As a society, we have the job of healing ourselves, as a whole. This means supporting and advocating for those who have been harmed, and challenging those doing the harm to do better. I believe that one way to promote change is to check how we define, describe and label behaviours and people.
Here are 6 problems that labelling people, and not behaviour, can create:
1. Labelling people, and not behaviour, lets people ‘off the hook’:
If someone is “just bad,” then really, there’s nothing they can do about that. Telling them to stop being a bad person is too vague. People need to be accountable to change their specific actions. Whether you believe that someone knows what it is they did, or not, there is more leverage when you can spell it out. When someone is labelled entirely, they can either ignore it or take it on as an identity, but they can’t just not be. When someone is told to stop a particular behaviour, they can still choose to ignore it, but they are more likely to be able to make the changes needed if they choose to, when the behaviour is names specifically. It is harder to be passive aggressive (See Passive Aggressiveness) when behaviour is named clearly.
Also, when someone is named as being simply ‘bad’ or by some other negative term, others do not consider what role they might have played in a situation, or in a conflict. I don’t need to be responsible for constantly reneging on my commitments if someone gets angry at me, I can just focus on them being ‘a rage-aholic,’ ‘etc.’ In this situation, I might end up gas lighting someone who is upset for a legitimate reason.
2. Labelling people, and not behaviour, prevents us all from identifying bad behaviour in ourselves:
“You’re a racist!”
“But I’m a good person.”
This label almost never results in someone checking their behaviour and changing their ways, it almost always results in people entrenching themselves in defensiveness.
People are also defensive when their behaviour, or words, are identified as racist, but I’ve found that it is more likely that someone will reconsider words and actions when the words and actions are defined as a the problem, than if person is defined this way. If I don’t think I’m a racist, I will never believe that my words or actions could be racist. If, on the other hand, I don’t worry about what I am as a whole person than my identity does not need to be defended, only my words and actions, which are more easily changed.
If I think that I, or another person, is a ‘good person,’ I am more likely to deny that their words and actions could be conceived of as bad, oppressive or racist, in some way, “because ‘good people’ don’t do bad things,” right? If I can let go of the idea that everyone has the capacity for actions which are harmful, no matter how ‘good’ they may seem, I am less likely to defend the actions of others which may have actually been harmful.
3. Labelling people, and not behaviour, creates shame which can result in those affected by this behaviour, being burdened with emotional labour that does not belong to them:
“Once a cheat, always a cheat. Never trust a cheater.”
Over and over again, I hear people who have been caught doing something bad, calling themselves a bad person or a selfish person. They often display signs of depression, hopelessness, irritation, or anger, followed by shame and anxiety. If one believes that one is all bad, then there is no hope. They think and sometimes say, “Why bother even trying to make things right, I’m only bound to fail again, because ‘badness’ is part of who I am. I am just a ‘bad person.'”
If George* cheats on Sam, and is overwhelmed by shame about being such a terrible person, this despair can easily turn to self pity, and, when that feeling becomes unbearable, George may find himself looking to Sam for reassurance and comfort. When Sam tries to tell George how George’s actions hurt her, George is so overwhelmed that he shuts down because he cannot handle one more thing on his pile of shame. Sam is left without a way to express the hurt or any way to explore any kind of resolution. If Sam will not comfort George, and tries to set boundaries, George feels genuinely hopeless and may threaten to harm himself. Then Sam feels manipulated and fearful and finds no resolution.
If George could let go of the idea that he is such a terrible person and, instead, focus on taking responsibility for his actions, he might have a chance of making things right. In this case, Sam will be more likely able to share her feelings without George raging at her, or shutting down. and is more likely to feel heard.
4. Labelling people, and not behaviour, can impair the judgement of those harmed:
Devon’s father used to call him names, “weakling, loser, etc.” and, when he was drinking would hit, punch, and occasionally kick Devon. The physical abuse stopped when Devon was 15 and had reached the same size as his father. Devon remembers always being afraid of his father and spoke about his father as “a bad person.”
As adults, someone who has been abused as a child, in this way, may struggle to imagine that someone who is nice to them can also do bad things. Of course many children experience a mix of treatment from parents who have used abusive behaviours in the home. In these cases, the child’s survival depends on making ‘split decisions’ about whether someone will do harm, or not, in order to determine if they are safe. This often leads to hyper-vigilence on specific details, looking for signs of danger.
In adulthood, continuing this hyper-vigilance in other interactions and relationships can lead to something called “splitting” where we link one berhaivor to a whole person, often without context. As adults who experienced childhood abuse, reaction to anything that feels remotely like a previous experience can be used to determine what response is appropriate, or might lead to ‘being triggered’ where emotions and memories of the past become overwhelming. This can lead to grave errors in judgement. For example:
As an adult, Devon was in a relationship with Shawn. Shawn bought Devon lots of present and was always complimenting Devon. When Shawn continually borrowed money and failed to pay it back, Devon couldn’t bring himself to confront Shawn as he saw Shawn as a ‘good person’ not anything like his father and couldn’t imagine that Shawn could be actually harming him in any way.
