The Constructive Power of Discarding Labels

From Left: Andrew Ballen, Cornel West, Tavis Smiley

Amidst the rancor and some might argue chaos that is our social media inflected and driven existence, I continue to find Life unimaginably beautiful. Nationalism, Liberalism, Conservatism, Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Baha’i, secular-humanism, Christianity, Empiricism, are a few of the many semantic labels we use as signposts in our search for identity, wholeness; the journey toward what Eckhart Tolle calls “Non-identification with Form.” A wrestling of sorts with Maslow’s hierarchy of need. People’s wrestling with identity is not new. It occurs within (our opinions, ideas, ideologies) and occurs externally, as an attachment to virtual/material “identity” (as though this material real or imagined is somehow “our” permanent possession). This is the ego talking, and while the conversation itself is not new, social media has flipped it into high-gear as nothing before in human history. Danger lurks here.

On reflection, I find the only things Ego might deign to possess are its individuated actions and intention at any given moment. Thus, I hope all human actions are presaged by attention, care, and consequent empathy. Social media makes this increasingly difficult. Today, we are more often identified and measured by our pages, accounts and their archived and algorithmically tabulated dynamics over time. These virtual spaces and identities have, for a generation of Digital Natives, in fact, become who and what we are. I suspect, as many others must, that this growing addiction to virtual, egoic identity as a proxy for actual identity and worth: predictive analytics, clicks, followers, clustering, attributional preference, reposts, retweets and all the many superficial, virtual forms of value assessment to which we now kow-tow, do not, on the whole, bode well for humanity. It may well be that these digitized, numerical proxies for identity, have warped our understanding of empathic action and human value, making our real, fluid, human identities appear virtual, while these tabulated, virtual identities increasingly appear fixed, and all too real.

This begs a question: are these labels we use as the virtual anchors of identity truly necessary, or are they merely adjunct economic indexes inside a panoply of invective-laced discourse and pacifying advertisement that have become our global, virtual village commons? Is parsing difference what truly edifies and defines us? If so, in what way does it champion the cause of conflict resolution, value or empathic growth and understanding? Do labeling and archiving the labels we choose buoy humanity or justify the spiritual damage and social conflict ‘labels’ and ‘tags’ so often aid and abet?

I am not positing that repose and reflection with like-minded souls run counter to empathy or an expanded sense of community, not at all! Knowledge of “self,” is a sine non qua on the path to the acknowledgment of our existence within the larger global community. One cannot acknowledge the humanity of another, before first contemplating and acknowledging the self. This stands to reason. The fundamental question for me is whether the virtual identities, affiliations, and objects we now so rapidly accrete unto ourselves and others: likes, dislikes, political affiliation; the ideologies we cling to as the North stars truly so indispensable in a larger contextual sense?

I think they are not. And I think we must rapidly move beyond them. Indeed, we are, by necessity, moving toward a paradigm shift in the nomenclature (and very nature) of identity, toward a spiritual awakening. Fukuyama wrote of The End of History, and the Last Man in 1995; I would argue that the end of “history” as he then defined it, will only occur when the human spirit transcends this reactive, egoic vice-grip, catalyzed by social media’s daily insistence that we view ourselves through the mirror of virtual distance and difference from others.

We as a species can not out-run or out-evolve Moore’s or Godwin’s Law, but we can, perhaps, transcend them. Amidst the palpable rise in rancor- as a means of species preservation- we shall have to discard, or at minimum redefine, the meaning and importance of what has metastasized into a neurotically complex array of “I/me” vs. “other” identifiers. Interestingly, social media, while universally insistent on “like” buttons are totally devoid of the “I hear what you are saying” button or even “I don’t fully understand, but can empathize, let’s talk more” button. These empathic signifiers’ absence, while perhaps quantitatively not as remarkable as the “like,” or “repost” functions, do symbolize the endemic superficiality of our virtual village commons, today’s primary discursive media. This ought to change.

