The "over-labelisation" of society

Future of Society

I recently discovered that a condition called “rejection sensitive dysphoria” exists. It’s linked to ADHD and manifests as severe emotional pain off the back of receiving rejection. I have to be honest and say that when I stumbled across this term, I was zapped. My inner dialogue was on a trip: “Doesn’t everyone receive some sort of emotional pain after being rejected?”

I was confused because it felt like this label was calling out a universal human experience and I’d always thought of a label as a mechanism that spotlights non-universal experiences. Of course, the pain that someone who has rejection sensitive dysphoria experiences is greater than the average person. But my question is this: does the labelling of the condition mean that the person suffering from it should be treated any differently? Or is it simply an awareness-raising mechanism for those around them? Ultimately: who bears the responsibility to navigate this condition?

In my mind, there are two functions of a label: firstly, to raise awareness of something that will be useful to weave into our mental model of the world, because it will improve our ability to relate to ourselves, others and the world. Secondly, to shift responsibility from the person who has been labelled to the people around them to make it easier for the labelled person to exist in the world.

There are many good reasons why such a shift in responsibility should occur. Labelling disabled parking spaces, for example, is a huge help to disabled people or families who want to do something as simple as their grocery shopping. This label has prompted a change in the outside world that has hugely a minoritised demographic of people. Take peanut allergies as another example. An allergy to peanuts is one of the most common allergies and can often be a life or death situation. If airlines didn’t take a stance and ban peanuts from their aircraft, it would be much more difficult for someone with a peanut allergy to protect themselves from potential harm. Dyslexia is a different sort of example. Over the past few years, as awareness of dyslexia has heightened, the school system has adapted to make it slightly easier for those with dyslexia to complete their exams. While this isn’t a life or death situation, the ability to complete their exams on a more level playing field means that those with dyslexia can now increase their chances of success relative to their non-dyslexic peers. In all of these situations, the stakes are relatively high and it therefore makes sense for the responsibility to shift from the person suffering from the condition to the outside world. It would be a massive societal failure if disabled people couldn’t do their groceries comfortably; we’d see a massive rise in allergy-related deaths if cafés, restaurants and airlines didn’t have strict rules about nuts; we’d see neurodiverse people suffer worse education and employment outcomes relative to their peers.

In other cases, however– often to do with character traits versus mental or physical conditions–labels disguise a desire to shirk responsibility and not be held accountable for one's own behaviour. In 2024, it feels like certain labels are being used as a get-out-of-jail-free card, a way to send a siren call to the world saying: “Not my problem, anymore. You deal with it.”  But this shirking of responsibility is not helping anyone. It doesn’t serve the self, because it discounts the belief that working on resolving a trait or label is a good thing. Not only this, but it contributes to a deeper divide between those who have a label and those who don’t. This is because labels have come to be seen as almost trendy, something to brag about rather than deeply understanding the implications of flaunting an unnecessary label when other people often have life-threatening reasons to use them.

The conclusion I’ve drawn is that the responsibility one must bear depends on a few dimensions, such as stakes, universality and visibility, as well as whether the subject at hand is better classified as a condition or a trait. If the stakes are extremely high and the condition is pretty common, as in our allergy, disability or dyslexia examples, responsibility must be borne by both the collective and the individual. On the other hand, rejection sensitive dysphoria is arguably a niche, invisible and lower-stakes condition. This is also perhaps where the boundary between traits and conditions starts to blur. If something is better labelled as a trait versus a condition, it’s important for the individual to remember that they have a greater capacity to exercise agency over that trait.

Labelling a trait does not free you from the work of having to deal with it.

Understanding the role and function of labels in our society is a deeply complex topic that is reflective of a complex and rapidly evolving society. As long as we move forward with care and compassion, we can more effectively understand who bears responsibility in which situations, while encouraging those with greater capacity to exercise their agency to grow beyond a certain label.

March 13, 2024