Fed Up With Labels


Nov. 20, 2010         

Humans are creatures that use language, our besetting sin and sometimes glory. Being a curmudgeon, I’m not about to wax lyrical about the glory of words, although I read constantly and freely admit that many words spoken and written can dissipate gloom, revive courage, inspire to great deeds, help explain the mysteries of the universe to us, call us to dinner and often provide a wonderful escape route from reality. 

Perhaps we don’t much like reality. At least it seems that way, because we distort it and evade it as much as possible, give or take some marvelously matter-of-fact realists. Perhaps we can’t help ourselves. Homo sapiens is probably the only animal on the planet that can contemplate its own death, of individuals and of the species. It’s hard to believe that species don’t die, when more are becoming extinct every day, and then there are all those dinosaur bones. Of course, some religions manage to explain away even those deaths. 

A few other species seem to mourn their dead — like the elephants returning again and again to touch the dead body of one of their own, or a young but fully weaned chimpanzee mourning by his mother’s dead body until he dies of starvation. Yet do any of them know that they themselves are going to die? No wonder we invented gods and heavens.

Humans, facing death as part of reality, have neatly divided up said reality, using language. Well, maybe not all languages are so firmly inclined, but it’s certainly true of those we know and love well, including the one I’m using — which happens to be, unfortunately, my only one.

Language divides reality into things, plus actions by and on those things. Most languages are much better at things than processes, which may account for why we struggle so much with the problem of cosmological fields and dimensions, when it’s so much easier to think in terms of particles and heavenly bodies. Back in the dark ages, when I was taking “atomic” physics (even the name shows that it hadn’t absorbed the “nuclear” yet), the elderly professor was clearly upset by the idea that atomic “things” could be divided up, and that the smaller you went into “reality,” there was no firm identity and place. Those of us who were just college students had much less trouble accepting Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle because it didn’t seem so odd that reality on the subatomic level was uncertain and likely to remain so.

You can struggle with the idea of process versus thing, of matter versus energy (when Einstein –and the bombs — proved that those words can be interchangeable), but don’t be seduced into thinking that because you’ve labeled something, it has to be real and worth killing or voting against or being generally nasty about. It’s getting so that religious fundamentalists and many politicians throw labels around as if they were the only reality that mattered.

A label is just a word. Words are misused. And people tend to believe that reality actually is that word. But a person, for instance, is not a thing, composed of things, but a walking array of biological, cognitive and creative processes that we don’t yet completely understand. Each person changes from second to second, and our fragile individuality holds together by zillions of cells and hormones and neural circuits and whatnot all working together. Like civilization. Like the planet’s ecosystem. Working together is what’s required. Thank you for saying it, Jon Stewart.   

Don’t label. Think.  


Janet Jeppson Asimov, M.D., a retired psychiatrist and children’s science fiction writer, is the author of twenty books and many short stories and articles.