It took a while for people to get used to wearing signs around their necks. They felt awkward or resentful. But you had to admit, it was helpful to know where everyone stood.
Take for instance this guy I met at a party a few months after the government started labeling. Guy was RACIST and yammering on about immigrants being this and that, and I could tell he really enjoyed it because he didn’t have to pretend to be DIPLOMATIC or SENSITIVE anymore.
I have nothing against immigrants and the guy was wearing a purple track suit so I was like, “Buddy, you’re an idiot and you look like a pimp.”
He clenched his fist like he was going to sock me one good but then he read my label — JUDGMENTAL — and he just nodded and relaxed. No harm done!
There were a few early hiccups. Folks labeled LIAR, CHEATER, and LAZY, for example, complained that they couldn’t get jobs, apartments, insurance policies, or bank accounts, so pretty quickly, the government made it illegal to discriminate on the basis of label.
It still happened though. Gatekeepers just got stealthier. Like when I applied for a job managing a home for teen mothers. The boss, who was DISCERNING, took one look at my label and told me I was up against more qualified people who just happened to be CARING and OPEN-MINDED. Fair enough. It wasn’t a good fit.
Turned out fine because a week later I got a better-paying job at a marketing firm. My future boss, OPPORTUNISTIC, hired me on the spot. He said his two veteran staff, CREATIVE and MISUNDERSTOOD, wasted too much time and money on cockamamie ideas and he could use a little JUDGMENTAL. I’ve been there for seven years now and I get respect. Anyone who doesn’t agree is probably STUPID.
The labeling process was initially cumbersome but they streamlined it over the years. Now, when you turn 18, the government convenes a jury — family, friends, workmates, classmates, teachers, rivals, and enemies. If you’re summoned for duty it’s hard to refuse but you get paid time off so it’s all good. There’s a submission period when anyone can suggest a label, including yourself.
Of course everyone wants LOVING or GENEROUS or GENIUS but those are hard to get because after submissions, they body-cam actors to interact with you for a couple months to see what you’re really like. (None of the actors can be ACTOR, obviously. That would give them away.)
Once your label arrives from the Ministry of Branding, you have to wear it on a chain around your neck or else they throw you in jail. The first labels were big heavy things that were overly burdensome for people who were FATIGUED or FRAIL. After enough complaints, the MoB started making them out of some New Age plastic and everyone was relieved.
A couple years ago, they started allowing relabeling for people stuck with lousy tags like BORING or FLATULENT, or people who evolved beyond their original labels. It’s expensive, though, and you can only do it once.
You’d think finding a mate would be easy because your true self is right there, on display. No games. But love’s not sensible. I’d meet some sexy dame and life would be great for a while and then I’d start judging and everything would go to hell.
Once I dated this knockout who was MOTHERING. I thought, that’s what I need, someone to take care of me! She was constantly stroking my ego, making melted cheese snacks, buying me high-end boxer briefs, correcting my math. We’d barely be out of bed in the morning and she would smooth out the sheets behind us.
Thing was, after six months or so, she stopped caring about her looks. Her hair grew stringy and she developed a taste for doughnuts, if you know what I mean. One day I told her she was looking a bit frumpy and she said maybe I should find someone SHALLOW and I said maybe she should find someone BLIND.
It’s hard to come back from stuff like that so we broke up.
Funny thing was, I did meet a woman later who was SHALLOW. She was hot, sure, but insufferable. All she did was diet and primp and shop and talk about her workouts and after a while, I yearned for passion and a little conversation. When I told her I needed someone more COMPLEX or INSIGHTFUL, she said whatever, she’d been seeing WELL-HUNG on the side.
I was hurt and told her so. She just smiled and cracked her sugarless gum and walked away in her high boots and short shorts.
That night I went out with my best friend, SHAMELESS. We were like two peas in a pod at the bar. I’d scan the room and tell him what was wrong with everybody and he’d point out the women he wanted to take home and why. It was usually fun, but not this time. I was down and SHAMELESS wasn’t helping at all. I told him about my latest break-up and lamented that I might never find a soulmate.
