An Underrated New Year's Resolution for Us All
Since we are social beings, labeling is often helpful, but many modern societies have overindulged in labeling, which creates tremendous confusion and thus endless conflict.
Future of Jewish is the ultimate newsletter by and for people passionate about Judaism and Israel. Subscribe to better understand and become smarter about the Jewish world.
Please consider supporting our mission to help everyone better understand and become smarter about the Jewish world. A gift of any amount helps keep our platform free and zero-advertising for all.
Many modern societies have developed a pernicious labeling problem.
Certainly, labeling is helpful in many instances, for it’s a byproduct of our social evolution, serving a sensical purpose of categorizing and making sense of the world around us.
But in recent decades, we’ve over-indexed on labeling. Here are just a few that dominate today’s pop culture: conservative, liberal, progressive, woke, introvert, extrovert, gender fluid, intersex, pangender, sapiosexual, upper-class, lower-class, refugee, asylum-seeker, politician, dictator, populist, communist, socialist, capitalist, entrepreneur, intrapreneur, influencer, activist, Boomer, Millennial, homeless, feminist.
You can describe yourself however you want and that’s fine by me. I’m not here to talk anyone out of their ideas or beliefs about the world or themselves. But having a buffet of labels to indulge in causes tremendous confusion and thus endless conflict. And extremists of all kinds, from all political corners, use labels to wage wars: hot wars, cold wars, gaslighting, disinformation, “liberal violence,” you name it.
By separating people based on their labels — either those they give themselves or ones that others give them — we create deep, extensive division. As one psychology professor aptly said, “Labels are for food, not people.”1
Think about anti-Irish sentiment throughout the U.S. and the U.K. in the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, or the Chinese government which, under the administration of the Chinese Communist Party (which has become less and less communist, by the way), recently incarcerating in internment camps more than an estimated one million Turkic Muslims without any legal process.
Today, there are nearly seven million Palestinian refugees around the world. That’s because, in 1982, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees — which to this day remains the world’s only refugee agency dedicated to a specific population — expanded the label of a Palestinian refugee to include every generation of descendants. In other words, even the great-grandchild of a refugee is also considered a refugee.
In the United States, many people protested COVID quarantine measures under the claim that these measures would lead the country into communism, but I’d be willing to bet that most of these people don’t even know what communism is. The same way that thousands of people demonstrating in support of Palestine, shouting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” can’t even tell you the actual names of this aforementioned river and sea.
During the 1960s, Labeling Theory was created by sociologists who posited that self-identity and the behavior of individuals are often determined or influenced by the terms used to describe or classify them. It is associated with the concepts of self-fulfilling prophecy, stereotyping, and stigma (a powerfully negative label that changes a person’s self-concept and social identity).
Labeling Theory is closely related to attributional bias, a psychological prejudice that refers to the systematic errors made when people evaluate or try to find reasons for their own and others’ behaviors, often leading to perceptual distortions, inaccurate assessments, or illogical interpretations of events and behaviors.
For example, many people (particularly in the West) try to wrap their heads around why Hamas and other Palestinian terrorists did what they did on October 7th. You know, beheading babies, sadism and rape, burning whole families to death, mutilation, and so forth. But there is no wrapping your head around it, because to do so would mean to change your definition of human nature.
In other words, we can only understand the realities of others if we agree with their interpretation of human nature. Hamas, Hezbollah, and other Islamic-inspired militias think that using women, children, and the elderly as human shields somehow deepens their service to Allah. You and I probably don’t, and thus, we disagree with their definition of human nature.
But when we ignore or are unaware of the systematic errors we make when trying to evaluate or find reasons for others’ behaviors, we lead ourselves down a dangerous path. This is why the West, despite its valiant attempts, has never been able to broker true, lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians.
For the West, the problem is perceived as political and territorial. To some Palestinians, this is the case, but for Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, their supporters, and their chief sponsor, the Islamic Republic of Iran, it is primarily religious, and at its heart is the annihilationist fantasy of ending the Jewish state by killing as many Jews as possible. Thus, there is no real solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as long as both sides don’t agree on the nature of the problem, and pushing for one only creates more bloodshed.
Labeling Theory is also closely related to symbolic interactionism, another sociological theory that helps develop a frame of reference to better understand how individuals interact with one another to create symbolic worlds, and in return, how these worlds shape individual behaviors. Most symbolic interactionists believe a physical reality does indeed exist by an individual’s social definitions, and that social definitions do emerge in part or in relation to something “real.” People thus do not respond to this reality directly, but rather to the social understanding of reality.
