Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Label me

I remember few things about my father from my childhood.  Mom and dad split up when I was a young boy, about six years old - so there are not too many things that I can say definitively that I remember about my dad and his personality.  He loved electronics.  He liked to garden. And he was quite possibly the most organized person I have ever met.  The first two traits I inherited, the third I sadly did not.  My father labeled everything.  If it could be categorized, you could find it filed away neatly on a shelf somewhere with other like objects and identified with a colorful label.  To this day I can remember the hundreds of record albums stored in our family room, organized first by genre and then alphabetically.

While this certainly has its advantages, it also has its limitations.  Not everything fits neatly into a label, which makes categorization difficult and somewhat inaccurate at times.  But the human mind seems to desire this order and so we persist.  If those labels were to stop at the widgets on our shelves, I suppose they would be nothing but helpful.

But examining a person in the same way can be troublesome.  Unlike a commoditized manufactured item that is almost identical to the one on the shelf next to it, humans are a product of infinitely different circumstances, experiences, inputs, and heritage.  No two are exactly alike.  Yet the desire to label persists.  The broadest of these labels are applied based upon nothing more than the geography of where one was born or currently lives.  They are Iranian, or American, or Chinese.  While it is true that there are certain cultural norms that are widely present in certain geographies that are not widely present in others, the idea that all 1.5 billion people living in southeast Asia can cohesively be labeled as anything should boggle the mind.  More narrowly, the labels continue with associations to a religious dogma such as Christian, Muslim, or Buddhist.  There are unquestionably some common tenets to these groups, but the fact that those who identify with one of those three words encompasses more than half the world's population, one should question the efficacy of those labels as well. They obviously mean vastly different things to those who claim membership in them.

The world of politics has plenty of labels too: conservative, liberal, communist, patriot.  The problem with all labels is that they are subject to application by people who freely define them in vastly different ways.  The label also ignores the different experiences, life circumstances, and heritage of those who might agree with part of the term has come to mean, but not all of it.  A person who calls himself a liberal, for instance, may not necessarily be supportive of abortion or gun control, while a conservative might not be supportive of prayer in schools.  These labels, like all attempts to categorize the complex thoughts of a human being, are all limiting and inadequate.  They, in fact, negate the individuality of people and deny them their own voice.  Worse, people can be assigned to a group only to have the defining characteristics of that group changed without their approval.  Such is often the case as societal agendas shift and members of that society embrace some of the new but retain much of the old.

These labels lend themselves well to stereotypes that might appear from highlighting some of the fringe elements of the "group".  Conspiracy theorists are all crazy.  Muslims think it pleases God to blow up their children.  Christians hate gays.  Americans are arrogant and fat.  Conservatives don't care about the environment.  While there is a reason why these stereotypes appeared, when they are broadly applied to a large group they are certainly found to be untrue.  Because the thoughts of the one are not the thoughts of the many.  But the very existence of the label can lead to exploitation of the members of that group by those in the media who wish to spin an agenda.  Associate an extreme person doing an extreme thing with a member of a given group and you have tarnished their image.  In fact, many unsavory individuals use a Trojan Horse tactic to infiltrate a popular cause and perform extreme acts in the name of the cause - thus redefining the cause and reducing those who would wish to be seen in alignment with that cause.  A perfect example of this - Tea Party activists (those concerned with excessive taxation) have successfully been re-branded as white racists.  Though there are surely some in the movement who are racist, the beginnings of the movement had nothing to do with race.  Who would want to wear that label?

Most of the time, people find themselves assigned to a group without having formally requesting to be assigned.  But other times, people willingly join a group simply because they derive power or a sense of identity through aligning themselves with groups of other people.  I see this happen in religion all the time.  People call themselves Christian because they want to go to heaven and think that joining a church and stating a belief in Jesus will get them there.  In some ways I think they simply want to ride someone else's coattails to the afterlife because they don't have confidence that they will get there on their own.  Al Quaeda has grown in popularity not necessarily because large amounts of people approved of their beliefs and tactics; rather, they viewed them as the only viable force to join to oppose the military intrusion of the West into their land. People joining groups for these reason generally try to figure out what the "group" believes, then (at least in public) make their lives resemble those norms.  They may have no more relationship to the group than mickey mouse does to a scorpion, but they join because they believe the group has something to offer them.  It is natural to seek power in situations like this and certain groups are conducive to granting such power.  However, it is concerning to me that some people think that by labeling themselves x,y, or z that they somehow will score spiritual points and end up gaining a place in the afterlife as a result of their self-identification.

Scripture states that while man looks at the outside, God looks at the heart.  Ultimately a person can label or be labeled all they want yet that will not change anything.  God sees the heart.  I would assert that unless one has the specific agenda to create division and disharmony, it is a bad idea on almost every level to try to categorize human beings.  Our attempts to do so are flawed at best, and quite damaging at worst.  They may make us temporarily feel better in our attempts to find meaning and purpose in life, but ultimately they only lead to division and death.  The best label a person can wear is the label that they are a human being - seeking the path of God for their life.  Encourage people to strive for this.