Sometimes I think we should all walk around with signs around our necks. This is not a unique idea. I remember Jane suggesting this very concept in the movie “For Love of the Game.” The idea Jane proposed was that if men and women wore signs around our neck describing our thoughts, life would be a lot easier and we would have a lot less confusion. At first glance, it seems like a great idea, not just for relationships between men and women but among all of us. Communication is paramount – so why not sidestep the BS and cut right to the chase? Hang a sign around your neck and let everyone know what you’re thinking so they don’t have to guess, or ask, or put in any effort at all. Brilliant!
Or is it?
I’ve worn a lot of signs around my neck over the years, figuratively speaking. In an effort to belong and feel accepted, I’ve thrown myself into a number of various groups. Sometimes I’ve even literally slapped a sign on me, like when I put my sorority letters on my shirt at Greek Week or donned the standard issue polo-shirt-with-company-logo at a marketing conference. “I am a Gamma Phi Beta!” I was announcing to the world. “Can’t you understand these Greek letters?” Or in the case of the business garb, “I’m with CUDC, not CUDL. That last letter makes a huge difference! We may be in the same industry and do exactly the same thing but our logo is blue and yellow, not green and yellow. I’m one of them, not one of you. Don’t you know who we are?”
Now with modern innovations such as the infamous profile picture on Facebook, we can take things a step further. Instead of simply wearing a logo on a t-shirt, we can add graphics and borders and catchy phrases to a selfie and put it out there into the netherworld. In a fraction of a second, we can paint a picture of ourselves and declare our allegiance to a cause or two. We can now quite literally label ourselves.
Has this new way of labelling ourselves helped ease confusion? Has it increased communication among us? Or has it had the opposite effect, instead dividing us more than ever?
When we slap a label on ourselves, we are in a sense hiding behind that label. We simplify things to our detriment. We erase the nuance that colors our world. We even erase the gray, so that everything is seen in black and white. Are you for us, or against us? Are you one of us, or one of them? When we declare where we fit in, we also declare where we don’t.
With a few little words emblazoned across our photo we shout to the world, “I Stand!” or, “I Kneel!” In the wake of a horrible national tragedy we say, “I Support the 2nd Amendment” or, “It’s Not Too Early to Talk about Guns- It’s Too Late.” These declarations are intended to create feelings of pride and solidarity. Standing up (or kneeling) for what we believe is empowering. We believe incredibly strongly in what we are supporting and we want to fight for our convictions. We are not just lazily sitting around – we are taking action and announcing our principles and values out loud. We feel like we are making the world a better place.
But is it possible that there is more to a person than whether they stand or kneel? Is it possible that there is more to the subject of guns in America than being for or against the 2nd Amendment? Is it possible that we’re erasing all the shades of gray in the middle of important subjects that deserves more discussion and examination?
I’ve personally done more than my share of labelling. I have used many labels on my profile picture to announce my opinion on various subjects or declare my allegiance to various groups. In addition to the benign “Fighting for a Cure” or “We Stand with London” borders, I’ve also used plenty of politically motivated ones.
When I choose a saying or the symbol to adorn my selfie, I feel great! I feel convicted and justified and proud of my values. I want other people to agree with me. I want to connect with people that think the same way. I want to convince the people that think differently than me that they are wrong, and that their opinions are hurting the world, and that I’m more right than they are. If they can just see things the way I see them, and change their minds, then life would be so much better. I want to make the world a better place, darn it!
What I’ve found is that putting these frames on my profile picture doesn’t encourage conversation – it simply shuts it down. I find myself getting all sorts of feedback from people that agree with me, sure, but zero engagement from the people I care about who do not. I may get a few angry comments or even full-blown tirades, but absolutely nothing in terms of meaningful conversation, connection or understanding from someone who has a different opinion than me. The labels simply make the chasm between us larger.
The interesting thing is, when I put a label on my profile picture, I very rarely consider my opinions extreme, or black and white. I see many different sides of different arguments and I appreciate the subtleties that flood each issue. I have friends and family members with ridiculously varying opinions and I honestly understand and appreciate their viewpoints. Life is complicated! Social issues are complex! It’s simply not appropriate to simplify our opinions to such a point as to block all input from the so-called opposition.
Yet, when I reduce my opinion to a blanket statement, I’m deleting all the possibilities. I’m saying that while I may understand that the issue at hand is complicated, and that there are completely legitimate reasons for someone else to hold a different opinion, their opinions simply don’t matter. Mine does.
Maybe it’s time to stop the labeling.
Should we stop standing up for what we believe in? No! Should we stop supporting the causes we passionate care about? Absolutely not! I’m suggesting we can do it without diminishing our thoughts and opinions to a blanket statement, and without shutting down the conversations we need to have before they even happen.
We are trying to stand up for our beliefs when we declare what we believe in, but in practice, we are simply dividing our society more than ever. And right now, we need to have the messy, complicated, nuanced conversations. We need to see each other. We need to hear all the voices, not just the ones that agree with us. We need to appreciate our fellow Americans as the diverse and valuable citizens they are not only because they feel exactly how we feel about a given subject but precisely because they do not.
True and lasting social change comes from listening and understanding much more than it comes from talking and dismissing. Today, I’m shedding my labels and opening my ears. Our problems are too important for me not to.