Thursday, July 06, 2006

Definitions vs. Understanding

The major problem with designing a label for a category of human being is the subsequent feeling that the ability to label a concept means we understand the concept. The other major problem is that labeling people by categories implies both inclusion and exclusion and thus limits (by the very act of labeling) recognition of complexity. Labels simplify, and in doing so, eliminate complexity and cause us to concentrate on similarity rather than difference.

If you are a health professional, look around you today when you get to work. Think of the professionals around you as a group, and you will notice that you are surrounded by a group of human beings that, for the most part, are above average in intellectual capacity and performance. They are, for the most part, college graduates with a certain kind of intelligence that includes the ability to absorb and retain large amounts of knowledge about the human body and psyche. You are recognizing something about a self-selected group of people and we are going to label these individuals "mildly to moderately gifted".

Which is true. As a group and as individuals, that label defines something about the intelligence and ability of that cohort.

But the truth of the label doesn't cause us to understand that cohort, either as a group (an entity) or as individuals within the group. We know next to nothing about individual abilities within the group. We can't account for one person's ability to play the violin and another's ability to finish advanced Sudoku puzzles faster than anyone else; nor for this surgeon's specific ability to understand spatial relationships and that therapist's specific ability to understand body language. We can only say that within the range of "mild to moderate giftedness" there are individual strengths and weaknesses.

Further, if you look closely at that group we have now labeled, you will see many more differences. We won't all look alike, for one thing. We are different ages, races, sexes, and body shapes. We come from different ethnic and religious backgrounds. We have different sexual orientations. We are single and married, parents or non-parents, children of living parents or orphans. We like different books, we attend different churches, and we speak different first languages. We are as diverse as we are similar.

This concept doesn't seem difficult to understand, because we are living inside that group. We know it, we experience it daily, and we have self-reference. We understand that a label of "giftedness" implies only one thing, really, about the group we exist within.

Yet this seems a difficult concept to get across when discussing the label "mental retardation". We look around a selected group of people with functioning at the level that would allow us (using our professionals guidelines) to label them as "mild to moderately mentally retarded" and inevitably we focus on similarity.

But in reality, the individuals in THAT group are no more alike than the individuals in OUR group. That is misunderstanding.

That is the danger of labels.

If you want to begin to understand the individuality of each human with whom you have contact, begin to look around at the groups you find yourself in. Practice focusing on similarity and then difference. This is the first step to recognizing within yourself how the labels you put on people limit understanding of them as human individuals.

mary

4 Comments:

Anonymous Moof said...

Excellent post ... and very true! You have a lot of insight!

10:51 AM  
Blogger Dream Mom said...

Excellent post Mary!

8:27 PM  
Anonymous Kim said...

Whoa - what an excellent example (and post)!

7:46 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

very well said...thanks for this blog!

9:56 AM  

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