We’ve all been warned about the power of our words: that we should be careful what we say, lest our message be lost somewhere in the shades of meaning built into each string of vowels and consonants we construct when we attempt to communicate. We’ve had to create systems and conventions to regulate the use of language and govern the way we interact, evinced in table manners and text etiquette. Utilizing words to encompass and embody entities unto themselves, however, exposes the vulnerabilities of language. Words take on a meaning greater than their phonetic construction, coming to represent, more abstractly, things and ideas. And because words are not the things they refer to, some meaning may be lost in translation.
Labeling has become an indispensable tool in the way we understand our environment and place within it, whether that entails race, political party or gender identity. While labels are useful for self-identification and placement in society, this self-identification may be detrimental to one’s development because it introduces an expectation of behavior and limits room for growth.
In the past, people banded together in groups and fomented a sense of identity and belonging through the assignment of labels. Labels were a viable means of asserting membership within the social arena, shaping the way people related to each other and interacted. In early societies, loyalty following from the sense of belonging offered by a labeled group contributed to a larger sense of communal identification which made survival in an often harsh natural world a little less difficult, not to mention more meaningful. To be a part of a group offered strategic allies in the task of prolonged sustenance, companionship and a sense of purpose.
Today, however, the concept of family and community has broken down, pushing disconnected individuals to label themselves in association to alternative groups. Larger families are now an economic burden, and coming out of the nuclear family of the American twentieth century was a normalization of the diminished role of family in society. It is far more common for modern youth to find this sense of “family” and belonging in chosen groups of friends or the communities they engage in. Rather than inheriting a sense of belonging, it is created and sought out as the requirements for survival have, as can be expected, drastically shifted since the dawn of civilization. In the wake of these changed circumstances, social grouping becomes less advantageous because it stunts the progress of the individual who has become the standard unit of modern society.
Growing up, identification with place has been a significant contributor to my assumed sense of identity. When I lived in Massachusetts, I was an academic lover of the arts, adopting the hallowed elitism which seeped from the inner city towards the suburbs. A chilled, reserved quality became my default during the long winter months and I warmed with the onset of summer as the world came back to life. Massachusetts became everything I was for a period of time, until I moved to Los Angeles. It was then the laid back West Coast indifference that found me, and I called myself a Californian. While this association with place offered a broader sense of unity and belonging in the physical realm, it was doubly confining because it meant, for me, a personality shift each time I moved or even visited my hometown during holidays. Trying to occupy past spaces after the present version of myself had been somewhere else for a while was difficult, and confused the sense of self I’d built up in each place I’d been. In this way, my deep identification with place limited my potential to grow when it came time to move or leave.
In a similar vein, labels have facilitated the assertion of self in a broader social group, providing a means for people to present themselves to society. For expressions of gender and sexuality, labels allow people to both quickly understand the preferences and identity of other people as well as quickly communicate their own. The variety of labels encompassing the full gamut of existence and experience is both liberating and limiting, as there is suddenly a label for anything anyone ever might be or want to be. But the selection of any label inadvertently has the effect of placing yourself in one box as opposed to another. Words and labels are rigid, in the sense that they are only as much as what they seek to represent. The depth and complexity of one’s perception of their gender or sexuality thus cannot be sufficiently accounted for by any given label. Furthermore, the creation of labels spawns communities as a number of individuals congregate under a shared status. Unlike evolutionarily advantageous groupings which were once necessary for survival, these identity-based groups may provide a sense of belonging only insofar as members are able to conform to a shared identity, again placing a limitation on the potential for individual experience and expression. There is a very established notion of what it means to be gay, for instance, and it may well be that a given person’s “gayness” differs from what society considers to be the norm. The assignments of these labels must then be taken with a grain of salt, weighing the communal benefit against the restriction derived from the label’s sociopolitical connotation and rigidity.
Perhaps the most concrete instance of label polarization may be found in modern day American politics, where the identity struggle has taken on a life of its own. The political party system was introduced as a hallmark protection of democracy, giving voices to groups of people hoping to achieve a similar political end with regard to national decisions. Of late, partisan conflict has escalated beyond a level of productive disagreement. Party identification has become a more transgressive matter involving personal morals in lieu of any effectable national policy change. The social demarcation of status and belief resulting from political identity is detrimental to the expression of one’s person, as the assignment of political labels brings a very specific and polarizing notion of identity which may or may not be appropriately placed.
It remains that the assignment of labels in any regard introduces a level of expectation when character is considered, curtailing individual growth. Whether a label’s implied status/identity is as polarizing as political designation or innocent as the place one is from, a dimension of character comes with each label identification. Following one’s intersectional relation to various communities and groupings banded under any given label, a consciousness of identity arises in conflation with this multifaceted rendering of self. The development of an individual identity is handicapped in this way, remaining subject to the existing social pressures introduced by belonging to these groups.
In order to preserve the integrity of one’s character and individuality, an effort to understand the limitations of labels and movement away from self-definition is necessary. It is far more important to live through experiences vicariously than to try to put a name to them. The separation of experience and existence from an insufficient description or categorization is vital to maintaining an honest relationship with ourselves.