Rachel & Alice have taken the time to remind me why labels have the power that they have.
Labels are shorthand conventions that we use to get through the complexity and jumble of everyday life. The more complex life becomes, the more important labels become, because we don’t have time or energy to engage nuance and detail. Rather, we embrace the soundbite and let it guide us.
I remember someone joking that in San Francisco, people knew who they were and who they wanted to fuck using labels. You know, like bad classified ads: “Pushy Bottom seeks Small Hairless Bear Top,” which would then be translated into “Creep seeks Chihuahua.” They would then program these labels into their Palm Pilots which would beep if they were near someone on the list. Poof! Expectation meets expectation, label meets label.
One of the key challenges I have is to shorthand myself for introductions. What codes do I want to use when I greet someone, what polished soundbyte will give enough information but not too much, will allow people to understand me but not give “too much information,” will explain my choices without limiting my options, will code my group assignment without queering the deal?
People always wanted me to give a quick blurb for who I am. I would often fall back onto a line from Octavio Paz: “I am the shadows my words cast.” I am not my words or my identity props, rather I am the shadows they cast, the meaning behind them.
And sure, that’s a great and powerful line, but I have found that it is not really all that useful at a Chamber Of Commerce mixer. There I need quick labels, codes, conventions that just match the search parameters people have put in their brain to denote what is desirable and useful to them.
Labels work because we have little time or brainpower for much more attention today. “In an information economy, attention is the ultimate currency,” Diane Sawyer said. Labels are designed to minimize the need for paying attention to details and nuance, constructed to push buttons and open doors like codes and soundbites always are.
The utility of labels is clear to me, as is the limitation of labels. They do have the power to bypass thought & consideration and get directly into the conventional cortex of programmed people, and any of us who have grown up in society are programmed to understand labels. Labels don’t have the power to get under that programming & convention, which is both a benefit and a cost, defending us from ambiguity and blocking us from nuance.
Labels are canned convention, and as such, can be very powerful.
But if convention is what is blocking forward movement in the first place, well, labels don’t help get beyond those limits.