Not that this isn’t uncommon; but I’ve recently encountered quite a string of people who, being frustrated with my (admittedly) Progressive views, labeled me with various terms, including: “Anti-Jew”, “Palestinian Lover”, “Left Winger”, “Commie Extremist” (really?), and (my favorite) “sheep scattering GLORY SEEKER!” (A close relative of this is the tendency some have to use phrases that reveal the unspoken labels they’ve applied to you. Some of the most galling of these – for me – are when such phrases are used in a patronizing way, such as: “Your heart’s in a good place.”)
These attempts to make me into something other than I am got me to thinking: I was slapped with a label; then condemned or belittled for being (in their eyes) that label. But, they know almost nothing about me beyond their label. So, they are condemning a label, not me – a phantom that has no reality. There is no reason why I should accept such labels – or any label – as reflecting the “real me”; and in fact they say more about the person who bestowed the label upon me than they do about who I am (or who you are).
We all have a tendency to label people and things – it’s a perfectly natural thing to do. In fact, we are far more likely to do it to someone we don’t know than with someone who is close to us – and I’ll tell you my theory as to why…
Our minds are very efficient at categorizing new information and immediately acting upon it. This enables us to quickly decide if that thing flying towards our head dangerous – or not. (If so – DUCK! If not, bat it out of the way.) We often do this without being consciously aware of the potential danger until after we’ve reacted. This ability to quickly and accurately label something as safe – or not – can save our lives. But, this amazing ability is hard to turn-off. And, we often find it hard to see past the labels we’ve applied to others because of it. We also find it hard to see past the labels others have placed upon us.
Now what is certain is that labels help us feel safer. Labels make us feel like we have some control or power over the object or person we’ve labeled, that we can “deal with it.” (This is why Jews have traditionally refused to utter God’s name, by the way.) What’s more, not having a good label for something, or not being able to find one to apply, is often unsettling: we feel like don’t know what it is,, and have a hard time describing it to others. (How often for instance, have you heard someone in great distress say something like “I have no words”?)
But, as we get to know someone or something (or ourselves) better, we always find that labels don’t work well in the long run. There is always far more richness, depth and color there than any label will encompass, and we learn this as we get to know them better. Eventually, we find our label is not as useful as we thought, and abandon it.
Slapping a label on someone is also a defense mechanism, it distances “the other” from us: making them seem to be “less than” in our minds. Labels are often used to make others seem inconsequential or less than human, and so easier to dismiss, or ignore, or exclude, or oppress – or hate.
Labels can hurt.
Think of the many labels we use every day: “Black” and “White”; “Straight” and “Gay”; “Male” and “Female”; “Conservative” and “Progressive”; “Law-abiding” and “Terrorist”; “Right” and “Wrong”; or “Sinner” and “Saved.” Like all labels, they can help us identify something and help us know how to deal with it; but ultimately they obscure reality – portraying something as being representative of some stereotype, and embodying all of the assumptions and impressions that go with it. They hide the reality of that person’s (or things) uniqueness and distinctiveness; and they give us the false impression that the world is simply and eternally “black and white” rather than a complex and ever changing multitude of colors and textures. Politicians and pundits know this all too well, which is why they use labels so freely in their statements and pontifications, and especially when attacking each other: they are seeking to obscure the reality of a situation and so force us to see only what they want us to see.
Labels, if not used with care, deny the love God has for all of us, and ignore the beauty and uniqueness found in every bit of God’s Creation. Our use of labels can limit who we are, and can frustrate our journeys through life, because by using them to paint others as they are not, or to obscure and corrupt others’ view of the beauty of God’s Creation to serve our own ends, we are distancing ourselves (and them) from God.
The more we learn to set labels aside when encountering others, and the more we refuse to accept the labels others seek to place upon us (or upon others), the more we will see and appreciate the depth and richness and unique beauty God has put into each of us; and the closer we will come to seeing ourselves – and others – as God sees us.
Copyright (c) 2015, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)