more on semantics

June 10, 2008

I wonder what it says about us humans, all the labels we derived from our short comings and frailties and from the darkest parts of ourselves – rapists, murderers, liars, crooks, cheats, molesters, good-for-nothings, thieves, swindlers, goons, bullies and so on. Help me out if you can think of a comparable list derived from the best of who we are. What do we got: heros and saviors and the likes. Even then they tend not be about specific behaviors, and certainly not about specific behaviors we want to encourage.

I think there’s something going on about fear and punishment and how little we are interested as a culture in cultivating compassion and forgiveness.


5 responses to “more on semantics”

  1. David says:

    My take:
    The simple answer is projection – we own our virtues and project our foibles – social accolades are reserved for the untouchable for those who aren’t within reach otherwise we are constantly reminded of our own unwillingness to become better people. Even in simple admiration, it often turns into a crush for the wrong reason – you want to own that attribute they possess without putting in the work to make it your own – it becomes more about coveting and less about being. There is a simplicity of survival in status quo – the only motive to change is betterment and enlightenment but our basic nature is happy in existence regardless of it’s complexity or banality and lends us no motivation – therefore it becomes purely a matter of will over instinct.

  2. ned says:

    I’m not sure how it fits in, but I imagine you can come up with a label for perpetrators of every socially unacceptable act you can think of – it’s a pretty long list. In part, I think, it’s because our definitions of right and wrong and our social mores are spelled out in terms of what’s not allowed: “thou shalt not kill” could just as easily be “thou shalt not be a murderer”, but how to similarly phrase “honor thy mother and thy father”? A murderer is one who commits a specific crime, but how to label someone who practices the much more nebulous concept of compassion? Perhaps there’s a reason most of our laws speak in terms of actions prohibited as opposed to actions required – it’s easier to outlaw murder than to require compassion.

    I think David’s on to something, even if I don’t necessarily agree with his premise. Accepting a negative label can be part of overcoming it, just as constantly telling myself how good I am can defeat whatever positive attributes I might have.

  3. Bell says:

    I think what all y’all are defining is a pretty well-studied criminology/psychology/linguistics concept known as “labeling theory”.

    When we give a person a label (martyr, liberal, social conservative, mother) we productize them. I think we’ve seen an increase in labeling as we as a society become more brand-based and computer language based. In addition to semantic memory, humans have a high recall of contextual memory and labels/tags help us keep it all sorted out. Think of services like Flickr,, etc. They encourage us to assign a label to friends, family, work and major life events to keep us organized as the amount of “noise” grows exponentially.

  4. proteanme says:

    I think it’s one thing for me to accept or embrace a negative label, such as lazy, or even to take on a label with larger complex connotations of something unwanted, like addict, and a very different thing for society to fix a negative label to me, such as a crook.

    What I’ve been trying to say is that those labels society sticks on folks derived from their darkest behaviors, those labels work to separate people from their humanity. A guy who has murdered someone is no longer a human who has done a horrible thing, he are forever the horrible thing.

    I think I’ll blog another post on this, because I’m really trying to get at the underpinnings of things and it’s hard to articulate.

  5. » let’s get more semantic says:

    […] our efforts at cultivating the positive ones. I think I understand what David was getting at in his comments, but I want to dig deeper and that thread seemed more symptomatic of the bigger issue I want to try […]

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