Labeling Others: The Clear Thinking Trap

Chaplain’s Corner

Do you notice that in describing the actions or behaviors of others, people usually tack on a label describing the person themselves. This is especially common when we observe someone making a mistake. As an example, we may say: “That is not the way to do it, you are wrong: You are an idiot.” In actuality some of the labels we use in describing others are quite more ‘colorful’ than the word: "idiot".

The problem is label-words are abstract, ambiguous and carry surplus meaning. Such words then, can be misunderstood, frequently prompt harsh feelings and escalate into unfriendly exchanges. This was not unnoticed by the author of the Book of Proverbs who noted: “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but he who restrains his lips is prudent.” (Pv 10:19).

Use of label-words also betray a basic thinking error: circular reasoning. In this example the circular reasoning goes like this: How do you know the person is an idiot? By their mistake. What made the person make the mistake? The person is an idiot? A military minded example would go like this: This is a fast bullet! What makes it fast? Because it is a fast bullet? Clear thinking involves breaking out of using the label word itself as explaining how it works. We know someone is mentally impaired when neuropsychological test results show cognitive impairment. Likewise we can explain bullet speed by scientific analysis of bullet size, weight, powder burn, and bore length of weapon etc. In the words of Sgt. Joe Friday (Jack Webb) of the 1950’s TV series Dragnet: “Just give me the facts Maam”

In my pastoral and clinical experience I find labeling people to be one of the most flagrant and offensive ways to hurt others short of physical abuse. (Morelli, 2006). The most egregious labels actually are forms of psychological abuse which would be considered a breech of the love and caring we are to show one another as taught by most world religions. Jesus told his disciples: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.” (Jn 13:34). Likewise, in the Hebrew Mishna we read: [Love] if it does not depend upon a transient thing (but rests upon a solid basis, like the love of the righteous and the wise) it never ceases. In this sense, all of us are called to love one another and be caretakers of each other. To accomplish this we can eradicate wrong thinking and follow the advice of the great medieval Jewish physician Moses Maimonides: Let it not fail to see what is visible, but do not permit it to arrogate to itself the power to see what cannot be seen, for delicate and indefinite are the bounds of the great art of caring for the lives and health of Thy creatures. Let me never be absent-minded.

We can overcome the labeling trap by applying the wisdom of one of the elders of the Eastern Church (Paisios of the Holy Mountain): "I know from experience people are divided into two categories ... The first resembles the fly. The fly is attracted to dirt...when a fly is found in a garden full of flowers with beautiful fragrances; it will ignore them and will sit on top of some dirt. People belonging to this category always look to bad things in life and refuse the presence of the good. The other category is like the bee whose main characteristic is to always look for something sweet and nice to sit on. The second category of people...sees only the good side of things. They always try to cover up the evil to protect their fellow man" (Ageloglou, 1998).


Ageloglou, Priestmonk Christodoulos. (1998). Elder Paisios of The Holy Mountain. Mt. Athos, Greece: Holy Mountain.

Morelli, G. (2006, September 24). Smart Parenting IV: Cuss Control.

Date posted: January 22, 2009