People holding blank paper over heads

Labels – suck the life out of anything with just one word

In Insight and Experience by John PtacekLeave a Comment

“The day you teach the child the name of the bird, the child will never see that bird again.” – J Krishnamurti


Labels obscure the beauty that lies beneath them. With just one word, we can suck the life out of anything – even an entire species.

  • Weed.
  • Pest.
  • Predator.

Consider the abundance of life that teems beneath these pejorative terms for species of plants and animals. Labels kill our curiosity about them, prevent us from exploring their innate beauty.

We suck the life out of each other with labels, too. Bitch, redneck, neat freak, weirdo, loser, airhead, blimp, psycho, retard.

In fiction, authors employ a device known as a humour character to further their plots, a one-dimensional figure in which a single trait predominates. Think Merlin or Mr. Spock. No one is like this in real life. However this doesn’t stop us from turning each other into cartoon characters when we resort to labelling. But whereas Bart Simpson can emerge from a headfirst tumble down Mount Springfield with his spikes of hair perfectly in place, real people get hurt.

Labelling is an act of bullying even more cowardly than that of a ruffian crowding his diminutive prey into a corner. It is an act performed comfortably out of the vicinity of the designated target, and one that entails no threat of retaliation.

When we are feeling mean, we can point and shoot at each other with impunity. At work, among family, in our communities and in the anonymity of cyberspace, we pick each other off with glee and without a shred of remorse over the harm we cause.

“Chill”, some of you might respond, “Labelling is a harmless activity. No one gets hurt. And I would never consider someone else’s opinion when forming my impression of others. I arrive at my own conclusions, thank you very much.”


So at work if someone refers to the Jesus freak in accounting or the slut in human resources, you can honestly say that you would encounter these individuals with a blank slate? If you can, then bless you. but most of us aren’t that saintly. Most of us would approach them with some measure of trepidation. Without knowing it, these unsuspecting souls would have a reputation to live down before they even speak a word to us, courtesy of the label someone hung around their neck.

Labels do hurt, even if our targets are unaware of the cloud of suspicion forming around them. When we slap a label on someone, we make it hard for others to approach that person with the open-minded acceptance we all crave. We stamp them as ‘irregular’, like socks in a discount bin.

There are worse things we can do than diminish someone with a label. But there may be no more direct way for us to contribute to a peaceful planet than by zipping our lips before fouling the air with our petty opinions of each other.

Think about it. How often do we wring our hands over the miserable state of THE WORLD – our conceptual label for human beings sharing the planet with us – only to resort to historically unsuccessful methods to do something about it?

We complain. We demonstrate. We write huffy editorials. We opine on talk shows. We engage in coffee house debates. We rally around political candidates. We broadcast our views on Facebook. We sport bumper stickers. We pray. We light candles. We weep.

In case you haven’t noticed, none of this has done much to lower the misery index. These conceptual attempts to improve a conceptual WORLD ultimately fall flat. They give the appearance of change without changing much of anything. They make us feel proud and useful – not that that’s a bad thing – it’s just not a very helpful thing.

Peel back the label that reads THE WORLD, and there we humans are, wriggling underneath it. THE WORLD is you and me. How you and I treat each other determines the quality of our social environments – our homes, our schools, our workplaces, our corner taps – and collectively this determines the character of mankind.

I wonder how many of us hurling labels preach tolerance or pray for peace without the slightest sense of irony. We are comfortable with peace as an ideal, but clueless about how to make it a reality. It’s easy to chant slogans and hoist placards, but not so easy to curb our tongues when seized by wicked urges. It is not public drama that will solve our social ills. It’s the heavy lifting of individual responsibility.

We contribute more than just silence when we swallow the hurtful words fighting to escape our lips. If we pause for a moment to experience the bitter taste of the words we use to dehumanise others, and recognise that we are the source of that bitterness, we will have identified the root cause of mankind’s misery. And in that transformational moment, we may be prompted to fill the silence with words that uplift rather than degrade our fellow human beings.

About the author

John Ptacek

John Ptacek’s essays explore the unquestioned assumptions that limit our capacity for happiness. They appear on his website, John lives in Wisconsin with his wife Kitty.

Share this post

Leave a Comment