our unfortunate destructive relationship with labels


“Wisdom is an invitation to share. Wisdom is compassion in the face of retribution. Wisdom is kindness without want. Wisdom is mercy where there is none. Wisdom is allowing one to be themselves.

Wisdom is silence in a storm of lies.”


Dennis Maglinte


“Once you label me you negate me.”

Søren Kierkegaard


Well. We seem to talk about how divided America <and the world> is. We talk about tribes and cocoons and, well, a whole bunch of pop sociological mumbo jumbo.

I would argue that it all is one thing – labels.

We label everything and we love labels.




White trash.





How about … cis, cisgender, incel, gay, lesbian, transsexual (add in another label).

How about, okay, races, skin of color & cultural labels.


I don’t dislike labels nor am ignorant of their general usefulness, but I become concerned as we have developed a cascading list of labels (subsets of subsets) on any and every subject.

Note: this article, “The garden of forking memes: how digital media distorts our sense of time”, outlines how social media and the internet has permitted sub labels, or micro-labeling to become self-identification tools.

All that said.

While labels can be confusing, shifting in definition and, in general, more often than not simply a pain in the ass to us in a variety of ways, labeling people and things is both good and bad.

The good is obvious.

Heuristics and things like brands help us cheat a little in decisions, choices and thinking time. in addition, as I say time and time again, if you show me the problem, I can solve the problem. While aggravating if I know someone looks at me as ‘an old white guy’ or ‘slow white guy’ or ‘stubborn’ or old outdated thinker’ or ‘pseudo intellectual snob’ I can meet the problem head on <except the slow white guy which I just have to accept>.

Wisdom is silence in a storm of lies.

The bad is obvious.

They are default stereotypes which inherently generalize people, who are generally unique.

Maybe worse is that labels can actually direct historical narratives. What I mean by the latter is labels seem to gain gravitas over time. The longer they get imprinted upon our mental models they become intellectual signposts, therefore, guiding the arc of historical narratives. I would note here that history has a tendency to be written by the victors and that time, and the internet, has a tendency to unravel a lot of written history. It is within that conflict that labels reside.


People are addicted to labeling. Everyone does it to an extent even if reluctantly or in a self aware way. But, in doing so, we inherently depersonalize and de-contextualize, people and events. And, as I have said a gazillion times, context is all that matters. Therefore, labels are almost the anti-contextual activity. That, my friends, is bad.

We are people, not labels and labels, inevitably, create perceptions <and, no, perceptions are not reality>.

I would argue that labels are a significant reason we cannot address inequality.

I would argue that labels are a significant reason we have a societal depression issue.

I would argue that labels are a significant reason we have a social media issue.

In fact.

I would argue that all labels do is separate us as opposed to uniting us.

Let me address that last point.

The reason people often use labels, i.e., “purposefully APPLY a label on themselves, is to separate themselves from a group and attempt to distinguish some individuality or separation from a status quo.

We self-apply labels to shape perceptions. The problem is a label can change how we perceive a more complex issue — people.

Self-categorizing by their differences, or similarities, generates a simplistic label of which I would argue runs the risk of “blurry definitions to the larger audience.”

Note: this is a fabulous little resource developed for young people to get them thinking about labels: ‘How do the labels and assumptions others make about us influence our identities?


Categorical labeling is a tool people use to resolve the seemingly impossible complexity of Life/society/culture/individual environments we are constantly grappling to understand or even just perceive. Life, like so many things, is adaptive & constantly changing therefore, unless a label is adaptive & constantly changing – which is actually the antithesis of a label – that label is, well, useless.


Labeling isn’t always a cause for concern, and it’s often very useful. It would be impossible to filter through all the information we process during our lives without the aid of labels. They are default shortcuts to getting to the crux of intellectual issues we all face on a daily basis. That said. It’s important to recognize people we label as deplorable, elite, ignorant, intellectual, black, white, rich, poor, smart, complicated, simple, seem more deplorable, elite, ignorant, intellectual, black, white, etc. because we’ve labeled them so.

In the end.

Labels are a means of classifying things. I say that to remind everyone of the limitations of the Dewey Decimal system (the standard filing system for libraries and library books).

Labels have limitations. And maybe that is my larger point. It would be silly to suggest not using any labels because it would make your life incredibly inefficient. However, recognizing the limitations of the labels you use is a way to better understand how destructive labels can be to some of the more complex things in life. Uhm. Like people.

I will end with where I began – wisdom. Wisdom is the silence in the storm of labels. Use your wisdom wisely.

Written by Bruce