Says Who??

Verstehen, through shared perspectives

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clothing label 4Remember 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.



I am what one could call “an elder.” My station in life affords me the ability, or perhaps burden, to look back and assess the arc of history’s swinging pendulum. I’ve seen this play before. I didn’t like it then and I don’t like it now.

It’s only August, and only midterm elections, but already the advertisements have been repeated so often for so long that I can lip sync with them. At least the primaries held some interest, with more candidates to listen to and select from. Now we are down to a predictable routine: “He doesn’t do” this or that job, to which the answer is always “HE LIES!” It was a lot more interesting when I was teaching, and we had debates based on research of actual records, and mock elections. Grades were given based on points won while sticking to the facts, and class discussions were even more heated than the TV versions. No wonder I’m bored with it now.

Every two years since my return from South Africa, I am reminded of a conversation with one of my dear friends as we sat up through the night awaiting the results of the presidential election of 1992. I am always impressed with how very politically informed about the world people in other countries are, compared to Americans, and this day was no exception. “You know,” she began wistfully, “I wish so very much that when our national elections are held democratically we could be as civilized about the results as Americans are.”

“How so?” I was intrigued. Aileen, more intelligent than most people I knew, was bound to have a profound insight on this subject. “Because, even though this election is a fierce battle between your political parties, once the election is over you all will settle down, accept the winner, and once again pull together for the good of the country. Because you love your democracy so much, and you really believe in it. And that is why it works.”

And I believed her. Because her words corroborated my experience, up to that time. Sure, I had lived through the whole Watergate saga, as well as Contra-Gate. But we survived all that, didn’t we? I was never more proud to be an American than I was that night, seeing my country, and democracy, through the eyes of this remarkable Afrikaans woman.

Then, early 1996, I was home again. Or at least I thought that was where I had come. Eyes wide with astonishment, mouth agape, day after day I watched my elected representatives behaving like maladjusted toddlers not just in public, but on national TV.   I had never seen such infantile behavior by political leadership, including the entire seven years I spent in Africa. In Africa, political disagreements were life threatening more often than not; in America they sounded life threatening even though they were far from such extreme issues. In 1996, I witnessed for the first time the failure of my fellow Americans to graciously accept the working of the democratic process. Rather than accept, they hated it so much, in fact, that the losing party seemed to wish the leadership of the winning party dead. From the noise, it sounded like nothing else would satisfy them.

By 2000, I was already comparing the good ol’ USA to apartheid South Africa. It was getting more like the old RSA every day, to my understanding. People no longer identified themselves by ethnicity, vocation or religion. They “became” a Republican, or a Democrat, so that in much the same way as we used to say “I’m a plumber,” or “I’m Baptist,” what had begun as a personal option had become an entire identity.

What I found so alarming about this was that in South Africa I lived in the middle of a revolution, where people died, sometimes as innocent bystanders, but always because of a political identity. The anger I felt and witnessed here was just as deep, just as mindless, as what I saw in South Africa – despite the absence of war and terrorism. Then, in September of 2001, we had terrorism. For all too brief a time, we were Americans, together, again. Then we had the Patriot Act, and the War, and Homeland Security. It was the latter, despite all the protected rights that we lost permanently with the Patriot Act, that spelled out “South Africa” for me in huge letters.

Of all the names they could have given that agency, they picked Homeland Security. The name of the most abusive agency in South Africa, the agency that could do whatever it wished to any person, and justify it under the name of Homeland Security. Forget your rights, if Homeland Security considered you any kind of threat to South Africa. Now I live, again, in a country where I say the same thing about an agency with the same name and mission.

In apartheid South Africa, the poor were disenfranchised and abused by the wealthy. And so, it seems, they will be in America. Politics in South Africa were corrupt. People hated other people for being different, and it was enough to kill them for. The wealthy, to protect themselves, lived in walled compounds with security guards – actually prisoners in their own homes.   I often longed for the freedom of a small town neighborhood in America, where I could take a walk by myself late in the evening, or sleep with my windows open. Now, locking my door here in America is such a habit that I keep locking myself out when I go to get the mail.

Finally, in South Africa the architects of apartheid (pronounced, appropriately, “apart – hate”) based their political stand on their religious belief that the Bible clearly stated that the races should not intermarry. Like many such interpretations, even if true, it is hardly enough to merit committing murder. Especially if you are able to ignore virtually dozens of other “thou shalt nots” without turning a hair. They also subscribed to the belief that they were the chosen people of God, who had given them South Africa for their own, and their political wealth and power to prove His point. Take the race issues out of the question and look at the scene in socioeconomic colors, and the parallels with America today become really depressing.

In the end, South Africa also learned that you can’t legislate morality.   America has forgotten that truth.

I am certain that in every generation there are the elders, looking back with saddened eyes and faces, mourning the country that they once knew. Today, I am one of those. The pendulum of history has swung too far since the craziness of the 60s, and a swing back to the opposite point again is inevitable. I just hope to live to see it hesitate, for a little while, in the balance of moderation.