Monday, August 30, 2010

#76 - The Trouble With Labels

My wife, Teresa, is a fan of the late Jesuit priest and psychotherapist Anthony de Mello. Before his death in 1987, de Mello wrote a number of books and led a number of retreats around the world, one of which was videotaped in its entirety and available for viewing on the Internet.

One thing de Mello said which has resonated with me since I first heard it is the notion that labels are a dangerous thing. As de Mello argued, once you put a label on something all meaningful discussion about that thing ceases. Looking at the current state of affairs today around the world, I would argue he is right.

Labels do not allow us to find commonality with one another; they tend to put us at odds with one another. We have liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans, capitalists and socialists, and so forth.

Labels these days tend to produce extremes. Once you are labeled as a liberal, everything you say is suspect in the minds of conservatives. And vice versa. Tell someone you are Muslim and you are immediately a potential terrorist. If you are a Republican, you are suddenly an obstructionist in the eyes of many.

None of these positions are conducive to meaningful dialogue about the problems and the opportunities facing our nation and our world. If we come from a position of antagonism, how can we ever hope to find those areas where we might actually agree?

We are more than the sum of the labels placed upon us. For instance, a conservative friend and I have discussed, even argued at times about the need for health care reform in America. We agreed that certain things could be improved, even if we did not agree on the best approach for doing so. We could not have found any common ground on such a contentious subject had we not been able to get beyond our labels.

The problem is that the labels are reinforced every day by those who would foster divisiveness and dissension and who profit from it. They have no desire to see meaningful discussion on any topic and resort to name-calling and innuendo in order to prevent serious discussion and debate.

The current political climate in America and the lack of meaningful action on many issues in Washington reflects the damage that is done when we allow ourselves to be labeled and we resort to labeling others. The only label that matters is human being. We all of us have that in common, and it is that common ground from which we should begin to approach, address, and debate the issues affecting us and our world.

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