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Writing Your Own Name: Self-Identification in a World of Stereotypes

Countless times over the years, I’ve attended a meeting or seminar and upon entering the building and picking up my packet of pertinent documents, received an adhesive label that said, “Hello, my name is.” In the space below, I was free to write my name and perhaps the organization I represented. This became the “label” used to identify me among my colleagues throughout the conference.

Oftentimes, labels are markers we use to describe people. Is a person a conservative or a liberal? The word “conservative” comes from the Latin term conservare, which means to aim at preserving. The word “liberal” comes from the Latin term liber, which means to be free from restraint. In the broadest sense of the terms, many if not all of us as human beings seek to preserve some things in our lives and be set free in other circumstances. A cherished heirloom passed down for many generations might be conserved by the same person who liberates his or her college-bound child into young adulthood.

Is a person progressive or traditional? The origin of the term “progressive” is the Latin word progredi, which means to put things into steps of forward motion. The word “traditional” also comes from Latin origins. Traditio speaks of something handed down from generation to generation. Thus, all of us at times do things the way that they always have been done and at other times do something we never have done before. In the very same playbook, a football team may have plays that they have executed all season long while simultaneously tucking in a few new plays that they drew up especially for their next opponent.

Culturally, labels have multi-faceted and incongruent stereotypes affixed to them. If we assume that a Republican politician will work toward the advancement of a certain platform and his/her Democratic opponents are pulling toward the opposite side, we set up an ideology of incurable and combative hostility between extremes. If we assume that all in a particular profession, race or economic situation are a certain way, we only see them through that lens. We falsely stereotype when we categorize an entire denominational group, everyone who uses a certain hashtag or those who express interest in something on social media. Such skewed perspectives lead us to inaccurate assumptions, misrepresented stereotypes and unproductive conflict.

At Caesarea Philippi, Jesus tells Peter that there are appropriate times to bind things on earth (conserve tradition) and times to loosen things on earth (liberate progress). Each circumstance we face necessitates the evaluation of righteous action. Consequently, as a society (and especially as the church), we would do well to be inclusive of the diversity of different opinions because there is a “time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens,” as Ecclesiastes 3:1 says.

“We are socially and theologically lazy when we use labels to describe our opponents and their respective affiliations.”

We are socially and theologically lazy when we use labels to describe our opponents and their respective affiliations. In a society with more advanced technology than ever in human history, we have lost the art of civil conversation. If we are going to be effective in uniting together as Christ followers, as fellow Americans, or even as human beings, we have to get away from the false labels; we must return to the art of active listening.

The Native Americans were far better communicators than we tend to be today. They realized the importance of listening to each other. In my office, I have a replica of a Native American talking stick that I made after visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial last year. Whenever a chief called a council meeting, he pulled out the talking stick. This ornamented stick was beautifully decorated with feathers, beads, leather strips and multicolored paint. Throughout the council meeting, the stick was passed among the tribal leaders, and only the person holding the stick was permitted to speak. Everyone else was there to listen.

James counsels us to be “quick to listen and slow to speak.” Instead of jumping to labels, if we truly listen to each other, we learn so much from the diversity of perspectives. There might be great wisdom in going “left” rather than “right,” on a particular issue. Conversely, there might be times when we would be better served by holding to a traditional view rather than a progressive stance. Regardless of the outcome, an “us-versus-them” mentality only leads to greater strife and hostility. Coming together as one, listening to each other and striving for synergy is the way of the tribe; it is the way of the kingdom of Jesus, and it should be the way of Christ followers today.

“Our society has turned from active listening to false labeling, and it is threatening the very fabric of our culture, the future of our country, and the witness of the church.”

Labels are only effective when they are self-identifying. If I put a label for a can of corn on a can of peas, it does not change the content of what is inside the can. I’ve falsely identified what’s inside and caused confusion. Yet, if I change the label on a bottle of heart medication, the impact is much more serious and potentially life-threatening. Sadly, our society has turned from active listening to false labeling, and it is threatening the very fabric of our culture, the future of our country, and the witness of the church.

There is value in every voice at the table. Each person needs to be heard. Every perspective is to be considered. When we value treating each other right over being right on every issue, we can recover from the inevitable missteps of walking into the unknown. We can course-correct when we are all moving in the same direction. When we remain teachable, we can grow from the viewpoints on the other side and can make more informed decisions.

So, pick up the Sharpie. In confidence, write your name on the nametag. Sit down at the table and be yourself. Speak up and share your opinions, but first listen. You just might learn something from those sitting across the table from you.