Beyond Labels

A meeting I attended recently posed a challenging question. Are we too quick to judge people based on their labels? People willingly label themselves according to their affiliations. “I’m a this or a that,” many will confidently say. When they do so, is it fair to make assumptions about them on the basis of their chosen labels? Or do we need to slow down and learn more than the label in order to minimize our assumptions?

Fact of the matter is, we form snap judgements all the time about people we meet. We need to in order to judge the safety of a situation. Physical safety, that is. We need emotional safety, too, but we can slow down just a bit as we evaluate the risk a person poses to our emotional safety. Beyond securing air and water, judging others is important in life because safety is a life and death matter.

One step up from safety comes our need to belong to a group – family, friends, clubs, religious communities, committees, employment categories, political parties, causes, performance groups, lots of groups to choose from. For most of us, families are something we didn’t choose. That hasn’t keep us from judging people on the basis of their families. Still, we tend to consider ourselves more civilized if we resist this temptation.

The business of affiliating with a group, even families once we’re grown, is tricky. There are so many things to consider. Are the group’s values compatible with my values? Will the group accept me? Will it be a good resource for me? Will the group help me accomplish things I want to accomplish? Will my affiliation with this group affect my impression on others in a good or bad way?

Once people have used their good judgement to select groups that reflect their values, what should we do with our knowledge of their affiliations? Surely we do well to be cautious in our rush to judgement. But just how cautious? Our affiliations may not reveal the totality of ourselves, yet they do say something about us. Just how much?

We all know religious folk who disagree with dogma to varying degrees, yet maintain their affiliations. They can be worth talking to because they are still exercising their own minds. Environmentalists have an expansive set of principles to guide them, yet most are thinking people worth conversing with. Democrats and Republicans spout ideologies that are far apart, yet for the sake of running the state or the country, some of each do come together on occasion. The point at which I lose interest in people is the point at which their opinions are no longer malleable based on new information or a new analysis.

Starting a conversation with people with strong group identities can certainly be a challenge. In fact, the more boldly a person announces their labels and identities, the less inclined I would be to discuss even the weather with them. Surely there is something we could discuss without retreating into ideological corners within a few minutes, but it would be hard for me to find a topic worth the bother.

Even though I have thoughts and opinions on most everything, I don’t fit neatly into many labels. When confronted with people with opinions stronger than mine, I often try to insert some mildly differing point of view just to avoid giving the impression that I endorse their thinking wholeheartedly. I don’t rush toward conflict, yet I want to establish some bit of distance between us, even if I lean toward agreement. Why? My best guess is that I find strong ideologies of any stripe disconcerting.

Theoretically, if we were to build a bit of trust with our opposites, we might be able to listen in a way that would open us up to the possibility of changing our minds. Seriously, though, I suspect that the possibility of learning things that could undermine our established convictions (and identity) is one of the primary impediments to deep, thoughtful conversations.

Our age doesn’t seem to help. The older we are, the more time we’ve had to settle into solid convictions about most everything. Yet we (collective we) have changed our thinking over time on some surprising issues, gay marriage being one. Cultures evolve whether we talk about it or not. After it’s happened, we might reflect on the changes and wonder how they happened. Many things might have occurred, a school shooting that didn’t fade from memory as others had, for example. But at some point in the evolution of cultural values, I’m certain there was a conversation between two people who had previously made harsh assumptions about each other. Perhaps they thought group values defined an individual only to learn that wasn’t true.

I’ve long sought ways to hold conversations that can bring about changes in our thinking. I’ve yet to find the key to starting them, but the search continues.

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