Criticism of Søren Kierkegaard’s Phrase: Once you Label Me, You Negate me…

by Philip Jonkers


Ironically enough, this slogan is a tad hypocritical as it betrays an act of labeling itself. Kierkegaard concludes that someone who labels a person then proceeds to disregard the actual person behind the label. Although this outcome is possible, even likely, it doesn’t mean that this is necessarily the case. It may very well be that the labeler does recognize the real person rather than stop and stare at the attributed label and its stereotypical and/or stigmatic meaning. As such and as far as the practice of labeling is concerned, Kierkegaard shows to have the same mentality as the stereotypical labeler who labels and then disregards the real flesh-and-blood multifaceted person. Kierkegaard himself succumbs to prejudice when he asserts that a person who labels people does not look for the individual behind the label. He in effect attaches the label carrying the meaning: “a labeler does not look beyond the label” to the labeler. He thus proves to be guilty of doing the very thing he accuses others (fellow labelers) of doing; Kierkegaard succumbs to committing a subtle case of projection.

While the practice of labeling and at the same time denying the complex reality of the labeled person (or object), is a regrettable phenomenon, the practice of labeling itself deserves no criticism. In fact, labeling stuff and people is an all too mundane human practice; indeed, it is very much part of our linguistic heritage. Specifically, to practice a language precisely requires the art of labeling, since language itself consists of labels. Generally speaking, a label is a name consisting usually of only one word but a name may span a multiple of words.

A label is an abstract construction, a reference to an implied description or image of the object it points to. For example, the label “tree” points to an (image) impression depicting a certain kind of plant-life involving a wooden trunk, sturdy roots placed in the ground, a bunch of branches and leaves growing on individual branches. But labels also apply to people. When you don’t believe in God, the label “atheist” applies. If you don’t eat meat, the label “vegetarian” goes. When you are an executive working in the banking industry, the label “banker” is deserved. When you are member of a royal family or a powerful politician, the label “elite” sticks. etc. etc.

Labels make communication feasible and efficient, it enables a person to compose concise messages representing extensive meaning and information. For example, the message, a well-known nursery rhyme, “Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall, Humpty Dumpty had a great fall” involves the label “Humpty Dumpty”, which points to a fictional human or humanoid character; there’s the label “to sit”, referring to a resting position on the buttocks or haunches; “to have” means “to experience” in this context; the label “great”, signifying pronounced magnitude but relative to a child’s imagination; “fall” refers to the unimpeded gravity-propelled spatial travel of a tiny- or small-mass object toward the center of gravity of a massive object, in this case the earth. When lumped together, the words representing the labels paint a story which can be communicated simply by communicating the words of the story in the given order.

As you may have noted, since a label stands for a meaning which can be described in words (or images), a label in general could be thought of as being recursively defined, i.e. it is possible to expand a given label in sublabels, each of which in turn may be expanded in subsublabels, etc. This expandability of language demonstrates its nested richness: a reasonably complex word may tell a whole story all by itself, which may be revealed simply by recursively describing the component parts of the descriptive meaning of the label. A good example and exercise would be to expand the generic label “automobile”, i.e. a automobile is a wheeled motor vehicle, consisting of 4 wheels, a chassis, an engine, fuel tank, exhaust system, steering wheel, wind-shields, driver seats, body molding, etc.; the sublabel wheel is a round metallic object having a rubber inflatable tire; the sublabel wind-shield is a glass transparent window-structure, etc.

But the real challenge of course would be to discover the descriptive richness that belongs to a real life human being, a richness which quickly eclipses that of any material object. Indeed if one were to take up the formidable task to become a biographer of sorts, one is bound to find out that any person who has some degree of personality depth, cannot simply be sufficiently described by a set of labels. The designated exercise is to discover the person beyond the labels, and to find out that people are generally much more complex than is afforded by their labels. It should be added that since labels provide only approximate meanings, they may assess reality from above as well as from below, i.e. a label may give either a more flattering or a more deprecatory account of reality; stereotypes underrate or overrate the actual person they pertain to. For example, narcissists would exclusively appreciate exalting self-labels, i.e. labels which represent their self-image in a more favorable light than reality actually would allow them. Another example would be racist labels, which categorically underrate the real person behind the label.

The conclusion is that as long as we are not engaged in instant and complete telepathic communication but are confined to practicing the slow and sequential spoken language, we cannot escape from the labeling business; labeling is what we do, it’s part of our identity as verbal communicators. But it should at all times be kept in mind that labels only supply approximate meanings to the objects or people they are attributed to, which or who are in reality and in general (much) more complex than is brought out by the labels. When he was talking about fingers pointing away to the moon, the late Bruce Lee aptly characterized it by saying “don’t concentrate on the finger or you will miss all that heavenly glory.”