How often do we reduce people to a label? She is an alcoholic. He is a drug addict. He is homeless. She is a special needs child. She lives in the _______neighborhood. The list of labels seems to have no end. Those are actually some of the “softer” labels that we use to describe people. There are others that are purposely demeaning. When I was growing up, immigrants from Mexico were called “wetbacks.” Kids with certain kinds of special needs were referred to as “retards.” Yesterday a colleague shared a cd with me that had an excellent message regarding labels.
The presenter I heard said this regarding labels:
When we reduce a person to a label, we feel justified in dismissing them. In other words, we no longer feel compelled to help them.
Labeling people therefore is not only demeaning, but it is dehumanizing as well. He is just a homeless guy. He smells bad and looks scary. That takes me off the hook. As long as I label him properly, I don’t have to reach out to him. Communicating with someone with Down’s syndrome makes me uncomfortable, so therefore I don’t have to socialize with that person. The existence of labels makes life seemingly less complicated.
I am glad I heard that presentation yesterday. It served as a good reminder. I am going to try to make a conscious effort to refer to people exclusively by their names. If I don’t know a person’s name, I am going to resist referring to them as the homeless guy or the prostitute. Perhaps it would be good to simply ask the person whom I am inclined to label a simple question: What is your name? Many of the police officers I have served with over the years make a real effort to call people they are dealing with on the streets by their name in a very respectful manner. It makes a difference.
I am focused today on going through an ongoing label removing process! Labeling is really no basis for dismissing people. I know I am far more inclined to help someone who has a name and not a label. What labels will you eradicate from your vocabulary this week?