For example, Palestinians started incorporating Islam into their political rhetoric and adding jihad to their agenda, predominantly in the 1980s and 1990s, in the names of “liberation” and “resistance.” But liberation from what and resistance to whom? To their impoverished environment that is largely perpetuated by Palestinian politicians and so-called leaders, yet is twisted by propaganda into blaming Israel for the Palestinians’ plight. Thus, the more that Palestinians experience impoverishment in their day-to-day lives — “the social understanding” of their reality — the more they want to take out their suffering, frustrations, and miseries on Israel.
In the 19th century, renowned sociologist Emile Durkheim stated that crime was not as much grounded in the fact that a law was broken, but that society was upset by the crime. That is, the crime defied norms that people should respect.
It is therefore “easy” to justify Hamas’ October 7th terror attacks if your society believes they were not war crimes or crimes against humanity, but mere acts of “liberation” and “resistance” in defiance of an oppressive, colonizing, ethnically cleansing Zionist regime. Or if your religion encourages and commends the killing of Jews. Or if you’re an antisemite and despise Jews for no good reason.
About 35 years ago, professor Bruce Link and his colleagues conducted several studies which advanced a “modified labeling theory.” It indicates that, among other consequences, expectations of labeling can have a large negative effect.
For example, when we label the Palestinians as “Palestinians,” we assume that they are one people and we expect them to have a shared goal of self-sovereignty, just like any other so-called ethnic group of people. But this has never been their case, and it is why historically — before there were checkpoints and separation walls and “tons” of Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria (also known as the West Bank) — the Palestinians, amongst themselves, have never been able to agree on the constructs of a two-state solution.
Again, pushing for a two-state solution at this juncture will only create more friction — we’re asking the Palestinians to be something (one people) that they’re not — which will generate a large negative effect on their societies, Israel, the Middle East, and North Africa.
Of course, there are many instances where labels are good. My sister is my sister, which creates a strong family bond, and my girlfriend is my girlfriend, which enables further intimacy. An officer in the IDF is an officer and a soldier, a soldier, to ensure everyone understands who to listen to and what to do, so they can be efficient and effective in carrying out tasks. These are positive, necessary labels.
But is a liar someone who lies all the time or just some of it? We’ve all told untruths, but does that make us liars? For comparison, a mammal is a type of animal with a set of characteristics that can be objectively assessed based upon an agreed set of criteria. A lie is a deliberate untruth, but it could be hard to demonstrate intent. The point is, labeling someone a liar is likely to do more harm than labeling an animal a mammal.
Many people take great satisfaction in being labeled with a group of people who are of a similar faith, historical lineage, culture, nationality, shared experiences, or collective identities. Such is the case in the Jewish world, where labels also run amok: Orthodox, Reform, Reconstructionist, Israeli Jew, Jewish Israeli, Zionist, anti-Zionist, religious nationalist, Ashkenazi, Sephardic, Mizrahi, culturally Jewish, Jew-ish — just to name a few.
There’s no shame in being proud of who you are or what you aspire to be, but there’s a fine line between genuine pride and projecting our subjective interpretation of the world, with the presumption that our subjective interpretation is similar to those we’re communicating with.
For example, many people repeatedly say something to the effect of: “We’re all just humans and we all want to live in peace and quiet.” To some of us, “peace and quiet” is obvious and being human is simply “to be a good person.” But to assume that all eight billion people in the world embrace the same definition of “being a good person” or that we all agree on the conditions and precedents for “peace and quiet” is wishful thinking at best, and pure naivety at worst. And it’s this type of wishful thinking or pure naivety that actually makes our world less, not more, peaceful and quiet.
I could argue that we should get rid of all these labels, but that’s an improbable cause. The more realistic, more achievable aim is to do a better job of communicating the labels we give ourselves and others. Otherwise, labels are a barrier to understanding each other — and thus having empathy and sympathy — and they only produce more intellectually lazy, stubborn, and close-minded societies.
If we want to improve the way we communicate, we can either use fewer labels, or we can ask others what they mean by the labels they use, and we can define the ones we use as well. If we want to improve our knowledge of the world, we can consume and share less label-infested media.
And if we truly aspire to be positive members of society in 2024, through the continuous deployment of critical thinking and self-reflection, perhaps modifying our use and deepening our understanding of labels is a good place to start.
“Labels Are for Food, Not People | John Shaw | TEDxLafayetteCollege.” TEDx Talks.