10 April 2009

A Problem of Labels

For all the Atheists I’ve met, I’ve never met anyone who truly was atheist. Each of them, when discussing further, expressed a belief in…something. But in rejecting religions such as Catholicism, Islam, and Judaism, they felt Atheism was the best label. If you find yourself constantly misunderstood, mischaracterized, and always having to defend yourself; if you find yourself doubting your beliefs or find them to be inconsistent, you are probably a victim of labels.

Labels, like symbols, are mental tools used to categorize characteristics through associations. By tying a lot of information into a single idea, labels associate those who share similar characteristics: Baptists, Mother’s Against Driving Drunk, University Alumni, and Lobbyists. The problem comes when labels instead of associating members’ values, defines them.

Republicans may be understood by some as logical, laissez-faire, libertarians; while others see them as simply wealthy, white, war-mongers. What an individual who carries the Republican banner actually believes is lost in the assumption. Those who associate under symbols or labels are understood, not according to the beliefs of members, but according to what is communicated to the general public.
Both people and institutions prefer to interact with the world around them with clean, fixed, categories and definitions, and once established are resistant to change. We then tend to define others by the categories we’ve become accustomed to and if people don’t fit neatly in those categories, because they have values and beliefs that are inconsistent, the extra information is ignored, or attribute those people are weird, wrong or confused.

Not only are people placed in categories, but whatever defines those categories also then defines you. If you are Christian, then you most likely are republican, pro-life, anti-stem cell and watch Fox news. It is also called profiling, stereotyping, or simply prejudice.

Although used to build understanding, untrained, it leads more time than not to miscommunication. Once you’re labeled and categorized, associated values are assumed to be yours, regardless if they are or not. Everything said, then, will be seen in regards to that perception.

The same applies introspectively. I am [label] so I should believe or feel [value]. I’m a Catholic, so I should be pro-life? I belong to this team, so I should reject everything and everyone from the other team? I’m African-American so I should unquestionably support Obama? These doubts come because instead of building association based on values, you’ve assumed values based on your association.

Getting around the Labeling dilemma starts with getting to know yourself, understanding your own values before labeling it and realize there is probably no label that completely fits you. Resist the temptation to fall into a simple category, and be ready to communicate yourself in terms of values rather than labels.
At the same time, realize any prejudices applying the discernment you’ve gained by exercising the 80/20 rule of world peace. Practically that means, understand before assuming; be critical before categorizing; and listen before labeling.
Not only is it about avoiding the negative, but at the same time not missing out on the positive.

Your janitor may not be poor.
A capitalist may not be greedy.
A conservative may not be republican.
A Christian could be anti-religious
An Atheist not be atheistic.
That blonde may not be dumb.
That Asian may not be smart.

But then again, they could be.

Don’t let labels define you. People tend to be a lot more than the labels they even give themselves.

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