What comes to mind when you think of labels and how they define your identity? Can your unique personality truly be captured by a series of simple labels? Can anyone’s?
For better or worse, humans love to categorize things. We can scarcely observe any phenomenon in the world without assigning some label or category to what we see. But it is important to remember that labels are merely words. They are tools which may be useful in certain situations, but which can also be extremely damaging in others.
Personal identity labels come in many forms. Some of the most common types include*:
- Race labels (e.g. “white”, “black”, etc.)
- Gender labels (e.g. “man”, “woman”, etc.)
- Age labels (e.g. “old”, “young”, etc.)
- Sexual Orientation labels (e.g. “gay”, “straight”, etc.)
- Ethnicity labels (e.g. “Jewish”, “European”, “Arab”, etc.)
- Occupation labels (e.g. “doctor”, “mechanic”, etc.)
- Religious labels (e.g. “Christian”, “Muslim”, “Evangelical”, etc.)
The way in which an individual responds to a given label is determined by numerous factors. These may include: the type of label (e.g. Race, Gender, Age, etc.), who is giving them the label, and their personal experience. Often, if a person is giving a label to themselves, they will react more positively than to a label that is thrust upon them by someone else. If I proudly declare myself “gay”, I will likely not be offended if someone else labels me in the same way. But, of course, context is also crucial. In some cases, when an otherwise accepted label is used in a derisive or hurtful way, it will certainly not be well-received. In contrast, if I do not label myself as “old”, but someone else uses it to label me, even though they may have the kindest of intentions, I may still become deeply offended.
The primary drawback of using labels to categorize people is that most labels come with a whole set of cultural and societal stereotypes, and these stereotypes may vary greatly between individuals using the label. In one cultural context, for example, a person labeled as an “elderly” “female” “Christian” might be a target of harassment or even assault, while in another cultural context, the same labels may describe an individual to be respected and revered.
So why is this important? How is this relevant to our discussions of spirituality and faith?
I believe that one of the most abused and misunderstood labels in use in society is the label “God”. But why is “God” a label, you ask? Because, on its own, “God” has no specific meaning. Rather, the word assumes the meaning of the societal sub-group that uses it. Worse, the meaning of the label assumed by people outside the societal sub-group almost never matches the meaning of those within it. The problem, again, is the stereotypes at play.
There is an unfortunate tendency for humans to latch onto one specific narrative and doggedly assume that the narrative they have chosen (or in many cases, the one that has been chosen for them) is the one and only correct one. This is especially evident in matters of faith, and can result in extremely volatile and harmful exchanges. Many Evangelical Christians, for example, may assume that their own narrative describing the label “God” is the only correct interpretation, and that anyone else who uses the label “God” for something other than what the Evangelical believes it means, is using it incorrectly. The Evangelical may hear a Muslim saying that they worship “God” (“Allah”, in Arabic), and assume, incorrectly, that they are blaspheming the Evangelical’s interpretation of that label.
Here is where we must remember what the label “God” actually is. It is a word, a symbol; and as spiritual teacher Jiddu Krishnamurti would often say, “the word is not the thing”. The word itself has no intrinsic meaning, only the meaning(s) society and culture have placed upon it. In other words, the stereotypes that have been associated with it by different groups. So, when a Christian hears a Muslim utter the word “Allah”, they should not immediately take offense and think they have to defend “their” God’s name from abuse.
After all, if there is truly only one God, does it really matter what labels are used to describe it? Our words are wind, meaningless. The essence of the divine cannot be named or confined by language. The Jews may have had it right when they claimed that God’s true name is unutterable. So why must we cling so adamently to these words and labels that attempt to constrain the Creator of all things to a single narrative?
Another example: when a Christian calls themselves a “Child of God”, or asserts the same of a non-Christian, what unintended consequences might this have? As we have discovered, the label “God” means many different things to different people, and the stereotypes it carries may also depend on who is using the label, as well as who is being labelled. Thus, the non-Christian may have an entirely different notion of “God” than the Christian attempting to apply the label to them. They may consider it an affront to be associated with what they might view as a petty, vengeful, warmongering deity, or what they might believe does not exist at all. Whereas, the Christian may have simply been trying to suggest that all of humanity shares a fundamental commonality that unites all of us. They could be uttering an entirely true statement, but due to the stereotypes associated with certain labels, what they are trying to communicate gets “lost in translation”.
So, is there a practical solution? Is there a way to use these labels in such a way that we do not risk offending others who disagree on the labels’ interpretation? Sadly, there is no uniform mitigation for these potential misunderstandings. We also cannot abandon labels entirely, due to their valuable utility in certain scenarios. It would seem the only thing we can do is to be mindful of the various ways in which labels are interpreted, and be humble in our own interpretation, understanding that the narrative we choose to assign to words such as “black”, “old”, “elite”, “Christian”, or even “God”, is not the only narrative that exists. We must learn to be accepting of other interpretations and be willing to learn more about the narratives of others if we are to live in a truly peaceful world.
* A more comprehensive table with additional examples is provided below.
|Identity Label Type||Examples|
|Race||“white”, “black”, “east Asian”, “Middle-Eastern”, “Hispanic”|
|Gender||“man”, “woman”, “transsexual”, “intersex”|
|Age||“old”, “young”, “middle-aged”, “elderly”, “millennial”, “boomer”|
|Sexual Orientation||“gay”, “straight”, “homosexual”, “bisexual”, “cis-gendered”|
|Ethnicity||“Jewish”, “European”, “Arab”, “African-American”, “Indian”|
|Education||“college-educated”, “smart”, “dumb”, “intellectual”, “uneducated”|
|Occupation||“doctor”, “mechanic”, “professional”, “janitor”, “teacher”|
|Religion||“Christian”, “Muslim”, “Jew”, “Hindu”, “Buddhist”, “Evangelical”, “Catholic”|
|Socioeconomic||“rich”, “poor”, “well-to-do”, “elite”, “wealthy”, “rural”, “urban”|