Labels can have specific roles and functions. They can provide information as needed to make decisions about purchases. On merchandise, they can be helpful signaling certain measures of quality, perceived or real. Ralph Lauren clothing or Wal-Mart clothing can be distinguished by labels. Labels can also provide nutritional information, content information and possible allergy information. Labels are vital to a great many things that we do in our lives.
But labels have no place in describing people. I am particularly concerned about labels being tossed around in the current political climate and how dangerous this can be. Some historical lessons can help provide perspective.
Jews. In the pre-World War II Germany, people identified (“labeled”) as being Jewish were segregated, made to wear stars on their clothing, and had their property confiscated. Jews were considered sub-human by their government and then systematically taken away to internment camps. These camps concentrated Jews into one place, and these concentration camps were the eventual place where over 6 million Jews were executed.
Japs. During WWII, the Japanese people were our enemies. Our brave men and women of the armed forces (my father included) met the enemy in the Pacific and eventually defeated them. But in the homeland, we let our fervor against our enemy allow us to place over 100,000 people of Japanese descent (over 60% were American citizens) into internment camps. In one of our darker times as a nation, we identified (“labeled”) these folks as Japs, easily dehumanizing them and placing them in these camps. We took their possessions and separated their families.
Hutu/Tutsi. When the Belgian government colonized the country that is now Rwanda, they arbitrarily separated (“labeled”) groups of the native population into a Hutu group and a Tutsi group. At times, the characteristics between the groups were indistinguishable yet they were driven into these separate groups. Hate fomented between the groups and eventually led to over 500,000 Tutsi individuals being slaughtered by their Hutu neighbors.
Imbeciles. This term has been used to describe people with intellectual disability. Shamefully, it was used in the early 20th century in the U.S. to identify (“label”) people that, in the opinion of those in power, should be sterilized to avoid the perpetuation of “imbeciles” or “feeble-minded” people. This kind of eugenic thinking led to the involuntary sterilization of thousands with arbitrary determination as to who should be sterilized.
Muslims. It is easy to blame the horrendous actions of a small group of terrorists as representative of one of the world’s largest religions—over 1 billion people and around one-quarter of the world’s population. Yet the “label” of being Muslim should not be a negative one that demeans individuals and identifies them as being less than us before we even know them. Individuals of the Islam faith have served our country in all capacities and continue to be valuable citizens in our country.
Redskins. Native Americans were often been portrayed as villains in the TV and movie Westerns of my youth. Their lands were confiscated by the immigrants from the East (the white settlers), and they were herded into reservations. They were not afforded the opportunities that other citizens were given because they were identified (“labeled”) as being different.
So how can these things happen? Why are labels used to define groups of people? I guess we like to try to characterize people to determine whether we like them or not. Labels can be a powerful negative influence—an influence that brings out the worst in us. For that reason, I reject the use of labels to refer to people or groups of people. The anti-PC crowd tells us that labels are ok because they just tell it like it is. Not me. I say that labels are great for merchandise and should not be used for people.