Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Labels - bigotry in disguise?

Recently an Internet friend of mine was being pressed by someone on Facebook to accept the label "atheist" because so many of her posts seemed to be concordant with atheism.  But she demurred, saying she doesn't want that label precisely because it's commonly associated with some things with which she doesn't agree.  Her perception is that people automatically will assume she believes in X or Y because she's in that category.

I run into a similar problem frequently.  If I say something critical of Mitt Romney, it's automatically assumed I'm a fan of Barack Obama.  If I say something favorable about providing help to disadvantaged people, then it's assumed that I match precisely some presumed profile tied to being a "liberal".  If I dislike Faux (Fox) News, it's evident I must watch MSNBC. 

Some people are very familiar with these "default assumptions" - it's commonly assumed that when talking about a medical doctor in casual conversation in the USA, that doctor is male, not female.  It's often assumed that, when encountering a young, black male in some run-down part of a city, he's in a criminal gang, uses cocaine, and likes hip-hop music.  Mexicans are all dirt-poor, ignorant, lazy, and probably in the USA illegally.  Everyone on welfare is a homeless, jobless crack addict with 15 kids all being supported by welfare.  Everyone living in a mobile home is a redneck, stupid white trash.  These are all stereotypes that are demonstrably false, and obviously connected to prejudice - bigotry, that is.

To be sure, examples that fit these stereotypes can be found.  But the proof is all around us that individuals who break those stereotypes also can be found, and they're not necessarily in the minority.  Hence, the prejudice that leads to bigotry is based in a lie.  Pure and simple.  Let me repeat that - based in a lie!  Not everyone that fits in that "category" is the same!!  Prejudice about people is not a viable position.

Frankly, I find default assumptions being made all the time, about me and about people I know.  I dislike and resent those assumptions even more when associated with friends of mine or family than when directed at me.  For the most part, I can shrug off such things - they say more about the person labeling me than about me.  There are times, of course, when such labels are used to discriminate against people, typically in a covert way.  If you speak openly against policies in the company for which you work, you can be labeled a "troublemaker" and blocked from favorable personnel actions or even discharged.  If you wear your hair in a mohawk, you must be some sort of crazed "punk" that can't possibly be an asset to the business.  And so on and on.

We humans seem strongly inclined to push everyone around us into some category or another, concluding they must think and behave in a certain way according to our interpretation of the label we want to pin on them.  Doing so certainly removes the obligation for us to think and learn about who the people really are.  If we've assigned them a label we consider negative, then we can push them out of our lives to whatever extent possible by circumstances.  If we can't push them away physically, we can shut them out personally and socially.

Assigning labels to people is nothing more (or less) than prejudice/bigotry.  I'm not saying that behind every dude wearing a scruffy beard, riding a Harley, wearing a motorcycle jacket, and covered in tatoos is actually a charity-supporting nuclear physicist.  But ought we not reserve our judgments (based only on their appearance) until we know them reasonably well?  Most of the people I call friends have some very different attitudes about some things that matter to me - but I value their friendship nevertheless.  The fact that we disagree on a topic is far less important than the enjoyment I derive from being in their company.  It's not necessary to me that everyone I know has to agree with me on everything!  If we can have a conversation about those issues that divide us, and that conversation doesn't turn into anger and name-calling, then perhaps I can learn a thing or two from their viewpoint (and/or vice-versa).  It's happened many times, actually.

Returning, finally, to my friend refusing to wear the label "atheist" - there are many people who for one reason or another choose not to accept that label.  Some avoid the label for fear of being ostracized, in a way that gays and lesbians understand only too well.  Some avoid it because they harbor misconceptions about what it means to be an atheist.  In fact, being an atheist puts almost no restrictions on what you believe, because the only thing we all have in common is not believing in a deity - otherwise, our opinions and beliefs can be damned near anything!  Atheism has no sacred truths, no doctrine, no common set of beliefs.  You can tag me with that label - it doesn't bother me to wear it because it imposes virtually no restrictions on what I can think and what I can believe.  I wear that one proudly and willingly.


Garrett Fornea said...

What pisses me off above all other labels is this: people using "gay" as a label or insult for someone or something they do not consider "cool" or "popular." I was at one time victim of this type of bullying to a serious degree, partially because my interests did not line up with a kid I was interested in storms, volcanoes, LEGO, certain video games, and other things. I was a nerd, not a redneck or football jock. I never got into hunting or fishing - both of which popular in my part of the country (Mississippi). Other issues related to social awkwardness contributed to my being a major bully target. As the situation became intolerably hostile, I was pulled out during the middle of eighth grade and put into private schooling until high school graduation. Take it from someone who was unpopular and was bullied severely in middle school - labels hurt. I recently read somewhere that while sticks and stones can break my bones, bullying can be fatal - and it is true!
Fortunately I have since made peace with most of my personal enemies from those days.

Chuck Doswell said...

I feel for your pain, Garrett ... but the bullies' ability to hurt your feelings is directly related to your vulnerability to their insults. I repeat - anyone secure in their own skin is not going to be bothered by insulting labels pinned on them by others. I hope time and experience have granted you that satisfaction with yourself that allows you to shrug off such insults. I remember the childhood mantra: "Sticks and stones may break my bones, but NAMES will never hurt me!"

Garrett Fornea said...

I hasten to add that I did not change who I am to appease the social pressure and I never will. I will improve who I am by trying to show more interest in other people's passions, but I will never renounce my passions to please them. I like what I like, and if they can't respect that then screw them. It's that in junior high it happened all the time, that made it impossible to shrug off. Of course, my reactions to their torment also perpetuated the issue.
I would like to believe I am a lot tougher than I used to be, although using "gay" as an insult is still a sore subject. My personal decision to chase "normal" thunderstorms in the absence of severe weather or supercells, which many even in the Meteorology program do not understand, is also a sensitive topic. However, with most people I can usually play the "joke around" game with, as long it is not done with ill-intent, although occasionally it becomes over the top.
But like I said, I have made peace with many of my old enemies. They grew up and apologized; I grew up during high school, at a different school, and found myself able to forgive. In that I feel the universe is in balance.

Chuck Doswell said...

I learned as a boy that by pretending not to care about the insults thrown at me, they quit doing it. No fun if I didn't react to it. Then, soon after, I didn't need to pretend that it didn't bother me! I no longer cared what they thought. Children can be really cruel and you either learn how to deal with it or you wind up very unhappy. Garrett, you showed who was the better person in the long run!!

Billy Williams said...

Labels are often used, directly or indirectly, to represent evil. No place is that more apparent than a political campaign. Just try acquiring a couple of facebook friends who, from opposite sides of the spectrum, represent the side they oppose as, basically, the end of the country as we know it. You get the impression that you're a complete idiot for not believing either side (or both!). Yet these people, on a personal basis, can be friends like the ones Chuck disagrees with but whose company he enjoys.