This past election season, Oregon citizens voted on a proposition that sought to require additional labeling on food products that contained GMOs. The proposition was defeated, but only by a difference of .2% (that’s close enough for an automatic recount).
Now, without having done my research on the issue, I really don’t have a strong opinion one way or the other on GMO labels, but this desire for additional labeling reminded me of something.
Labels sure are a funny thing.
We use labels to quickly and easily identify items in our world. We use physical labels to help us quickly find things like a file in a filing cabinet, or to keep us from accidentally pouring salt into our coffee instead of sugar.
Our brains love labels too. Labels allow us to take mental shortcuts that make it easier to associate similar items, categorize those items into groups, and make pretty piles of information to access at lightning speed. If I ask you to think of 10 things that are yellow, your brain will flood your thoughts with all kinds of things that you’ve identified as yellow.
Another benefit of labels is that, in addition to helping us associate items that are similar, they also help us identify differences. For example, while you were trying to think of 10 yellow things, you probably also thought of some items that were green, blue, or red, but your brain discarded them because you have already labeled them under their own colors. You were able to think about things that are yellow because your brain was simultaneously thinking about things that were not yellow.
For the most part, labels are a useful and beneficial tool, except when it comes to people.
I remember a time, not too long ago, when labeling people was a bad thing. With the rise of globalization and the world wide web, we began to realize that there’s a lot more that makes us similar than there is that makes us different. We wanted to get rid of labels.
People wanted to be “color-blind,” not noticing the differences in our skin or ethnicity.
Churches added “non-denominational” to their names.
That seemed to work, for a while.
‘m probably could be wrong, but if you were to ask me when the pendulum started swinging back the other way, I’d say it started with the advent of social networks.
Social networks allowed us to do what humans have been doing for thousands of years, while also allowing us to do something that we have never before been able to do…
For thousands of years, humans have gathered in tribal units, but those tribal units have always been limited to the boundaries of geography. With social networks, internet users could once again group themselves into smaller tribes, but now they could form tribes with anyone anywhere, AND they could be part of multiple tribes at the same time.
What does this look like?
It means that if you like Harry Potter books, you can go online and make friends with other internet users who also love Harry Potter books. You can talk about whether you’d be a Hufflepuff or a Gryffindor, or how much you hate Delores Umbridge. Maybe every Thursday morning you all chat about your love of all things Harry Potter.
In addition to liking Harry Potter books, maybe you also like to watch New Girl, starring the adork-able Zooey Deschanel. So, you jump online, and sure enough, there are thousands of fans of New Girl for you to make friends with. You talk about the cute outfits Jess wears, or share your favorite Schmitt quotes. Maybe after Tuesday night episodes, you all chat to recap your thoughts.
If the internet has taught me anything, it’s that you can find a tribe for just about any interest, no matter how niche you may think it is. Have you ever heard of a Brony? It’s a thriving community of adult male fans of My Little Pony, a show for pre-teen girls about ponies.
With all of these fragmented tribes and increasingly niche interests, it seems that labels have once again become useful and important. A quick way to identify yourself to others who may have similar interests, however narrow, to your own.
This hyper-specificity of interest has also spilled over to our conversations about gender identity. Earlier this year, Facebook had over 50 different options you could select for your gender, including agender, androgynous, cismale or cisfemale, transmasculine or transfeminine and many more. As of today, Facebook has opted to just leave the gender field open to whatever you feel like typing in there.
What’s interesting to me is that with all of this freedom to choose whatever labels we want for ourselves, I’m also seeing more and more arguments that involve the liberal usage of some old and familiar labels to identify others.
I can’t confirm this, but it would appear to me that there’s a positive correlation between our collective hyper-specificity and our hyper-sensitivity. We’re using labels to quickly and easily identify the people who are different than us, but those labels also bring with them a host of stereotypes that create ugly divisions.
Us vs Them.
Everywhere I look, I see lines being drawn in the sand over the things that make us different.
If you voted for Barack Obama, then you’re a lazy socialist looking for government handouts and redistribution of wealth.
If you call yourself a Republican, you’re a gun-toting backwoods hillbilly willing to shoot any black kid who walks on your street.
The list goes on.
I’m all for labels that help bring people together. Heck, I’m still looking for members to join my group of “Breaking Bad Fans Who Didn’t Enjoy Battlestar Galactica but Know the Lyrics to Just About Every Katy Perry Song” (Facebook page pending).
My concern is that too often we’re using labels to dismiss people before truly getting to know them. When used incorrectly, labels only serve to cloud our vision and understanding of the human being on the other side of the screen.
We’ve gone a bit label-crazy.
The Office, NBC
At church, we’ve been going through the book of Galatians, and I find it especially encouraging and important to remember chapter 3, verses 26-28:
So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
At the most basic level, I think it’s safe to apply this verse to how we talk to and treat each other. The differences won’t automatically disappear, but we should be the first to actively demonstrate that someone’s value is neither increased nor diminished based on the labels we use to identify them.
It sounds like a no-brainer, but think about your initial feelings about people who have a strong opinion (opposing your own) on some of the following issues:
Abortion. Vaccinations. Immigration. Gun laws. Attachment parenting. Minimum wage. LGBT rights. Universal healthcare. Religious freedom.
The events in Ferguson, MO offer a perfect example of just how complicated, but utterly important, this is. Over the next few weeks, as you have conversations with each other, try to take a few extra minutes to hear without using labels. Find out why someone believes differently than you, rather than jumping to a conclusion and arguing past the person. You might be surprised at what you find.
We can be better. We should be better.
Will we be better?