Labels are Dangerous

a neighbor down my street has a few kids and 2 of them are allegedly autistic. they say strange things, make interesting noises, and are desperate for attention.

when we hang out i’m encouraged to ignore these pleas. the parents even laugh about it with a “whatcha-gonna-do” attitude.

after sharing this story with a normal person i know and trust, they relayed the following anecdotes about their own childhood:

  • “i used to walk into trees by accident, for no reason. i was always thinking of something else.”
  • “one time in class i didn’t realize i had pooped my pants, then i casually scraped it out of my butthole in front of everyone.”
  • “… i got hit by a car that i mistakenly walked in front of. i didn’t even look at the driver, i just stood back up and walked away.”
  • “i put leftover, uncovered snacks in my school desk until it eventually filled up with rotting food.”

this person was also allegedly autistic. then something interesting happened.

around the age of 10 they were forced to take math lessons. their mom also stopped working and gave them more attention at home. and a new schoolteacher dedicated extra 1:1 hours to help them with homework.

by 14 their “brain fog was lifted.” they could “suddenly think clearly.” and they no longer experience any of the issues described above.

labels are fixed

at least once a month i meet someone who works “i have ADHD” into a sentence of our conversation. it’s always an unnecessary thing to say, but the label is like a badge to them.

they need everyone to be aware they’re carrying some burden, some quirk, and moreover that there’s no reason to try and help them fix or reverse or ignore how this characteristic impacts their life because, well, it’s kind of their whole identity.

nevermind that these labels were dolled out in their formative years. badge holders steward them diligently for decades without questioning their authority.

labels are flexible

i’ve been called a lot of things. mostly by non-psychiatrists. i do have Tourette’s and OCD, which i wrote about once each. it’s evident if you hang out with me for 15 minutes.

but recently i was called “neurodivergent.” i’ve never looked up this word but the vibe i get is a pink haired TikToker starving for attention, roleplaying darting eye movements so simps think she’s special.

anyway for some reason this label sat with me. for a few days i pondered, “am i?” and then i wondered, “does this explain XYZ about my personality?” this single word clung to me and wouldn’t let go.

despite having been called a lot of things, it took at least a week to shake this one off. labels are powerful.

labels are fake

before writing this wholesale condemnation of labels i asked myself if labels could ever be a good thing. the best counterexample i came up with is job titles.

some people feel really good about their job label. “i’m a doctor” is perhaps the best one. it means “i save lives” and “i’m smart” and “i earn a lot of money” and “i can be useful anywhere” all at once.

but a label doesn’t just dictate what you are. it also dictates what you are not. if someone is a doctor, they are probably not available to day drink on Tuesday. and they are definitely not willing to tell a bad client (patient) to go F* themselves. thus doctors are also “rule followers.” not a fun label at all.

so even the best labels are limiting. which might imply we should reject them. but the world runs on labels! wat do?

what we can do is mock labels. we can use them ironically.

in defense of self diagnosis

for many years i’ve routinely introduced myself as someone who drinks iced coffee, or [nowadays] lives in the woods, or “does stuff with software.” i have never called myself a CEO.

at surface this may seem like a poor way to communicate. i find it filters out bloodthirsty connectors by making them work for it.

if someone is interested in you after you tell them about your favorite TV show instead of, say, your monthly recurring revenue, you are more likely to build a relationship. and besides, they’ll drill you with questions until they get those label identifiers out of you regardless.

by learning skills, being self-aware, questioning authority, and constantly improving yourself, no label can withstand the amount of change you’ll experience on a recurring basis. at best those labels keep you in the past, at worst they prevent growth.

so maybe it’s fine that an old dude 25 years ago said you’re incapable of X due to Y. everybody needs a job right? but it’s definitely a bummer if you actually believed them.

put another way, these ideas are incompatible:

  1. you can be whatever you want
  2. children should meet with neurologists to determine who they are

what’s your label? i’ll go first. i’m Ryan.