In sociology, our “Big 3” theories are Conflict Theory, Functionalism, and Symbolic Interactionism. We use each of these as frameworks to analyze “everything.” Sociologists think they have helpful insight about all things, including society, institutions, and global inequality, all the way down to small groups, families, and our interactions with vending machines. Symbolic Interaction itself has a sub-theory called Labeling.
Labeling theory suggests that we receive labels from significant people, including peers, in our lives as we are growing up. They are like giant bumper stickers slapped on our foreheads. Every time we look in the mirror or think about ourselves, or snap a “selfie”, we see the label. I always ask my students to imagine the biggest kid in 2nd grade sitting down at lunch across from the smallest kid in 2nd grade. The small kid’s mom is concerned her boy will not grow up fast enough, and so she packs extra Twinkies in his lunchbox. The biggest kid’s mom is concerned her boy is already too big, so she packs him carrots and celery instead of dessert.
One day, the big kid looks at the little kid and his Twinkies, and says, “I love Twinkies”.
The little kid hears this and fearfully shoves them across the table and tells the big kid, “Here, take mine!”
The big kid takes them and enjoys them. Both kids just got labeled: Bully and Wimp. The big kid soon learns his size and burgeoning reputation can help him get all the Twinkies he could want while the little kid soon understands that he must supply whatever the big kid wants.
Another thing about labels that I always try to include in my lectures is that negative labels stick best. I often ask my students to try and recall some negative label that their parents or teachers gave them. It is amazing how the pain and shame of a careless or mean word uttered by an authoritative person can easily flood back in on us as we so easily remember those words from years and even decades ago. I can tell my daughters every morning how beautiful, sweet and smart they are and it will barely stick. I can say one time in a lifetime that they are ugly, sour or stupid and they will remember those words forever.
The power of a label comes from believing uncritically that the labeler knew what they were talking about. As soon as we do the labeled behavior, we hear the labeler say, “See? I told you that you were_________.” Eventually, we live “down” to their labels and agree with them.
So, imagine my surprise as I went to Senior Chapel last week and was greeted by a person passing out colored markers. He had written negative labels on his arms. As the program began, I was amazed to hear person after person talk about their labels that had been stuck on them: porn addict, drug abuser, judgmental, masturbator, etc. As they talked about their labels, a common thread began to emerge. They said that only as they confronted the labels and their own sin and asked God for healing, forgiveness and recovery, did the labels begin to come off. This is the key point I always make with my classes: the only way labels ever come off is with the grace of God. It is the very rare person who takes the negative label as a challenge and says to their critic, “You think I am loser? I will show you and become a winner!”
As we were entering chapel, we were offered pens as a way to remind us to get real, honest and even transparent with each other about our labels. I happened to be sitting by two students during the Senior Chapel and when they heard we should write labels on ourselves, they got excited. They offered to write labels on me…ouch!