The other day, we had a business meeting at The Raleigh Forum that segued into a chat on labels, specifically in regard to autism. Somebody mentioned that in the world of autism, there is a very concerted effort to steer away from using the term “autistic” because it conveys the idea that the individual’s autism defines them. Instead, people are encouraged to use the phrase “person with autism.”
This comment turned into a general conversation on labels and how we define ourselves. Interestingly enough, my About Me section is all labels. Co-owner, cook, volunteer, intense Taboo-er (which my friend recently commented was his favorite part of my About Me!). I don’t feel that these terms pigeon-hole me; I think on some level I was attempting to convey that I can be all of these things at once; that none of them single-handedly define me.
If I had used labels with negative connotations (like the negative weight the term “autistic” carries), would that change things?
A big part of my decision to disaffiliate from my sorority was because I felt it came to define me in a way that I didn’t want to be defined. Suddenly, I wasn’t a member of a Greek sorority; I was a Greek. And perhaps even worse, I would look at other people as Gamma Gamma Thetas, instead of seeing them as unique individuals with diverse interests who happened to be in Gamma Gamma Theta.
As a sociology minor, I have to apply a little bit of sociological theory here, right? The labeling theory “holds that deviance is not inherent to an act, but instead focuses on the tendency of majorities to negatively label minorities or those seen as deviant from standard cultural norms. The theory is concerned with how the self-identity and behavior of individuals may be determined or influenced by the terms used to describe or classify them, and is associated with the concept of a self-fulfilling prophecy and stereotyping.”
What do you think? Are labels just labels? Or do we allow ourselves to be defined by them?
P.S. Wondering about the origin of the term “pigeonhole”? Apparently, pigeonholes were originally literal holes for pigeons to rest in. The holes in desks later became known as pigeonholes because they resembled the earlier pigeonholes. According to this website, “When congress chose to ignore a bill, it was said to be “pigeonholed”, in other words, it was stuck away in a dark recess in the desk, never to be considered again.”