Labels: A necessary evil

Lawyer and politician, Arlen Specter, started as a Democrat, then became a Republican, and then went back to being a Democrat again. As you can imagine, he resisted being labeled. What he actually said was, “I don’t like labels. I think they conceal more than they reveal — sort of like a bikini.”

Labels limit

R.D. Laing was a psychiatrist working at the Tavistock Clinic in London during the 1960s. It may be fairer to call him an anti-psychiatrist because his ideas ran counter to medical orthodoxy at the time.

In his 1967 book, Politics of Experience, he wrote about a study where students got themselves admitted to a mental hospital by reporting they heard voices. Once admitted, they were labeled as mental patients. Because of that label, everything they did was recorded as abnormal. The label stuck. Doctors’ notes reflected these patients were “engaging in writing behavior.” Of course, they were researchers taking notes on their experience. They were just writing.

People can take  labels too literally

Once you label someone, you don’t have the tiresome task of being present, observing, and thinking for yourself. Who has time for that! You can see the appeal labels in a fast-based work environment.  And that’s the danger. You can fall into the trap of merely reacting to a label and ignoring what’s happening in the moment.

We are far more complex than a label can describe. But our institutions, schools, and workplaces can only operate by reducing our autonomy and initiative.

We need labels, but when misapplied, they can cause harm. Someone who has just lost a spouse or a child isn’t depressed. They are sad. Depression is a medical condition and can be treated with drugs. Sadness is a healthy emotional reaction, an expression of our humanity, and entirely appropriate under such circumstances. Mourning once had a respected place in our culture, but today it has become medicalized.

A label is a judgment

Temperaments differ among people. Since ancient times what we call ‘psychological preferences’ have been known as vita activa and vita comtemplativa: the active life, or the contemplative life.

Today, human resource departments often like to administer tests to employees. Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) is popular with communication consultants and sales trainers. MBTI has its roots in the early 20th-century work of Swiss psychiatrist, Carl Jung. He identified people’s behavioral and psychological preferences along an introvert/extrovert continuum.

MBTI tests result in one of 16 personality types. We are not fixed personality types. But thinking so will limit us. What MBTI shows is a preference for communication at the time of taking the test. While that can be instructive, we should recognize our preferences change as we have new experiences, undergo psychological development, and mature.

A Monty Python sketch shows what happens when a label is out of date. Two characters, dressed as women, are looking at baby pictures when a man walks in wearing a suit. They speak to him in falsetto baby talk. One of them reaches up and pinches his cheek, clucking, and cooing. The other offers him a rattle. “Can he talk? Can he talk?” she squawks. “Of course, I can talk, I’m Minister for Overseas Development,” he soberly replies.

It’s funny because the women characters fail to move on from their identity as mommy-with-baby. Perhaps parents always think of their children as younger than they are.

Other systems

A decade ago, I first learned about the Enneagram from a CEO of a robotics company. He told me that he’d studied it to get ahead. But on reflection, he’s learned much more about himself, seeing it as a serious area of study, and much more than a mere tool. The Enneagram of Personality is a complex system of nine types that traces its origins back to the fourth century.

Spiral Dynamics is another system offering testing. Spiral Dynamics: Mastering values, leadership, and change by Don Edward Beck, and Christopher C. Cowan is aimed at managers, consultants, and strategists.

This system looks at which memes (unexamined cultural beliefs and practices) are active at any one time. Context matters because memes differ by group. The problem with MBTI is that it ignores memes. Instead, it aligns itself with trait theory.

However, MBTI is popular for its simplicity, accessibility, and practical use. Salespeople can benefit. They learn to identify different personalities and speak to them in the way they want to be spoken to— a valuable life skill.

Awareness can help people communicate better, and get a sense of how others see them, and how they see themselves. Valuable, because the cost of miscommunication is vast. But as the saying goes, a little learning is a dangerous thing.

You are not your label

The nineteenth-century gloomy Danish philosopher, Soren Kierkegaard, wrote: “Once you label me, you negate me.”

Sadly, testing has become an end in itself within the school system in the United States. Instead of using testing as a diagnostic, a test is evidence of conformity. And conformity may be a desirable attribute for many employees, but too much conformity hinders motivation, flexibility, and initiative.

We couldn’t survive without labels. But communication is context-dependent. The label ‘mechanic’ and ‘dentist’ shouldn’t be confused. You don’t want to show up at your car mechanic’s garage hoping he’ll fix your toothache.

Think about labels. Don’t take them at face value. Ask questions, listen to the answers, and reflect. Labels only tell a part of the story, and that story could be wrong. Arlen Specter was right about labels. They can conceal more than they reveal—sort of like a bikini.