Easy on the brain, but at what cost? On the need to go beyond labels and reclaim our full self

“Definitions belong to the definers, not the defined.”

― Toni Morrison, Beloved

“It’s a girl,” announces the nurse as she hands over a bundle wrapped in pink to my father. He takes the bundle into his arms, flushes with pride and joy, and shouts out to the relatives, friends and strangers in the hospital waiting room, “A girl!”. Sedated by painkillers, exhausted by the long labor, my mother in the maternity room has had the word whispered in her ear, “Girl.” She smiles as she sinks into a shallow sleep.

Forty odd years later, the label of gender is still the first one that people assign to me when they see me, hear me, or read my work.

Along the way, I have accumulated a few other labels too. They don’t follow me, I follow them. When I enter a room, before the first word is uttered, before the coffee is cold, before we have had a chance to bring our whole self in, my labels do their work. Countless times, I have found myself in board meetings where I am the only woman, where I am the only colored woman, where I am the only one below the age of forty. Surrounded by grey-haired white men in dark somber suits, the labels they assign to me may be invisible to the eye, but they are as real as the stuffy air we breathe in those rooms.

A label, at its best, is a shorthand. A condensed epithet to convey information in an efficient manner, to codify a few aspects of what may or may not define all aspects of a being. At its worst, it is an exercise in reduction. It reduces the person, object, or concept that is labeled into nothing more than the a few letters of the alphabet.

Sidenote: If you follow my blog, you may be tempted to conclude that labels are bad. In some cases, even evil. After all, I write about them often and BeyondLabels is #1 in my 21themes. But that is not the intent or in the spirit of my writing. I propose that you refrain from any judgments. Clear black and white judgements run in a similar vein as labels, the world we are trying to create is one that celebrates the complexity that comes with a full spectrum of colors. This is a call to embrace nuance.

Labels sow pre-conceived notions, they lull people into a false sense of awareness of who I am and allow them a societally sanctioned license to judge without facts, and without guilt. I, on my part, willingly or unconsciously, accept all the shackles that come with the imposition of a few words to my own self. And they eat at me bit by bit, hour by hour, until what remains in my own psyche of the power of my own full self is a memory. Such is the nature of labels – powerful, deceptively innocuous but vicious in a slow-burning and soul-gnawing way.

So why do we use labels?

Reason #1: Easy on the brain

Daniel Kahneman starts his seminal book, “Thinking, fast and slow,” with a picture. A portrait. Before we have read a single word of the first chapter, we would have labeled the picture as a woman. Almost everyone would have the labels “angry” and “woman” pop into their minds even without realizing it. In some cases, “Dark-haired”, “Middle-Eastern” or “Colored” may pop up too.

Figure 1 from Thinking, fast and slow

 “Angry” “Woman” “Dark-haired” …Label. Label. Label.

That is exactly what Kahneman expects us to do. In fact, he is counting on it.

The basic premise of the book, the main characters of the book as Kahneman calls them are System 1 and System 2. They are names assigned to the two different ways in which the human brain works. I quote, “System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary mind. System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations. The operations of System 2 are often associated with the subjective experience of agency, choice, and concentration.”

Now, when most of us think of ourselves, we think of our System 2. We like to assume that that part of ourselves is the one that makes choices and decisions and through our elevated social consciousness, free of biases and prejudices. The reason, when in my experience, it is hard to get someone to see their own unconscious biases. If you have ever tried to point out to someone that having one colored friend doesn’t make them a non-racist, you know what I am talking about. Or if you have tried, as I have multiple times, to dig out the underlying reasons for someone turning down an older man or woman in tech-job interview. Again, the point here is not to judge. In fact, it is to understand the deep-seated reasons and therefore set ourselves up for fundamental changes towards a fairer world.

We identify ourselves with our System 2. But we are also our System 1. In fact, the left column below lists all the activities we achieve through our System 1. The last one (in bold) is precisely what leads us – all of us – to attach labels.

Labels are not just about people. It touches every aspect of our life. Have you ever wondered so many children’s books about wizards and witches follow a similar train of writing as the Harry Potter series? Or why all action movies follow a predictable pattern? Or when you see a picture of a street – a crowded, dirty, unkempt street – there are city names that will pop into your mind regardless of whether you’ve been there or not.

A while ago, I wrote a sci-fiction/fantasy/mythological story with young characters. The writing, or the concept I had in it, though, was not meant for children. It was adult fiction which had two of the main characters as children (at the beginning of the series). From the fact that that book is not published and that my genre-bending dreams of creating a new category of “cosmic drama” sits firmly in a folder in my laptop, you can imagine the push-back I got on mixing genres in the creative field.

The truly breakthrough artists are those who bend and break the rules and silos – but for every artist who dares and is fortunate to get that break, there are thousands who are told to play within the rules. To stay within the labels.

This is not to blame the publisher or the art curator or any of the other gatekeepers to the creative industry. Their job is to follow the market. The market is us. And we want easy categorizations, recognition of expectations and the fulfillment of those expectations. Who would want to go for a Die Hard movie, and break out the tissue box for tears? Or start on Wizard book to find your character on a spaceship by page 42? It takes effort to get ourselves out of our easy paths of thinking. To overcome cognitive laziness. What we don’t often realize is the price of that cognitive laziness on pushing the frontiers of our collective creativity.

I don’t need to tell you to choose for the right thing, not the easy one. But in this case, it’s not that simple. Intent is not enough, effort is needed. The assigning of labels – by System 1 – almost feels like it is done for us, not by us. It takes therefore that extra effort to override the automatic process of the brain. Do it, though. The world needs to go beyond labels, and it starts with each one of us actively stopping the System 1 thinking and “choosing” to do so in our everyday interactions – whether it is with ourselves in front of a mirror, with colleagues over a video call or with friends over a meal.

Coming Soon: Our brain’s cognitive structure is not the only reason why we use labels. It might be the most fundamental one, but not the most insidious. Hang around, and we’ll continue to explore this topic…until we have a equitable, creative, free world. A world beyond labels.