The Labels We Use on Self and Other

“A person is neither a thing nor a process but an opening through which the Absolute can manifest.”

Martin Heidegger

It will seem self-evident to say that human beings are first and foremost beings, not objects.  Being is an unfolding of life; a continual flow of experience, cell replication, breathing, thinking, feeling, movement, choice.  Relating to a being as an object is a fundamental disaffirmation of its nature as being.  And yet, human beings relate to other beings – including other human beings and animals – as if they were things.  We do this by failing to recognise the other as what Martin Buber referred to as ‘Thou’ – another being as an expression of the mystery and wholeness of life, instead routinely relating to others in terms of their ability to serve our Ego interests, materially, emotionally, conceptually.  This way of relating – what Buber called the ‘I-It’ mode of treating others more like things rather than beings – typically extends within the human race, to animals, insects, and all other life forms, as we navigate our way through life reducing and relating to others in a disaffirming way.

The individual also does this to him/ herself, which is one way in which we create and maintain a disaffirming state of mental distress and inner suffering.


I pretend I’m listening to you.  You act like you’re listening to me.  Whilst you’re talking I’m thinking of what to say next.  I do this by hearing a few words then drifting off into my composition.  When your babbling ends, I recite my version of what you reminded me of whilst you were speaking about stuff I wasn’t listening to.  You do the same in return, and our failures to listen to each other bind us together in monologues of mutual avoidance.

Ways of Passing the Time

Labels used as an attempt to affirm and disaffirm

We use labels all of the time to signify our roles and chosen identities (commonly referred to as ‘Ego’) and to assign identities and roles to others.  This can be used in an effort to describe, elevate or demean, invite recognition, privilege, and to influence the conduct of others in how they relate to us.  From job titles to personal insults, labels are a default means of inviting confirmation of our identity and also of deliberately disaffirming the other by defining and thus reducing other beings to the status of object, since the act of definition in itself is a default means of saying ‘you are this and you’re not that‘.  However, by using labels in such ways, we tend to be seeking approval or confirmation of our preferred idea of who we are, or our Ego image rather than affirmation of the truth of being.  By the same token, we use labels to send messages of disapproval by reducing the person to the status of ‘thing’ or object.


Stating something as true; to recognise something as it is


Corroborating or agreeing with a theory or claim

Two concepts need to be clarified so that we might properly understand this process: Affirmation is the recognition of the truth of the other person as a being.  Confirmation is going along with our own or the other’s idea of who they are as an Ego or object.  Labels thus tend to be an invitation to confirm the identity expressed in the label, not necessarily the truth of the being of the other.  We thus confuse and conflate affirmation and confirmation as if they are the same thing.  This is like saying a nutrituous organic meal is the same as a cheeseburger and chips from a fast food place.  The latter may quell our social hunger for a short while whilst providing little lasting nourishment.  Whilst affirmation actually ‘feeds’ us and builds our ‘health’ at an existential level because it is aimed at the truth of us beings.

A few examples of how we use labels:

  • I’m a doctor
  • I’m a PhD holder
  • He’s a janitor
  • She’s manic-depressive
  • He’s autistic
  • You’re an idiot/ stupid/ useless/ ugly
  • He’s gay
  • She’s a millionaire
  • I have an O.B.E.
  • He’s a sociopath
  • I have arachnophobia
  • He’s an asshole
  • Pork, beef, chicken, leather
  • I’m an atheist
  • She’s over 45

“What labels me, negates me.”

Soren Kierkegaard

Disaffirmation: Labels we Use Offensively

Name-calling and pathologising others by referring to undiagnosed persons using psychiatric labels e.g. ‘you’re a psychopath’, ‘keep your personality disorder to yourself’, ‘you’re an idiot’ etc, effectively serves to stigmatise and objectivise the other, reducing them to the status of a crude characature of personhood: a thing.  This is an elective failure to see the person as a being, however briefly the name-calling may be.  The power of the objectivising language or insult lies in the label’s ability to reduce and render the other to the level of object; disaffirming the other as a person and at the same time disconfirming their chosen identity.

Pathologising, even when done in an official capacity, can have the same effect, closing our understanding of the other person down so that we begin to see them predominantly or even exclusively through the reifying lens of ‘symptoms’ and concepts, rather than their unique expressions, multi-dimensionality, meanings and histories.

