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Identities and Labels

A while back, somebody close to me told me I suck at things. I smiled back at the person. Indeed, I do suck at things. She said that she meant it and it made me a bad example. I accepted it. It was again a fact – a bad performer is a bad example. Indeed. It is a fact.

When asked why I smiled, I told her that her feedback was consistent with so many others. I have a clutch of people now who know that I suck at things and I am a bad example. Once I accepted that such a trait – sucking at things and bad example – I repeat – was mine, I felt nothing.

Did it not pinch me? Did it not hurt me? Did I not understand from them why they thought I was a failure so that I could improve and strive to be a ‘good’ example? Actually, I did nothing.

Most of us get validated by others, almost all the time. We are rated and ranked, judged, and juried upon. We also do the same thing to others. Such ratings and judgements don’t carry evidence or the burden of proof. I call them ‘opinions’.

Opinions are the beholder’s perception of me. Opinions are never accountable and need not be validated. They can be impactful to the extent that they can influence my thoughts and actions, as long we care for them. Opinions matter only if we are seeking them. The power of ignoring or soliciting opinions lies with us. To understand opinions, we should understand on whom the opinions are formed. That is where ‘identities and labels’ come into play.

Identities:

Identities, as we have seen, always serve a purpose. Purpose is the key word here. We are always linked with some form of identity – demographic ( citizenry), social, religious, racial, role-based, employment-based, career-based – the list goes on. We realize that this is to derive a sort of uniqueness and information. Each identity then carries a set of ‘attributes’.

‘Name, Age, Gender, Place and Date of Birth …’ are some of the attributes that we would see on a passport. This is how human systems have evolved in classifying individuals. The identifiers and attributes give information necessary to process ‘transactions’, which are specific events or exchanges, that carry a time stamp. All these are ‘recorded’ somewhere or the other. In short – identities, attributes, and transactions are facts and numbers – and therefore applicable in legal terms. They stand the test and are admissible as evidence in a court of law.

I read somewhere that the birth certificate is the first legal document that identifies a person’s entry into this world, and from there on, life is run on these identities, attributes, and transactions. These systems have evolved in complexity and numbers, as human society has advanced.

I feel trapped in this modern society when I am identified with these elements, but these are necessary. Because of their inevitability, I am resigned to accepting them as a necessary evil.

Labels:

Labels are stickers that people put on us. The stickers are colorful. When we were young, people give us nicknames. I was called ‘Asky’ – I felt offended and still am, for no reason. Why?  When the name first appeared, it was associated with derision from the name-callers. I cringed at hearing that name, for no reason. It got under my skin.

Some names are pet names – called out with love. I was called ‘Kannappa’ (meaning ‘as dear as my eye’ in Tamil or Malayalam) by my father, and that word melts me inside. I call my kid ‘chocolate’. He loved it when he was young, but not anymore. He feels that he is too grown up for that word.

Over and beyond nicknames, we have experiences in our schools, colleges, offices, and the larger society, where people stick these labels on us. These labels are a lot harder to shake.  They are the ‘opinion-identifiers.’

As much as opinions are baseless and unaccountable, yet influential, the labels as ‘opinion-identifiers’ can precede our entry and influence our growth in an environment. Opinions and labels are therefore colored. Colored because they carry the color of the person’s unaccountable, baseless opinion on us, and yet they have the power to influence or imprint the same in another person’s mind.

That is when we confront bias. The color of the label influences the beholder’s thoughts and opinions and again the baselessness and unaccountability are relayed.

Social Media:

We have seen this predominantly in social media – where people seek validations of their success or happy lives. Social media today has democratized the expressions of people. It has created a ubiquity in terms of sharing information. When people share their thoughts, they are often opinions. The commentary that follows is again opinions. The subject under discussion is colored by opinions and quickly labeled.

People’s yearning to share and vent results in an unfiltered cesspool of opinions and labels – colors, hues, and shades of varying degrees. With technology’s support, there are ‘opinion-makers’ who can ‘plant’ the seed for an explosion of such opinions and labels.

Fake News, one of the largest malice of today’s society, is a key opinion-making tool. It does not take much to discern fake from facts, yet most of us fall for it because it is easy to participate and move on, again with no accountability.  As much we hate labels, we are happy to dish out different colored labels on others, and in the process, advertently or otherwise, transmitting and relaying the labels and their colors to the next person in the queue.

