Peeling off the labels

We live in a society that increasingly seems to demand that all actions, thoughts, beliefs and individuals be labeled in no uncertain terms, one way or another.

If you believe at all in the value of government or support federal healthcare, you must be a socialist. If you oppose abortion or support protecting America’s borders, you must be a conservative.

You went to an expensive college and drive a nice car? You’re probably an arrogant brat living off your parents. You feel most comfortable drinking a Budweiser in jeans and a t-shirt on your front porch? You’re obviously a country redneck.

Bike 10 miles to work each day instead of driving? You must be a crazy tree-hugger. Go to church regularly? You must be part of the extreme Religious Right.

Don’t like President Obama? You’re a racist. Didn’t like President G.W. Bush? You were anti-American.

Feel the need to defend those whose views represent the minority on a particular topic? You’re probably too politically correct. Speak out regularly about something you believe in strongly? You’re an obnoxious loudmouth.

Just stop it. Please.

It wasn’t always this way. What changed? When did we become so dependent upon – and determined to identify – finite labels for everything and everyone? It’s truly not our best look. And not the healthiest way to exist.

Perhaps, in this age of instant gratification, specialized news coverage, an undying barrage of e-mail, social media and television, it’s become our natural defense mechanism – a way to sort through all the noise.

Faced with so much to digest seemingly every minute, we lack the patience, the time – or both – to examine opinions, beliefs or even facts to which we don’t already subscribe. Instead, we sift through this informational overload, hungrily searching for those nuggets of personal “truth” to which we do, while casting the rest aside.

We make snap judgments – and attach convenient labels – because we don’t care to invest the time and energy to dig any deeper.

When we encounter someone who holds a fundamentally opposite viewpoint on a key issue, we become wary and begin looking for other differences, in order to justify our own senses of right and wrong while devaluing (whether intentionally or not) those of others.

A nation polarized
Yesterday was the 13th anniversary of the September 11th attacks – events that have changed us as a nation more than once since then. There was, for the most part, great unity among Americans in the immediate aftermath of that terrible day. From overwhelming sadness, fear and anger came national pride, determination and strength.

But it also brought out the worst in some of us, too – as evidenced, for example, by the suspicious glances or worse that have been tossed by far too many people in the direction of Muslims in this country, as if they should all be considered the “enemy.”

I fear that we’re now as polarized a nation as we’ve ever been, and that is discouraging. Compromise – true, actual compromise – seems to be a thing of the past politically, while the trickle-down effects of that reality have permeated society as a whole. We are less tolerant and less respectful of each other than we once were.

Never has it been easier, or faster, to express our opinions for the whole world to hear. Like an infant who screams and babbles constantly upon recognizing that he can, we have rushed to be heard however, and wherever, we can be. Online forums, radio talk shows, comment sections, blogs and social media sites empower our voices but force us to hear others, too.

And as long as we must hear them, it seems, we choose mostly to hear those who sound a lot like we do, largely because it makes us feel better about ourselves. We’d rather reassure ourselves that our ideas are correct than spend any time learning more about why others think differently.

And thus, we deepen the divide between ourselves and those we perceive to be our opposites. This is a critical mistake.

So how can we change this?

We can start by peeling off the labels that we wear – and more importantly, those that we attach to others.

We can stop using words like “liberal” and “conservative” as if they were four-letter words.

We can stop assuming that people who look and act the most like us must have the most in common with us, too – and that those who look and act differently than we do must be completely unlike us.

We can take the time to view things through the perspective of someone with whom we disagree in certain ways and in the process actively seek out points of common interest and agreement on other topics.

We can realize that it’s ok to have a point of view, but it’s also ok to change that view in light of new information, new ideas or new experiences.

In short, we can start treating each other as human beings again. This is a lesson that we mostly followed in the days, weeks and months after Sept. 11, 2001, but it has faded from our memory now.

We have much to learn from each other. It’s time we started trying a little harder.

E-mail Citizen Publisher Tom Lappas at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
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October 2017
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