Off the beat: Labels should be a source of pride

Last night, as I stood on my friend’s balcony, people-watching and staring at the Campanile in the fog, I fell into the trap of making snap judgments about complete strangers. As the various residents of Berkeley strolled down the street, I found myself unconsciously giving each one a title — not necessarily anything negative or complex. There was the girl with the heavy backpack instantly classified as the late-night library studier, the group of tall guys in gym shorts obviously coming home from the RSF and seemingly gym rats as well as the stargazing couples in People’s Park quickly identified as hippies.

None of these categorizations were meant to be negative judgments; they were for the sole purpose of sorting what I was seeing into digestible information. If asked about the demographic walking down that street that night, I would have much more quickly remembered nerdy and athletic than the thick-framed glasses and sweaty T-shirts. But many of my peers say they hate being labeled as anything — even if it’s completely neutral — and if I had followed my strangers down the street, tapped them on their shoulders and asked them if my assumptions held water, they’d probably feel relegated to a box into which I’d placed them.

But why? Why do we live in such extreme aversion to the box? The box does not confine us; instead, it can be a platform on which we stand and confidently announce who we are. Just because you are smart doesn’t mean you can’t also be sociable. And just because you are a blonde doesn’t mean you can’t also be a brunette. The box can spread, it can overlap with others and it can expand and shrink in whichever way accurately describes you. Labels are not confining; they are defining. And having characterizations of who you are is a good thing.

Every person has defining traits, and identifying these traits and owning them does not detract from the fullness of your being. Your traits — whether they are as simple as your eye color or as detailed as your multiethnic lineage — allow others to attempt to understand you. There is always the chance of being misunderstood, but if you have a clear vision of yourself, you can more easily convey it to the rest of the world.

Yet most people live in fear of any sort of labels and would prefer to be viewed as a fluid amalgam impossible to define at any given moment. But just like infinity is difficult to work with in math classes due to its inability to be quantified, individuals are bafflingly complicated to understand without some framework of titles, classifications, labels or whatever you’d like to call them off of which to work.

I think the aversion to being placed in a box stems from the fear of losing one’s uniqueness. People want to believe that their characteristics belong solely to them and that no aspect of their being can be compared to that of another person. But sharing characteristics with others isn’t awful. Similarities help us seek out people like ourselves and find groups to join. It’s over these similarities that we bond with others. Even people who intentionally try to be “different” are still doing so to be part of a uniform group: the uniformly unique group. It’s human nature to want to belong, and according to philosopher Emile Durkheim, our purest driving goal in this life is to find a community into which we fit.

But this is where the problem arises: People think being labeled means that is all people see them as, and that’s a separate issue entirely. Labels are not judgments, and closed-minded people who are unable to grasp the depth of the multifaceted human spirit have their own set of negative qualities (and get labeled appropriately so). We see them that way and value less their opinions of us. If there are characteristics about you that you don’t like, change them. And if they can’t be changed, embrace them, for you wouldn’t be you without them. There will always be hateful and insensitive labels, but instead of living in fear of these labels, we can accept the characteristics behind them and appreciate ourselves more for it.

Last night as I enjoyed the evening air, I began to reflect on who I am and who I am afraid of becoming. It was then that I realized there is no such thing as becoming someone. You are someone; you are one person, and anything you grow into is you now and is a part of past you — you always. People evolve, adapt and change, but they don’t shape-shift.  Recognize that you can have an infinite number of labels, but you cannot have none. Labels are subject to change, and so are you, but there is nothing intrinsically bad about owning a label or two.

“Off the Beat” guest columns will be written by Daily Cal staff members until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers are selected.