Labels are something we’re conflicted about. We feel like it is wrong to label people, and yet labels are also really useful.
Last week I was at a trendy restaurant in Cincinnati, and as often happens, I needed to use the restroom. I scanned the dining room and saw no signs. I did see a double swinging door, like taverns always have in western movies. I pushed one of the doors, trying not to cause a scene by having it knock me over on the rebound. There was a double sink ahead of me, and one door on either side.
Now, they looked like doors to restrooms, but there was no indication of that.
I went back through the tavern doors and asked a waitperson, and she indicated that they were indeed bathrooms. They had apparently failed to label them to avoid designating a gender preference for either one. The word “restroom” would have been a very useful label.
Sometimes we use labels to bunch people or entities together. If we don’t like a category of some sort we often associate them with bigness. Big business, big politics, big labor… somehow being big makes something bad.
We label groups of people too. The terms millennial, gen-x’ers, and baby boomers are used to define generations, and put certain characteristics on the people in those generations. Millennials don’t care, baby boomers are self-centered, etc.
In politics liberals are “bleeding hearts” and conservatives are “racist, sexist, homophobes.” Libertarians are not well enough understood to label.
The thing about labels is that they sometimes have a basis in experience, but too often they are used as intellectually lazy attempts to group people or things in tidy categories – many times in insulting ways.
Some labels have changed over time. Some people call almost any group of people a family. A marriage no longer consists of one man and one woman, according to the law of the land. The word “illegal” has changed to “undocumented” in some circles.
So, you could say that some labels are used to marginalize some groups, and other labels are changed to keep from marginalizing other groups.
I guess things are always evolving, especially in term of language.
Getting back to the whole restroom thing, in Europe the term “water closet” is used almost everywhere, and many are not gender specific. If the door locks, I’m fine with that. If there are multiple fixtures in a restroom, and no locks on the door, I’d just as soon have it be gender-specific. But, I’m old fashioned.
I try to listen when people label other people or things. If I think the labels are unfair, I keep that in mind, and try to make up my own mind.