“But they know you’re JUDGMENTAL, it’s right there!” he said.
I said, “Sure, but maybe people don’t want to hear the truth.”
He said, “Big deal! Date ‘em and dump ‘em!”
And I said, “That’s what I’ve been doing and it makes me feel empty.”
He nodded and hastened to point out that I was in my mid-30s and that pretty soon, it would be impossible for JUDGMENTAL to find a lover. I told him that was cruel. He said not cruel, SHAMELESS, and tapped his label with his pint glass.
When I got home that night, I couldn’t shake what SHAMELESS had said. Time was running out for me. I poured a Scotch and thought back to when I became JUDGMENTAL. I was disappointed at first but eventually found it liberating. I could say anything about anyone and not feel guilty about it.
But what good is freedom on a deserted island? My life had become so small. I couldn’t be part of any religion or club because the leaders were all PIOUS nutjobs. I stopped voting because no one was ever good enough. I gave up on the social causes I fought for in my youth because there was always some MEGALOMANIAC stealing everyone’s thunder. Other than SHAMELESS, my only friends were OBLIVIOUS and DIM and they were hardly a barrel of laughs.
There was a guy from work I hung out with sometimes, ASS-KISSER, but our conversations always got weird. I’d be ridiculing co-workers left and right and he’d just smile and hedge.
I was starting to wonder if JUDGMENTAL was holding me back from my true potential. Maybe it was time for relabeling.
I called in sick for a few days and wandered around, reading people’s chests, buoyed by the prospect of a fresh identity and a second chance. I figured there was no point applying for relabeling if you weren’t first considering what labels might fit, especially since you only had one shot. I’d have to focus on something and start living the part to convince the jury.
It would be tricky but not impossible. I’d never seen a politician or captain of industry who was SNEAKY or SELFISH, for example. They were always TRUSTWORTHY, LEADER, or STRONG, so there was obviously a way to buck the system.
“I want to be FEARLESS,” I told SHAMELESS, a couple days later.
“Good one,” he said. “Chicks’ll dig that.”
“It’s not all about the chicks,” I said. “It’s about shifting the rudder and going somewhere else, becoming a better you.”
“Huh. Maybe you should be HACKNEYED instead.”
“Screw you,” I said and he said, “Guess you can scratch POLITE.”
I downed my rusty nail and motioned for the bartender, who was RELAXED, to bring me another. He did, but he sure took his time doing it. We didn’t say anything for a bit, just watched sports highlights on the TV behind the bar.
“Listen,” SHAMELESS finally said. “What happens if you become, like, TOLERANT or SYMPATHETIC? Would we still be friends?”
“Of course!” I said. But I’d actually been wondering the same thing.
I gave FEARLESS an honest try. I took a snowboarding lesson from CHILL but never made it off the bunny hill. I told the PERKY server at Taj Cuisine that yes, I did want my chicken tikka India hot and then panted, tongue out, for two full days.
Who was I kidding? I was a total chickenshit. It’s probably why JUDGMENTAL had fit so well — it’s easier to find fault with others than to look closely at yourself. After FEARLESS failed, I tried something totally bland and safe: PRECISE. That should have been easy, right? Nope. Because sometimes I like Pinot Grigio with salmon and sometimes I like Beaujolais! I tried being HUMOROUS, kept it up for about a week, but let me tell you, it’s harder than it looks. You have to be INTELLIGENT and SHARP to be FUNNY and I’m none of those. I had to quit or else risk being labelled TEDIOUS.
CONFIDENT would be a great label to show the world. I was going to be CONFIDENT, goddamn it! At work, I kept right on judging people and ideas, just more confidently. But when co-workers like PICKY asked what made me so sure about this new ad campaign or that promo idea, I stammered and made shit up.
Truth is, I was starting to question where my opinions had come from in the first place. Perhaps I was, in fact, IMPOSTER.
I sat home one night, making a new list of labels — not things that sounded good but things I actually was. It was a sad little list: TIDY, HELPFUL, READER, RESTLESS, BEER-LOVER.
