Thursday, September 4, 2008

Labels and Stereotypes

I've been browsing around the blogosophere a little bit, and I've noticed that there seem to be a lot of posts about the issue of labeling. I think its time for me to take a controversial stand, so here goes:

What is the big deal?!?!?!?

I mean, everyone goes on and on about how bad it is to have labels and stereotypes and how no one fits into a box, blah blah blah. Well, thats very nice and all, but how many of you people can tell me, in complete honesty, that you dont use labels? I mean, honestly? Of course you use labels! Everyone uses labels! Labels are pretty! Labels are convenient! We cant get along without them! Everyone wants to think that theyre the special ones, that they cant be labelled: well, let me tell you--as Barack Obama says--yes you can!

Let's try it and see:

You? Youre an out of towner bais yaakov rebel. You? Youre a right wing modern orthodox girl who doesnt admit to her frummie friends that she learns gemara. How about you? Youre a flipped out sem girl who wants to marry a kollel guy and your parents are about to disown you for it.

See? That was easy!

I can look around at all these girls in Stern and talk to them for just a few minutes, and I can already put a label on them. Now, dont get me wrong, that doesnt mean that there isnt any more to them. But the label isnt meaningless, and it isnt incorrect either--its useful and important. Then its our job to look past the label and find out whats unique about everyone.

I'm just starting to think about shidduchim, and how in the world could anyone answer the normal question: "What are you looking for?" if they didnt use labels! Youve gotta have 'em!

So how would I label myself then? It's only fair, after all, right?

Ok, no problem: I'm a centrist modern orthodox in towner typical stern girl.

In other words, I'm normal. :P


Anonymous said...

you are a funny one. i enjoyed the obama line. next time you see a disheveled-jean-skirt-wearing-out-of-towner in the elevator, stop and say hello!


Bas~Melech said...

OK, as I social psychology junkie, allow me to validate your post: Stereotyping is a necessary mental shortcut. It is a useful tool for guesstimating background information about people you don't know well. For example, I might meet you for the first time and think, "Oh, you look like a Stern girl. It's probably safe to assume that you're a young orthodox Jewish girl with some measure of intellect. You are also likely to be dorming. I might want to continue this conversation by asking you about your classes or whether you have any plans for the Yamim Nora'im." If I didn't stereotype you, I would either have nothing to say or risk saying something totally inappropriate (people with social learning disabilities do this. They fail to say, "Hm, there is a new, professionally-dressed adult in school. I should probably use the same rules to talk to her as I would use for my principal," so instead they might walk over and give the stranger a welcoming hug, commenting on the stain on her shirt.)

On the other hand, it is inappropriate to use a stereotype for more than that purpose, and this is where people have issues. If, instead of using the stereotype as an opener to try and get to know you more, I were to completely define you by the stereotype, that would be insulting to your individuality. It could be insulting to you in other ways, too, depending what kind of stereotypes I have.

One step further in the wrong direction is prejudice. Basically, that would be judging you by my feelings about your stereotype. "I dislike you because I dislike all Stern girls, and you must be just another typical Stern girl."

So yes, labels have a point. They let you know what's in the can. But then you have to actually open the can to get at the good stuff. Do not eat the label. ;-)

Bas~Melech said...

Oops, sorry for the megilla.
And that was *a* social psy junkie.

Chana said...

"I can look around at all these girls in Stern and talk to them for just a few minutes, and I can already put a label on them."

I'm intrigued. What's my label?

The Babysitter said...

I agree with you on this one. The thing with labels is that I think its great for yourself. The problem only comes up where people have different labeling systems. Then it gets confusing.

Anonymous said...

I gave a shiur on labeling this summer, and basically said everything you did, Bas Melech, I mean.

The girls were quite shocked when I started off telling them that they should go ahead and label people. It was almost blasphemous.

In any case, I agree completely. I need to label people for myself in order to better interact with them.

Michelle said...

I'm not that easy, but for simplicity sake: Modern Orthodox Machmir.

The complicated version: Bais Yaakov graduate but against almost everything it stands for, Modern Orthodox wannabe- to a certain point, with a slight twist of, yuck, charedi, mixed in.

EsPes said...

great post! i totally agree!
and welcome to the blog world!