Fixing The Label Printer

There’s an odd quirk of humans, and it can take us surprisingly long to clue in. Two people can do exactly the same things side by side, for a very long time, and not realize the other’s reasons are entirely alien to their own.

You could call it a lack of theory of minds. Absent evidence to the contrary, we just assume that others operate the same way we do. As a default heuristic, it’s the sane thing to do. But it won’t be long before we build upon our initial premises. In the process, we can build an edifice that appears solid, but is little more than a house of cards on a wobbly table.

Take work for example. Why does someone have the job they do? Is it the money? The people they work with? Solving interesting challenges? Maybe it’s social status, or a need to feel useful. Given a hint at some motivations, we can start to form a picture, but each of these reasons is itself a big cloud of possibilities.

Money could be paying for an education, or supporting a family. It could fund an expensive hobby, a decadent lifestyle, or pay off past debts. Maybe they’re saving up for early retirement.

People, that’s a big one. Do they get to meet interesting strangers every day? Or have a close knit group of friends at the office? Do they teach and inspire the younger generation? Or is it the opposite, to be around others they want to be inspired by?

Challenges can be technical, social or personal. Motivation can be self-driven, approval-seeking or goal-oriented. The end result is the same though: they all show up and get the job done.

Ask them to do overtime however, and you will get radically different results as the distinctions play out. The label of “employee” turns out to be mostly a mirage, a swarm of concepts that only looks solid from afar. We can rigidly define it by the legal obligations set out by contract, but that only serves to pin down the lamp post it’s buzzing around.

This isn’t about the nature of signifiers though. Rather, I’d like you to consider that adopting a label, for oneself or others, is in itself a very tricky action. The same rules of different and potentially incompatible motivations apply.

If someone starts a phrase with the words “As a mother, I …,” what exactly is going on? If it’s a “Mothers Against Drunk Driving” speech, someone’s probably trying to acquire authority over people who are not mothers, and a moralizing tone would not surprise. But if we’re hearing an infomercial for some household doodad, an actress is likely trying to elicit a sense of trust from people who are. This use of labels as identities can be a powerful tool, and it’s entirely defined by the social context. Being a mother sometimes has very little to do with actually having conceived.

But what about “I feel I have failed as a mother,” said by the sorrowful parent of an estranged daughter? In this case it isn’t an identity being alluded to. Rather, it’s a set of actions: the role of caretaker, teacher, guardian and more. You can do things as a mother. Moreso, as a mother you must do things.

The key factor here is clearly responsibility, but that’s selling it too short. The practical distinction is better made between identities and aspirations. As a mother, you should aspire to be a good mother.

This, I feel, is an essential point most sorely lost in today’s world of soundbites and bird chirps. Whether in the distilled concoction of a news headline or the staccato beats of a Twitter bio, you are far more likely to find personal labels employed in the former role rather than the latter.

The main thing one does “as a gay man” is not anyone else’s business. “As a vegan” you are more likely to be making a political statement rather than providing dietary tips, and “as a Christian” you ought to know pride is a cardinal sin. Party affiliations, ethnic descriptors, tribal flags, … Feel free to add your own examples.

On the other hand, “as a doctor” you should aspire to do no harm and “as a journalist” you should aspire to report fairly. Engineers should build safely, scientists should explore fearlessly, philosophers should think wisely, and historians should dig truthfully. These are ideals we may not always live up to, but we can’t get consistently close unless we’re aiming directly for it.

Furthermore, while it is the hallmark of a trained professional to practice such values, they work just as well as virtues to adopt when we find ourselves momentarily stepping into their shoes. Instead of using labels to exclude, we can use them to include anyone who lives up to them.

The less we label ourselves and others by what we are, the more room there is to think about what we should do. Most important of all, we should aspire to aspire.


About samuelthefifth

Iconoclasm as a service. It's not only all true, it's extremely possible.
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One Response to Fixing The Label Printer

  1. nimelennar says:

    I like it.

    From my experience, you can’t tell much about a person even based on how that person labels him/herself, much less based on labels that other people use to categorize that person. I’ve met Christians that have been non-judgemental and utterly devoted to the service of those in need, and others who thought that being Christian meant that they were uniquely qualified to pass judgement on everyone around them. In both cases, Christianity was what they identified with, above all else.

    Reducing anyone to just one aspect of themselves is an incredible disservice to the baffling complexity of the human brain. Even more so, oversimplifying an ideological opponent in such a way is a sign of being seriously stuck in an “us vs. them” dichotic state of mind, to a point where it’s probably unhealthy for both one’s stress levels and one’s own intellectual honesty.

    In fact, I’ll generalize that further and say that you learn the most about people from what labels _they_ use to categorize _other_ people. Someone who describes another person as mentally ill (lunatic, nut job, whack job) with scorn in their voice instead of compassion, for example, probably (even if only subconsciously) sees people with such an illness as somehow less-than-human. Likewise, someone who uses “gay” as an insult. Or “alt-Reich” or “feminazi.” It’s okay to look down on _them_, because they’re not really _people_ like you put me: they’re [label].

    And I agree totally that the best, most telling self-labels aren’t about what you think, or believe, or where you were born, or who your parents are, or anything genetically or culturally determined. The most accurate labels of self describe what you are doing, or, even more so, what you aspire to do.

    Elon Musk is a tireless technological innovator. That says something about his intelligence and work ethic, but not really much else about him as a person. However, he _aspires_ to put a viable colony on the surface of Mars, so that humanity won’t be able to nuke itself into oblivion. That, _that_, says a lot about his world view, his priorities, and perhaps gives a hint of something fundamentally selfless at his core.

    I had several more paragraphs written about aspiration as it relates to a particular piece of fiction, but the Internet ate it, so I’ll ruminate on it a bit longer and perhaps re-write and post it later.

    To conclude: sadly, it seems to be the norm to revert to “us vs. them” (and probably has always been, their history), on both sides of every debate. But, I’m imagining a different world, and write, it would be really nice if people only chose labels for each other that represented what they were doing, and really emphasized what they were _aspiring_ to do, as unrealistic as those aspirations might be.

    Maybe that’s something I should aspire to change.


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