Labels are killing us, and we’ve got to stop it.


In order to understand this post, you’ve got to understand a little about lost causes.

I struggled with the title of this post, until I remembered my earlier thoughts about the idea of lost causes. The events of the past few days have caused people to say things — on social media, on national television, and on radio, no less — that should not be said. People have stooped to namecalling and labelling in a way that I have not seen in the public discourse in my lifetime. And it needs to stop — on all sides, it needs to stop.

You are addicted to your narrative.

The Lost Cause Narrative is an accepted story, resulting from disputed version of events supported by an individual or by a group, that is not universally accepted by other neighboring individuals or groups, which later comes to define the behavior of that individual or group.

The narrative is an addiction, an obsession, that we usually dismiss as a grudge. The thing about grudges is that they come to define our life, and they enable the discourse — or lack thereof — that we have been privy to in the past several days.

Lost causes don’t do damage — it’s the resulting narrative that destroys people.

In order to catch the idea, you’ve got to catch the distinction between the lost cause and the narrative. The lost cause is not in itself bad. I’ve championed innumerable lost causes in my career. Operational changes, training programs, advertising schemes — you name it. They may have all been perfectly good ideas, but when taken to the discussion table, for whatever reason they weren’t adopted.

The narrative comes later, when resentment is allowed to breed, fester, and create a story — an alternate narrative — that comes to define our behavior in subsequent interactions with opposing parties.

In this narrative, the discussion has never ended, and it becomes part of a larger story — one where the opposing parties are not just in opposition to my idea, but they are in some way a threat to my existence. They opposed my idea, not out of rational disagreement, but out of a deeper plot to damage my reputation or effectiveness, and prevent me from being successful. In this narrative, success becomes a zero sum game, where their success necessitates my failure, and vice versa.

The narrative necessitates a label. And labels kill.

The only way to operate within a lost cause narrative is by virtue of labels. People who don’t see the value of an idea must be labeled “stupid”, “selfish”, or worse. We’ve all heard it in the past few days on the radio, on social media, and on television. Our detractors detract, not because they have conscientious objections, but because they are actually ___.

Labels are good in an actual war. The enemy is labeled “enemy”, and that’s the end of it — we try to kill them. But as our world becomes more and more connected, it behooves us to not think of all our rhetorical, economic, and political disagreements as wars. Our adversaries are real people, with real lives that continue on long after the dispute has ended. When we choose to live within narratives that lend apocalyptic qualities to our disputes, we reduce the chances of real engagement and peaceful existence in the aftermath to near zero. 

Labelling cheats you — not them.

Labelling others in the midst of a dispute cuts off our ability to relate to them. It assigns them to a box, inside of which, they are no longer significant as a rational, independent entity. They are now “stupid”, or “awful”, or worse — ignorant and unenlightened.

The problem with that is that it’s not true. People with whom you disagree are, nonetheless, still people. And who is to say that you are more informed? When you place a label, what you’ve actually done is cut yourself off from the possibility of engagement and persuasion. You’ve ensured that person will not come to see things from your point of view — because nobody is convinced of anything if they are not first engaged as a rational actor. 

Understanding enables us to have the life we were meant to have.

We were not meant to label our everyday adversaries. Children engage in such activities — and parents do their best to help bring children into the word of adults, where complex situations require people to make hard decisions. People who disagree with us are not bad. They are not bad, and they deserve our time, consideration, and respect.

If we are to ever get time, consideration, and respect from others, we must first be givers, and not takers.

 

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