Remember, We Are More Than Our Labels


I have an upstairs cat and a downstairs cat.

Harlequin (aka Harley) sneaks upstairs when she thinks we’re not home or not looking. If she finds us, she zooms like a Harley down the stairs. Rhapsody (aka Rhappy or Rhapsicle) roams the house, but nests in our bedroom suite. That is, unless I close the door to my office or the bathroom. Then she waxes rhapsodic outside the door until allowed entry, or until (ahem) I’m done. If I let her in, she knocks over books, papers, and then jumps on my head.

My family thought about our cats’ names, not quite as long as my husband and I pondered our children’s names. Weeks instead of months. Harlequin has a line of caramel, a tiny stream of color dividing the grey side of her face from the white side, and she zips like a pinball at her slowest and like a motorcycle at her fastest. Rhappy likes to thump the door and sing. She’s tiny like a toy, and she has teeth like a raptor.

A name can mean so much. We should take care with what we call others. But I think often what we call people, animals, and things express who WE are more than who they are. You could think of my cats’ names like labels. We obviously have to use words to describe the world we observe. Yet all of us can and do take it too far.

“Categorical labeling is a tool that humans use to resolve the impossible complexity of [their environment],” says NYU marketing professor Adam Alter. “Like so many human faculties, it’s adaptive and miraculous, but it also contributes to some of the deepest problems that face our species.”

In this politically correct age, you’d think that labels would start to die out, if not become altogether extinct. Yet labels have gone underground instead, and when a society suppresses anything, it tends to breed and multiply at alarming rates.

Psychologists may be some of the biggest adherents to labels, with their diagnostic codes, and their psychological theories about what makes so-and-so behave a certain way. Then marketing experts put us all into funnels and silos full of SEO that shift and sway until they’re torn down and built back up again. Labels have infiltrated every part of our society, though. And that is desperately wrong.

Hey, we’re not labels. We’re not the tone of our skin, a summary of our thoughts, or our shoe size. None of us should be classified as belonging to just one organization, or just one social media group, no matter how many Snapchats we post a day. We are human (and in the case of my kitties, feline) in all our complexity and depth. Why should we define and limit each other as less?

I know somewhere some psychologist reading my assessment of labels is assigning a label to me, and some marketing person is scratching his head asking, “Rice Krispies or Coco Puffs?” Yet, the labels they’re using, the labels we apply to each other–which can be fun if dealt with in a broad sense–can be crippling to those of us who must wear those labels every single day.

Our children suffer the most from these categorical labels–in classrooms, and in school hallways. They’re being called “ghetto” “hipster,” or “sped” by their peers, and they’re being called “LD,” “unmotivated,” “snarky,” or even “juvie” by teachers, administrators, and parenting coaches worldwide. (Yes, I’ve heard teachers, psychologists, and school administrators use these words; that’s why they’re in quotes.) Somewhere, right now, a teacher is writing a recommendation dissing a kid applying to something, and that teacher will change that child’s future because of a label they assign.

We all take on these labels at an early age and carry them around in our backpacks. They’re heavier than any book, and they attach and linger long after high school is done, lurking around in that first love relationship, or that first job interview.

When life was simpler, before the Internet, when we didn’t live on airplanes but in neighborhoods, we got to know people. We came to appreciate their quirks even if we shook our heads, annoyed, sometimes. We tried to help our neighbors solve their challenges instead of judging them, categorizing them, and then casting that category aside. Of course, there were major exceptions to this way of life, and they were called sexists, racists, bigots. But most of us just tried to get to know each other and get along.

I wonder sometimes if my cats would have been different if I’d called them Lucky or Rainbow, Upstairs and Downstairs. I believe my feline’s monikers depict them well, without judgment, but they’re just names that I call out to get their attention (or not). Harley took longer to come when called than Rhappy because she was older, a rescue cat, another label to say we found her in a cage at Pet Smart. Our name for her might have stuck, but first she was Mia, and before that, she was Lily. All her current name does is show our family’s perspective of who that gorgeous, glorious tabby is and can be. Another owner would’ve given her yet another name.

It has taken Lily/Mia/Harley a few years, but she’s gradually standing up for her rights around Rhapsody. I see her upstairs more often. Just now, she peeked around my office door. I pretend not to notice because she’d scamper away. I definitely won’t say a word to her because upstairs words make her flee. And in the end, “they’re only words, and words are all I have” to tell you how I feel about the magnificence that is this fur baby I call Harlequin, who may someday defy her name and become another upstairs cat who lazes in the sun.

Her layers, just like yours, just like mine, are endless, and they defy all labels.