a gut level that is often so intense as to refute the humanity you share with them; a feat that can be accomplished only if they deny your humanity, deny that you are, in fact, a human being.

Not that any class of citizens has the market cornered on having their humanity denied. African Americans for the first 200 years of America’s history understood what it meant to be stripped of their humanity. So, too, did the Jews in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and ‘40s, as did Native Americans in the 19th Century and Australian Aborigines in the mid-20th Century, know something about having their humanness disregarded.

When you suffer the indignities of those who label you, you represent just the most recent in a long, inglorious history in which people wield invective, insult, rebuke and assault as weapons to rip from you the shield of your humanity. Your humanity is denied every time someone defines you by your past, by your failures, by your disability, by your sexuality, or any other superficial attribute.

But we too are guilty of assaulting the humanity of others. Every time we hurl an insult or rebuke, every time we demean and disrespect another, every time we label or stereotype those we do not bother to know, every time we assault, verbally, physically, or emotionally, another person, we have diminished their humanity, and in doing so, sacrificed a bit of our own.

If We Are Not Our Labels, Who Are We?
Anyone who has raised a young child recalls the years when, as a toddler, he or she went around labeling everything and wanting to know “What’s that?” It seems that labeling is deeply ingrained in us; some psychologists even believe it has strong evolutionary roots. The ability to label may well have served two purposes critical to early Homo sapiens’ survival.

First, it may have functioned as a vehicle to transmit knowledge from one generation to another. Second, labeling provides a means of organizing information and categorizing experiences and observations in the environment based on their similarity or differences.

Thus, early humans’ experience with a narrowly escaped death from the bite of a cobra and their ability to label and categorize permitted them to group together a class of slithering creatures in the category snake, all members of which are then avoided to stay safe. This tendency to generalize information about objects and experiences has a strong survival benefit since humans didn’t have to experience and survive every form of life-endangering event or encounter to live long enough to pass their genes on to the next generation.

Unfortunately, this ability to generalize can also work against us. A negative experience with a piranha might generalize to all fish leading us, unnecessarily, to avoid an abundant food source. Even today, a single negative experience with a foreigner might lead an individual to generalize the egregious behavior of this one individual to an entire ethnic group, race or culture.

Fortunately, humans also developed an important skill as a countervailing force against unchecked overgeneralization: reason. So while our gut leads us to label and categorize for the sake of simplicity and expediency, our head should tell us when we have gone too far. Unfortunately, both individually and as a community, it seems it takes a while for our head to catch up with our gut. Historically, in nearly every case in which the society at large has oppressed, abused, harassed, eradicated, or exiled a group it categorized as different, it was left to subsequent generations to deal with the consequences and confront the realities of what had been done.

Early prisons in America were stark and sterile environments, with extended periods of solitary confinement, and often absolute prohibitions against any form of communication between inmates. Visits with family and friends were rarely permitted. Society sentenced prisoners to prison to serve penance for their transgressions, hence the name penitentiaries. As inhumane as such imprisonment may sound today, it was, in its time, a huge advance over punishments of the day. Prior to the establishment of the penitentiary system, inmates were rarely confined for their crimes. In most cases, the legal system meted out corporal punishment, such as pillorying or flogging, reserving for the most serious offences, the most severe penalty; death. The mindset was that of harsh, even brutal, punishment for a transgression against society, both as deterrence and as a form of retribution.

The early penitentiaries were usually organized by religious denominations, the earliest established by the Quakers outside of Philadelphia. The goal of incarceration was penance and redemption, salvation of the soul, if you will, rather than strictly punishment and retribution. So though the conditions of the penitentiaries were harsh, we can see that even as early as the beginning of the 19th Century in America, reason, however flawed, had begun to cool the passions of the gut associated with the labeling of the rule breaker as outlaw and criminal.

Victor Hugo’s Les Miserable illustrates this most poignantly. As I described earlier in Chapter 3, convicted of stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister and her seven starving children, Jean Valjean ends up serving 19 years in prison. His jailer, Javert, pursues him throughout his life, even after he is finally freed from prison and establishes himself as a respectful citizen, because Javert, the quintessential moralist, is unable to perceive anything redeeming in Valjean: once a criminal, always a criminal in his mind. When he at last confronts the undeniable humanity of Valjean—who saves Javert’s life at great personal peril—Javert is so unable to resolve the conflict between his experience of Valjean’s humanity and his own personal moral code of justice, he ends up drowning himself. Reason was not Javert’s strong point. Labeling was.

The humanist principle here goes beyond the traditional Biblical teaching “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.” While conveying a sense of non-judgmental acceptance of each other as brothers and sisters, this passage from the Bible also suggests that we share in common our fallibility, our shortcomings, our inherent imperfection. I guess it’s better than nothing—a kind of communal self-deprecation—predicated on the principle “You’re no worse than me because I have sinned too.” If the best we can do is to say your label is no worse than mine, I don’t know that we’ve advanced the human condition all that much.

There has to be more to establishing our common link to our humanity beyond this least common denominator kind of thinking. So, if we are not our labels, who exactly are we? I would argue that we share in common our ability to think, reason, discover, learn, invent, and create. But, however these attributes may describe us and our abilities, they provide little guidance in-and-of themselves as to how we should live our lives. And can we really argue with the idea that who we are isn’t intrinsically tied up with how we live?

The moral compass that guides our daily decisions and choices becomes the key with which to unlock the shackles of our labels. How well we know in what direction our moral compass points has much to do with how much time and effort we devote to understanding the assumptions and philosophies that guide the conduct of our lives.

Now, when you mention the word philosophy, most people’s eyes glaze over. It sounds so esoteric and intellectual and elitist. “What does the ‘common man’ know of philosophy?” one might ask. Whether we wish to label it so or not, in reality, each of us lives our lives by the rules and principles we establish for ourselves; rules and principles that make up our own private philosophy.

Traditional schools of philosophical thought, as taught in colleges and universities, represent nothing more than systematic and public attempts to organize ideas, arguments and knowledge into a set of principles and ethics that can then be taught to others. Our personal philosophies might lack sophistication, or may not be as well thought out, or as comprehensive, but they exist nonetheless and guide us in our daily choices more than we probably realize.

We can get into trouble, however, when our personal philosophies harbor inconsistencies and false knowledge and we fail to recognize their presence. Thus does an otherwise loving and devoted father, who would never do anything to harm his child, fail to perceive the inconsistency of action inherent in committing incest with his daughter. When the personal philosophy contains false knowledge (such as that sexual contact with his daughter is not a form of abuse or harmful, but an act of love) it permits the father to engage in behavior that appears to any rational outsider contradictory and inconsistent: a father who cares for and nurtures his daughter but who also sexually abuses her.

So rather than run away from the concept of philosophy as too difficult an intellectual task to undertake, each of us needs to recognize the impact philosophy has on our daily lives. Then we need to tackle the challenge of the traditional philosophers; to leave no assumptions, no axioms, no principles unexamined in the harsh and sometimes uncompromising light of reason.

If we are to become more than our labels—we need to define that core set of fundamental principles, a core ethic as to how we will treat each other—that operates independent of any creed or sect. In the living of that ethic, that personal philosophy, we can rise above the labels others place upon us and create a purpose in life that brings us happiness in ways that also enhance the lives of those we touch on a daily basis. We must, quite simply, reclaim our humanity.

Adapted from the original essay appearing in Reflections from the Jetty, by James J. Krivacska, PsyD, available as ebook on Kindle.
Also visit the Reflections from the Jetty website.

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