The Detriment of Labels

Announcement:  Read up on the author’s diabolical plots for world domination in the new What’s New? section located in the “Behind the Common Sense Curtain” located to the left.

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Newspaper-iconEarlier this week, I was at home in bed sick and it gave me a lot of time to kill.  There’s reading the daily news, journal articles, and watching tv.  It also gave me time to think about the paper I’ll be delivering at a conference in a few months.

The paper is a shortened version of my master thesis and in a way, deals with labels (a.k.a., stereotyping).  Watching and reading various forms of media reminded me of the pervasiveness of labels in our society.

Many Americans don’t identify as “American.”  They have to be of some national origin and American (i.e., African American, Asian American, Irish American, etc.).  Within all these labeled groups in our country are more labeled subgroups upon subgroups.

We aren’t just Americans like we aren’t just people.  In schools, the children are separated out.  As a substitute teacher, I can see how easy it is to give into the labels, look at a child, and label them delinquent, average, or smart.

Inversely, as a substitute teacher, I also know how misleading those labels are.  Last post I talked about a kid who was happy when I remembered him.  To my lasting shame, I admit that I labeled him at first sight.  Going off his attire, the way he walked, and talked, I thought of him as a delinquent.

Then we talked to each other and I got to know him.  I now know that my label was horribly wrong.  It’s a lesson I learn multiple times in the past, and a lesson I forget often:  People aren’t labels, they aren’t the total of what you see.

First impressions are often wrong.

Academically trained fiction writers and scholars of literature learn about two dimensional characters and three dimensional characters.

Two dimensional characters have no depth.  They’re side characters to help move the story along to its eventual conclusion.  Think of Stan Lee and his stereotypically funny cameos (i.e., the average mailman, the horny old guy, etc.).  In the case of two dimensional characters, what you see is what you get.

Three dimensional characters have depth.  They are main characters or supporting characters who are integral to the development of the main characters (e.g., friends).  A good three dimensional character has layers upon layers of depth.  A reader or a watcher has a hard time labeling that character, they’re just people who made bad choices or are victims of circumstance.  These characters are hard to label…when you get to know them.

I would like to say all humans are three dimensional yet I’d be wrong.  The dimension depends on the person and how they’ve allowed the world to affect them as they’ve grown from child to adult.

In my master thesis, I explain how society has a way of developing mass marketed personalities for people.  They’re labels each person gets as they go through life.  When they’re a child they might get the label of difficult or well behaved.  As teenagers, they’re either advanced or slow.  When reaching adulthood, there are several labels people pick up.

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If I paid attention to these labels, I’d be in jail, unintelligent with several kids fathered by several men.  Even as I overcame derogatory label after derogatory label, I still had people attempting to label me.  I’ve learned that people will always attempt to label others.  It’s an insidious lesson subtly learned from childhood.

There’s one story I love to tell teenagers who will listen.  I even included it in an article a student wrote on me in the school newspaper.  In my last year of graduate school, I finally knew what I wanted to do after graduation.  I wanted to take a break from learning and build up my resume with conferences and publications.

My graduate advisor didn’t think highly of me.  She wasn’t very encouraging.  I can just imagine the types of labels she placed on me.

When I told her my plans, she advised me that I shouldn’t aim too high when it came to my goals during my “resting” period.  She wanted me to try for small conferences that beg for presenters.  These conferences really don’t impress potential employers in the academic world.

When it came to publications, she told me don’t even try.  No one would publish anything by someone with only a Master’s Degree.  What she really meant was she thought my writing was so bad that no one would want to publish anything written by me.

My graduate advisor was a dull gem of a person.  Dull because she had no idea how to be an advisor.  A gem because her delusional ramblings foreseeing the horrifyingly fast death of my scholarly career is great fodder for the inspirational personal stories I tell teenagers.

I’ve been negatively labeled through my life by people who don’t care to actually know me.  Hopefully, stories of my triumphs against labeling inspire teenagers who are in similar situations.

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