Remember when the labels in our shirts used to scratch and irritate the skin on the back of our necks? It’s not so bad, any more, since they began stamping the labels into the material. Labels are now not only part of the garments that we wear, but they are also indelible and unlikely to wear off for the life of the garment.
Which got me thinking…..labels that are put on people, by other people, also may become an indelible part of who that person is allowed to be in our society. We are labeled with diseases (both physical and mental), with eccentricities of character, with our socioeconomic status, with our vocations, with family membership, and even by the region where we live. Labels fit easily into stereotypes, and stereotypes can lead to social disasters like racial profiling, as well as to the impossible expectations of success (Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus, for example).
Labels, with their baggage of expectations, have burdened me my entire life, even as a child:
“You have a heart disease, so you can’t……”
“You are the preacher’s daughter, so you can’t…..”
“You are the preacher’s daughter, so you must…..
“You are a woman, so you can’t….
Enough. You get the picture. Everyone wants to put me in a box with a label that they understand, so that they know what to expect from me, and what to keep from me. Some people can become quite ferocious when I don’t stay in that box. Nevertheless, I developed an aversion to being told either that I could not do something, or that I had to do it. My knee-jerk reaction has inevitably been “Yes, I can” to the first, and “No, I don’t” to the second, even if it might not work in my own best interest to respond in this way. For example, that is how I wound up in South Africa in the middle of a revolution. Several misguided but well-meaning souls told me I couldn’t go there. (On the other hand, I am so glad that I did!).
Until recently, I thought I may have mellowed a bit – become more reasonable, perhaps even occasionally diplomatic. Then we entered an election year. I am pressured on all sides by the most vilifying arguments to commit to voting Democratic, to defeat the Republicans, or to vote Republican, to defeat the Democrats. A few years ago I realized that I had never voted a straight party ticket—either way—in my entire history of voting. I was not interested in the party the candidate belonged to; I wanted to know if they could do the job, and if putting them in office was in the best interests of the country, or the state, or the county/township. So I changed my voter registration to “Independent.” (Kind of fits me, if I have to wear a political label of some sort–at least, it is a label of my own choice).
So, getting back to labels, I am watching a country that is beginning to wear its political labels indelibly. The label is now an internalized part of the person’s identity, never to be mistaken for something that can, or should be, changed. This is not democracy, it is tribalism. In a democracy, you think and work for the best of the country. In a tribe, you can become a victim of the kind of groupthink that may feel so threatened that all other tribes must be demonized. Not only does our indelible group label define the very essence of our being at that point, it labels other groups as inferior, undesirable, and unnecessary; probably, eventually, as subhuman. Our lizard brain kicks in, seeing extermination of the enemy as a necessity. Think Ferguson. Think Rwanda. Think Bosnia.
These events and the tribalism that drove them are definitely incompatible with our ideal of democracy—”One nation, under God” does not translate as “destroy everyone who fails to conform.” Dialogue and mutual respect are the tools of democracy. As a teacher, I learned that my effectiveness did not depend on my respect for all of the actions and ideas of my students. It did, however, depend on my respect for them as human beings, worthy of having the opportunity to speak their thoughts and be heard—to enter the conversation of life.
Loyalty to ideals, to the group we belong to, and to the planet we live on, can still be conducive to democratic process when we also hold to the ideals of inclusiveness and tolerance, and when we carefully monitor our own actions for signs of demonizing other human beings. No matter how much I may dislike someone’s actions or ideas, I am not compelled to dehumanize them in order to fight for the goals of my own group. I just need to make my own fight that much more worthy, and good, and appropriate for my country.
Vote, whatever you do. But vote for the best candidate to get the job done, not for the “group, whether right or wrong.” Hint: Look carefully for candidates who can win you over through who they are, rather than through their claims of who everyone else isn’t. Labels are for clothes and grocery items, not for humans.