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the tirades of a young adult - viii: don't shoot the label-maker.

Hullo mortals!

It’s finally Spring Break people, which for me is a little piece of heaven because I get to take a breather and do some leisure writing! (Cheers! Confetti! Fireworks!)

Before I start preaching on this page, I do want to share some happy news with whomever is reading this right now: I got casted for the UW Dance Department MFA concert! (More cheers! More confetti! More fireworks!!) Basically, the MFA concert is where the grad students in the dance department get to choreograph their own pieces and the undergraduate students get to dance them. After a not-so-encouraging audition process (to be honest it’s not that I screwed up my audition, it’s just that the others were so good), I was jumping for joy (only in my head though) when I saw my name on the cast list. I was basically all smiles for the rest of the day. Now, obligatory life update aside, let’s try to weave this news in smoothly with what I'm really trying to say in this post.

Two weeks ago, I had my first rehearsal with my choreographer Natalie, and she was just the darlingest person ever. For our first exercise, the dancers had to create gestures that depict how we view various aspects of our lives, such as family, childhood, education, and even things like political affiliation and religious beliefs (or lack thereof) –– of course I can’t name every little detail here, because I do want to respect Natalie’s creative process. Anyway, before we make gestures that depict how we view these things, Natalie always asked us to explain a little bit about it first. For example, I am the youngest of two children, what do I think about being the youngest? Or, I was raised as a Muslim, what do I think and how do I feel about it? Or, how do I feel about my age, or height, or my college major? These were only some examples of the things we discussed before we made our gestures about each of them.

To be honest, I loved being able to explain these aspects of my life, and I think the other dancers do too –– though I don’t know if we love it because of the same reasons or not, but we still enjoyed it. For me, I loved being able to explain myself, because not only do I get to talk about myself (don’t you look at me that way, just admit that deep down everyone loves to talk about themselves ok. We’re egotistic, it’s human nature, deal with it), but I get to explain it in my own terms, therefore challenging whatever pre-existing judgments or stereotypes there might be of these various aspects. For example, there’s always a pre-existing judgement for the youngest child, for the Muslim or for the Atheist, for the 18-year-old or the 23-year-old, for the liberal arts majors or the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) majors, for the liberals or the conservatives. These pre-existing judgments are usually summarized in one word: a label. These labels then put a person’s characteristics into defined categories, putting a person’s complexities into a discernible order. 

The truth is, humans are programmed to arrange things in the world into categories; it is how we make sense of the world. Labels make it easier for us to give order to the seemingly chaotic world. It helps us remember categories, and what those categories stand for. Throughout all aspects of life, there is always a constant need for a set definition –– are they men or women? Are we lovers or friends? Is she a classical music junkie or a hardcore scene kid? Is he a jock or a science brainiac? Do they like boys or girls? As my dance mentor Amy O'Neal said, “humans are scared of ambiguity –– they’re scared of the unknown.” I think truer words were never spoken. Because of this fear of ambiguity, we always rely on labels to define something, anything, everything. However, more often than not, we forget that we as humans are complex (or we forget that other people are just as complex as ourselves; a case of Us vs Them). All of us require more than a single word to define who we are as a person. In Natalie’s exercise, all the dancers in her piece who participated explained all the aspects of their lives, and that explanation is never just one sentence, let alone a single word. By being able to explain ourselves, we get to explain ourselves in our own terms in relation to these labels and these categories, therefore making really clear who we really are.

So yes, labels are useful and necessary to make sense of the world around us. But it is just as necessary to remember than no human can ever be defined by a label consisting of one word. We as humans are never just a single word, we are public libraries filled with volumes of novels and encyclopedias. Our stories are rich, intricate, and textured, so much so that no word can ever do it justice –– no matter how appropriate that word might be to a person’s specific characteristic. We should never define another human being by a label, nor should we ever let a label define us. Labels are a shortcut, a timesaver, an easy way out. But despite it’s easiness, never forget that for every shortcut we take to define a person, there is always a longer, richer, more scenic route to take –– an infinitely rich and beautiful explanation that aptly shows a person for who they truly are.