Another Way to See the World

Susan Cooke

I woke up this morning thinking about how strange it is that labels hold such power in our lives. Of course I see that they’re useful, or else how would you find a Target store or the right train station either in person or online? How would you find things and remember people, without names?

But I’m thinking we might be better off without some labels that might not be quite so necessary. It could  be wonderful if we consciously made efforts to remove the power from many of them. Think of the power of the labels Democrat and Republican, and even more about “liberal” and “conservative.” How many times a day do we hear them in heated arguments about problems we seem to fight about often yet rarely solve, such as immigration, abortion, gun control, and more? How about the word “immigrant” which in many people’s minds is associated with fear or hatred? Think of the sweep of assumptions many make about a person with that label, or the labels “Islamic” or “Jewish.”

Imagine you move to another country, and now you are called an immigrant. What if you were instead just called “new friend” or “newly arrived person?” You’d still have to be checked on for safety purposes, at least while the world is the way it is now, but what if you were assumed to be non-dangerous and innocent of crime or ill will while the checking was done, and treated accordingly?

Names of countries too can become labels that conjure up images that may be way off base. When you think of Russia whose face do you see? Putin, who certainly does not represent all people who live in Russia although he does try to come close by attempting to control their opinions about others outside Russia. When you think of Mexico do you picture the old stereotype of a guy asleep under a striped blanket with a big hat on, or do you think of poor and violent people coming to the US and taking our jobs? Neither one has much to do with the majority of people who live in Mexico. Mexico is filled with beautiful music of all kinds, gorgeous art, fabulous food, and friendly, often quite happy people (with quite a sense of humor despite being at odds with their government in the recent past, say researchers). If you find yourself thinking negative things when you hear “Iran,” watch Rick Steves’ travel program on public TV in which he goes there and talks to many sweet, smiling people on the street who are delighted to meet him and say they love America.

I heard someone in government say on the news the other day in a description of our country, that we were this, that, and the other nice adjectives–I forgot exactly what they were–but one stood out to me immediately–he included in that string the label “Christian.” He was only trying to make us sound like a good country in several ways, but why did he throw in Christian–an extremely loaded label? We are not in fact a Christian country but a country filled with many religions. When you slap on a label you signal things to people both inside and outside our country about us that may not be true. If he used the label to mean we were good and charitable, that’s offensive to the people of other religions who are just as good and charitable.

How about the words rich and poor?  While it’s true it’s easier, for example, to get educated and employed if you’re rich, there are many poor people who are educated and underemployed or unemployed. There are many rich people who are quite uneducated in all or in many ways that can be surprising, some of whom may use their wealth to gain power and whose ignorance may then sometimes cause damage. We might want to ask ourselves whether or not we’re judging a person’s intellect, competency, or character fairly or accurately when we place a lot of value on the person’s level of wealth.

It’s hard to write sensibly about labels because they’re everywhere and used in so many different ways. The problems they come with are woven into our use of language in general, and language itself wields great power. We’ve seen, especially recently, that language does in fact matter greatly. Because words are some of the most powerful weapons that exist, we need to respect them, and that includes taking care with our using them to label. We need to be aware about how we might think too automatically about our labeling, or our hearing and seeing labels. I hope we can start to question much of that labeling and our acceptance of its use by others. How else can we ever get closer to what many of us know deep down is one of the best ways to help us make a more peaceful world? That is, a world in which it doesn’t matter which name, level of wealth, political party, country of origin, religion, and color a person is or has. What matters is what the person is made of inside.


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