What I didn’t add, but should have, was LOSER. How I envied the CARPENTERs, MUSICIANs, FATHERs and ARTISTs. Oh sure, they might be PETTY or VENGEFUL inside but no one would know, would they? They could just hide behind that benign label their whole life.
I crumpled up my list and choked back burgeoning self-pity. Maybe I was taking the label thing too seriously. The sign around your neck didn’t mean you were only that. It was just a bureaucratic thing, a trend in social engineering. In fact, I’d just read about groups forming to protest labels and demand they be abolished. Anti-labelers were finding ways to subvert the process. I saw a guy on the bus recently who was UNDEFINED and laughed out loud. How did he do it?
Eventually I just said the hell with it. I was going to live in the moment and try to be myself, whoever that was. I stopped hanging with SHAMELESS, worried that he was a bad influence. He left messages for a while then stopped. I felt SHAMEFUL but I was on a road to discovery and that meant ditching old habits. I tried some new things to distract myself and life suddenly felt lighter, more relaxed.
I took a Mexican cooking class. It was tough keeping my mouth shut when NEEDY and her lame husband PROTECTIVE totally botched the empanadas but I can make a killer salsa verde now.
I enrolled in a bike maintenance course at the community college from a woman who was DILIGENT but should have been IRRITATING. She made us change a tire six times before letting us pass. IMPATIENT nearly lost her mind but at least now we can all save a shit-ton of money we used to waste at upscale bike shops.
I attended a community-association meeting to find out what was happening in the neighborhood. The president was DISTRACTED so the meetings dragged on and on and I’ll never do that again, but I chalked it all up to personal growth. I was growing so much, in fact, that I was starting to resent JUDGMENTAL. People were judging me for being JUDGMENTAL and I was damn tired of it!
So off I went to the MoB to fill out my application. I got a little thrill when I signed my name at the bottom. Hello clean slate!
When I handed my paperwork to the lady behind the counter, I shrugged and whispered, “I’m just not JUDGMENTAL anymore.”
“Nice,” she said, with the warmest smile ever. “It takes guts to shed your skin. Maybe you’ll end up COURAGEOUS!”
“You don’t seem MOROSE,” I said, pointing to her label.
She sighed. “I went through a bad patch after high school.”
“Sucks,” I said.
Her colleague CHEERFUL came over and picked up a stack of applications.
“Christ” she said, “these losers’ll keep me busy ’til kingdom come! What makes ‘em think they’re so special?” She harrumphed and stormed off.
“She’s not very CHEERFUL,” MOROSE whispered.
“Maybe you should switch,” I joked. She giggled then glanced at the closed circuit camera above us and composed herself. “That’s against the law,” she said gravely.
“Too bad,” I said. I walked out of there convinced that labeling was a really dumb law.
So now it’s a year later and I’m a new man. I’d always loved dogs so I took a course and now I run Who’s a Good Doggie? Obedience School. Business is booming. Last week I got a silver award from the Chamber of Commerce in the Best New Small-to-Medium Business (Service) category.
Then one day SHALLOW came in with a Dalmatian puppy — but she wasn’t SHALLOW anymore.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Being SHALLOW was tiring and monotonous,” she said.
“I didn’t know you were ADVENTUROUS,” I said, nodding at her new label.
“I actually am,” she said, showing off a fresh octopus tattoo wrapped around her upper arm.
“Wow,” I said. It was a bit garish but I tried not to judge.
“And you,” she said, nodding to my new label and laughing. “How in the world did you pull that off?”
I shrugged demurely. When the class was over, she said it was great to see me and hugged me a little longer than expected. We’re going steady again. I might even marry the girl, who knows?
I ran into SHAMELESS at the gym the other day. He’s ROMANTIC now.
“That’s a switch,” I said, pointing to the little Velcro label people wear when they’re doing sports.
“It wasn’t easy but it gets me chicks,” he said.
“That’s totally SHAMELESS,” I said.
“Pretty much,” he said, resuming his set of bicep curls.