Labels Are a Double-edged Sword

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I mentioned in a previous post that one of the things we need in the world is the ability to group together with other like-minded people to support each other in the way of life we prefer. Nationalism is a good thing in a world with billions of people who each have their own idea about how their lives should be. By compartmentalizing ourselves with others who share our values, we can work together to push into the future.

On the other hand, this mentality can be taken too far. When it is applied broadly as part of a general value set that is flexible enough to apply to millions, it is a helpful framework to keep us on the path. Our natural tendency, however, is to start narrowing our categories to further and further define our groups. It is when we refine the concept down too far that we start running into trouble.

The primary ideal in our country used to be that we are all Americans and our focus was to push the nation forward. Our predecessors valued the country over themselves and, even though we fought about a great many things, the spirit of that fighting was to create a better life for our citizens. The disagreements we had were discussed rather than shouted, and while some things required radical action to get done, most of our issues could be resolved with dignity and respect.

Our situation today is far more precarious. We have taken the idea of healthy group identity and distilled it down to a micro level. The focus is no longer on our nation and our citizens as a whole, but on what group we belong to and how we can seize a piece of the pie that is America. As we watch radical groups on both sides of the ideological spectrum maneuver for power, those of us in the middle who just want to live our lives are caught in the crossfire.

This is the problem with taking anything too far, especially something as dangerous as identity politics. As we sink further and further into these groups, we lose our shared sense of collaboration toward a larger goal. We turn into squabbling tribes clamoring to hold onto our tiny bit of real estate. This unnecessary competition breeds discontent and violence, and it becomes impossible to get to any kind of peaceful resolution on anything.

Perhaps the biggest label war that we still have to deal with today is “race”. We have been brainwashed into believing that the color of our skin has some kind of bearing on our interactions with the world around us. The ugly part is that this we have made this the truth. Rather than recognizing that skin color is a horrible way to judge someone, we continue to try to use it as a metric to implement our will in the country. Instead of striving to remove “race” from our consciousness, we cling to it in an effort to get whatever we can from it.

The single biggest factor in our return to this kind of barbarism is the rampant advance of technological media. We are so connected now that it is impossible to filter bad ideas from good ones. The vitriol of faceless public discourse has thrust us right back into the hateful bigotry we once strove to overcome. There are no consequences for saying anything horrible when no one knows you’re the one who said it. And as more people jump on your bandwagon, people looking to score points for their own ends speak out publicly because they believe they have the support to do so.

What can we do in the face of this? The problem has advanced too far to undo the damage. All we can hope for at this point is to figure out a way to heal the wound and live with the scar. We could never support the level of oppression it would take to purge what has happened from our society, so all we can do is bandage it and hope for the best. Sometimes time is the only thing that can fix things.

Between now and then, however, we need to do our best to continue pushing for reasonable discussion rather than sensational grandstanding. It’s certainly more exciting to listen to a great orator railing against a perceived injustice, but like most things in life we need something much more plain than that. A healthy diet is a boring one, and the same applies to our politics. We need to shift away from “charismatic” politicians who convince us to follow their cause and move our votes toward sober, responsible people who truly have our best interests at heart. Only then can we hope for a better future.

What do you think about labels? Do you truly identify with how others classify you, or are you more than that? How do you feel when someone brings up something like “race” or “political party”? If we can learn to choose the right labels and discard the bad ones, we might have a fighting chance to save our country. If we don’t, we will continue to march down that path of inevitable destruction that once befell the Roman Empire.

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