Technology and social media are addictive. Addictions take off the lid, and literally, that means, opening Pandora’s Box, where one gets pulled into the quagmire of opinion exchanges and labeling. Such debates have never created a winner, instead, they burn bridges. What we normally take time to reflect and respond, turns into an emotional reaction, and the exchanges get personal. How many times have ourselves stepped out of such an exchange with pulsating hearts and trembling fingers?

The younger lot, who are born with social media at their fingertips, enter this egregious tunnel right away. Their exchanges in social media churn and shape their young minds, and they are quick to fall for opinions and labels.

Mental Health:

As much as social media has enabled participation and sharing, appealing to the young minds of this generation, we also see that the ‘influences’ that it creates have a deep and profound impact.  Right from social games like the ‘whale’ too obnoxious pictures, the threat and shame that comes from the public opinion and labeling in social media have plucked many a young life in the bud.

For those who have chosen to live, the scars inflicted by labels and opinions, again baseless more often and unaccountable more than ever, have a deep impact that leads to mental health problems affecting the person and their near and dear ones.

Unlabel:

It’s possible to name everything and to destroy the world.

―Kathy Acker, In Memoriam to Identity

Opinions and labels can be about everything and anything. Labels make our understanding of people, things, and events unidimensional. ‘There is more than meets the eye’ ‘Don’t judge a book by its cover’, ‘All that glitters is not gold’ – we have heard of these idioms and phrases, which make timeless senses.

War does not determine who is right — only who is left.

―Anonymous

Wars are created by opinions but end in bloodshed. Wagging tongues to dead bodies. Even in social media, we can leave a trail of scarred minds and burnt bridges. So what is the point?

It is time for us to ‘unlabel’. First, we don’t need to opine about everything that comes our way.

Let us step away from social media: We need filters of objectivity in our minds. It comes from slowing down, reading, and listening with open minds. It comes from dropping things even before we process them in our minds. And what matters to us, we spend time to dissect and discern. All of these take time.

The idea is anti-social media, but that is the only solution. I know of people who have moved away from social media and emails; they have the time and space for themselves. They read printed matter and long forms. They read headlines but move on. They listen to music and spend time with their families.

Let us not seek validation: We don’t need validations from unknown people, who will opine and label us anyway. Filtering the information we share – keeping our successes to ourselves and those who matter to us, and failures more so help to process these milestones with a lot more sanity than getting battered by opinions and labels.

‘A wise person said nothing’, is a proverb that I swear on.

Keeping our counsel helps us to listen better. The better we listen, the better we can decide whether to opine or not. Even if we were to opine, it would make sense.

Let us not label:

Even in our lives outside social media, it is time for us to use the most important tool in our arsenal – our brains. Our brains are designed to think as well as emote. Emotions govern decisions and logic is never the chosen tool.  The best way is to slow down, even if we are young and raring.

When we don’t stick a label, we can relook at the point or the person, and review our thoughts. That makes us better judges. Reading, listening, conversing, and reflecting make our minds slow down and take in information, which in turn will help us churn our minds and discern better. That is the next step in our evolution.

Ashok Subramanian
Ashok Subramanian
Ashok Subramanian is a Poet and Fiction Author based in Chennai, India. Ashok has been writing blogs and content since 2011. From technology and management articles, and to website content, Ashok has written articles on businesses, finance, funding, capital markets, management, strategy, and sustainability over the years. His poems and articles, which were published in blogs got a publishing turn when he had time in hand to put together his poetry and short story collections. He publishes short stories and poetry reviews regularly in his medium.com blog. His published works so far: a) Maritime Heritage of India - Contributing Writer - b) Poetarrati Volume 1 &2: Self-published on Amazon in Kindle and Paperback; Ranked #8 in Amazon Hot Releases in May 2020. c) A City Full of Stories: A Short fiction Collection based on people and events of Mumbai: Self-published in Amazon in Kindle and Paperback. d) Poetarrati Ponder 2020 - A collection of Poem Reviews He is currently working with his creative advisor and publisher on his next poetry collection. His second short story collection about Kolkata, India, and his first novel are in the manuscript stage. He is a graduate in Engineering from Madurai Kamaraj University, India, and a post-graduate in Management from IIM Calcutta, India. He currently runs Strategic Advisory and Investment Banking companies headquartered in Bengaluru. He lives with his wife Gayathri and son Anirudh in Chennai, India.

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