This post is about something which took me my entire life to understand, and with which I am still struggling. Knowing something is wrong and training yourself to undo life-long habits so you do not do it are two entirely different things. It also does not help that this is a rather complicated issue. This is why I ask that the reader please stay with me, so that I can explain it to the best of my ability before you draw any conclusion. This is all I can ask, but I hope you’ll give me a fair hearing as this is an important issue — especially in the times in which we now live.First, I want to make sure I clearly define what I mean when I say that ‘labeling’ is a form of tyranny. I am not talking about labeling theory. I am talking about trying to force a classification or definition on someone by using a term with a set meaning. Another common phrase which means much the same thing is ‘profiling.’ But notice: the two are not the same. ‘Labeling’ is a form of tyranny, whereas ‘profiling’ can be, but is not necessarily a form of tyranny. It is the distinction between the two that I wish to discuss.
For many years, I ‘labeled’ everyone. I told myself I was just putting the label on them according to the definition that applied to the way they thought, or the things they believed. A good example is when we call someone a ‘liberal.’ The common understanding of what this means varies from person to person. This is because the meaning of the word has been hopelessly confused. But when I used it, I used it not so much because a person fit the definition, but as a way of trying to force that person into a pre-defined box of my own making. It had nothing to do with understanding that person. It was just a way of making that person smaller, or inferior, so that I could feel superior to them. Back then, to me, a ‘liberal’ was just wrong — period.
There are many people who think this way. Some think it in reverse. They have their own pre-defined meaning for the people they call ‘right-wingers,’ or ‘conservatives.’ Others think in social-economic terms, and others in terms of race. It doesn’t matter. When it is done for the purpose of trying to force our definition of a person on to that person, it is a form of tyranny. And even if that person is what we claim to be, it does not make us right to do it. Two wrongs never make a right anymore than one wrong can justify another. All we do is make ourselves wrong right along with them. But what if we are wrong about the label we force on another person? In that case, we are the only one in the wrong, and doubly so. Not only are we acting like a tyrant, but we are then condemning an innocent person on top of that. I still mess up and do this from time to time, but now that I am aware of what I was doing, I try hard to fight it.
At the same time, ‘profiling’ is not necessarily wrong. A great deal of good social and psychological work is based on profiling. This is because, when done properly, profiling has more to do with understanding why someone does something than with trying to define that person. In other words, where ‘labeling’ is meant to define and control another (to force our will on another), profiling can be used to understand them. If it is known that a person with a certain background will be statistically prone toward a given behavior, then there is nothing wrong with gathering information on a person’s background to see if it might make them likely to that behavior. So long as it is used to understand and to help, profiling can be a useful tool.
[CAUTION: here is where we need to understand that helping someone does not always mean they have to give consent. If a person has mental health issues, profiling can be used to help them, yet they may be in no condition to consent. Likewise, profiling a person who may be looking to harm others is helping — it is helping the innocent who may become that person’s victim(s). In both cases, and many more, this form of profiling is a legitimate tool.]
I want to re-state this point again, so that I am not misunderstood. When we label someone, we are trying to define them. This is forcing our will onto another person. That is the very definition of tyranny. However, when we look at a set of parameters and the likelihood that a certain person to whom they apply will do something, this is not forcing a definition on them. So long as we do not act pre-emtively, before they do anything wrong, then this form of ‘profiling’ can be a useful tool to many people trying to help others. It can help mental healthcare givers, criminal rehabilitation, and even law enforcement. That is because ‘profiling’ does not define the person. It deals with their experiences, lifestyle and behavior. Labeling, on the other hand, often has nothing to do with the person being labeled and everything to do with the person doing the labeling.
So, as I conclude, I confess my guilt: I labeled people for many years, and I was a tyrant for having done so. I wish I could apologize to all those I have wronged over the years, but I can’t. There have been too many, and they are long gone. However, I still profile, and I will continue to profile — I just try to do it within the confines of its proper role. The key is, in all things, seek first to do no harm to another innocent person, with the emphasis being on ‘innocent.’ And remember, innocent until proven guilty 🙂