Labels in the Room

March 8, 2011

A new political effort called No Labels has sparked some vigorous defense (on the Left and Right) of the necessity of labels—the argument being that real differences should not be papered over, and that labels provide an important way for people to communicate their beliefs, and to know where others stand. The response is that in our current political context, the labels (Republican, Democrat, Liberal, Conservative, etc.) create roadblocks to problem-solving for the public good. So they need to be parked at the door.

I learned something about labels back in the 90s when I was facilitating dialogues on the abortion issue. Then, having the labels in the room reassured people that they weren’t being asked to compromise core values or lose their identity. They could also see that they weren’t outnumbered. Letting pro-lifers and pro-choicers “wear” their labels (usually not literally, though at our larger conferences people could color code their name tags) helped them set aside the urge to persuade, speak thoughtfully and listen to each other.

The critical factor is that people were entering the room to have constructive conversations with each other to create learning and deeper understanding about the conflict, including the meaning of the labels.

In that context “labeling” was positive. Contrast that to where the labels simply close our ears and shut our minds.

I just read a great piece on the Civility page of the Christian Science Monitor about how easily this happens. In this piece, called Conservatives and liberals: Before you indoctrinate your kids, read this, author Michael Laser describes how he started noticing what his kids said about the politicians he didn’t support—realizing they had perfectly absorbed his attitudes about people with certain labels. But he didn’t like their mocking and dismissive tone. He seems to have realized he’d taught them a sort of short cut around thinking on their own and recognizing others as real people.

So Laser has started providing explanations to his kids about other points of view on issues like abortion and taxes “so my children understand that people have reasons for their beliefs even if we disagree.” The “new political insight” he wants to give his kids is that “contempt for the opposition may be profitable on talk radio but it doesn’t help the rest of us.”