What am I? Who am I? I am this; you are that; they are something else.

Labels! Every time we apply one to the self or to the other, we risk spreading the evil of inducing others to do the same. Labeling is infectious.

There are plenty of very good reasons to stop reducing yourself or any other person to a particular set of traits or group stereotypes.

A man is a very complex organism with three basic aspects: the physical, the mental/emotional, and the spiritual; he is not only beautiful to behold in each of those aspects, he’s also a rather messy being, and frequently quite contradictory in those aspects.

In psychospiritual fields and theology, we like to call him ‘paradoxical.’ But that’s how he works: he is a sometimes chaotic mix of thoughts, feelings, emotions, actions and reactions. He is literally a battlefield of socialization, conditioning, morals, strivings, motivations, and goals that frequently don’t form a perfect alliance. All the more reason not to apply a label to him; labels reduce and are simplistic; labels do not serve us well when dealing with complexity.

Labels are simple and easy to use. This comes from the wrong assumption that once one knows something about a man, he can infer everything else about him. Once that is done, it can be extremely difficult to shift oneself out of that perception or assumption, and so it tends to stick.

Our perceptions and interpretations are, by nature, subjective. Most people call and name things the way they see them, and apply a corresponding label. Another person in the same situation may apply a wholly different label. This raises the question of whether there is any point in labeling anyone in the first place.

labeling anyone

The simple fact is that a man changes and grows; he transforms. Labels are static and inflexible; a man is dynamic and versatile. Change is inevitable, and whether you like or want it or not, you must accept change in yourself and in others throughout life.

Labels are an unnecessary obstacle to accepting and incorporating change as a normal process, and will likely prevent you from recognizing change, growth, or transformation in yourself or in others.

The label influences how you interact with another person and determines the relationship you have with him; if you do not recognize or accept change, you will likely find you are experiencing a lot of stress – a fish swimming in a shrinking tidal pool.

Part of the stress arises from the single fact that you assigned a label but if you recognize and accept the fact of change, you will have to admit that you were wrong in applying the label. It’s hard to admit when you are wrong, isn’t it?

We’ve all heard of the ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ but what about the ‘self-fulfilling label?’ Well, if you tell yourself something enough times, over time you will believe it — whether it’s true or not.

The same applies to others and what you tell yourself about No. 1 and others. Toxic cultural conditioning, stereotyping, and society’s norms have us believing in the “I” vs. “You” scenario,[1] that he is different from you — that is, he has a different label —, and he has a different worldview from yours.

So, you block, unfollow, or unfriend him – and he’ll never know – and you think, “So what? He’s not like me.” And while this scenario has played out throughout human history, we’ve only recently baptised it with novel names like ‘ghosting’ and ‘cancel culture.’[2]

Labels serve to be a formula for a man’s fitness to belong; labels divide humanity into different colliding factions called stereotypes (STs). STs serve only to segregate, not to unify. Labels and STs based on race, gender, orientation, religion, politics are just a few of the ways we have conjured up to pit ourselves against one another. When you see a label that doesn’t identify with yours and you suffer doubt or anxiety; your experience of suffering taints your view of any individual who doesn’t have your label.

label to yourself

If you apply a label to yourself, we can safely assume that you feel that label is good, although that’s clearly not always the case; it logically follows that anyone not having that label is not as good – or as bad — as you are.

For example, you may feel that you have a really buff body. If you meet someone who does not meet your exacting fitness or body image standards, you are likely to feel superior or better than he is. You are smug.

Your mental attitude and your verbal and non-verbal communications are very likely to adversely affect your relationship with him. Your self-label and the other-label you apply may actually cause him suffering.

The suffering you cause another will ultimately become your suffering; that’s karma (कर्म).

As laudable as it may be to have high physical standards and positive body image, if you cause another person suffering, that in itself is unethical, and you have proved yourself ignorant, while at the same time violating the ethical principle of ahiṃsā (अहिंसा) or non-violence.

While you may run the risk of being labeled a dork, the reality is that we each lead different lives and no one’s life is intrinsically better than another’s.

You may justify your unethical behavior by telling yourself you have given him a compliment – albeit backhanded — in a feeble attempt to disguise your self-righteous disapproval or dislike. “I am a straight man [L + ST] but I respect your right to be a gay man [L + ST].” I have my label but I am OK with you having your label [and being different]. Labels are far too simplistic and it’s far too easy to overlook the essential wholeness of a man.

Moreover, by making him ‘other’ you are dehumanizing him and making him into an object. Once he is dehumanized and objectivized, it becomes so much easier to degrade him, to neglect his feelings, and to be indifferent to his well-being. Think genocide, holocaust.

Labels represent expectations, and those expectations may be unreasonable, unrealistic, or simply wrong. Labels alter one’s expectations and valuation of another person, sometimes for the better but more often for the worse.

For example, on FakeBook you find a youngish, attractive, apparently popular — judging by the numbers of friends and followers —, and successful man, so you assume he must be a real catch.

On the other hand you also come across a very serious, apparently older, apparently less-“successful,” man who has but a couple dozen friends and followers. In the first case, you think, “Oh, he’s young, handsome, energetic, fun.” In the second case, you think, “Oh, he must be a geezer, tired, and no energy. Boring!” So you apply your labels.

Explore beyond

Ultimately, the labels turn out to be completely wrong because you didn’t explore beyond what your limited vision could see. The young, attractive man is a self-centered scam artist, a crook, and his profile and chat were all lies. The ‘boring’ geezer is a kind, honest, comfortable, and generous man involved in community service; he limits his “friends” men of similar character — what we call satsaṅga (सत्सङ्ग). This is the conundrum of quality vs. quantity.

You label, you lose. Nobody wants to be labeled a loser.

The moment you apply a label, you tend to treat the labeled person differently, whether the label is positive or negative. Even positive labels can have negative effects.

Both negative and positive labels can have negative results. We must be clear that even when attaching a positive label to a person, there may be adverse outcomes. Take for example, the boss who lauds an employee as being a key team player or a coach who praises a student as a great athlete, for example. That label and the image so created as well as the label stuck on him by his peers places a very heavy burden on the man to live up to his employer’s or coach’s expectations. He may succumb to the stress and rather than dazzle, he’ll fizzle.

Or take for example the partner who tells his beau he’s handsome and desirable. Now that’s superficially a very nice thing to do but it doesn’t take into the consideration the partner’s self-image and expectations of himself. The well-meant label may become a stressor in the relationship by making the partner experience doubts about being able to measure up to the label.

Human beings and life itself are very complex; motivations, thinking, or acting in a particular way under particular circumstances are infinitely variable. To avoid the labeling problem and the problem of misjudging based on a stereotype, we must reflect on and discern why a man does or doesn’t think or act according to your labeling or stereotyping scheme. Upon reflection and attaining insight, you may decide wisely to relax, breathe, and let go of all the silly labels.

It should be very clear that labels should be avoided, and we must tread very lightly if applying them to ourselves or to others, being fully and compassionately aware of how they will affect the bearer of the label.