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The Mother of All Isms: “Label-ism”

Sexism. Racism. Prejudice.

May Yang has a point. Even at school, we aren’t immune to society’s “isms” that endanger our relationships with other people. We need to reach out to each other — not just to the people who are like us, but precisely to the people who are not like us.

But all those little “isms” come from one big one: Label-ism.

When we label things, we think that we understand them and know how to deal with them. Sometimes, we do. But very often, we don’t. And when we don’t, we tend to do the wrong thing. When we label people, we often end up treating them unjustly.

I’m not saying we should get rid of labels: we couldn’t live without them. Labels represent ideas, and ideas are how we make sense of the world. If you go to the doctor and she diagnoses you with appendicitis, that label tells her how to treat your illness.

But we shouldn’t mislead ourselves about what labels tell us or how much they tell us, especially about people. And we shouldn’t be complacent, thinking that we’re immune to the effect of labels.

For example, take me. Even though I know that I shouldn’t label people, I catch myself doing it anyway. I did it while I watched part of President Obama’s speech to Congress tonight.

During the speech, I noticed two things. First, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wore nearly-matching outfits. I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t intentional unless it was a totally surprising and unexpected statement of LGBT solidarity. I’ll leave it to Rachel Maddow (MSNBC commentator and one of my personal role models) to make that determination. 🙂

Second, I noticed that House Republican leader John Boehner (R-OH) was scowling as the president explained the need for health care reform.

President Obama described cases in which insurance companies canceled people’s medical coverage after they got sick. As a result, some of the people died. Obama said, “That is heartbreaking, it is wrong, and no one should be treated that way in the United States of America.”

Rep. Boehner looked like he wanted to spit on the floor and walk out of the chamber. I thought, “Ah. Yes. He’s an evil Republican,” as if that explained his behavior. And then I realized what I was doing. I was putting a label on him that might or might not have anything to do with reality. The label didn’t explain anything. All it did was express my own arrogance and feeling of moral superiority.

Is Rep. Boehner doing something bad by trying to prevent real health care reform? Yes.

Does he believe that he’s doing something bad? Almost certainly not.

Does he believe that he has good reasons for what he’s doing? Count on it.

So what does it accomplish to label him as evil? How does it help us to understand the situation better? How does it help us to enact health care reform and build a more just and compassionate society? It doesn’t help at all. Instead, we should just say, Rep. Boehner is misguided and seems as if he can’t be reached by rational argument. We sympathize with his concerns (which we should make a sincere effort to understand), but we need to get this done so let’s ignore him and detour around him.

Rep. Boehner is an extreme case, but we do the same thing on a smaller scale every day with people we meet. We stereotype them based on their opinions, religion or nationality, how they dress, or where they’re from. And then we think we understand them. We don’t. We are not getting to know them as they really are, but only as the preconceived pictures we have in our minds. We’re not reacting to them at all. We’re reacting to our own prejudices as if they were reality. That’s not just unfair, it’s crazy.

To build an inclusive community and society, we have to put aside the labels that keep us from knowing and valuing other people as they really are. That requires us to go outside of our personal comfort zones, and get to know people who differ from us in ways we don’t fully understand.

Just like us, they are here for a reason. Once we know what that reason is, then we have expanded our community to include them, expanded our minds to understand more of the world, and expanded our hearts to become the people we were always truly meant to be.

And that is a big part of why we are here.

Copyright 2009 by Rinth.

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