These are reposts of a series I did years ago on mental shortcuts.
Recently, Fleur and I have been having debates on the proper label for some pictures. I call them whales whereas she calls them sharks because they look like the animations from Baby Shark. Instead of a post about that, I decided to repost this series.
Homo Sapiens Sapiens cheated evolution in one critical way by creating language. Rather than rely totally on instincts passed along by genes, we pass along an enormous amount of information to our proteges through memes. These may not even be the descendants of our genes. In working together on something, we share enormous amounts of information.
Everything including physical objects, ideas, and behaviors all have a label. Sometimes more than one. A label is a way of identifying something without having to go into the gory details of explaining it every time. (Like I just did.) I can call something an “apple” and anyone who understand this word knows what I mean. Labels bring efficiency to language. Until it does not.
Framing and metaphors are a couple of the tools behind labels. Through them labels acquire properties which then influence how we think. We can be manipulated by these thoughts simply by others choosing one label or the other. A great experiment has test takers write random number at the top. The larger the number, the better the test takers did on the test. How a question is phrased in a poll skews the responses. When we use metaphors also we constrain our thinking. Using the metaphor of a clockwork universe makes us think of mechanical devices and how everything around us are such devices.
Maybe English is a special case. Between Frisian (the ancestral language that make English belong to the Germanic family) and French from the Norman Invasion, English has multiple words for things. Throw in the Melting Pot that is the United States with making up jargon for everything. This language is an absurd mixture of strange meanings. Certain words like “set” have so many definitions one needs to hear or read it in context to understand it.
Then we also have LABELS. LABELS are also labels but have the special nature of how we classify other people. They are how we split people up into groupings to say one is not like another. White vs Black. Extrovert vs Introvert. East Coast vs West Coast. Democrat vs Republican. All are arbitrary. Many are misunderstood. They drift into caricature stereotypes causing hurt. This is where our -Isms arise. Nationalism, racism, or sexism would have no place without powerfully overly broad LABELS. As our conversations become more mature, we need more and more LABELS to express the nuances even while others resist change.
We need labels in order to communicate with each other. We just need to recognize their fallibility. And somehow avoid hurting each other while expressing ourselves.