“Once you label me, you negate me” (part 1)

“Once you label me, you negate me”. Apparently, this is something Kierkegaard once wrote,though on closer analysis, there seems to be some doubt as to whether he actually said it in those words.

Be that as it may, the quote struck a real cord with me when I came across it a few days ago. It summed up something which, perhaps largely subconsciously, I have been feeling quite acutely for some time now and have been mulling over in subtle ways especially during this past year, aware of how many labels I have shaken off since I decided on my career change. But my resistance to labelling goes further back than that: I remember finding it irritating when friends attributed things about my character to me being half German, or when they referred to me as “German Nicky” when they could have used my surname or my hair colour or loads of other attributes or passions to distinguish me from any other Nicola. I found it unnerving during my home visits from overseas stints that people saw me only as “aid worker Nicky” or “Congo Nicky”, slightly set aside from others by virtue of that label-an alien object in some ways. What about “singing Nicky”, “writing Nicky”, “photography Nicky”, bird lover Nicky”? Each of these labels is and remains incomplete without all the others. None of them, on its own, define all I have been and continue to be. Reducing me to just one means boxing me, limiting me, crushing a part of me.

Then again, in our quest for identity, we sometimes contribute to labels sticking with us. I, too, fall in the trap of associating people with specific activities only, making judgments in my head about only one aspect of their personality or one of their interests and hobbies. …..and have, in the past, played to the labels people have bestowed upon me……perhaps out of insecurity, perhaps out of a false sense that without that label, people would not notice me at all. Like all of us, I suppose, I am still on a journey to free myself from any labels, from the wish to associate my identity with a job or a hobby….and to learn to rest secure in the knowledge that only one label in my life matters to me: that of being a loved daughter of a living God.

At least in my case, being labelled has only had the impact of people not wanting to know or understand all of the facets that make me “me”-passions, characteristics, past and present life and work experience……limiting, sometimes frustrating, but this can be changed and resisted. For others, being labelled has detrimental consequences. Is our unqualified, generalised label of “immigrants”, which has so dominated politics generally here in the UK but specifically the EU referendum campaign, really helpful for anything? Does it not lump a Polish migrant who comes here to work in the same pot as asylum seekers fleeing their homes who, in turn, can become tarnished with the same brush as terrorists? Does the careless, negative label attributed to “illegal asylum seeker” not totally obscure the fact that people desperate to find protection here in the UK could not reach the UK borders by legitimate means and, in their desperation, resorted to clandestine practices to reach safety? Why don’t we look beyond the label to try and understand human beings as individuals, with unique motives and backgrounds, histories, passions and characteristics, rather than bantering about terms which are unlikely to educate the public and only serve to engender a distorted view of other human beings, sometimes with negative consequences for them as individuals, citizens or recipients of public services?

We so love individual human interest stories-gossip magazines, facebook and even recent events like the Olympics with their surrounding people-cult show how we revel in individual achievement, passion and life/work. So why do we see fit to label others the way we do, instead of celebrating each and every facet of other human beings as unique and precious, each part of their story as worth hearing and relevant?

(To be continued)