If you grew up speaking English on this planet, you must know that little rhyme. Isn’t it remarkable that something so well known could be so incredibly wrong? Though considering what often passes for knowledge, maybe it’s not so incredible.
A label of only one word can carry such enormous consequences that it’s stunning to contemplate such power in a word. Take the United States in 1970: faggot; here in Georgia in 1950: Negro; Germany in 1940: Jew.
We face a world of such complexity that making sense of the mighty deluge around us can be a strain, and often, we don’t even bother with thinking about the complications. So we shut down or take shortcuts. One of the pernicious shortcuts we’ve figured out is that with a single word we can—supposedly—summarize another person into useful information. There’s so much less to think about that way. The examples above are fairly obvious, but more subtle labels can impede your life and stop you from attaining your full potential. It might be something you don’t even notice.
What if you have a chemical change in your body, something you can’t see, that gives you a defect in processing sugar? Then suppose we forget about the fact that you sing solos in the church choir, that when you were in the Girl Scouts you discovered you like reading to children, that you like to water ski, and that you grow better orchids than anyone has ever seen? Instead, in answer to the question “who are you” we just say: a diabetic. That’s your identity. Notice the article “a” there, creating a noun. You are not a person who has diabetes and who does many things that have nothing to do with the disease—no, what you are is a diabetic.
Even as an adjective, a label reduces a person to a simple idea, gets rid of the annoying complexity, and makes it easy to know how to treat that person, based on our attitude toward the label. Gay? Yeah, I know you. As soon as I know your label, I don’t have to work to figure out who you are. Muslim? Republican? I know your type.
While labels help to make the maelstrom of reality simpler, they do not express reality, and by using them, we are creating mental walls against reality. It’s understandable why we want to make life easier. Life is hard. There’s nothing reprehensible in the desire to simplify (often described as a virtue), but in simplifying life by putting labels on other humans, we create problems as vast as slavery or genocide.
Or as intimately traumatic as a quick spoken insult to a boy in high school. Autistic freak.
[I’m going to end this blog entry with a little personal note. This week I learned that I’ve been hired for a job as a Manuscript Editor (basically, a copy editor) for the medical journal Arthritis Care and Research here in Atlanta. Other than about six months in Asbestos Funland, I’ve been seriously looking for a job for four years. That’s 1, 2, 3, 4. This job also takes me to a goal I started back in New Jersey ten years ago, to make the transition from English professor to medical writer or editor. When I started I didn’t know much science, so I thought I should start with the basics. I was getting up at 6:00 a.m. to read a chemistry textbook, and—I’m not making this up—I was making models of molecules with gumdrops and toothpicks. I figured that with enough time, I could acquire the knowledge and experience to reach this goal. I had no idea that “enough time” was going to be 10 years.]