Monday, September 17, 2007

Labels Serve to Divide

I recently read an opinion piece where the writer stated he was offended by being called "white." The premise for his taking offense was that "white" was akin to the N-word. Perhaps I travel in the different social circles from this writer, but I've never encountered the sort of disdain and racial slurring from being referred to as "white" as people of color have endured for generations with the N-word, but his thoughts aroused other ideas within me. Having to be referred to as anything other than my name or "that person" is to be categorized into a subgroup of some sort. Subgroups are nearly always subject to generalized characterizations--stereotypes. The more labels applied to a person, the more that person is defined in the other's mind as having attributes of each of the stereotypes. If the two people never have more than a passing interaction, there will be little chance that the predetermined characteristics arbitrarily assigned to that stranger will be changed. Why do we do this? Why do so many of us automatically begin ticking off various labels in our mind when we meet or encounter a stranger? My guess is that it goes back to the body's autonomic "fight or flight" response. In early times, man would have had to assess his situation quickly to know whether danger was imminent so he could make the appropriate decision. Today that is still true to some extent, considering the level of crime in our society, but even more so human nature has honed those assessments with stereotypical labels--human nature augmented by societal pressure and repetition. Are the labels helpful? I would say yes, if they are accurate, but there is no way of knowing whether they are or not without establishing a relationship. I think labels are an effective means for politicians to further divide a populace; consider the divide and conquer theories. It becomes more difficult for the populace to form any majority opinions when each subgroup is fighting for its particular rights and authority. For the most part, labels are harmful. Very, very few people hold true to any preconceived idea about a group. No one woman or man, Christian or non-Christian, black, white or Hispanic person is all of whatever that particular stereotype conjures up in a person's mind. And those are merely broad labels; our minds often go further such as young or old, impaired or unimpaired, gay or straight...the list is almost endless. Each of us probably misses many opportunities to meet and get to know other human beings because of our propensity to label--and to act on those labels.

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