Later, Devon was in a relationship with Jean, who was quiet, not overly complimentary but supported Devon in other ways. Once day Jean was late picking Devon up for a job interview and Devon started feeling varying uncomfortable, and worried about missing the interview. This discomfort was new, since he had started dating Jean and suddenly he wondering if this was Jean’s fault. Devon starting thinking that maybe Jean was sabotaging him and out to get him. What Devon failed to notice was Jean had never let him down before, and was generally very supportive and that his own nervousness was the main reasons for his discomfort. When Jean finally arrived, Devon lashed out at Jean, calling her names and putting her down without listening to her explanation.
When Devon is able to sort through his experiences with his father and what happened in his relationship with Shawn, identifying and labelling behaviours, he will be better able to observe context and severity of each situation and be a better judge of situations in the future. As long as Devon sees people only as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ his judgement will be impaired.
5. Labelling people, and not behaviour, is indefensible and leave issues unresolved:
Randy, talking about Sandra: “That B**** is a liar. Always has been, always will be. You can’t trust a word she says. “
What makes someone a liar? How many times do they need to lie before becoming a liar? Has Randy ever lied? How many times? Does this also make Randy a liar? Sandra and Randy can argue until they’re blue in face about Sandra’s status as a liar and there is no way to prove that Sandra is wholly and completely a liar, as a whole being.
If Randy and Sandra wanted to resolve their issues, their hope would be in talking through, specifically and concretely, what exactly Randy thought Sandra was lying about Sandra could of course, dispute that these were lies, but if they used all of their conflict resolution skills and/or had a counsellor to help, there is a chance at resolving this. If they could identify the specific situations, words and behaviours which caused the problem between them, they could have a chance to each taking responsibility for their own part in the way communications and interpretation happened and then make plans for how to do better next time.
If the focus continues to stay on Sandra’s status as a liar, they will remain stuck.
6. Labelling people, and not behaviour, can be used to dehumanize others and justify more bad behaviour:
“He’s only in it for himself.” “She’s toxic.” “They’re a bunch of idiots.” “Those people are dangerous. You can trust any of them.” “He’s evil.”
When we label people and not behaviours we will walk away from conflict believing that we had no contribution to the issue and that there is no solution. The issue is simply due to the inherent evil-ness of others.
When a situation, behaviour, or conflict is explained by labelling people, we are then more able to justify all kinds of retaliation, punishment, or treatment that we would never condone towards complex human beings who inherently deserve rights and dignities. Essentializing an entire human being into one trait is a way to dehumanize others and dehumanizing is the first step towards harming another person. Sometimes dehumanization comes from a place of fear, sometimes anger and sometimes insecurity. Great injustices have been done as a result of these types of labels throughout history. Wars have started for these reasons, people killed or abused.
No individual is all bad, all toxic or all evil. No group of people is entirely untrustworthy, or dangerous. We can, and should base our decisions about how close we want to be to a person or group of people based on their behaviours. We can, and should set boundaries to keep ourselves safe, emotionally, psychologically or physically, but we cannot justify harming others just because “they are bad.” (See 8 Reasons to Re-evaluate a Friendship and Where Do I Draw the Line?)
Treating others ‘badly’ because they ‘deserve’ it, leads to the idea of punishment as justice and to the idea of changing people using punishment. While punishment might be just, it does not restore relationships, or heal communities or societies, and punishment as behaviour modification will go wildly off track in these situations, I believe. (See Carrots and sticks).
7. Labelling people and not behaviour stigmatizes and sometimes justifies bad behaviour.
“She’s Borderline.” “He’s an addict.” “Total Narcissist.” “She’s so bipolar.”
These days, mental health diagnostic terms are becoming more and more common place in everyday conversation. People diagnose their friends and family members and theirselves, all the time, sometimes accurately, and sometimes without even fully understanding what the terms mean. The reasons self diagnosis and diagnosing friend and family is not recommended, even if you are a psychiatrist, is that you are too biased to make a clear judgement. Guessing that you or someone else might have a diagnosis, however, can be comforting when there is conflict or aspects of another persons behaviour that is difficult to understand. (See also 9 Steps to Making Sense of Other People).
Sometimes people use these terms in very derogatory ways, to suggest a character flaw, not to try and better understand the other person. Also, even when someone has been formally diagnosed or their symptoms and behaviours accurately described, this is still not all of who they are and who they will always be.
NOTE on ADDICTIONS: When it comes to addiction, I don’t hold the view “once an addict, always an addict.” There are people who might struggle with addiction at one point in their life, who later find that, that particular behaviour is no longer a problem for them. They may even engage in it again without causing harm in their lives. There are other people for whom that particular behaviour will never be something they can engage with safely, or in healthy way, but “and addict” is still an inaccurate description of a whole person.
Using these terms in a derogatory way, stigmatizes these illnesses, in that, it assumes that anyone with these diagnosis are essentially badly behaving people. This is not true. Also if it assumed that these diagnosis are descriptive of bad behaviour, then they can be used to justify bad behaviour in oneself and others. Having any of these diagnosis does not excuse bad behaviour and does not mean that someone will absolutely act out in harmful ways.
NOTE on CONTEXT versus EXCUSE: Understanding what might be influencing a behaviour provides a map for addressing the issues that lead to that behaviour, in order to prevent this in the future. Context is NOT justification of the behaviour. Context can also provide relief for the person who might have felt that they were responsible for another persons’ behaviour to determine what, if any, role they played in influencing another person. Understanding the context of another person’s behaviour can also give guidance about how to prevent that behaviour in oneself.
*All names used in this article are fictitious and not meant to represent any specific person or situation.
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