Labels, Laziness, and Prejudice

Santa Clarita Signal • Ethically Speaking Column • For March 5 weekender, 2016

Labels, Laziness, and Prejudice

David W. Hegg

Labels certainly have a purpose. They can tell us what kind of soup is in the can, and how many grams of this and that will enter our bodies if we eat it. But when we start labeling people we’ve crossed the line into the murky area of oversimplification and are at risk of all kinds of prejudice.

Our society has long since determined it wrongheaded to label someone simply on the basis of gender, age, or ethnicity. In fact, there are times when this dogma is so radio-active it actually denies us the ability to even talk about gender, age or ethnicity, but that subject will have to wait for a future column. My point here is only to show the sheer hypocrisy of those who would never think of labeling a soul based on skin color but never think twice about doing so on the basis of beliefs.

It will come as no surprise that I would be considered an Evangelical. Most reading this immediately think of this label in terms of a voting block with political aspirations. Further, most Americans, upon hearing that I am an Evangelical, will believe they know what I believe, how I will vote, and what, if any, value I would bring to a conversation. And that’s the problem with labels. They allow us to paint with a broad, often prejudicial brush, while allowing us to be lazy in actually coming to understand a different point of view.

We also see this in the current political races. Labels are being thrown around everywhere in an attempt to undermine another’s position. Recently, “establishment” and “anti-establishment” labels have gained currency, along with shameful labels such as “liar”, “con-man”, and “choker.” Of course, we can’t forget the old standbys of “liberal” and “conservative.” And what about “socialist?” All these are dangerous in that they attempt to define what is inside a person’s “soup can” without forcing us to taste the soup.

Labels are dangerous for at least two reasons. First, they foster laziness by forming opinions without due diligence. I would venture to say a huge percentage of Americans today couldn’t define “socialism” if asked. The same goes for “liberal” and “conservative”, both of which can be used in a number of disparate arenas including finance, political theory, and theology. If you really want to understand socialism, or liberal political theory, or conservative theology, you’ll actually have to roll up your sleeves and study those who best represent it, including those in opposition. But then again, it is much easier to go with the label and skip the honesty of hard work. Prejudice without pursuit of truth is always more convenient.

Secondly, labels are dangerous because they are a form of intellectual prejudice. They allow us to categorize someone else on the basis of some label they’ve been given. They allow us to be “belief-ist” and dislike someone on the basis of what we think they believe without ever really hearing from them in context. We simply label them, and form opinions of their intellect, honesty, and value based on that label. In my mind, that’s no different than forming an opinion of someone’s worth based on their skin color.

As for the label Evangelical, let me help you understand. The word originated in the 16th century, probably in Germany during the Protestant Reformation. To distinguish themselves from the medieval church, Luther’s followers rallied around the “evangel”, the Greek word for “good news” or “gospel.” They taught God encountered the individual directly through the gospel message, and not only through the sacraments of the church. In this sense, I am an Evangelical. But if you try to label me politically on the basis of my theology, you’d be just as prejudicial as if you tried to do so on the basis of my age, gender, or ethnicity.

We all have a front row seat on the demise of thinking in our society. As I said in a previous column, too many are allowing too few to do their thinking for them, and often it means allowing labels to form our opinions. But increasingly, unless they come on our food, labels are dangerous. They talk us into believing things we really don’t know. If you want to know who I am, what I believe, and how I view the world, don’t label me … ask me.