Labels and Lies


May 1, 2013 by KWills

Who am I?  Am I disabled?  What do I call myself?  What gives me the right to talk about disability discrimination?  That’s what you want to know, before you read this post.  But what you really want to know is: Am I one of you, or one of them?

In other words, am I a “real” person, or am I one of “those people”?

Everybody has a different “those people”.  Only a couple of days ago, I was having a moan about “those people” who say stupid stuff to writers.  We all have “those people” who get on our nerves for one reason or another.  But stop and ask yourself – are “those people” defined by what they do, or what they are?  Because it’s one thing to complain about the kids playing tennis against the side of your house, and another to say that all young people are anti-social criminals-in-training.

Image showing public toilets with signs for "men's", "women's" & "wheelchair access".

Labels can be useful!

We’re human – we like to label things.  The world is a big, confusing, busy place and we like to have some way of sorting through the chaos.  It’s a survival tactic, and there’s nothing wrong with it when used correctly.  Like most things, it only becomes a problem when taken to extremes.

For example, the English language has the ability to turn adjectives into de facto nouns.  We talk about “the young”, “the old”, “the French”, and “the disabled”.  Convenient linguistic shorthand, and not offensive in itself.  It can, however, give rise to woolly thinking.  We can start to think of “the disabled” as a homogenous group, and as different from so-called “normal people” as “the fish” is different from “the bicycle”.  We forget that “disabled” is shorthand for “disabled people” – and as soon as we do that, we commit the cardinal sin of labelling: seeing only the label.

Because labels are lies.  Useful, convenient lies that make life easier to understand.  Just like “sunrise” and “sunset” are lies – the sun doesn’t go anywhere.  We all know that.  Using labels, and other inaccurate expressions, is not harmful unless we forget that they are inaccurate.  Labels are indicators, not definitions – and they are certainly not value judgements.

So who am I?  Are you still wondering?  Are you withholding judgement because you don’t want to be seen agreeing with “one of them”, or offending “one of us”?  If I told you my age, gender, race, nationality, health condition, etc. would that change how you view this post?  Would it support or invalidate any of my arguments?  It’s not easy to accept something that is unlabeled, and I know that you’ve been trying to place me based on the evidence.  And that’s fine.  But whatever labels you attach to this post, or to me, please remember that the label is not the thing, and the thing is not the label.

And, to get back to the BADD theme of today, the next time you talk about “the disabled”, don’t forget the unspoken ‘people’ in that expression.

6 thoughts on “Labels and Lies

  1. freee4now says:

    Hmmm. There’s a lot to chew on in this post. A label by any other name is, well, still a label. 🙂

  2. NTE says:

    I think that opening bit is the key: are you describing a group or an action of a group? A person or a person’s actions? And that’s often forgotten when there’s such a label just sitting there waiting to be used. And that’s when individuals and actions become groups and stereotypes, and we all get shortchanged.

    • K. Willsen says:

      Exactly! Most rude and thoughtless behaviour comes from lazy thinking, rather than any real malice.

      It’s just as harmful, all the same.

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