Friday, July 25, 2008

What's With All The Labeling, Anyway?

As might be clear from the post below, the idea of labeling people has been on my mind lately. Truth be told, it's been on my mind for a while.

What is with all the labeling these days? How did it come about? Why is it there? Why do people swear by their labels so strongly that they get almost offended if you don't get them pinned exactly right (What?! I'm not that modern! I'm not that frum!)?

I don't claim to be an expert on this issue, but I was talking about it a little bit with my mom in the car earlier today. I asked her if people labeled others so much when she was growing up. She said definitely not, not the way it's being done today. She said that when she was growing up, you were either Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or there were Chassidim. Yeshivish was just starting to evolve and there was Modern Orthodox but it wasn't split up into these minute little sections (RWMO, LWMO, et cetera). Of course, I'm sure there were still people who could fall into those sections, but no one was putting labels on them.

So what happened?

My theory (which could be 100% wrong and, even if there is some truth in it, there's probably a lot of other stuff contributing, as well) is that it has somewhat to do with shidduchim. It seems like more and more people are using shadchanim nowadays than they were a generation earlier (from what I've observed, anyway). Because it's not just the Yeshivish who are going to shadchanim. Lots of YU-type are, too. And the thing about going to a shadchan is that you are essentially asking a complete stranger to find you your life partner. That means it has to be easy to define people. It has to be easy to know where people stand on issues, what lifestyle someone leads, what their background is - all this has to be summed up as simply as possible. Thus, we rely so heavily on labels. And because these labels have been given such a crucial purpose, people see them as actual definitions of who they are.

I don't know if this is really why these labels exist and why they are relied upon so heavily. It's just something I've been thinking about. Because, if that is the case, then we really haven't given ourselves much choice, have we? Unless people are willing to date longer and find out more about the person they're dating on their own, they're going to need labels. And even in the crowd where people are dating longer, it just seems easier to skip over all the people who you know wouldn't fall into your hashkafic viewpoint and you're able to skip over them because you label yourself a particular thing. Right? This is what I've been observing, in any case, but I could be completely wrong.

In the quiz from the post below, one of the questions was what label you would give to the Rambam. Does it matter what label the Rambam would have? I understand the point of the question - it was to judge where you stand based on what your opinion of the Rambam is - but the concept of labeling the Rambam just seems strange to me. What purpose would it serve? Would certain people stop learning his sfarim because he was labeled something they were not?

What's scary about these labels is that they're not innocuous. They are dividing our nation in scary ways. Too many people look down on too many other people for the most absurd reasons. Too many people won't associate with each other for no good reason at all. Sure, there are people who thumb their noses at juding others based on labels (I'm one of them), but there are way, way, way too many people who rely heavily on these labels. Too much importance is put on them. Labels and dress code. I'm not talking about being tznius. I'm talking about people who judge and put much too much importance on whether or not you wear black or colors, what kind of kippa a guy wears, etc. Is a guy who wears black velvet any more of a shomer torah u'mitzvot than a guy who wears a kippa sruga?

We once randomly got a magazine called The Shadchan and it was basically a catalogue of girls and guys looking for a shidduch. How lovely. Each person had a little blurb about them and the kind of person they're looking for and, let me tell you, the things people had on there were r.i.d.i.c.u.l.o.u.s. So much emphasis was put on whether or not one wore "the garb." Girls were looking "only for guys who wore black hats" or who "wore the garb." Now, I understand that guys who wear black hats probably also belong to a certain mentality and hashkafa that these girls wanted, but what about looking for qualities in a person?

Face it. There are people who give themselves labels and then don't live up to those labels. There are people who dress a certain way but don't at all behave in a manner which reflects their dress code. The labels mean a lot less than people give them credit for. And what I've been learning is that people of different 'labels' are sometimes a heck of a lot more similar than they think they are.

I think we all need to take a breather and read some Dr. Seuss.


by Dr. Seuss

Now the Star-bellied Sneetches had bellies with stars.
The Plain-bellied Sneetches had none upon thars.
The stars weren't so big; they were really quite small.
You would think such a thing wouldn't matter at all.
But because they had stars, all the Star-bellied Sneetches
would brag, "We're the best kind of Sneetch on the beaches."