Disaffirmation: Labels we Use Defensively

I can assign myself labels and use those labels as a means of defending my chosen image or idea of myself, my beliefs, preferences and behaviours against criticism, scrutiny, change or to ensure my status or privilege are protected.  I can also use my labels to try to define you if you criticise or scrutinise me.  Here are some examples of how some people might use labels in this way, and the implicit rules, demands and messages that can be sent by using labels defensively:

  • You must accommodate my rudeness or anti-social behaviour because I’m a company director/ your manager/ Royalty/ a doctor/ a Politician/ I was hit as a child/ I have a disability
  • Don’t scrutinise, challenge or criticise me because I’m a soldier/ autistic/ alcoholic/ a teenager/ a spy
  • You didn’t give me the job because I’m Chinese/ white/ African/ Latin/ a man/ a woman/ over 50/ only 20
  • If you object to my behaviour in any way then you’re homophobic/ racist/ ageist/ a Republican/ anti-semitic/ islamophobic
  • You must accept my aggressive manner because I’m Dutch/ my people have been oppressed/ my grandfather was a prisoner of war/ transphobic
  • You must give me preferential treatment because I’m British/ American/ Jewish/ Christian/ Muslim/ German/ the daughter of a celebrity
  • You must give what I say validity because I’m a psychologist/ a geo-engineer/ a Captain/ a Hollywood actor
  • I pry into your affairs/ lie to you/ hit you/ disregard your boundaries because you’re my son/ I care/ I love you/ I only want the best for you/ that’t the way I was raised

As in the latter examples, labels can also be implied rather than explicit, utilising a privileged position to justify treating the other in object terms.  Sometimes these statements reflect the facts of the situation to which they refer.  But the use of labels as a means of socially defending or legitimising our behaviours and social identities has reached phenomenal proportions in an increasingly competitive, intolerant, fragmented society, as one group fights for recognition, position, advantage, or justification over another.  Our human world has become a battleground of competing Egos in conflict rather than a cooperation of beings in community.

This cultural conflict, in my view, is a symptom of the social and political effects that widespread disaffirmation of others has upon society: we compete and use the manipulative power of language in our efforts to be seen within a climate of scarcity of genuine affirmation.  This has given rise to an epidemic of narcissism, selfishness, shallowness, fragile social bonds, and a lack of seriousness and concern for all life forms as we, rather than affirming the truth of being of self and other, support or attack the ego illusions we have created for ourselves.  Paradoxically,  the use of labels in these egocentric ways – rather than ensuring us affirmation, and thus a profound recognition of our existantial value – tends to be intrinsically disaffirming, as we objectvise, and thus devalue, both self and other in the process.

“We must learn to talk with each other, and we mutually must understand and accept one another in our extraordinary differences”

Karl Jaspers

Affirmation of Being

The antidote to these habits and tendencies to objectivise ourselves in support of our idea or image of our Ego identity, can of course be found in Buber’s I-Thou thesis.  Every being wants, above all else, to be affirmed; to be seen for who and what it is, even as we attempt to be seen according to the over- or under-inflated image our Ego creates for itself.  In short, Buber proposes a shift in our attitudes towards self and other (and this can extend to other creatures and life forms) that resists labelling, defining, and using both self and others as objects of utility to be labelled and thus reduced to a category or classification or fixed meaning.  Rather than relating to the other in terms of how they can best serve our needs and interests, or the pigeon-hole in which we have a need to place them, we can begin to fully see them for who they are as complex beings essentially emerging within the fleeting space of a very short lifetime, ever-changing, and in some ways unknowable in their wholeness.

By relating to self and other in this way, we allow being to surprise us, to reveal itself beyond our assumptions and our cleverness in defining or thinking that we understand it.  In doing so we also develop a mature tolerance for emotional discomfort, and the anxieties of not knowing; allowing our ‘comfort zone’ to grow in our development as people in the process of developing wisdom, character and courage.  We allow self and other to be, suspending the temptation to assign our narrative, our meaning to them, and instead helping Being to be seen as it is: an unfolding process, never a thing.

Stock image used under Creative Commons licence.  Source




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