Thursday, October 15, 2015

Labeling Problems

People often have a real hangup with labels, as well they should, when you get down to it. Labels are useful communication shorthand devices, but sometimes they can be too short and they are often overused. People don’t want to be labeled, until they do want to be labeled. It can be difficult to keep straight, and if you don’t keep it straight that communication shorthand can become a communication breakdown. It’s a tricky subject, so it makes sense to at least be hesitant when it comes to labels.

Still, there is hesitant and then there is … well, there is what we often get, which is a problem in its own right. Sometimes it seems like every time you turn around there is someone telling you not to use some word or another because it might hurt someone’s feelings. It’s not that simple, though, and blanket rules almost never work. Zero tolerance policies don’t usually make anything better. They’re just an excuse to not think about something, but you have to think about things if you want to create positive change. Encouraging not thinking goes the wrong direction. Instead, use general guidelines, and then apply those guidelines to the specific situation to see how they fit. Think about it before you react to it. It takes more work, but it tends to make things work better.

Why is this word upsetting, and why is this word being used? What is the meaning and what is the context? These are critical questions, and we need to answer them before we start trying to change the world. It is also important to ask why we are even asking in the first place. Why is this important? Why does it matter? That part might actually be the most overlooked? Is the issue you’re addressing worth the effort you’re expending?

A very easy example for this time of year and for someone who advocates in the field of mental health is the word “crazy”. That one is a touchy beast all year round, but it grows real claws and fangs around Halloween when we are inundated with slasher flicks and the costumes that go with them. Inevitably there will be someone calling for a boycott of some crazy-themed costume - often based on nothing more than the word “crazy” on the label - because it is offensive to people with mental health issues.

My immediate reaction is generally something along the lines of, “It is? How?” I don’t know about you, but I have never felt the slightest urge to don a hockey mask and chase after teenagers with a machete, and I’ve never felt any identity connection with anyone who would. Words have meaning, yes, but they don’t necessarily have just one meaning. If a word can mean something offensive and also something not offensive, and I don’t fall into the offensive category, and the person using the word wasn’t talking about me in the first place … Do you begin to see how many moving parts there might be here? It isn’t as simple as, “Don’t use that word.”

We who advocate in these fields tell people all of the time to own their own identities - be the author of your own happiness, and don’t let others define your image or your worth - and then we turn around and tell other people not to use certain words because they might damage someone they’re not actually describing. That’s a contradiction, and contradictions do not generally lead to good mental health.

My brain is broken. It does not work as described in the manufacturer’s specifications. Not saying that will not make it not true, and I don’t see any value in hiding from what is true. If you call me crazy as a result of my broken brain, I will likely agree with you. There is at least one functional and entirely valid definition of crazy that applies to me with pretty definitive accuracy. I own that identity, and it’s not unusual that I say it myself. I don’t mean anything negative by it, and neither do you. We’re just describing what is, using a language we both understand. That’s called communication. If you’re describing that “crazy psycho” from a horror movie, you’re not describing anything about me. That is not my identity, and has nothing to do with me. I have no reason to have an opinion at all, except as it pertains to the movie.

I don’t like the word “ain’t,” but I’m from a part of the country where it is common vocabulary. My dislike of the word is my problem, and will not have the slightest impact on common usage. The same is often true of many of the labeling words we tend to find objectionable, whether we like it or not. No individual owns language, and we do not get to decide what is and is not acceptable, especially with words that intrinsically have multiple meanings. Words with one meaning, or one dominant meaning, tend to work themselves out all on their own. If you don’t believe me, look back at history, even recent history. There are some pretty big examples that you don’t even need me to name. They changed, not because people fought against words, but because people changed society as a whole, and one thing just naturally led to another. Trying to fight the world on common word usage is wasted energy on a lost cause. Pick your battles, and try to do so with an eye toward actually accomplishing something useful.You can usually tell when someone is being insulting. If so, address the thinking behind the insult rather than the insult. If not, is it worth the hassle? Is there really a problem with a person using a word to express an understood concept, or is it really my problem obsessing over a part of the meaning that isn’t even involved?

I’m not saying that these questions are easy to answer, or that we shouldn’t try to change truly offensive behavior. I’m saying it would be a good idea to put more thought into identifying truly offensive behavior, and not waste time and energy on what isn’t truly offensive behavior. We have a finite amount of time and energy, and there are already days when it seems our need for those commodities surpasses our supply. Don’t fight battles that don’t really matter.

I believe that being courteous and considerate of the other people around us makes life better for everyone, but it’s not better if we’re being routinely offended by what we perceive as other people not being courteous and considerate. Ultimately, we have to own our own actions, and recognize the fact that we can’t own the actions of other people. We can be examples, we can make suggestions, and we can call for change when doing so is productive, but we also need to learn when to let go. Deal with the condition, and the symptoms will be addressed naturally. The road will be bumpy, but that’s the way it goes. Taking the downs along with the ups is part of living, and we could all use a little more practice in living sometimes.

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