With their snoots in the air, they would sniff and they'd snort, "
We'll have nothing to do with the plain-bellied sort."
And whenever they met some, when they were out walking,
they'd hike right on past them without even talking.

When the Star-bellied children went out to play ball,
could the Plain-bellies join in their game? Not at all!
You could only play ball if your bellies had stars,
and the Plain-bellied children had none upon thars.

When the Star-bellied Sneetches had frankfurter roasts,
or picnics or parties or marshmallow toasts,
they never invited the Plain-bellied Sneetches.
Left them out cold in the dark of the beaches.
Kept them away; never let them come near,
and that's how they treated them year after year.

Then one day, it seems, while the Plain-bellied Sneetches
were moping, just moping alone on the beaches,
sitting there, wishing their bellies had stars,
up zipped a stranger in the strangest of cars.

"My friends, " he announced in a voice clear and keen,
"My name is Sylvester McMonkey McBean.
I've heard of your troubles; I've heard you're unhappy.
But I can fix that; I'm the fix-it-up chappie.
I've come here to help you; I have what you need.
My prices are low, and I work with great speed,
and my work is one hundred per cent guaranteed."

Then quickly, Sylvester McMonkey McBean
put together a very peculiar machine.
Then he said, "You want stars like a Star-bellied Sneetch?
My friends, you can have them . . . . for three dollars each.
Just hand me your money and climb on aboard."

They clambered inside and the big machine roared.
It bonked. It clonked. It jerked. It berked.
It bopped them around, but the thing really worked.
When the Plain-bellied Sneetches popped out, they had stars!
They actually did, they had stars upon thars!

Then they yelled at the ones who had stars from the start,
"We're exactly like you; you can't tell us apart.
We're all just the same now, you snooty old smarties.
Now we can come to your frankfurter parties!"

"Good grief!" groaned the one who had stars from the first.
"We're still the best Sneetches, and they are the worst.
But how in the world will we know," they all frowned,
"if which kind is what or the other way 'round?"

Then up stepped McBean with a very sly wink, and he said,
"Things are not quite as bad as you think.
You don't know who's who, that is perfectly true.
But come with me, friends, do you know what I'll do?
I'll make you again the best Sneetches on beaches,
and all it will cost you is ten dollars eaches.

Belly stars are no longer in style, " said McBean.
"What you need is a trip through my stars-off machine.
This wondrous contraption will take off your stars,
so you won't look like Sneetches who have them on thars."

That handy machine, working very precisely,
removed all the stars from their bellies quite nicely.
Then, with snoots in the air, they paraded about.
They opened their beaks and proceeded to shout,
"We now know who's who, and there isn't a doubt,
the best kind of Sneetches are Sneetches without."

Then, of course those with stars all got frightfully mad.
To be wearing a star now was frightfully bad.
Then, of course old Sylvester McMonkey McBean
invited them into his stars-off machine.
Then, of course from then on, you can probably guess,
things really got into a horrible mess.

All the rest of the day on those wild screaming beaches,
the Fix-it-up-Chappie was fixing up Sneetches.
Off again, on again, in again, out again,
through the machine and back round about again,
still paying money, still running through,
changing their stars every minute or two,
until neither the Plain- nor the Star-bellies knew
whether this one was that one or that one was this one
or which one was what one or what one was who!

Then, when every last cent of their money was spent,
the Fix-It-Up-Chappie packed up and he went.
And he laughed as he drove in his car up the beach,
"They never will learn; no, you can't teach a Sneetch!"

But McBean was quite wrong, I'm quite happy to say,
the Sneetches got quite a bit smarter that day.
That day, they decided that Sneetches are Sneetches,
and no kind of Sneetch is the BEST on the beaches.
That day, all the Sneetches forgot about stars,
and whether they had one or not upon thars.


G said...

We could use another Dr. Suess these days.

--a person's a person, no matter how small--

Scraps said...

Sigh...these days it's more like something out of George Orwell's Animal Farm: "All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others."