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Essays on America: Labelism


This is a post about racism. But, it’s also a post about misogyny. It’s a post about homophobia. But it’s also a post about Trumpism and the “base.” (BTW, if any of these terms makes you not want to read the article, then you definitely should read it). 

Because all of the ideas associated with these terms are in some way linked to one particular term: labelism. What is labelism? It is treating the label of a thing as if that label equaled the thing labeled. Let’s take an example. Call me Ishmael. (My real name’s “John” but you can call me “Ishmael”). But I’m guessing that that really bothers some of you. Why? Because my name is “John.” Let’s come back to that. 

When I was a very young kid, I recall my mother telling me that we were going to visit one of her friends, Mrs. Fox. Immediately the image of a woman who was also a fox sprang into my imagination. She had a human hairdo popular back then with straight hair at the top and many curls below ear level. But her snout was distinctly vulpine. Her eyes were also fox-like, but it was made up and she was wearing lipstick! I must have had a wide-eyed and glazed look when I said back to my mom, “We’re going to see … Mrs…..FOX?!” 

fox on brown wooden plank

Photo by Egor Kamelev on Pexels.com

Mom giggled and said, “That’s just her name. She’s not a four-legged fox with a tail!” I think that my mother must have imagined something similar to my image because she then burst out laughing. I don’t think I was totally convinced by Mom’s reassurance, but I was at least willing to go see for myself what this “Mrs. Fox” really looked like. 

Now, in fairness to my younger self, there were many examples of cartoon animals and books that equated the name with animal. The Three Little Pigs. Donald Duck. Mickey Mouse. And they all exhibited the same hopes and fears that I did.

It seems to me that people differ quite a bit in terms of how much “reality” they attribute to a label. I’ve mentioned before that I’ve seen microwave popcorn on the shelves with the word “Butter” prominently displayed, but when you read the ingredients, there is no butter in it whatsoever. Similarly, some marketing genius came up the idea of naming a perfume “Unscented.” So, if I go to the store and buy cat litter that says, “Unscented” it is actually perfumed with a perfume whose name is “Unscented.” (Get “Fragrance Free” instead, although I suppose eventually that will also be a lie). 


How did I discover that the popcorn had no butter? I read the fine print. I looked at the ingredients. Right now, we are lucky because Americans earlier put the pressure on until it was legally required to list ingredients. (For what it’s worth, the popcorn’s good; besides that, it probably wouldn’t work to put butter in microwave popcorn. But why lie?). 

As I argue elsewhere, listing every ingredient wasn’t necessary hundreds of years ago. People would buy their bread at a local baker and if they put crappy ingredients in it, everyone in town would know. But now? Most of us buy stuff from people we don’t know and are never going to meet. And, the trail of responsibility is very complex indeed. Today’s supply chains lower costs but make quality hard to pin down and very hard to pin down responsibility for bad behavior. 

How did I discover that “Unscented” is a scent? Initially, I think someone told me and I think it was my daughter-in-law or my daughter.  And then, I confirmed it with my own sense of smell. By the way, the manufacturers of cat litter are masters of perfumery because they make one brand that actually manages to smell much worse that cat poo or cat urine or both combined. It is vile. Now, that takes genius. 

If you think facebook gets a bit nasty on occasion, you should really try twitter. Anyway, I ran across a tweet today that got me thinking along these lines of labelism. The tweeter basically said that she “wasn’t a racist but” (a phrase highly correlated with the very next thing being a racist comment). She wasn’t a racist, so she claimed, but it didn’t make sense to pick a black actor for Ariel because they don’t look anything alike.  

Okay, then. Let’s first just get one thing out of the way. Ariel is a cartoon character. The Actor is a real person. People are quite different from cartoon characters. And, they look noticeably different, regardless of color. But much more importantly, the person would not be anything like Ariel either. The person would have lungs, a heart, a brain, 720 different muscles, have weight, be real, could move on her own, etc. 

On the other hand, characters in novels, plays, movies and cartoons — if they are well done — are like real people in terms of their internal lives. It is all a fiction, of course, as well as magic. (It’s no accident that Disney called his extravaganza theme park “The Magic Kingdom.”) Fiction is magic in that it allows you to vicariously experience another person’s choices, actions, sensory inputs, relationships, self-talk, and even internal conflicts. The words are used as cues or clues and you yourself imagine the actions, sights, sounds, and smells. You generate the feelings with your brain. The book doesn’t have a brain. The movie doesn’t have a brain. 

photography of disneyland

Photo by Makenzie Kublin on Pexels.com

When you watch a movie, you see a person and hear a voice. The most important thing is what is going on in the actor and whether they can hint at what is happening internally through their motions, expressions, and voice. That is what is important about good fiction: what goes on inside. 

