By Geoffrey Geddes
“Look Mommy, that man’s chin looks like a butt. Look at the butt-face, Mommy!”
“Stop pointing, Sweetie.”
Mom is waging a tough battle. Pointing is what we do. More precisely, labeling is what we do. At label making, label us Nature’s Best.
Hell, just check the Bible. Apparently, the Lord God paraded all of His creatures in front of Adam, “and whatever the man called each living creature, that was its name” (Genesis 2:19). We were finger-pointing by the sixth day! But, was it good?
The Buddha, that imperturbable thorn in the side of Judeo-Christian dogmatists, warned us about the pitfalls of finger-pointing. As he ostensibly explained in one of his Q & As, “my teaching is a method to experience reality and not reality itself, just as a finger-pointing at the moon is not the moon itself.” Gautama’s analogy points to the impediment created by each label. Naming and understanding are not equivalent.
Yet, our compulsion to point and name persists. We label people: he’s a narcissist; she’s a ditz; he’s a hero; she’s a saint. We label things: that song is my jam; check out my boss ride; is that a booger? We label feelings: my grief is a ravenous monster consuming my soul. (Whoa.)
Still, doesn’t our ability to label the components of our reality help us? Of course it does. Imagine the benefits that accrued to our cave-dwelling ancestors when they developed the ability to label mushrooms according to toxicity or felines according to their appetite for humans. Conversely, imagine the challenges we might face if we were forced to forgo labeling – if we could no longer categorize people or things or feelings or TV shows. At the very least, communication would become quite difficult. How could we complain about the asshole who cut us off on the freeway while we were listening to our favorite mindfulness podcast? Without labels, that complaint might sound something like this: a human male, whom I presume suffers from a personality disorder that causes him to make aggressive, unkind choices, intentionally and unsafely drove his four-wheel, gasoline powered transport machine in front of my four-wheel, gasoline-electric hybrid transport machine as I was returning from my daily income producing activity, causing me to react emotionally, first with fear and then with anger, which I expressed with hand gestures and language that I do not care to repeat at this time, which reaction distracted me from the auditory information emanating from a sound playing device imbedded in the instrument panel that I face while operating my four-wheel, gasoline-electric hybrid transport machine…
Yes, all of those nouns are still labels, just not particularly efficient ones. So, perhaps efficiency is the culprit. Perhaps the more we shorthand our labels, the more we increase the risk of misinterpretation and faulty communication, and the more we widen the gap between reality and its representation.
Just for giggles, consider these examples of labels that separate us from reality: sick, science, god, atheist, spiritual, evil, logic, eternity, Republican, hope, time, terrorist, freedom, kindness, morals, gay, normal, life, animal, universe, and love. Did others pop into your mind?
Why do we compulsively label? What’s really driving our penchant for pointing?
Sigmund Freud, a redoubtable pointer, might have characterized pointing as a manifestation of projection, an ego defense whereby we attribute our own unacceptable characteristics to another. Am I the asshole against whom I rage on the freeway? Am I the coward, the sycophant, the bigot, and the dickhead whom I encounter? Probably. Our inclination to negatively label derives from more than a mere desire to observe or understand the world.
Take this test: next time you point at someone and pronounce a negative label, like fat, stupid, inconsiderate, or douchebag, turn your finger toward yourself and look for the source of your judgment. Does your self-esteem depend on your weight or your SAT scores? Do you believe that people will love you only if you’re nice? Do you sometimes feel like you don’t fit in?
Again, the Buddha: “The source of suffering is a false belief in permanence and the existence of separate selves.” No, the Buddha was not suggesting that the asshole and me are not separate organisms, only that the intellectual contrivance of separateness, aggravated so skillfully by finger-pointing and labeling, might create an impediment to a peaceful life.
The misanthrope points to the obstacles in his path and frowns; the joyful person smiles and walks on.
Freud, A. (1937). The Ego and the mechanisms of defense, London: Hogarth Press and Institute of Psycho-Analysis.
Hanh, T. N. (2009). Old path white clouds: Walking in the footsteps of the Buddha. Berkeley, California: Parallax Press.