Labels are powerful. They can be very helpful in life, but also heartbreaking. When we think of the term ‘label’, we envision the printed matter attached to things we wish to purchase. Labels tell us the clothing maker, the size of the garment, for instance. It tells us what is in the can or box we buy at the food store. Consider going to your pantry and finding a can of fruit cocktail if none of the cans have labels. Imagine your dismay if your can labeled fruit cocktail contained beans instead. A label (food label, at least) is supposed to predict the contents with 100% accuracy. This isn’t what I mean by heartbreaking, however.
How did labeling begin? I imagine that in pre-historic times, ancient man learned by experience. Ancient man noticed that when dark clouds gathered, rain often followed. If he wanted to stay dry, he would find shelter when he saw dark clouds. Man is not alone in using predictors. I remember learning about biomimicry in school. There was a film that showed a Monarch butterfly being eaten by a baby blue jay. It must have tasted awful, because the next scene showed the bird spitting it out. Somehow, the tastier Viceroy butterfly adopted the coloring of the Monarch. We can say that the Viceroy’s appearance is a warning label – for birds that have already tasted Monarchs.
A label is also a classifying phrase or name that identifies a person or a thing. When an infant is learning, before she knows about names or phrases, she knows what is pleasant and what is unpleasant to her senses. Later names are put to experiences, and labels are born. How could it be any other way? Broccoli bad; Cookies good! If a grown up never intervenes, it could be cookies forever. Labels learned by experience during childhood can be re-enforced or extinguished based on guidance by adults.
I (barely) remember in high school, my tendency to behave in a way that would not attract attention. My older brother did that enough for everyone… While he embarrassed me (he would often yell and scream, hit himself and grab food from other people); I would be ready to punch out anyone who said anything.
People judged my brother for his actions. There is nothing wrong with that. After all, a person’s first inclination is for protection from possible danger. Something or someone unpredictable is to be avoided. The bothersome thing is that some people do not look any further than first appearances. People who are frightened tend to classify ‘otherness’ as dangerous. When they see someone like my brother, they say to themselves, “Look at that retard”, or something similar. The really insecure will call names, bully or worse. However, when a sensitive, thinking person encounters ‘the other’, she conquers fear. Careful and thoughtful engagement can be most rewarding. A connection may be possible across the gulf of ‘otherness’, realizing that the ‘other’ is also human. The heartbreaking thing is that this does not happen as often as it should.