Beware: De-Humanizing Labels

Label (n.)— short classifying phrase applied to a person…

— Oxford Desk Dictionary

In the stratified, hierarchical marketplace which we inhabit daily, we encounter (but do not relate to) “food servers,” “store clerks,” “flight attendants,” and so on.  As “consumers,” we may even collaborate with their supervisors in rating their “service” on a scale of 1 to 10 (rather like the product ratings provided by the readers of Consumer Reports).  Since such service jobs require the display of a “friendly” demeanor and attitude, most such encounters are emptied of any human authenticity.  Not unlike traditional caste-systems, which reinforced hierarchical relations of dominance/subordination, such social-distancing promotes detachment and indifference on the part of  “customers.”

Such labels are de-humanizing because:

1) they reduce each person to a mere occupant of  an economic status/role (“housekeeper,” “peasant,” “unemployed baker’s assistant”); and

2) they expunge the value of each individual—his/her unique personality/subjectivity—within the generic category.

The term “peasants,” often used when referring to Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War, lumped countless numbers of real, distinctive individuals into a de-humanizing, low-status, category.  Any possible identification with such “civilian casualties,” on the part of Americans, was thereby further obviated.  No doubt many Americans merely shrugged when told the estimated numbers of Vietnamese “peasants” killed by the American military.

Furthermore, the mainstream media continues to hold up a distorting lens, a cognitive filter which blocks any immediacy of human comprehension or identification with “the other.”  For instance: Palestinian “terrorists,” Iraqi “insurgents,” and so on.  (Oddly, the connotation of the word “rebels” varies widely, depending on whether the U.S. military supports them or kills them.)    With the imposition of such misleading (and fear-inducing) labels, any direct understanding of such individuals’ human experiences and outlook is blocked.  Such labels, once affixed, can result in grave distortions in the perception of social reality itself.  One need only consider the blanket term “enemy,” and the historical consequences of its imposition onto real people (such as families who happened to live in Hiroshima–or Falluja).

In striking contrast, a universalizing, egalitarian ethos is once more in the ascendant worldwide.   In the past decade or so, the anti-globalization and democracy movements, facilitated by new forms of interactive media, have promoted a wider sense of human solidarity as such. (And ultimately, as the Biosphere itself reacts to global warming, with all sentient beings as such?).  A growing “empathic-humanism,” as I would define it, means not necessarily “sympathetic identification,” but rather the developing capacity to “feel-into” (and thereby validate) the diverse experiences of others worldwide—regardless not only of ethnicity and culture, but also of class, status and occupational role.

William Manson is the author of The Psychodynamics of Culture (Greenwood Press). Read other articles by William.