The Problem With Labeling…

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” 13th Amendment to the Constitution


  • Attach a label to (something)
    • – she labeled the parcels neatly, writing the addresses in capital letters
  • Assign to a category, esp. inaccurately or restrictively
    • – children were labeled as bullies
    • – the critics labeled him a loser

Give a name to (something)

  • – she labeled his new Riviera a “Star Wars” car

WARNING: This video contains graphic content and that may not be “suitable” for younger audiences.  Viewer discretion is advised

Was all of that really necessary? 

What does labeling have to do with any of it?  Let’s see…


Labels encourage the grouping of mass numbers of people into a single category.  It assigns a definition–attributes to be associated with every person falling beneath that label.  In particular, labeling someone a criminal defines them, by social standards, as: evil, inhumane, subhuman, and degenerative by nature.  Personified, a criminal harms people, steals things and/or sells drugs.  That’s what “people like them” do.

This is dangerous.

By labeling, we forfeit our opportunity to discover who “these people” truly are because the label they’ve been assigned defines them for us.  What need, then, is there to investigate further?  We already know who they are, what they are, and what they believe.  They are different kinds of people–unlike ourselves: human beings who require and deserve fair and just treatment– the basic human rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  However, once we’ve disassociated ourselves from this group of “others” we tolerate any mistreatment they endure because their label suggests that they deserve whatever treatment befalls them. They are not, after all, humans like us. They are criminals.

While humans should not be locked away in cages and treated like animals, criminals should; but is that really fair?  What happens when these “criminals” are released back into society?  Don’t they at least deserve to be given the opportunity to become more than their assigned label?  Then why don’t we give them these chances?  Why can’t many of them vote?  Why are they legally denied employment?  These are things no human deserves to endure but criminals do?  What, about stealing out of desperation, or selling illegal substances changes human desires and needs?

What we miss, when writing off individuals labeled “criminals”, is the logical and critical assessment of these “others” and their situations.  Who are these so called “criminals”?  Where do they come from?  What physical, social, geographic, economic, and psychological climate fostered the “type of people” they’ve become?  Can it really be written off as a coincidence that a great number of those with the misfortune of falling into criminal activities are produced by strikingly similar environments?  How can cycles of poverty continue to breed crime and raise staggering numbers in imprisonment and no effort be made to attack the true source?  Why is there no public outcry for it?  Why?  It is simple: no one cares.  Very few people make it past the label of “criminal” long enough to investigate the possibility that humanity resides in these individuals.  Whatever woes they have, because of their degenerative nature, are by their own doing.  It’s what “people like them” do, so no one cares.

Labels work the same way in all their uses, and are the very tools used by oppressors to legitimize the maltreatment of those they oppress.  We’ve seen it throughout history during imperial conquests of indigenous lands where Christianity was the name in which “explorers” exterminated nations of people and claimed the land as their own.  The people were labeled “savages” and “heathens” and so no one objected to their genocides because it was an evil necessary to save their souls.

Propaganda was also used heavily to legitimize American Chattel slavery, and it was constitutionally reasoned that slaves should not be counted as people, but as property.  Minstrel shows were implemented to enforce the idea of black inferiority and black people were thus labeled as stupid, lazy and frivolous.  There were even scientific studies conducted to prove that blacks people are less intelligent than white people because black people have smaller brains.  Today, as a result of this propaganda, this theory is still supported by some.

So what is the meaning of it all?  What is the thesis of this blog?  It is simple: labeling is not only wrong, or mean, or rude, but it is dangerous.

At the source of every inhumane act that takes place, you will find labels.  The bombings of the Japanese cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki were authorized because the 350,000 innocent civilians who were killed were labeled “enemies”.  Soldiers killing and bombing innocent women, men and children believe they are protecting their country from “the Taliban” and we, U.S. citizens, are okay with that because we believe the same.  Those containing and torturing prisoners in American war prisons, Guantanamo Bay and in Abu Ghraib carry out these horrific acts of violence driven by belief in the same labels.  The prisoners cease to be people, and instead transform into “enemies” and so their torture and mistreatment is justified.  The 6 million Jews killed during the Holocaust were labeled “impure” and so their mass death was justified as a cleansing in preservation of the Aryan race.

This could go on, and on, and on, but I assure you that the first step in mass or minor ill-treatment of individuals is removing their humanity from the sight of the public and replacing it with a label that serves to justify anything done to them.  This is the case with the word “criminal” and it is the reason that numbers in incarceration constantly rise.  It is the reason the prisoners in the video lose their rights as human beings simply because they’ve broken laws made by men.  If Jesus, who was perfect, can forgive, seek to understand, and save prostitutes and thieves, can’t we imperfect human beings find more merciful ways than confinement and torture to rehabilitate these same transgressors?

How long will we aid violence and torture with silence?  How long will we agree to the reduction of human rights before we realize that, as Dr. King famously stated, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”?  When will we realize what that means?  Will it take our own children, or even our own selves going to prison?  Will it take our homes being bombed and our friends and families being kidnapped and tortured?  As a society we must realize that our actions, our thoughts, our decisions, and our voices are linked to those of our neighbor.  Of the two most important commandments, Jesus declared loving your neighbor as yourself second only to loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind.  If Jesus thought to mention this commandment in such high regard, it’s about time that we regard it the same by mentally placing it into our personal ideology and by physically putting it into our daily and long-term practices.

If you’d like to read further, here are some books that opened my eyes to the slavery that is the prison system:

Are Prisons Obsolete by Angela Y. Davis

The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

Slavery by Another Name by Douglas A. Blackmon

Uprising: Understanding Attica, Revolution, and the Incarceration State by Clarence B. Jones and Stuart Connelly