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Arbitrary Labels

Thomas Whitley

We use labels on a regular basis in an attempt to classify the world around us and make sense of it. Think about the following labels:

  • Conservative
  • Fundamentalist
  • Christian
  • Muslim
  • Liberal
  • Pro-life
  • Activist

As you think about each term some idea or image likely comes to mind, but that idea is different from mine, maybe not drastically different, but different nonetheless.

The problem with labels is that they hold no intrinsic meaning. We inject meaning into our labels through relationships. How we view ourselves and how we view those around us help determine what labels mean to us.

The case of Troy Davis reminded me once again of just how meaningless labels are. Many people around the world were (rightly) appalled that he was executed with so much doubt as to his guilt. So, naturally, in the 21st century many of these people took to social media platforms to express their feelings. Likewise, many in America believed that he had had enough time to prove his innocence and had been unable to so, so he deserved to die. Thus, an often heated debate about the use of the death penalty ensued.

I wrote recently about "Why I'm Pro-Life." Part of that post said:

I believe that one cannot be “pro-life” and condone capital punishment.

I still fully believe this, but the reality is that I was engaging in a power struggle over who gets to define the label "pro-life." Many people call themselves "pro-life" and support the death penalty, apparently even when there is doubt as to the guilt of the person being killed. Many others think it is nonsensical to say you support life while condoning state-sponsored murder.

I, of course, have a stake in this conversation and a particular direction in which I would like to see the conversation go, but I am reminding myself and others that part of what we are doing is fighting to define labels. I understand why; labels make our lives easier. If we can slap a label on someone else we don't have to get to know that person and understand the nuances of their thoughts/beliefs/convictions. But what I know is that the complicated nature of how I think, who I am as a person, and what make up my core convictions cannot be summed up in a trite label.

As you can see in my "Why I'm pro-Life" post, my views are nuanced. I do not want people to get abortions, but I support a woman's right to choose. So, while someone may define me as "pro-abortion" because I support a woman's choice, that is simply untrue.

So, I am committing to be a better listener and to try not to allow labels shape my view of others. Just as labels do not define me, I recognize that labels do not define you. I am convinced that if we put the effort into it, we can have real, authentic, meaningful conversations about these issues, but first we have to drop the labels and come to the table as people, sharing in our common humanity and in concerns for this world.