My loathing of labels is a product of the eighteen years I spent as a special ed. teacher in Brooklyn. It was in that setting that I saw how thoroughly labels dehumanize. I taught autistic children and was forced to spend hours listening to administrators drone on about strategies for teaching “the autistic child,” as opposed to teaching the human child. The children I taught were a diverse lot, yet the autistic label reduced them to a single, homogenous category.
In truth, the autistic label was a death warrant for a child. Reading evaluation reports for incoming students it was not at all uncommon to read about a pediatrician telling parents of a newly-diagnoses child that their child would have the mind of a two-year-old for the rest of its life, a gross misstatement of fact.
It’s easy to spin a label. If I told someone I taught autistic children, they would react as if I were a candidate for sainthood. If, on the other hand, I said I taught children with pervasive developmental delays (a more accurate description of what I did) the reaction was, “Oh! That’s nice.”
The advantage of the label is that it saves people the trouble of thinking, and in our age of collective brain rot this is a desirable quality to have. Labels also save us the pain-in-the-ass effort of trying to see others as human beings in all of their nuanced complexity. It is far better to hang a label on them so we can slip into our comfortable for-or-against-us mode of binary thinking.
Without labels power would be crippled. To thrive power needs both labels and numbers. What it can’t quantify it labels and in doing so it dehumanizes both its subjects and its enemies. Both numbers and labels are key ingredients in the firewall that protects power from the fecund maelstrom that is life.
Labels are so much easier to kill or oppress. It’s easier to bomb a terrorist than to bomb a human being, and the vaguer and more ill defined a label is, the easier it is to drop the bombs. Without labels there could be no Pentagon, no Israel, no military-industrial complex and no War on Terror. Without labels there could be no violence. Perhaps this is why the spinning of labels appears to be hardwired our collective brain.
The upside of labels is that they bankrupt empires since an empire can only conquer and oppress a label. One could argue that that is their sole contributions to a decent world.