What could possibly be more racist than to think a POC could not feel inside what a white person was thinking? Or, what could be more racist than to think a POC could not show that set of feelings through their actions and voice in a highly competent, artistic, & inspired fashion? 

Now, let us set aside the really important part of the story process and just focus on the external factors. Two complete human forms typically share a myriad of surface characteristics. Most people have bilateral symmetry, ten toes, ten fingers, one head, the same set of 720 muscles and so on. Our fingers share the same joints, fingernails, etc. And yet — out of that sea of similarity, the “I’m not a racist but” tweeter claims that because the actor is black, she “doesn’t look anything like [emphasis added]” the form of the cartoon character. So, the “I’m not a racist but” tweeter thinks skin color counts — but none of the other 1000 physical characteristics that nearly all of us share count at all. Hmmm. So, for the “I’m not a racist, but” tweeter, skin color is the only marker of a person’s physique that makes any difference. 


Human beings are vastly complex. Our life — the very life we feel right now — goes back in unbroken lineage 4.5 billion years. Our bodies contain 70 trillion cells. By contrast, the (already considerable) population of earth is only 7 billion. To pick out one characteristic as being the only one that counts? 

The tendency to confuse label with substance persists into adulthood for all of us. For instance, in Dan Ariely’s book, Predictably Irrational, he cites studies in which adults, e.g., prefer dentists, whose name starts with “D” and will give preference to someone with the same name they have, even though the name sharing is coincidence.  We also have the option to be on the look out for labelism. Watching out for it and then looking into things more deeply is the first step to minimizing it in your thinking. 

Because there are others who are well aware of this tendency to confuse the thing with the label and all too happy to use that confusion to make a profit at your expense. In the examples above, consumer products companies are following the letter of the law (all the while lobbying to rescind even those protections) but at the same time, spending millions to mislabel their products and mislead you. “All Natural Juice Drink”! Doesn’t that sound wonderful? The one I looked at had less than 5% juice. There’s nothing about it that’s “natural.” It’s basically water and corn syrup. And, indeed, at this point, the actual ingredients are listed. So, if and only if, you take the time to look at that government-mandated information, you will see what’s really going on. Large corporations are not satisfied with only misleading the people who won’t bother to read the ingredients. They want to right to fool everyone. 

actor adult business cards

Photo by Nikolay Ivanov on Pexels.com

Sadly, this manipulation of labels to confuse the unwary to do things in the interests of the very rich rather than their own interests is not limited to their consumer products. The very wealthy who essentially own and/or run the corporations want to be able to control elections. So, they brought a law-suit under the label “Citizens United” all the way to the Supreme Court. (This was hardly “citizens united”!! It was brought on behalf of some of the richest and most powerful people in American). 

Applying nice-sound labels to things that are “bad” is just one type of trick. Another common trick is to label something negatively in order to get you to dislike it. Why do people want to manipulate you into disliking somebody? Basically, they do it to get you to put your anger on them for your troubles rather than the people truly responsible. 

The word “label” implies a word. But let’s look more deeply (or at least more pragmatically) at the basic concept of playing on your labelism so that you act against your interest. Corporations use music and pictures to impact your psyche in the same way. When they tell you (as currently required) about the deadly side-effects of a drug, they play calm, idyllic music. Nice music. Music that makes you feel there is nothing to worry about. And sweet pictures. Pictures of flowers, and rainbows, and family fun, and romance. How could anything possibly go wrong? But those pictures do not logically flow from taking the drug. Nor does joyful music start playing in your life. 


You may or may not experience this after taking that new drug. After all, it’s just a picture, not a promise. But your brain treats it as a promise. And they know that.

We just accept it now. After all, it’s just “business as usual.” But why is it “business as usual”? Who benefits from the rules that now exist? And what if, someday in the future, Americans become so accepting of this manipulation of feeling through labels, images, & sounds that they did not even notice that this was going on in politics? What if we were not just being manipulated by big moneyed interests into buying cat litter, popcorn, and drugs? What if corporations were also spending their billions to buy elections in order to make the rules of the game even more favorable to them? 

We can only imagine. 







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