Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Label Me This

     As a writer I try to choose my words carefully. I think words have a lot of power even though they are (literally) harmless.  What we say to each other, what we call each other, what we  choose to express or not express has significance.  It's actually kind of peculiar if you think about it how much importance we place on words, especially words we use to label things or even ourselves.
     We have all seen word usage gone awry. The perfectly petite young woman telling us she hates herself because she's "fat". The awkward and terrible use of the word "retarded" to describe a malfunctioning toaster. Pretty much anything that people say that makes you want to slap them can be traced back to poor or inaccurate word choices. 
     Of course labels can be good too. Things can be "dangerously hot" or "unfortunately fragrant" or "alarmingly greasy" or "extra crispy". If things weren't properly labeled  we would have a hell of a time figuring things out. Advertisers in particular like to help us label things. Sometimes abundantly. But how else would we know that we are buying the freshest, most flavorful, new and improved, gluten free, non GMO, organic sugar snap peas? 
      It all can get terribly complicated and often we stumble over our choices to find the right word to use to describe something. I call myself a "gay vegan nerd" for instance but of those three things I'm only one of them 100% of the time. (I'll let you figure that one out for yourself).  I can also be exuberant , grateful, tall, confused, petulant, trustworthy, argumentative, gassy, generous and raunchy. We market ourselves just like advertisers market sugar snap peas, carefully choosing the qualities we want to show to the people supplying the adjectives that make up the lines to the barcodes of our relationships.  We size each other up based on both what we see and our own set of labeling standards.  The guy who thinks he's confident we may see as arrogant.  The woman who considers herself funny might be the person her friends avoid because she's obnoxious....or drunk.
     Words can also be terribly devastating for some people.  I don't need to list the words that are obviously offensive for you to understand what I mean but even then, if I did, there would be a discussion about the degree to which they are offensive or should be offensive or might be used to empower instead of hurt.  It's interesting how we let something so seemingly ephemeral as a spoken word wield such power against us (or for us).  I guess the trade off is that we have to be willing to give power to the terrible words if we are going to give equal power to the great, healing, encouraging words.  Of course words are supposed to represent things and feelings and states of being and textures and colors and moods. But sometimes they can hurt like daggers.
     Think about it the next time you encounter a stranger on the street.  See how quickly your mind leaps to qualify the other person by racking up a scorecard of adjectives before you even have the chance to say hello. What happens when you try to shut that off and just try to react to them as another human being?  What happens when you try to regard them like a generic package with a black and white label?  Of course you'll never be completely successful at it because that's now how the mind works, but what if you tried?  How would your assumptions about the other person be stifled until you had the chance to interact for a few moments?
     It's something to think about in any case.  Labeling people in any way is really what prejudice is all about.  Maybe you think you won't like a gay vegan nerd too much because of one of those three words and the meaning they have to you in your life.  Maybe I chose those three words because they best describe me or maybe I chose them because I wanted to change your perception of what they mean.  I guess the final determination is not in the words themselves anyway but in the actions of the people who use them.   At the end of the day, empty threats and empty promises both have the same value.  Saying something doesn't make something any more real than believing it. Even I have to take my fingers off of the keyboard sometimes and just be a gay vegan nerd. It may be a small part of who I am but it's what I call myself today. Tomorrow? Who knows. I've got a lot of years left, an open mind......and a really big dictionary.

1 comment:

  1. I look forward to reading you like I enjoy Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs. I am frequently moved and often enlivened by your wit, intelligence, and perspective. And then I pinch myself because I have the bonus of actually KNOWING you. You brighten your corner quite well.