Bruce Jenner, Labels, & Brave.


I missed the original airing of Diane Sawyer’s Special Bruce Jenner:  The Interview, so I just watched it in its entirety this past weekend on  After I was finished, I took to Google to see what Internet thought.  Much to my surprise, I saw that there has and continues to be an outpouring of love and support for him (he is still asking that we use the he pronoun).

 After taking a quick unofficial aggregate of the words used on Twitter, I saw two words being used consistently: labels (in regard to the disapproval for the need to use them ...aka ‘we’re just human’) , and brave (in regard to Bruce Jenner’s decision to speak openly about being transgendered.. obviously)

 In fact, I just Googled the word ‘brave” for the literal definition, and the Bruce Jenner interview appeared several lines BEFORE the definition of the word. 

First lets start with the word “labels.”

This word is big in my field of work, and triggers many thoughts, but lets first start with why we label to begin with. 

 To be succinct, it’s necessary to learn and think.  To be verbose, Bornstein and Anterberry (2010) state in their article about object categorization in young children, “The environment affords an infinite variety of stimulation and is incessantly changing. Moreover, we experience the world out of a constant biological flux. Both these major sources of variation must be reduced if perception and cognition are to proceed with organization, order, and coherence.  Categorization contributes to rendering comprehensible this otherwise bewildering diversity, allowing us to generalize across experiences, because categorization relates each experienced entity to an extant representation (Smith & Medin, 1981). Categorization also facilitates the storage and retrieval of information, and it supplies a principle of organization by which new information can be banked efficiently in memory. In this way, categorization implies an elementary kind of inference and allows the categorizer to respond to novel entities as if they were familiar... without the ability and proclivity to categorize, children would have to learn to respond anew to each novel entity they experience.” 

Without categorization, every single novel object experience would have to be individually learned.  Imagine walking into a grocery store, and having to be taught that each individual item was “food” because you were unable to link like-attributes and generalize them accordingly.  Variation must be reduced if perception and cognition are to proceed with organization, order, and coherence, In other words, we would be straight up overwhelmed without the ability to categorize. 

Our brain’s ability and need to categorize doesn’t stop with objects.

 Hassabis et. al (2013) wrote, “Our brain categorizes people in order to understand the social environment around us, such as student, teacher, and doctor. Social categories are useful because they help tell us things about individuals. Without social categories and groups, it would be very difficult to function in society. However, the ability to quickly, and sometimes inaccurately, categorize people can form negative stereotypes.... In addition to categorizing people in the social world, the brain also predicts how people will behave in various situations..... As we get to know a person better, we are able to form a more holistic representation of the person’s character, which can be used to better predict the behavior and thoughts of the individual.”

 Did you catch that last part?  As we get to know a person better, we are able to form a better representation of the specific individual.... because although I knowingly fit into so many categories, I am also an individual, and the more you know me the easier it will be for you to predict my behavior based on what you know, rather than what you might have initially thought when you saw a ‘white blonde 20-something female.”

So this is where the word “BRAVE” comes into play.

For some people, when they experience something or someone that doesn’t fit their predetermined mindset of what you should be like if you have x, y, & z characteristics their reaction is extremely negative.  They associate different with bad or wrong or weird.  It evokes strong feelings of anger, confusion, and fear.

 Bruce Jenner knew this.  You know this, and I know this.

And that is why Bruce Jenner is one brave individual.  He exposed the part of himself to the world in such a way that our minds can’t help but be expanded.  He let us get to know him as a person so that we could form a better representation of him, and of others who (not to unjustly categorize) could potentially have had similar experiences.  In the interview one of Bruce’s sons used the word tragic to describe the life that Bruce has lived up to this point.  Due to his actions I whole-heartedly believe that he is saving the life of so many others.      


So, Back to Labels.

When labels are used to define a person they are being used inappropriately.  In schools we have “student first” language.  Meaning, for example, it’s not ‘an autistic child’ it’s a child with autism (or on the autism spectrum).  It’s a subtle shift, but an important one.  It’s emphasizing the individual nature that comes with being a person, before focusing on the label that embodies a set of characteristics that they have in common with other unique humans.  

When used appropriately, labels can do a lot of good for people.  They assist in creating a community around a specific combination of characteristics.  Did you notice how frequently the LGBTQ “community” was mentioned during this special?  Labels can assist individuals to feel less isolated once they realize that there happen to be others in this world that are similar in specific ways.  I cant remember the portion of the interview where Bruce spoke of being a little boy who wore his sisters dresses and didnt know why he did... and thought he was the only one who did such things.  Think of the joy (and probably other mixed emotions) he felt when he realized that there were so many others who felt similarly that there was actually a name for it.

Rather than attempting to rid the world of the labels that our brain naturally forms, I would argue that the work we have as a society would be to teach empathy and open-mindedness. Reiterating instead that coming into contact with someone or something that doesn’t fit one of your present mental categories isn’t a bad thing it’s just the reality of sharing life on this diverse world.


Bruce Jenner did a phenomenal job, and Diane Sawyer’s program even more so of differentiating and clearly defining the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity.  For more information on these topics, and the articles discussed above , see below:


Hassabis, Demis et al. 2013. “Imagine All the People: How the Brain Creates and Uses Personality Models to Predict Behavior.” Cerebral Cortex.





For the Love of Breakfast Burritos.

Class Pass.