How often do we focus — really focus — on what individuals say and do and believe? Our better natures would like to think that’s our default setting. Yet too often we look at someone’s group affiliation or outward appearance and label them with a snap judgement. Our mental shortcuts — what psychologists call “heuristics” — help our brains navigate the world. But as these heuristics layer themselves in our brains, they can also lead us to make potentially damaging assumptions about others.
We create labels for a variety of reasons, but the result is they often prevent us from seeing each other as human beings. In the “Beyond Labels” meditation in Thich Nhat Hanh‘s Your True Home, the Buddhist monk notes that as human beings, we’re exactly the same. But,
“Thinking of yourself as or calling yourself a ‘Buddhist’ can be a disadvantage, because if you wear the title of ‘Buddhist’ this may be an obstacle that prevents others from discovering the human being in you. The same is true whether you are Christian, Jewish, or Muslim.”
I’ve turned this observation over in my head in recent weeks, reading some of the science behind our move to stereotype others even when it goes against our values. Labels can be intentional, innocuous, identifying, or injurious. Or some combination of all four. Labels — like any number of heuristics — are not always bad. But if they push us to overlook or deny the humanity of others, they can be destructive.
We label someone as our boss and — if our immediate thought turns to the power they hold over us — what is an accurate descriptor becomes instead a barrier to recognizing their humanity. Labeling another by race or class can be a way to separate ourselves from others. Even if I self-identify as conscientious, pragmatic, and loving — all admirable traits — the labeling can be a way of diminishing the humanity of others who I may not place in those same categories.
The destructive nature of labels can be seen most clearly in our political life. We label others or self identify as right or left wing, and a whole host of defining characteristics and beliefs come to mind that tend to hide the complexity of the humans behind those labels.
While mulling over Thich Nhat Hanh’s observation, I came upon a blog that spoke about the work of a pop up action for voting rights. Those involved made signs that spelled out “Your Vote is Your Voice.” They got some thumbs up and supportive horn honking. Along the way, a white man in a pick up truck pulls over to the side of the road and the blog writer thinks “here it goes.” His negative thoughts quickly evaporated, however, when the truck driver applauded and shouted out encouragement. The comment that followed?
“As Freud might have said, ‘sometimes a pickup truck is a right wing version of ‘virtue signaling’… and sometimes it’s just a pickup truck.’”
I almost spit out my coffee.
We have two systems for thinking — one fast, highly intuitive, and emotional, and the other slower and more logical. We use the first system for most of our decisions and, I would suggest, in making labels about ourselves and others. Like about what kind of men drive pickup trucks or what kind of men pass us in a group on a city street. Daniel Kahneman has demonstrated how our unwillingness to push ourselves to the more systematic — but harder — system of thinking drives bad decisions.
Thich Nhat Hanh suggests that labels such as Buddhist, Christian, Jewish, or Muslim can be an important part of our identity,
“…but it is not the whole of who we are. People are caught up in the notions and images, and they cannot recognize each other as human beings. The practice of peeling away all the labels so that the human being can be revealed is truly a practice for peace.”
We can begin to see more of the uniqueness and humanity when we slow down and work systematically to peel away the layers of labels we’ve built up over time.
More to come…