the kirbster on Creative Commons

Labels

I didn’t realize that posting a video showing a Muslim woman standing up in silent protest at a Trump rally would spark people to comment on my Facebook timeline (who have never commented on any posts of mine). I want to thank those people who argued with me for helping to remind me of my own values and how far I sometimes drift away from them.

“You can’t accept presents from black boys. They might get ideas.” “Are you going to the prom with your Abie Jew-boy?” “I got you these baby clothes, but I had to fight the Mexicans off them. They ruin everything.” “That boy is a secret-cell terrorist right there.” “AIDS is God’s punishment on gay people.”

All of the quotes were said to me. Except the last one. That one, shamefully, was one I said long ago and far away when I was a member of a Fundamentalist (some would say “extremist”) Baptist church in, of all places, California. And because I can own my own prejudice, bigotry, and hateful words, I know also that minds and hearts can be changed.

My friends don’t believe me when I explain that I used to be a hard-right, Fundamentalist Southern Baptist, who went door to door trying to convert “unbelievers” (read: any other belief than mine). But it’s true. It was only when I actually read the New Testament for myself and thought my own thoughts, rather than those of the pastor of that church, that I began to see how I labeled the “other” in my life. And how that labeling gave me a false sense of superiority.

It’s so easy to be right when you never get challenged. It’s so easy to label people if you don’t ever try to know them as people. It’s so easy to judge and condemn people. I loved that life because I didn’t have to think very much or very hard.

Listening — really listening to people who disagree with me, argue with me, and point out my flaws is humbling, hard, and painful. Meeting new people, especially those who speak a different language than me, is intimidating, anxiety-provoking, and difficult. Being empathetic to another person’s experience is really hard when that person behaves in a way that is uncivil, ungraceful, awkward, or embarrassing.

Carl Jung believed that we could find wholeness by embracing what he termed our shadow — that part of ourselves that is frightening, embarrassing, awkward, and sometimes evil. Dr. Phillip Zimbardo created a terrifying experiment that proved how, given the right conditions, any of us are capable of evil.

No one, it seems, bothers me more than someone who exhibits behaviors that I am ashamed of having myself. This American Life recently did a brilliant piece featuring how this shadow self motivates Internet trolls.

What helps is to admit it, to be aware of your own tendency to put labels on people and dehumanize them. Einstein believed we all could get better at confronting what he called humanity’s infinite capacity for “stupidity.”

The picture illustrating this post is from my all-time favorite children’s book The Sneetches, which I read often to remind myself that all labels are created by us to make us feel better about ourselves. There are also quite a few real-life McBean’s who make money off of labeling, and encourage all of our prejudices and bigotry. It’s a great, short read. This link is not so short, and not so easy to read, but it’s an important reminder that the main world religions command believers to treat others the same way they want to be treated.

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