Labeling People

by Liam Kuhn | 11/20/98 6:00am

People here are angry. But that's nothing new. People everywhere are angry, and it's usually for more or less the same reason. Things get said and done that are hurtful, either intentionally or not. That's why this is Earth, not Eden.

You can call it ignorance, you could call it insensitivity, poor taste, a lousy sense of humor -- for whatever reason, I have and will continue to laugh at jokes and stories that might be deemed "racist" or "sexist." And like a large percentage of the people who laugh at these jokes, I don't laugh because they demean or stereotype people, I don't laugh because I'm a racist hate monger; I laugh because the jokes can be very funny sometimes.

What people find offensive in these jokes and stories, I'm sure, is that they tend to label or depict a whole group of people based on characteristics that are reflective of maybe only a few of the people who identify with that group.

So is labeling or stereotyping the root of the problem? In the name of journalistic research, I told "racist" jokes to a friend of mine who had attended workshops on tolerance and communication to find out how she would react. These jokes used broad, globalizing terms that perpetuate well-known stereotypes and label people based on particular aspects of their culture.

I figured that she would tell me that the jokes were horrible and vulgar, that labeling people is always a wrong thing to do -- after all, she had some training in how to deal with these things. Instead, she said, "Liam, you obviously have a 'red' personality. You become passionately emotional and can be quite defensive. You tend to be at the polar ends of the emotional spectrum."

I asked my friend why she thought that she was taught to label people's personalities by colors. She seemed to think it was a technique designed to make it easy to group people according to their similar personality tendencies, thereby making it easier to deal with them and hopefully find ways to make them more tolerant of others. I thought it was hypocritical for her to object to the "racist" jokes because they unfairly label, group and stereotype people but then turn around and label my entire personality based solely on five minutes of conversation.

And that's the root of the problem, in my mind -- the hypocrisy of everything. Labeling whole groups of people will never be accurate and some people will always get hurt by it. But it is still a necessary part of society. For people to identify and interact with other people, they need to have words and generalizations that they can use

So if labeling is a necessary part of society, why is it so bad? In my opinion, it's only bad when it's used to intentionally hurt other people. Maybe there were more tasteful things to call the Chi Gam/AXD party. Maybe the Homecoming T-shirt with the Yale bulldog performing oral sex on a Native American was also in poor taste. But the point of these things wasn't to hurt or degrade people from the ghetto or Native Americans. I mean, wouldn't it have been kind of hard to draw a bulldog fellating the Big Green?

So we have our differences, and we have our equality, and we have our pride. But the Great Equalizer, the thing that connects us all and allows such disparate people to co-inhabit this great Earth is our humanity. And by "humanity," I don't mean "kindness," I mean the fact that we are all humans. And, above all else, the one thing humans are known to do consistently is to make mistakes.

Sometimes we all say things we later regret. Sometimes we do really stupid things. And sometimes people say and do stupid, regrettable things to us. And while occasional ignorance and insensitivity is not admirable, it is certainly not an aberration from normal human life.

So let's all stop throwing stones because not one of us is without sin. Sometimes we do things bad things and sometimes bad things happen to us. It's often unfair and it always hurts, but it's life and nothing will ever change that, so let's move on.