If millennials want to become the most tolerant, open-hearted generation in human history, it starts with taking the right mental posture towards people and ideas we disagree with.
There are many different solutions to making our society more civil; but the most effective one might be this – to fully understand the harmfulness of labeling.
Outside and Below
Let’s break down what labeling does. First, if you say “he’s an x,” or “she’s a y” what are you saying about yourself? Well, you’re mentioning that you are not part of group x or y, this person is in another group.
Now, when we talk about groups other than our own, do we usually refer to them as better than the ones we associate with or worse? Unless we’re giving praise (which isn’t what we’re talking about here) then it almost certainly isn’t better. No, most likely you’re saying this person’s group (and by extension, them) is to some degree worse than you and your group. This is especially true for labels with strong moral qualifications like “racist” or “sexist.”
So whenever you give someone a label, in the background, you’re claiming that This person is an “other,” and I am better than them.
When you label someone you place them outside and below you. They are now outside the circle of people you identify with (even though you likely share the same State, Country, Fears, Dreams, and Humanity). And since this group is one you consider to be bad, you now believe, albeit subconsciously, that you and yours are better than them and theirs.
What to do instead of labeling
But isn’t it still the case that people do and say horrible things? What should you do then?
You remind yourself that anger grows to hate.
Let’s picture a scenario where you hear someone say something that you believe is wrong. This person might fall under two broad categories.
1) The genuinely don’t know or don’t believe what they said is bigoted.
2) They know and they don’t care.
What’s the appropriate response in these scenarios? Well in the first one, it’s clear to see that screaming bigot into their eardrums won’t get you anywhere.
In the second case, the person is already braced for and might even relish in the response they’re expecting from you. In the same way a troll thrives on attention, someone in this second category has all the mental blocks and talking points at their disposal to reject any spiteful reaction you give to them.
If all you care about is feeling morally superior, then yes labeling is the perfect plan, you get to feel great about yourself, and they get to double down on their position. Problem worsened.
Refraining from calling people “bigot” and its synonyms isn’t the only type of labeling we need to worry about. There’s another kind that’s much more subtle and just as corrosive – if you’ve ever been called a “liberal,” you know the kind I’m talking about.
We often talk about the issues of partisanship in broad terms, but we don’t think about what partisanship sounds like when it comes out of our mouths.
Here’s how it works. Once we’ve decided that we’re not part of a certain group, we then go on to create the worst interpretation of that group’s worst example until we’ve developed deep seeded negative connotations towards anyone in that category.
If you lean right, instead of reading a fair, measured critique about President Trump’s foreign policy, you spend your time focusing on the tiny instances of paid protestors and self-righteously call the “left” corrupt.
If you lean left, you could easily spend a few minutes learning why many extremely intelligent people believe free-market economic systems are the way to go, but instead, you hate-read some far-right site, share it and say “this is what the Republican Party stands for? Sad!”
As we continue to generalize and slander, we drop the qualifying words, “some Republicans” becomes simply “Republicans.” Over time, the label of the other becomes an instant trigger for eye-rolling and coldness. Names that were once used for the practical purpose of describing a group of mostly good hearted like-minded people, now become insults onto themselves.
It’s not Activism, it’s Ego
Labeling is the perfect ego trip.
I can’t stress this enough, we label not because it’s a courageous act of civility, but because it feels great. There is something about calling someone out that makes us feel more secure in our own roles and identities. It’s selfish, an exercise in pretend moral superiority that separates our livelihood and well-being from our neighbor’s.
If you’ve successfully convinced yourself that you don’t identify with someone with a label different than yours. then it becomes a lot easier to judge them even more in the future. To be even harsher in your criticisms next time around, even more shameful, all in the name of justice.
Treat your fellow neighbor, the one with traditional values who isn’t quite sure about gay marriage, treat them with the same open-mindedness you treat a refugee, that they’re fundamentally good, deserving of dignity and a voice.
Labeling is the closest thing we have to social bullying. It may work in the moment but like all kinds of abuse, the moment your back is turned, the instant it’s you (or “your side”) that slips up, they’ll be at your throat. At least, that’s the better case scenario. The worst case is that you never hear from them again, the shaming shuts them up as they bottle in the resentment, the humiliation.
Labeling feels like you’re standing up to something like you’re speaking a truth that others don’t have the courage to say. But that’s a lie. What you’re doing is not courageous, nor powerful, nor any form of civic duty.
If all we Millennials do is be tolerant towards the people we like, but be spiteful and separatist towards those we disagree with, we are no better than those who came before us.