Who are you? How do you define yourself? Are you Korean, American, Nigerian, Mexican? Do you call yourself a heterosexual, homosexual, vegan, country boy/girl? Do you consider yourself Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or atheist?
We all use a lot of labels. Some of these labels were given to us at birth and some of them we adopted as we lived our lives. Some were imposed on us by society and others we chose ourselves. But what do these labels do? How do we use them?
On one hand, when we go down to the core of who we really are, to the very nature of the universe, all labels melt away. In that raw potentiality, labels cannot exist. This is what many people have been enlightened to.
The Power of Labels
As we step away and look at ourselves and the world at the surface, we see defined boundaries—individual rocks, plants, animals, and human beings. When we want to explain what we see using language, we give these entities names and talk about their characteristics. Then as we seek to understand how the world works, we take another step back and look at systems and populations. We try to find entities that seem to have characteristics in common and group them together, and then we see how they interact with each other.
These attempts to define and understand our world, and in the process, ourselves, are culturally determined. Different people in different places at different times have described what they saw from their own frame of reference, which itself has evolved and changed. How they did this has had a big impact on the lives of the individuals and groups to which those labels were applied.
Cultural labels determine whether an animal becomes food or a pet. They determine whether a person is praised or persecuted. And they prejudice us to a person’s potential.
They also influence what we pay attention to. Do we prioritize profit or people? Are we only focused on our own community or do we think about the whole world?
If labels have so much power, and yet are fluid and culturally defined, then what labels should we use? Which labels would do the most good for the most people?