December 31, 2015

A Lack of Labels

I noticed an article in Huffington Post a few months ago that caught my eye. Coca-Cola had decided to eliminate all labeling from its cans for a period of time in several Middle Eastern Countries. The familiar red and white design remained, but all product names and logos were absent. The point the beverage giant wanted to make was a simple one: "Labels are for cans, not people."

We live in a world obsessed with labeling everything. Companies spend millions to cement their name and product benefits in our collective minds. In what will stand for many years as this concept on steroids, it has been impossible to escape Star Wars references, promotions, tie-ins, and products for the last several months. The movie is set to break all previous records for what a movie can gross, due in no small part to the massive marketing and branding job on its behalf. 

There are brand names, like Kleenex or Xerox, that are so common the names has become the generic terms for an entire product type. No one asks for a facial tissue or to make a copy of something, rather we want a kleenex or a xerox of something. Google has become the most-used shorthand for  "search for something on the Internet."  

Unfortunately, our familiarity and use of labeling extends to more than products and services. Now, it is just as common to describe people, politics, or a world view. If I say "the Liberal Elite," or "The Mainstream Media" odds are you instantly have a reaction, good or bad. Similarly, "Evangelicals," or "Conservatives"  prompts a response.

In today's super-charged political landscape, labels like immigrants, Republicans, Democrats,  pro-this or pro-that positions are designed to trigger an instant gut reaction. "Soft on crime," "soft on immigration, soft on ....anything is meant to disparage.

Labeling is a very human trait meant to simplify something. It can be useful when saying something is good, like the performance of a drain cleaner, or a movie. A restaurant labeled with poor customer service is likely to see a serious drop off in business. I think of my Honda as dependable.

But, labeling can become a serious negative when it is used to simplify something that is much more complex, like human beings. It becomes mental or emotional shorthand. It ends up painting someone with a brush that is impossibly wide. It projects an entire range of character traits on someone who may not resemble that description at all. 

Frankly, using labels in this way is lazy. It requires no real thought process, just the repetition of a word or phrase that has assumed a particular meaning. Too often it is used in a way to be hurtful and damaging. It is meant to diminish another person or position.

I am not sure when the idea of compromise, of learning from others, or of having an open mind became a negative trait. Having a firm opinion on something is not the problem; assuming that position is the only one that is right is what causes so much strife in our world. 

At one point virtually the entire human population was absolutely convinced the world was flat. Anyone who disagreed was either crazy or the devil. For hundreds of years, slavery was thought to be part of the divine plan and an economic necessity. Abolitionists were the scum of the earth. While a long way from completely eradicated, that mindset is no longer accepted.

The point is labels change. Labels are often wrong. Like everything on this planet, labels must evolve. When they don't, we have problems.

Coke was on to something with their "labels are for cans, not people." I wish their insight was shared by more of us more of the time.


21 comments:

  1. Labels are unfortunately often used to de-humanize others. That is what allowed Hitler to kill so many Jews during his deadly reign. I am still in the process of writing a post about this based on what I learned from Brian Eagleton in his PBS series "The Brain". It easy to stick a label on someone as an "illegal immigrant" instead of saying he is a young man who sends the majority of what he earns back home trying to somehow help his family survive. Take the face off of someone and they become a thing and not a person. Thanks for the thoughts Bob...

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    1. It is so much easier to label someone or something than to take the time to understand the motivations or complexities. Reducing someone's humanity to a few words is never accurate and potentially completely wrong.

      Have as great start to 2016, RJ.

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  2. This post has made me think. Most of us have experienced labeling in one way or the other. Funny how my mom thought Tide was the best laundry soap, so guess what I use? Exactly. When I look around, I realize our home is filled with time honored labels. That's not a bad thing, but what IS bad are those preconceived wrong notions that can fill hearts and minds--RJ referred to Hitler, a prime example of a bigot gone way bad. I'm no Hitler, but there are times when my attitude is dead wrong. As we welcome 2016, it's a good time to look deep within. Most of us can find something to work on. Thanks for the reminder, Bob. Happy New Year to you and your family!

