Saturday, 3 September 2011

Sticky Labels

I meant to write this column last week but I didn’t because I’m lazy.

How do I know I’m lazy? Because I didn’t write this column last week.

Did anyone else just spot the logical flaw in those last two sentences? I just mistakenly used a description or label as an explanation. This is what philosophy geeks call a ‘Nominal Fallacy’, but they would also point out that I only call them philosophy geeks because they know this so that too is a nominal fallacy.

Once you start looking for examples of using labels as causal factors, it is amazing how often you see them.

For example: “She won the competition because she has talent”

“I hung out by the Bucket Fountain because I am cool”

Or: “He couldn’t do his homework because he was depressed”

Actually she probably won the competition because throughout her life she received lots of praise and enjoyment from playing her Theremin so put in more hours of practice. He may have been feeling depressed for a number of reasons, but those were the reasons that made it difficult for him to do his homework, not because he had the label ‘depressed’. Don’t know what makes someone cool in Wellington, but I don’t get to be cool just by calling myself that (nor by hanging out at the bucket fountain, that just leads to being splashed).

Giving out labels and names is another useful tool we have developed in order to avoid being eaten by tigers. I label a certain type of tree as ‘dangerous’ because that’s where tigers like to hide and I label one of the other cavemen as ‘slow’ and ‘fat’ so I know that they will need extra protection should a tiger attack (and not so that I know to hide behind them should the tiger attack my tribe, I’m not that kind of caveman). In order to survive, cavemen needed labels as much as they needed clubs and fire and food.

In 2011, labels are equally helpful tools to manage our environment. I choose a film because it is labelled as an action film and I like action films, I apply for jobs that require a set of traits that I believe I have etc. However because labels can be perceived to be as vital to us as physical property, we also find ourselves defending them as if our lives depend on them, and holding tightly on to them even if they are no longer useful.

There are people who define themselves as ‘Left Wing’ who find themselves defending actions or policies that may not have been considered Left Wing at the time that they gave themselves that label. Or I might define myself as ‘intelligent’ and then be too anxious to sit tests because if I don’t do brilliantly then my identity will be lost. Or I could have failed several times in the past so label myself as a failure and not even attempt things which I may succeed at.

Is the statement “I’m Lazy” true or false?

I don’t like thinking of myself as lazy, so my first inclination is to argue with the statement and try prove to myself it is not true. But the more I argue with that thought, the more that thought argues back. Every time I cite a time when I wasn’t lazy, my brain has no problem listing all the extra things I could have done in that situation if I hadn’t been so damn lazy. I argue with my brain about the extent of my laziness for a minute, or a day, or a year, and at the end of it I’m no closer to winning the argument, and nor have I achieved anything so I still have those thoughts that I’m lazy.

The statement ‘I’m Lazy’ is actually neither true nor false, and always true and false. There is always someone more lazy than me and always someone less lazy than me. There is always more I could have done, and always less I could have done. Trying to establish the truthfulness of that statement will get me nowhere.

If however, I ask myself ‘Is this label helpful?’ then I get guidance as to whether I should bother put energy into its message. If I know that I am more likely to choose watching TV over writing this article or going for a run or cleaning the bathroom, then I also know that I need to allocate specific times for myself to do those tasks and give myself rewards for doing them, rather than just waiting to see if they happen. Suddenly the label ‘I’m Lazy’ has become helpful.

If that label isn’t helpful, for example it is leading to me not volunteering to write articles or putting me off cleaning the bathroom then I need to find ways to just let that label hang around in my head without taking it too seriously.

I’ll share some strategies on how to take labels and self-imposed stories less seriously in my next column (if I’m not too lazy to write it).

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