The power and perversity of labels


English: Photo of Paulo Freire

[Previous version published  in 2006]

That was great!

You are a liar!

We humans have powerful tendencies to label and categorize. It may be something that Adam passed on to us. Notice that Adam got to name the animals as he saw fit. I suspect that being made in the image of God provides us an innate drive to name things as they are?

But what happens when things don’t fit our categories? We either have to expand our definitions or shove square pegs into round holes.

  • The color line comes to mind. Those who are biracial face the repeated question, “What are you?” And the “one drop” rule still is holds power: one drop of African heritage blood in your recent ancestry makes you “Black” in this country.
  • How about those who don’t fit gender stereotypes. I’ve heard the pain of many who were accused of being gay because they didn’t fit someone’s image of a man or a woman. These labels were so powerful that they caused confusion. “If being a man means…(fill in the blank), then I must not be one. Maybe I’m gay.”

The Counselor’s Power to Label

Counselors hold tremendous power when as they label, especially those who represent both the counseling and the Christian worlds. We label right and wrong, righteous and unrighteous. We label idols of the heart. We want our counselees to see themselves and God in proper form. We see how distortions in labels (e.g., God doesn’t love me; I’m incapable of changing) harm and we want to provide healthier labels.

But, HOW and WHEN we label may be more important than whether our labels are actually correct. The temptation for counselors is to label too quickly, before the counselee is ready. If that happens, the counselee is passive and the counselor’s label is just one more among a chorus of opinionated acquaintances.  

Take a look at how Jesus interacts with sinners and self-proclaimed holy men. Who is he more likely to label? Who does he engage with deep questions? What are his means for helping others see themselves? Notice how the Pharisees were quick to label what was authentically Jewish and what was not. Notice that the Lord seems less interested in that and more interested connecting to others. He was not neutral about sin. However, he engages others in novel ways to show them the righteous path and their need for a savior.

Who Does the Labeling Matters

I’ve been enamored with the late Paulo Freire, a liberation theologian from Brazil. He describes how unthinking, impoverished, people become empowered when they are given the power to name things (problems, solutions). They do not, he says (in Cultural Action for Freedom), learn by being filled up with words and labels by dominant culture individuals. If this were the case, then counseling would only be a matter of memorizing the right words and phrases. No, counseling is a dialogue where the counselee is an active, creative subject in the process of change. In Learning to Question: A Pedagogy of Liberation, (by Freire and Faundez), they say,

I have the impression…that today teaching, knowledge, consists in giving answers and not asking questions.

The same could be said about counseling. It is the asking of questions that encourages us to search for answers. Without questions, we may never redefine the problem. When we counselors label (whether we are talking about DSM labels or right/wrong labels) without engaging  the client in the process, we rob them of their words.

What Can We Do?

Freire suggests a three-step dialogical model that may work also in building an effective counseling relationship: Investigate (ask exploratory questions, examine beliefs, myths, etc.), Name (code and decode, a process of un-naming and naming what is going on), and Problematize (identify problem and solutions).

Avoid the Temptation to Give the Gift of Your Knowledge

Freire says that gifts given by oppressors only perpetuate injustice. If the “gift” of your knowledge perpetuates the divide between the counselor (the healthy/wise one) and the counselee (the sick/naive one), then your gift may only serve to perpetuate their illness. This does not mean you should never speak or offer advice. But ask yourself, “does the way I speak to clients encourage and energize (all the better if in the form of a pushback) or cause passivity?

1 Comment

Filed under biblical counseling, counseling, counseling science, counseling skills, Psychology

One response to “The power and perversity of labels

  1. great post. language, epistemology, ontology, and interpellation all in one serving 🙂

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