Magdalena Bak-Maier, PhD – How labels can erode our humanity

Labels: We all have them and use them.

One of my clients, a visionary leader focused on eradicating mental blindness, works tenaciously to help raise awareness and change how companies deal with diversity. In fact, we are planning a study to examine interview biases that people from different backgrounds will encounter in order to design an alternative, fairer model for hiring employees. Our intention with this work is to give everyone a fairer shot at employment, as well as provide companies with better quality candidates: ones with passion and genuine interest to work there, compared to those who may get the job because of their existing network, birthright, or career history.

As we explore our work together, I have been increasingly reflecting on the impact labels have on our lives. I support and champion individuals who stand up for the underdog and what’s right, those who help ensure that in applying a standard, we don’t end up harming others. These can be organizations and individuals campaigning to encourage greater acceptance of diversity and activism on behalf of those who may need some help.

Hai Bo, "The Blind"
Hai Bo, “The Blind”

What prompted my reflection on labels and how they came about was a recent program regarding the history of psychology, on BBC Radio4. One of the segments of this series considered the question of what’s ‘normal’ and how we define it, especially in the case of mental illness, but also intelligence and genetics. Many people in today’s society, along with those battling mental stigmas, are desperately in need of society’s acceptance to promote their well-being. Many are barely tolerated, often abused, and generally segregated away from the rest as a result of damaging labels, based on the concept of what the majority sees or knows to be ‘normal.’

I have always been a bit of a rebel when it comes to following conventions. One of the key goals of my work is to support people who want to follow their heart’s passion and own their freedom, be it intellectual, creative, or to do with their lifestyle preferences, provided they can remain in balance with the larger ecology of the world around them. What this means is that I support people whose dreams, actions, and goals reflect their spirit and stand to benefit the world and society, or at least not harm it. Such individuals, whether change agents, innovators, artists, or company employees, face a myriad of obstacles and a massive pressure to fit in. And yet, without innovators, revolutionaries, and community leaders, our world would be poorer and less equal.

It is people and companies in my view that are brave enough to ask difficult questions, pose and tackle key challenges, test strongly held assumptions to overturn dogma, and break the ceiling on existing boundaries that allow us to evolve and prosper in an ever-changing world. To have everyone think independently, as opposed to passively following what they are being told is, in my view, fundamental to a conscious, awake, and functional society. Thinking is not a privilege for some. It is a right and responsibility of all.

In one of the program’s segments dealing with the history of psychiatry, there was a long and very moving piece about lobotomies: a procedure that was widely administered as a means of treating schizophrenia, depression, and compulsive disorders. I won’t go into details of the procedure but for those curious about it I refer you here.

What made me particularly sad was a voice of a man who had been given a lobotomy as a child because his mother concluded that he was difficult to deal with. The sadness and emptiness in his voice as he described what was done and the impact of the treatment on his life was heartbreaking, especially when hearing how after the profession took more time to understand the ‘abnormalities, it was concluded that not everyone getting the procedure needed it. It seems that mental illness, which remains one of the big social labels carrying a massive stigma, can and will likely affect each of us if we follow a system of labeling and categorizing people before we seek to understand them.

I can see people all around me who are perfectly healthy and happy that we as society, as neighborhoods, communities, organizations, circles of friends, and acquaintances label as falling outside what we believe is ‘normal.’ It reflects how we treat such people and who we become in the process. The labels can be many: ‘slow,’‘retarded,’‘homeless,’‘messed up,’‘gay,’‘depressed,’‘crippled,’‘uneducated,’ or even ‘poor.’ Race, gender, religious orientation, sexuality, profession, socioeconomic status — the ways in which we label and characterize people are endless. Some of them can be helpful at times. Others serve nothing more but to exclude and make other not acceptable.

Is gay normal or abnormal? A family member recently told me that being gay in their eyes was being selfish and irresponsible. In his mind, a gay “lifestyle” was associated with passing up the responsibility to have kids and partaking fully in society. When I asked this person about whether they were aware of the OECD figures on human population growth and its threat to the planet, his reply was that such growth was the result of poor Asian and African countries not able to look after their own welfare. In his mind the future of the world was closely linked to the survival of white western Europeans and not the human race in general.

I am disgusted by the lack of tolerance, understanding, and genuine acceptance of diversity in today’s world and the lip service we pay to it in policies but fail to practice. Whether such prejudice rears its ugly head through lack of tolerance for alternative viewpoints, ways of life, culture or tradition, people’s perceived intelligence or how they look at it is shocking given the high standard of education found in the western world. No other animal species, to my knowledge, shuns its own members, marginalizing one set in order to protect another.

