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How Dangerous Are Labels? 

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There’s one memorable line fom Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass: ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.’

It isn’t just a casual comment from a children’s tale; it’s a statement of profound meaning.

How we label things influences or even controls how we think of them. The descriptors are not chosen lightly; often labels are chosen to have a desired effect on others. That is shown in the timeless observation: ‘One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter.’ Even corrected for more inclusive times, it still reveals the impact of labels: one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.

Has anyone who ever fought against injustice not been described in negative terms by those imposing the injustice? Was Jose Rizal, a national hero in the Philippines, described as a terrorist and criminal by the occupiers? Is the same person lauded, even today, as a hero?

The labels that a long list of dictators have used to describe others, have led droves of otherwise decent people to willingly killing millions of their fellow citizens.

Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), was belatedly adopted as the term now widely used by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980, but it has been observed by armed forces throughout history. Jean-Martin Charcot in 1887 described that traumas could be re-experiened years later by those who were unfortunate enough to have experienced war.

In WW1, people whom we now know were incapable of fighting were executed by their own countries for refusing to fight. They were labelled as cowards and shot. Now we would label them as being severely traumatised and provide help. Change the label, and what follows changes, dramatically.

Label someone as a criminal, and ‘throwing away the key’ is easier on our consciences. Label them as having been deprived, malnourished, abused, traumatised, and self-medicating with alcohol or drugs, having been rendered mentally unwell and unable to contribute to society by their traumatic childhood; and we think very differently.

Even subtle differences in labelling can have huge implications. PTSD sends a very different message to posttraumatic stress injury. Criminals are described as disordered. Disorders in the psychiatric and medical sense are usually long-term and incurable.

What effect does it have on someone if we tell them that they have a disorder? It conveys the expectation that there is no remedy, or at least one is extremely unlikely; that learning to live with the disorder is expected.

What effect does it have on someone if we tell them they have an injury? It conveys the expectation that they will recovery with time, and that treatment will help; that there is something that can be done to get better.

Which person who has experienced genuine trauma and is experiencing the usual after effects (such as heightened anxiety, flashbacks, nightmares, avoidance behaviours, relationship problems, etc) is most likely to take self-responsibility for getting better? One who has been told they have a disorder, or, one told they have an injury?

It seems obvious that if the signal is sent, via the label ‘injury’, that most people will better engage in self-curative behaviours.

We see similar consequences in other areas. Professionals in the mental health world, when, they don’t know what is the cause of a person’s irrational behaviour will use different labels depending on the seriousness of the irrationality. ‘Borderline personality disorder‘ at the milder end, and ‘schizophrenia‘ for more serious cases.

There is that word again: disorder. People respond to their environments, and are shaped by them. People who have developed difficult-to-deal-with behaviours have almost always been subjected to trauma, usually long-lasting. By labelling their challenge as a disorder, they hear the signal, ‘no hope here’, and act accordingly.

As a label, schizophrenia is even worse. I have repeatedly heard clients say words to the effect of: ‘I can’t help it; I’m schizophrenic.’ The label gives the client permission to resign themselves to being incapable of doing anything to get better.

In 98–99% of all cases of mental challenge there are no known biological causes; no virus can discerned, no chemical imbalance, no pathogen, no – the medical model simply cannot explain the cause of the unusual behaviours.

What can do even more damage than the unknown causes, is giving people a label that disempowers them, which gives them permission to abdicate all self-responsibility.

If it turns out in the future, that apparently ‘irrational’ human behaviour is in the vast majority of cases socially, or circumstantially caused, as many thinkers throughout history have noted, we will look back at our current labelling and ask ourselves questions. Did the way we label the problem, prevent us seeing the solutions? Did our labels take away the one thing that could have helped: hope for recovery? Did describing something in ways that implied that is was permanent and incurable, make it so? Did the way we labelled something turn it in to the label we gave it? Did giving something a label create the illusion that it was understood? Did we create labels to reassure ourselves that something was understood? Were our labels an act of self-delusion?

How dangerous are labels? Very! Be careful of how you describe or label everything; your words may create a reality that was never there.

Professor Nigel MacLennan runs the leadership coaching practice PsyPerform and is a visiting professor at the University of Bolton.


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