This goal is lofty, but not impossible. “Non-identification with form” can manifest through the conscious, consistent espousal of greater knowledge and empathy. Amidst this virtual insanity, we should bear in mind that the rapidity of a response is by no means indicative of the wisdom or empathy the response embodies. Going viral is in no way a reliable measure of one’s human worth. Empathy, however, is. Empathy patiently acknowledged and intentionally gifted outwardly to the “other” and inwardly to the “self”- within this construct we perceive as 4-dimensional space-time- is vital. Einstein might well have been a philosopher, for he had much to say about this “perceived reality” and the stark consequences we face, should avarice and ego cause us to take ourselves too seriously, while treating the “other,” the voiceless, the perceived opposition, with increasing levels of distance, callousness and disdain. Today, Michio Kaku rails against the tribalism that he and other people of science identify (along with ribald megalomania) as the most insidious threat to humanity’s transition from a prepubescent Type 0 Civilization to a more empathic Type 1 Civilization. Should our species-wide goal be this advance of civilization, then a consequent goal must be the strenuous, healthy exercise of empathy in our online interactions. We must listen intently to different stories, and hear them. We must not let the mania of self-identification and the abetting algorithm become the seat of our soul or the measure of our worth. To do so is to commit spiritual and material seppuku.

Regardless of how “real” the 4-dimensional construct we identify space-time is, we experience it as real; and real lives are weighed in the balance. We are carbon-based, sentient life forms, but we will soon find that we are also much, much more. As this search for who we are continues, conscious empathy and non-identification with fixed material form is something for which we must be alert, lest we end our human journey of exploration abruptly, having inflicted our own pre-mature demise.

I will be the first to acknowledge that discarding fixed social “identity” and its subsequent replacement with a more fluid, empathic mutuality is a semantic, cultural and intellectual challenge of the highest order- but we have few better options. Posterity’s best bet is NOT to continue to neurotically attach possessive labels, (e.g., I am/I identify as a ______ so and so) to ourselves or to each other on or offline. If we persist in labeling and creating virtually distant “others,” we risk forfeiting posterity for the sake of an insatiable ego. Each time any one of us lays claim to a distinct “identity,” we inevitably create an additional “other.” This “me/other” egoic mentality, should it continue, will become a bane of our existence. We need only watch the market-driven 24-hour news cycle to witness its damning effects. Reflexive tribalism, real and virtual, is a collective neurosis spinning out of control.

Reflexive labeling of self and other, cleaves us further from the empathic heights to which our still prepubescent species is destined, if we but make the effort! In the last 120 years, humanity has realized more scientific breakthroughs than in the 1,000 years previous. A thousand years hence, will Love, Existence, or the tribal “me” vs. “other” still require name and affiliation? The very thought seems ludicrous. So let us begin today. We can start by discarding this obsession with reflexive virtual responses based on fixed material labels, exchanging them for the more fluid possibilities of mutuality and change. This fits nicely with the material recognition, that the very things we grip most tightly: possession, position, politics, likes, dislikes, concepts, belief, ideology, all bound to ego, are inevitably the most temporary things we hold. Only our mutuality lasts. With pluck and empathic endeavor, our species may well last, too.

I believe we shall soon find, we are ultimately and quite simply, each other. This realization will require heightened education, awareness, and a grass-roots semantic/discursive recalibration, but there will be no getting around it. Internecine conflict throughout and egoic conflict within are of the same phylum; both are created by the need to hold fast to identities, material and ideologies we believe are fixed, when they are in fact, transitory.

Bob Marley calls the stranglehold delimited identity places on humanity “mental slavery” and he admonishes that we free ourselves from it saying, “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds!”

I see a new paradigm, discarding fixed me vs. other identities, as the trajectory for which planetary civilization, real and virtual, should aim. I believe it must be where we take each other, lest we collectively choose to perish in a funerary pit of our own macabre design.

Either way, we shall do it. Together.

Andrew Ballen