When I was in college, I remember studying the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, the theory that language determines thought. The hypothesis explains that we must draw from the lexicon we have, adding body language and tone to fine tune the messages we intend to communicate. If this hypothesis is correct, then our thoughts are bound by our vocabulary. In other words, we can only think thoughts for which we have words.
Now…I know we can encounter and think about things we have no words for, because even those things for which we have no words can be categorized with other similar things for which we do have words: Hmmm…that is round and colorful and just fell out of a tree. It has no eyes or fur and does not appear to be alive — it’s probably a fruit. So even though I don’t have a word for it, I can still think about it, because I can categorize it with other things for which I do have a word.
And we use those words to understand the world around us, labeling everything for quick categorization: Is it a food? Can we eat it? Is it dangerous? Should we run?
That’s a handy (and safe) way to use language in relation to thought for survival. But beyond survival, we use categorization and labeling in social situations. Is it animal or human, male or female, angry or happy, rich or poor, young or old, dangerous or inviting? And yes, some of the labels we attribute can be wrong and can even be problematic or unfair. But we still have a tendency to do it (first impressions and all) even if it is subconscious and we are trying to control it.
After all, it’s how our brains make sense of the world around us: take in the stimulus via our senses, then categorize and label.
We also do it to ourselves with identity labels. And honestly, I think when we are young (or new to a certain social circle), this can be a useful practice. It allows us to figure out who we are and what works for us. But, the danger is that we box ourselves in by attributing labels. We might find out that certain labels are wrong, or that they’ve worn out their welcome. And often we find that we need a mix of a labels, or that certain labels only work for certain times, or with certain people.
When we find that identity labels are no longer helping us to find our place, it is time to let them go.
That usually happens when we get to a point in our life where we are confident and comfortable enough in our own skin to go label-less. Those labels no longer matter.
Which is fine. But then…how do others approach you? If I don’t wear the label bisexual, how will another woman know she is welcome? Ahhhh…grasshopper…she will know. Because when the labels leave, body language takes over. And that is where confidence is imperative. When we are confident, we wear our labels more obviously. We don’t need to tell someone we are the boss…we exude the persona. Likewise, we don’t need to tell someone we are dominant or submissive. It’s just there.
But I do feel labels can come in handy with sexual identity. Gone are the times when our only “options” were male or female, gay or straight. The menu of labels has grown exponentially, and continues to lengthen as people find new language to add to the lexicon, and therefore new ways for us to think about sexual identity. And as new labels arise, and we experiment with how those labels feel, we find new ways to become ourselves. That’s not to say that we didn’t have these sexual identities before there were words for them. But having words for them does make it easier to express ourselves to others. And having a way to express sexual identity to others makes it easier to find our tribe…others who want and need the same things. As social creatures, that’s pretty damn important.
So, yeah. Labels have their place, in the early stages of life or social interaction. They help us to categorize and understand how we should go about interacting with others. But, later in life (or experience), I think they lose their importance and can even inhibit us from fully experiences who we are and what we want.
This related post shows the usefulness of labels in the beginning stages of social interaction. When we are just learning and trying to understand our own place in a role or are honing some part of our identity, labels can help us get there. But, once we’ve ironed things out, it’s easier (and probably preferable) to let the labels go, because they matter less.
I know there are plenty of people who shun labels, which is admirable, I suppose. But honestly, I don’t think there is any way to completely avoid them. Labels are just a part of us: mom, supervisor, husband, democrat, mayor, conservative, African-American, queer….
We enter and leave social circles all the time. So we may find ourselves going through this labeling process many times. I personally find them to be less and less important. But then, I’m comfortable in my position. The people in my tribe know who and I am and what I am, and growth in that role happens naturally and comfortably. If I were to change something drastically enough that I think those people might need an update, then I’d have to clasp a label for awhile, until it, too, just became part of who I am.