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    1. Best wishes to you and yours, too, Pam. I "label" things and people much more often than I would like, often in a burst of anger in traffic or similar situation. It is a tough reaction to control, but essential to living in a sane and civilized world.

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  3. Agree . . . as you've pointed out, labels can provide useful shorthand to help us understand various things, or ideas or movements or trends. But labels are general and vague and not always accurate. And they can be particularly dangerous when applied to people, who are never one dimensional and usually more than the sum of their parts.

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    1. Absolutely, Tom. Emotional or intellectual shorthand is more than laziness, it holds the potential for real damage.

      Have a great start to 2016, my friend.

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  4. Bob, you've ended this year with one of the best - if not The Best - post of the year. Thank You, and have a Happy New Year.

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    1. Thank you, Ed. I wrote this one in about 20 minutes. Sometimes inspiration is a powerful force!

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    2. You're Welcome. Today, I was wondering why this post hit home for me - seemed so familiar. Then I remembered, I'd gotten up around 1:00 am this morning, made some tea and read a blog by Jack Kornfield (a Buddhist teacher) as I drank my tea. He touched on the same issue from a Mindfulness point of view. "Our minds are reactive: liking a disliking, judging and comparing, clinging and condemning." "Mindfulness is that quality of attention which notices without choosing, without preference; it is choiceless awareness that, like the sun, shines on all things equally."

      Again, all the best in the New Year.


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  5. Thoughtful post.. Ken and I are still exploring what the label "retirement" means! It has not been the easiest transition for either of us. And in today's world, the label "RETIREMENT" means really different lifestyle than it did for our parents who quit work, got the gold watch and that was it. We have regrouped a couple of times. Ken now works part time out of a home office and seems happier when he can have lots of free time but a little bit of work. Me, for 2016,I have decided to put away the real estate license and focus on much more free time, improving my fitness, traveling locally and throughout the West, and reading Tarot Cards/doing Astrology charts for clients I have seen for years.. which is always fun and a spiritual outlet for me. LABELS generally box us in,don't they--

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    1. Yes, Madeline, labels do box us, and others, in. I can't imagine the number of missed opportunities for growth and influence lost.

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  6. Madeline's response echoed my thoughts - what about the word "retirement"? It is as multidimensional as the people who are retired. And since we're talking about labels and words, Bob, what's your word for 2016?

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    1. Retirement is a label that generates certain images in the minds of folks using it. But, as Madeline noted, that label has expanded its meaning over the past decade or so, unlike other labels that have become more rigid.

      My word for 2016? I haven't given it any thought yet, Mona. 2015's was "Move" which became more prophetic than I could imagine a year ago. I will kick the word concept around over the next few days and come up with something soon. Thanks for the reminder: frankly, I had forgotten!

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  7. So true, Bob. Labels are limiting and often misleading. Best to judge by the substance and not the perception.
    Happy New Year to you and Betty! I hope 2016 is a great year for all of us.
    xob

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    1. The very best to you and hubby this New Year too, Barbara.

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  8. This is fabulous post. Thank you.

    I will retire this summer and for the past two years I have struggled with that label. After reading a number of books and following your blog I am feeling more comfortable as I realize it can be whatever I make it. I can drop the preconceived label and be as creative as I like.

    Happy New Year to you and your family.

    2016. Bring it on!

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    1. Thank you, Shelia, and a very happy New Year to you. Retirement is a word that comes loaded with preconceived notions, limitations, and expectations. Luckily, it is a word that each person can define for him or herself.

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  9. Your best post all year! It is important to remember as we go into the actual election season. Labels generate news- but one label rarely sums up a person.

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    1. It is good that I finished the year on a high note! Thanks, Janette.

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  10. Hi Bob. I'm from Brazil, and it was one of the best posts I've read in the internet :)

    I will be following your blog and posts, excellent.

    Bye

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    1. Thank you, and welcome to our blog family.

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