Why we’re obsessed with labels

When I was around nine years old, I developed a very strange habit. I did certain actions in even multiples and in a specific order before going to bed. I was obsessed with cleanliness, and I had recurrent thoughts I couldn’t get rid of. For no reason, these rituals would change or I would add more intricacies to them, and even though I knew very rationally that this behaviour was irrational, I kept on acting on my compulsions for fear that something would go horribly wrong if I stopped.

I never met a psychiatrist. I never told my parents. In fact, I tried very hard to hide my weirdness, because that’s what I thought it was—weirdness. Eventually, the anxiety waned. It wasn’t until many years later, in my late teens, when I started reading about psychology, that I realized this childhood experience wasn’t weird at all, but was actually similarly experienced by others. It was a legitimate thing. My behaviour was made up of textbook Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder symptoms.

Finally, I had a word to describe something I had until then believed been unique to myself. And with that word, I could talk about my experience.


What am I trying to get to with this story?

The feminist and LGBTQ+ liberation movements have an ironic contradiction in that they advocate for the doing-away of existing systems, such as binaries and words, yet are seemingly obsessed with language. Every day, it seems, I learn a new word. Gone are the basic categories of “gay,” “straight,” and “bi.” Now we have grey-asexual, aromantic, pansexual, gynosexual, androsexual etc. So why are we so obsessed with labels? Why do we say “don’t label yourself” and come up with a new plethora of labels all the time?

Labelling people is potentially harmful because humans don’t fit into nice little neat categories. Somewhere along the line of LGBTQ+ history, someone figured out that many people aren’t just “gay,” “lesbian,” or “bisexual.” Human sexuality, and human experience, for that matter, is more nuanced than that. Instead of being exclusively attracted to one sex or equally attracted to both, our sexuality can be understood on a spectrum. Hence a lot of people prefer to think of themselves as somewhere along the Kinsey scale.

But the Kinsey scale negates people who are asexual and also non-binary people. Hence we have come up with terms like “pansexual” to describe attraction to all genders, not just male and female. Meanwhile, “panromantic” describes romantic attraction, not sexual attraction, to all genders.

The more we learn about the human experience, and how wide-ranging it can be, the more words we use to describe it.

But here’s the caveat. If the human experience is so wide-ranging, diverse, and unique to every individual, we cannot possibly find a word for every single thing.

It’s like music genres. Yes there is rock, pop, classical, and hip-hop, but there’s also hardcore, softcore, skate punk, ska punk, black metal, death metal, and heavy metal. But at the end of the day, doesn’t each band have their own unique musical style?

Hello My Name Is (15283079263).jpg

Travis Wise CC by 2.0

Labels do have a purpose though, and I think that purpose is similar to my experience with OCD. Labels give you a way to talk about things, and to find other people who have experienced those things, or even just find out other people with those experiences actually exist and you’re not alone. Many LGBTQ+ people, for example, can remember a point in their life when they hear about the label they fit with most for the first time and have a lightbulb moment. “Hey! This fits me! This is me!”

Reading about OCD gave me a sense of legitimacy. That all the bizarre stuff that happened to me wasn’t just something I made up because I was “crazy.” Realizing that this phenomenon of being meticulously obsessive was a thing that exists enough to have a label gave me an enormous sense of relief.

Of course, I identify with many labels, and I have mixed feelings about many of them. For example, I don’t know if I should identify more as a Canadian or a Chinese-Canadian or a Canadian-born Chinese (CBC). Similarly, words like “queer” have a long and complicated history with a multitude of polarized opinions.

Words are interesting, and while it may seem like we can do away with some of them, remember that a word always exists for a reason.


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