Breaking Our Labels

I am preparing to teach my Ethics course next week at my local university, and I again will be ramping up my vein of no holds barred conversation facilitation.

I keep thinking about the spectrum of arguments I have been hearing this past year in digital and face to face arenas, with the constant hammering of labels. The conclusion that family, friends and associates and I have been arriving is that labels must be broken if we are going to have true, honest, and authentic discourse.

This continuous holding of left and right, Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, anti-this and pro-that has done nothing to stimulate deeper dialogue, and find ways to discover solutions that benefit all of us.

The thing is, we know this, yet, we cannot seem to break away from it. Our labels become self-reinforcing by our need to establish something different. We keep referring to these labels in order to demonstrate how different we are, and what we end up doing is spending time talking about those labels, and end up not getting to the place we want to be.

And I am not saying this dispassionately. I know that I have a handsome degree of culpability. I have helped to perpetuate this, and even the work I am doing to break away brings me back to this dynamic from time to time. It takes a lot of practice to simply talk about an issue without discussing the sides involved, which invariably is only two.

It is unfortunate, because we fail in our effort to find multiple sides because that becomes the journey into the unknown, something of which we are not comfortable. So we revert to our comfort zone.

I will be challenging my students to evaluate as objectively as possible the entire spectrum of an issue, but can I really accomplish this? So far the voices that I will present are ones that are accessible to the mainstream public. How much am I able, or willing to stretch beyond that which is palatable to me to provide my students with multiple voices?

Of course there are time constraints. It is only a 15-week course, and there is much to accomplish. But I want to advance the notion of breaking labels, and going beyond their comfort zone to see things in ways they haven’t before.

I am attempting to do this with my blog posts. I feel like I’ve only just begun in this process. In order for me to stretch and expand, I must delve deeper, and take more risks. That also means I will risk offending people with my offerings as a result of what I discover and contemplate. But if I am to grow I must.

It is human to categorize, to label, to identify. It is what allows us to understand this world and how we function in it. That is healthy. Our rhetorical tearing of each other simply to make a point, or win an argument is not only toxic, but destructive.

But is it in our nature to destroy ourselves, as Arnold Schwarzenegger stated in Terminator 2?

I do not know. I also do not have an answer to this escalating problem of polarization by labels. It seems that it is worsening. Hopefully there will be a pendulum swing back to a semblance of civility – if it ever truly existed in the first place – instead of the conflict scaffolding that is occurring now.

Perhaps we can all begin a practice at the beginning of every conversation. Let’s tell the persons, or people in front of us, how about we set aside all of our labels and agree to not bring them up at any point?

It would be a Herculean effort, because we are inundated with social and network media that churn out this stuff like well-oiled machines, and we are so connected to them it feels as if they have become part of our DNA.

But they are not. They are our creation, so we can re-create them to fit our needs. Think about it, we are 350 million in this nation, so we outnumber the media, and it is the media that feeds upon us, so why don’t we give them different food?

I think we can do it. It’s like a muscle. As we practice we get stronger, until we master our new media language. We configure new digital speak. We make the new algorithms. We establish the new idioms.

A daily practice of label breaking may be the most liberating thing we can do in our lives.


Ron Kipling Williams