Opinion

Labelled

Every human on the planet is unique. Each of us represents a combination of biology, psychology and life experiences that have never occurred before, and will never occur again. While you might follow in the footsteps of others and have much in common with those around you, you are not the same as anyone else. You are unique.

From the moment you were born (and probably even before), many of the characteristics that combine to make you unique were being labelled. It’s nothing personal; it’s just that to understand who you are we need to describe you. To do that, we use language, and language is about giving labels to Ideas.

The labels we use to describe ourselves, each other and indeed everything else in the world are not perfect. A lot of nuance gets lost behind labels as similar characteristics are given broad, general terms. Unfortunately, labels that are more specific, specialised and nuanced are also likely to be less familiar and well understood. Labels only have value if their meaning comes with a shared understanding. Specialised terms only survive within special interest groups and can’t be easily used outside of those groups. As a result we are much more likely to use the broad and general terms.

Only 0.06% of the population of America has a different eye colour for each eye; as a result, it is unlikely that most Americans will know the term Heterochromia iridum, which describes the phenomenon. They simply would never have reason to know it. Even language used to describe the more commonplace might see more descriptive terms undermined by more familiar ones. A ‘Myoclonic Jerk’ is arguably a more accurate description, but people most will likely always call it a hiccup. Similarly, Alopecia Areata might be the more precise term for a specific case, but people would describe someone with the condition as merely going bald. Despite baldness being a symptom of a wide range of conditions for which we likely have better, if less well known, labels.

In general, and despite its flaws, the collection of commonly understood labels that represent the vast majority of language have been amazingly effective. Communication has been one of the fundamental components in the flourishing of the human race. While language is too imperfect a tool when it comes to the hyper-specialised case of describing the nuance and complexity of a specific human; it works remarkably well in general. Clearly, labels do not have to be accurate to be useful.

Humans spend the vast majority of their time operating at a level of detail that need not be very specific. Given a random population of a hundred people, it would be possible to describe a single individual within that group with just a handful of terms; even if those terms were not very specific. For example, specifying the person as tall, pale-skin with reddish hair would significantly narrow the field, despite these being far from precise terms. As a functional description of someone, these things might be enough to identify someone in a population of hundred. Throw in a few less general traits such curly hair, being left handed and having the ability to roll their tongue and you will likely have the person you are looking for.

If I was to say I once met an 18 to 24 year old colour blind, english women, who can’t roll her tongue, had red hair and was left handed it might not sound so remarkable. Whilst some of those traits are rare the are not unheard of or all that uncommon. However, despite the global population being around 7.7 billion people; statistically there are likely only 5 such women in the wold that match that description.

For most of what we functionally require of labels, we seem to be well severed. However, it’s important not to mistake the label for the thing it is describing. Some labels we might not want, criminal, untrustworthy, unreliable for example. Many labels have a context; a man described as short who plays basketball might be described as tall if he was to become a jockey. Sometimes the ideas that the label represents might be misunderstood or simply wrong. Labels might make our life more difficult, immigrant or minority, for example, and at other times they might help save our lives; asthmatic or diabetic. No matter what the labels used to describe you they will always be imperfect, and will never be who you are.