What’s in a name? The limits of group labels


Although this trip to Europe will include facts and details covering so many aspects of war – morality, prejudice, obedience, heroism, resilience, remembrance, propaganda – there is one bigger lesson underlying each of those specific ones, the one thing I hope the students will learn and remember decades hence. For all the we speak of people and groups such as soldiersJewsNazisLondoners, leaders, the resistance, or even children, fundamentally we are individuals. We must reject the belief that an individual’s membership in a group tells us something fundamental, or even much at all, about that individual’s identity; we as a species must find a way to overcome the seductive, deadly allure of labels.

The fact that one group of people could be labeled “Jew”, and labeled with a yellow star of David, led to the Holocaust. People truly believed that by knowing someone was a Jew, they knew everything about them that mattered; that even children with this label had such bad blood (what we would call genes) that they would grow up in a certain way and so should be exterminated. Now, in the 21st century, we – mostly – have learned to be wary of such prejudice. But it’s not just now-clearly-charged labels such as “Jew” that we must resist.

Even those who will see evil in painting alls Jews with the same brush will still fall prey to categorizing people when the labels seem less charged – when they carry no religious or racial significance. They might say, for example, that the Germans were the “bad guys” and the Allied Forces and the Jews were the “good guys” in World War II. All of these are true, in a sense, but they strip the complexities from reality to create a false sense of simplicity.

In BBC’s Auschwitz documentary, two old men, interviewed separately, report their murders matter-of-factly and remain unrepentant when pressed by the interviewer. The SS soldier declares that standing in a firing squad preparing to execute a line of Jews, his only thought was “aim carefully”; nothing else mattered, because after all they were Jews. The Jewish survivor of the Holocaust shrugs as he explains that on the transport from Auschwitz he and some friends sat on another, political prisoner until he suffocated; they wanted to sit, he wouldn’t get up, and after all he was only a German.

The war crimes trial at Nuremburg ultimately had to lay down a rule that “you did it too” (legal principle tu quoque) was simply unallowable as a defense, because it was often true – the Allied bombing of German civilian populations was catastrophic. Place the Holocaust and the atomic bomb at Hiroshima side-by-side, and I would not care to argue which is the greater atrocity, or who can claim the moral high ground.

It is something to be aware of in the field of psychology as well. Although we do study the so-called individual differences in behavior, this is only a small portion of our science. We too give labels, with the authority of the DSM behind them – but as the debate on the definition of autism shows so well, even qualifications such as “high-functioning” and “low-functioning” simply cannot capture the uniqueness and variety of any individual’s behavior. Research psychologists will compare this condition to that condition to draw conclusions about the best treatment, the existence of prejudice, the way people think – and will do it all based on averages for each group, deliberately excluding the outliers who stray too far from the average (surely those must be some sort of mistake!) and ignoring much of the variation within each group.

I myself have reported our unconscious minds make better decisions than our conscious ones, ignoring – because the individual data simply wasn’t reported in the original study – the fact that there were no doubt some people whose conscious minds were just as good or even better than their unconscious ones. Focusing on groups keeps things simple, it makes us feel we are closer to understanding and having the answers – and it’s also fundamentally flawed.

The phrase I keep in mind to counter the urge to label comes from Star Trek: The Wrath of Khan. When asked how a crew of cadets will respond to their first true combat, Spock states: “As with all living things, each according to his gifts”. How will a given person respond to battle, to deprivation, to prejudice? How did a specific person respond – develop PTSD, return home as if nothing was changed, maintain or lose faith – to living through such events? It is truly personal, individual, unique. No label or category membership can tell us; it might give us a best guess or a starting place, but we should never confuse that with absolute truth.


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