Labels In Society Restrict Perspective, Thoughts, and Ideas

Malvika Mahendhra, Staff Writer

“People are too complicated to have simple labels.” -Philip Pullman, The Amber Spyglass

What are labels? Do they describe us or do they define us? Have labels torn us apart or do they bring us together? Labels have been woven into society since the beginning; giving names to define a person’s treatment and acknowledgement. From the 9th to 15th centuries, labels existed in the feudal system separating people based on wealth and class. Now, in the 21st century, labels have evolved into a much more complex system determining people’s perception and the way they live. Defining someone by a label does not only degrade someone to a strict definition, but it restricts a person’s perception to only a stereotype.

On a study done by Jennifer Eberhardt, a social psychologist at Stanford, she performed a study where she showed college students pictures of a racially ambiguous man, meaning that the man could have been placed in either the “white” or “black” category. For half of the students, the man was described as being “white”, while the other half the description of the man was “black”. Despite the picture being the same for both groups, students drew the man to match the visual racial stereotype to either “white” or “black”. While individuals should take pride in their ancestry and heritage, labeling in terms of race has formed a lens in society determining what we see.

A similar study was performed by John Darley and Paget Gross, which demonstrated that labels on financial stability shaped how a person interpreted their intellect. Gross and Darley showed college students a video of a young girl named Hannah playing in her neighborhood. Some of the students watched Hannah play in a low income neighborhood and her background was described as her parents having blue collar jobs and being high school graduates, while some of the other students watched Hannah play in a middle class neighborhood and her parents were described as having a college level education. Afterwards, all the college students watched Hannah answer a series of academic questions where she answered the questions inconsistently. For example, Hannah would answer some difficult questions right, but would answer the simpler questions wrong making her intellect hard to measure. However, the college students who viewed Hannah playing in a middle class neighborhood thought her intelligence matched closely to a fifth grade level, while those who observed Hannah in a low class neighborhood thought her intelligence performed a fourth grade level. The study showed how the socioeconomic labels of society pre-determined a person’s perception on intelligence. Giving labels to describe the financial status of an individual causes an unrelated connection to be made over academic capability.

Labels restrict our perception, but they also create a barrier on the way we live our lives whether unintentionally or intentionally. According to the Labels and the Effects on Deviance, by Tawny Garcia, a person’s received label shapes a person’s identity in society and dictates their future beliefs, choices and goals. The Labeling Theory notion is linked to the Shaming Theory, where a person’s given label is intended to restrict their behavior and force them to confine into characteristics that is socially acceptable for their label. This leads to the idea of internalization where a person’s label becomes the core of an individual and their actions. In simpler terms, if a person is labelled as a negative deviant, they are more likely to be involved in crime whether it be in a less extreme form like petty theft or more extreme form like terrorism. In Garcia’s study, she measured the correlation of internalization and deviance. Through her study, the individuals who measured to have lower levels of internalization were measured to score lower on the deviance index, while those who had higher levels of internalization scored higher on the deviance index. The study and concept of internalization shows how labeling affects a person’s view of themselves and influences their behavior and choices.

The role of labels also impacts the medical fields. In recent years, it was observed that the labels that clinicians give their patients becomes the only lens medical professionals use. For example, clinicians would view a person as a depressive instead of a person having depression. This represents an idea that physicians view their patients as a label disguised as a diagnosis instead of being a real person.

Labels are simply a combination of letters. We should not use labels to describe others because a combination of letters should not represent what we see, our perception of intelligence, and the way we view ourselves. By confronting our labels and realizing that they do not define us, we can move toward a society where our dreams and choices are not restricted.