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The dangerous power of labels: How the process of labelling creates boundaries and social exclusion

Anger and protest linked with economic migration and the ruling of the elites, calling out the names of the traitors to their own country, violence on those who are maladjusted, the threatening of welcomers and people of religious beliefs, especially Jews and Muslims, fear of insane people with mental disorders – there is one thing that all these events have in common – the use of labels for common identity. All these examples can be used to describe the social situation in the Czech Republic, but also in India or the United States. Almost every person uses labels and creates broad types of people in his or her everyday life. By typifying people, objects and situations we create the reality around us [see Berger, Luckmann 1966] and by putting labels on objects, we simplify our communication and understanding. In the next few paragraphs, I will argue why it is necessary to see behind these labels, regardless of how they make our social lives easier and more transparent. The thing is that the labelling of people creates boundaries and social exclusion, and eventually leads to much deeper issues.

The world around us is a complex social structure filled with various information. It is hard to take it all in carefully without chaotic distortion, so for establishing order we need the ability to reduce information to its minimum. And that is the point where labelling comes into play. According to Moncrieffe, labels create boundaries and norms, simplifying our social world and relationships. They are crucial to ones understanding of his or her surroundings, but the problem emerges when the process of labelling develops at a distance and the labelled and the labeller have no real contact at all [Moncrieffe 2007: 1–9]. The relationship between us and them can rapidly turn into negative perception and even stigmatize the remote group of them for a very long time. Then it is not Jurij from Ukraine living next door who is seen by his neighbours in a more complex light but a mass of immigrants yearning to take the land by force. However, this problem does not stop at labelling from a distance. The son playing videogames is a lazy gamer and we dont see him creating a different world with his friends online to escape issues at home and in school. The sister is a hysterical woman and the cousin an ungrateful weirdo with depression.

For some, labels are the true essence of the problem which they are facing, and long explanations seem to be just avoiding of telling the truth as it is. Calling things and situations by their true names has become a symbol of truth and reality. Why beat around the bush? is heard in the parliament, pubs and households. Move the refugees and the maladjusted away, teach them a lesson, cut the dreadlocks of young junkies, hang the sunny people and the Prague cafe and dont talk with the stupid xenophobes. The list of labels is endless and ever-present. We need to realise that this is not the truth but a death sentence for a united and peaceful society. The deeper we dig gaps between us, the harder it is to ever find a common bridge.

The cause of these gaps, and the often subsequent social exclusion, is also in the power of labels to give names. This power can attribute and distribute social identity [Valentine 1998], which is not easily transformed over a brief time. Labels are simple, connected to emotions and easy to remember. Said in plain language, they stick to a person or a group like glue. The power of naming is also easier to manipulate and use for political purposes. It is very simple to attribute identity according to one or two qualities and point to the newly created enemy or different object (I am intentionally not using person here). The best-known example is the portrayal Jews as the demonised cause of all pain and poverty among Germans after the First World War. This exclusion ended with millions dead. The same pattern can be found also in recent times. In India, converts from the Hindu religion are considered traitors and an obstacle to the countrys development. In Burma, innocent Rohingya Muslims labelled as terrorists are massacred. When authorities use labels to make claims and stronger arguments against (or for) an individual or a certain group, there is always a potential risk of conflict.

Labelling often uses extremes and radical oppositions that escalate violence and emotions. The use of positive labelling such as the saviour, one true leader, or chosen nation shares the same dangerous potential. In this kind of behaviour, many theorists, such as Durkheim, Erickson or Douglas see a clear bond between marking boundaries and establishing the position of the others [Plummer 2011: 95]. In the name of the chosen nation or one true leader, wars and crusades have been waged against the impure or beasts and pagans since the beginning of civilization. There is always a need for labelling us as the best and pure and the other as the evil. Both sides are wrong and create unsurpassable boundaries.

On the other hand, labels are only words and most importantly, everyday categories. If all people do it and it is beneficial to some point, why even bother thinking about risks of labelling? Apart from the abuse of power, there is another issue related to attributed identity. According to several psychological and sociological types of research [see Walters 1996; Combs-Orme, Helzer, Miller 1988], an identity created by labelling can provoke behaviour consistent with the identity characteristic. For example, if an extremist and violent criminal label is used to describe the Muslim minority of a country, the risk of radicalization due to strengthening of boundaries and social exclusion will increase.

Labelling and categorization of people make our social life much easier and organised. Without decreasing the amount of information needed for remembering a certain groups characteristics, it is much harder to live in social relationships. However, as I have shown, reducing a problem to one or two bits of information creates boundaries, violence, social exclusion and serious conflicts. Labels have enormous social power to transform one’s identity and it is dangerous not to realize that they are only a tool for describing a simplified reality, not reality itself.

Tereza Menšíková is a Master’s degree student of Sociology

Article was proofread and edited by professor Nadya Jaworsky

References:

Berger, P. L., T. Luckmann. 1966. The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.

Combs-Orme, T., J. E. Helzer, R. H. Miller. 1988. The Application of Labeling Theory to Alcoholism. Journal of Social Service Research 11 (2-3): 73–91.

Moncrieffe, J. 2007. Introduction. Pp. 1–16 in Joy Moncrieffe,‎ Rosalind Eyben (eds.). The Power of Labelling: How People are Categorized and Why It Matters: How We Categorize and Why It Matters. London, UK: Earthscan.

Plummer, K. 2011. Labelling Theory Revisited: Forty years on.‘ Pp. 83–103 in Helge Peters, Michael Dellwing (eds). Langweiliges Verbrechen (Boring Crimes). Wiesbaden: VS Verlag.

Valentine, J. 1998. Naming the Other: Power, Politeness and the Inflation of Euphemisms. Sociological Research Online 3 (4): 1–17.

Walters, G. D. 1996. Addiction and Identity: Exploring the Possibility of a Relationship. Psychology of Addictive Behaviors 10 (1): 9–17.

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