Some people may well say this is okay, and in fact reflects nature. In a system as complex and large as our world, everyone can find their niche and be with those who are like them. Let gays fit and seek other gays. Let blind people all seek one another or those we think as slow or autistic find someone else who finds them endearingly funny. But what if you feel normal and gay and your family calls you a pervert? You’re blind, yet capable and wanting to work in a normal firm practicing as a lawyer, but the company instead gives you a low-paying job they feel a ‘blind’ person can do? What if your stutter makes people assume you’re slow, and yet you’re a leading medic? And what if your schooling finished in fourth grade, you run a million-dollar company because you self-taught, but people still bar you from certain circles because you lack formal education? What if you once made a mistake and paid for it with time in prison, and yet the world seems bound on continuing to punish you for it forever, with no one wanting to give you a job as an ex-offender? What if people call your life’s work garbage without taking a second to understand its meaning or the cost you paid for pursuing your life’s work while many others would quit? Only these are not what-if hypothetical scenarios. These are real people struggling to live within their true spirit in a world where they are seen as falling outside of the acceptable, predefined norm.

My question is this: Who has the right to make such judgments? Who has the right to keep people from belonging? And yet we all label, sort, and do just that everyday on some scale without realizing it. We treat people as objects instead of relating to them as fellow human beings. Apart from being unkind, it is nothing short of violence. Until I came across the work of Dr. Marshall Rosenberg on Non-Violent Communication, I, too, didn’t fully appreciate the power of words and their ability to harm. And yet we don’t take the time to educate our kids about it: how to spot it, deal with it, and eradicate it.

Perhaps I look at freedom differently, being a child once yanked from much of her family and familiar surroundings by parents wanting to escape a political regime. I have fought my own battles to fit in and to defend my identity. I have endured the pain of exclusion enough times to know first hand what it feels like to not be part of ‘the crowd’ or to feel solitude within what appears to be a functional community. These days, riding the London underground and hearing teenagers and young people engaged in nasty gossip about their fellow classmates and friends, reading the headlines of daily papers ridiculing and using people’s misfortunes as unscrupulous entertainment, I feel sadness about how we have mainstreamed the practice of labeling, judging, punishing, and excluding others. We seem to celebrate it and devote time to it. It saddens me because it seems a brute attempt at eradicating true individuality in a world that supposedly celebrates it. In an effort to define ourselves as cool, cultured, clever, or anything else, we have to define others as ‘not-that’ and create a ‘them’ and ‘us’ world instead of one where we look at what unites us.

Looking back at my own experiences of being hurt while trying to fit into various societies and cultural systems, be they geographical, national, organizational, or social, I can shrug my shoulders and rationalize, saying “They were just blind” or “They didn’t mean it.” Such actions, however they arise, are mostly, though not always, unintentional.

Being able to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, to look beneath the surface and consider what the other person may want or need takes time and conscious effort in a world that is increasingly becoming short on time, patience, and human connection.

To truly face difference calls for reassessment of ourselves, our beliefs, and is likely to be disruptive. It is simply easier to categorize at one glance and label.

Every day I see myself and others apply labels from looking at what one wears, reads, listen to, says, follows, who one connects with, where one works, and what one does, as well as countless other examples, instead of taking the time to understand who one is.

I see and feel this happen all around me. I am conscious of being in the middle of it myself both as someone who labels and as someone who is being labeled. And it makes me wonder: are we in danger of losing talented people who lack the skills to cope, let alone exist in such a world? And is it the sort of world we want to create? Are we happy to reduce a person to a commodity we trade, use, date, or disregard when the label doesn’t fit with our convenient ‘normal’? I sure hope not. I know there are many out there who don’t buy into this way of living or being.

The world is a beautiful place and an ugly place depending on where we focus our attention. This doesn’t mean we should ignore what is dysfunctional. It means we should celebrate what works and try to spread good practice wider. As a coach, therapist, and conflict mediator, I see first-hand the power that compassion and openheartedness towards one other brings in any relationship. I can’t help but feel strongly enough to write that here. And as in all my pieces, I’d like to invite you to consider the matter for yourself.

➢  Take a moment to see your world and the many labels being at play in it. Those that others apply to you and those you apply to others.

➢  Notice how they shape, affect, and restrict your world and consciously consider how you want to use them.

➢  Make a deliberate effort to balance the effect of labels with a kind word, a smile, or an offer of help from an equal place that doesn’t make the other person feel weaker, or less, or only a kind thought.

All we invent as human beings has value in specific situations. I am not arguing for us to do away with labels, merely to consider how we responsibly we use them to create a society that welcomes all its members and celebrates diversity. Let’s all awake and open our eyes to a world we actively shape with how we show up, what we choose to notice, and what we dismiss. At the edges and in the crevices of these different worlds we so desperately want to define is a larger circle of humanity to which we all belong. It is this family that needs our attention if we are to help bring about more peace and end unnecessary violence. It starts with each of us doing our bit. And it starts now.

Let me know your thoughts on this via the blog discussion below.

Magdalena Bak-Maier, PhD | Get Productive!

If you want to know more about basic NVC, listen to Marshall Resenberg’s talks about it here:


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