You’ve been there. Someone calls you a name and you cringe deep inside.
You want to say out aloud, NO! it’s not true but over time you find yourself even acting out the traits of exactly what you’ve been called.
We do this as children but it continues throughout our adult lives.
You are dubbed the “sensitive” one, the “naïve” one, the “dumb” the “smart” one, the “aggressive” one… Whatever the label is, you find that the more you try to fight it, the more you act it out!
It is almost like the very use of the word and the meaning you associate with it becomes your very identity.
You’re always negative.
No, I’m not. (Arghh, maybe I am).
Oh really! (giggle) (I thought I was just unsure!)
You’re too sensitive.
So sorry, I’m just not feeling well. (Damn, I need to harden up!)
The issue with labels is that they shape how others see us, but more importantly, how we see ourselves. We are narrowed to the definitions that the labels assert, and we find it extremely difficult to move outside of them. It is only when we challenge the definition, and even who is doing the defining that we can move away from the stereotypes that become associated with the label.
Yes, labels can be helpful, as they help define who we are. Being labelled a mother, son, writer, dancer, hero, are examples of just a few from the infinite varieties to choose from. We take them on and the stereotypes associated with them, and if they are positive, we gladly identify with them.
For some, labelling even becomes like a badge-of-honour: they proudly declare their difference. This is because these labels are perceived as mostly positive and serve their best-interests. A person who excels in sport will proudly wear the title of “star athlete,” or an artist who is labelled as “gifted” or “talented” will not have too many qualms about the normally positive associations of these labels.
For example, there are many labels that are often applied to creatives, and some of these can have very negative connotations. The stereotype of the “tortured genius,” the “mad artist” or the “eccentric artisan” are very common in our culture, and in fact date back to ancient Rome and Greece. However, each of these labels can have devastating effects on creatives who take them on as their identity. Rather than freely create and express who they are, many artists are plagued by self-doubt and inner turmoil, sometimes leading to self-destructive behaviours. Silvia Plath and Kurt Cobain are two famous artists who certainly expressed this belief, and it often prevented them from doing their work.
When creatives believe in the stereotype that all artists are prone to mental distress, they are very likely to begin looking for evidence that the myth is true. As soon as they become upset or feel the slightest tinge of sadness (which, by the way, is totally normal when putting your heart and soul into your work), they may take any sign of distress as a sign. Look, the stereotype is true, they think. I am the melancholic artist just like they say.
I struggled with this for a long time. I identified with negative labels because I believed they were true. It wasn’t until I learnt that labels, or stereotypes are created by people, just like myself, to classify people in their world, and only to one group’s very narrow criteria.
Very often, these criteria pigeon-hole you according to someone else’s definition of what is normal behaviour and what is not. If your behaviour is viewed as too different, or a threat to the status quo, the individual with the negative label can even be condemned.
This is when labels can become nasty – when they carry a social stigma. Growing up with stigma not only effects the stigmatised but also all those around them. A parent who is suffering from the effects of stigma will pass their shame and trauma to their children, thus leading to their own emotional distress and even isolation later in life.
When a label is viewed as negative, the person carrying the label can be unfairly and sometimes even atrociously treated. People even avoid them because they don’t want cross-contamination. The worst manifestation of this was during World War II, where in some parts of the world, anyone that was seen as associating with a Jew, Gypsy or mentally or physical disabled were ridiculed and even condemned.
The labels attributed to these individuals, who were alleged to carry “disease” and “illness” were captured by those in the seat of power, who even capitalised on the negative stereotyping to justify the creation of concentration camps to confine and execute the so-called undesirables.
Those who were labelled as “mentally ill” were even castrated to prevent the spread of the “dis-ease”, and in many parts of the world, not only in Germany, which is often singularly blamed, but America, British and Russian doctors and others in positions of authority began advocating euthanasia for those labelled as socially undesirable. These included “homosexuals,” the “homeless,” the “mentally ill,” or any other group deemed to display behaviours or beliefs that were in contrast to the interests of the wealthy or self-proclaimed “hardworking,” “obedient” and “law-abiding” citizens.
It wasn’t until decades later when some individuals began to question the labelling of homosexuals as mentally ill did the labelling begin to change. Many of these individuals questioned the criteria for mental illness and how having a particular sexual inclination was a disease. Many are doing the same today for all other types of behaviour that are also deemed as signs of illness, such as being restless in a classroom or feeling depressed.
This is why learning about labels, and how the can be used by those in power as a method of control, is so important. It is easy to dismiss the events of the past as something that would never happen again, but as we can see in the world today, labels of minorities and the powerless are still being used with very negative consequences.
Just like calling someone a “witch” during the medieval era resulted in the persecution of women and men who had very little power, and may even have had something that the persecutors wanted, such as their land, people who are dubbed as dangerous today can suffer the same fate.
They may not be physically hanged or burned at the stake, but they can be condemned as an outcast, thus causing even greater retaliation.
This is all very deep and nasty but you can see how seemingly innocent labels can lead to potentially devastating outcomes when in the hands of those with power, especially the more devious. You can also see how negative labels can poison creativity, as the creative is too frightened to create works that may challenge society in fear of being labelled mad or bad.
Yes, some people will declare that labels are beneficial, because they provide access to all sorts of benefits, such as receiving government support when applying for treatment. This may be so, but as long as the individual who is carrying the label is aware that the label does not define who they are, and that they are free to operate outside of the label, and even discard it when it no longer serves them.
This is the most important for creatives, who will be operating in a world that can cruelly stereotype individuals who challenge the status quo as this way or that. We need the ability to say, yes, that may be a stereotype but I operate outside of that thank you very much.
If we do not, we risk identifying with the negative labels and stereotypes, and this identification leads to us not producing our creative works. We fear becoming like the stereotypes, and so rather than freely and actively create, we conform.
We also need to remember a quote by the character Tyrion Lannister in A Game of Thrones who says: “Never forget what you are, the rest of the world will not. Wear it like armour and it can never be used to hurt you.” And continue doing the work, remembering that the label does not define who you are, and with your work, you can challenge stereotypes and promote other ways of seeing the world.
This is what creatives have always done, and what I want you to do.
Here is a video rendition of this post:
Davis, K. (2016). What’s in a Name: Our Only Label Should Be Our Name: Avoiding the Stereotypes, Retrieved from https://www.iidc.indiana.edu/pages/Whats-in-a-Name-Our-Only-Label-Should-Be-Our-Name-Avoiding-the-Stereotypes
Green et al. (2005). Living Stigma: The Impact of Labeling, Stereotyping, LIVING STIGMA 197 Separation, Status Loss, and Discrimination in the Lives of Individuals with Disabilities and Their Families, Retrieved from http://www.su.rmit.edu.au/assets/Downloads/Journal-Article-Living-Stigma.pdf
Lambert, N. (2014). 5 Dangers of Labels and Stereotypes, Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/strive-thrive/201407/5-dangers-labels-and-stereotypes
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Rowe, D. (2002). Beyond Fear. London: Harper Collins Publishers.
Stadtlander, J. P. (2014). Casting Off Stereotypes: I Am More Than a Label, Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jason-p-stadtlander/right-and-wrong-good-and-_b_5504133.html
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