“Definitions belong to the definers,
not the defined.”
― Toni Morrison, Beloved
After the election in 2016, Ellen DeGeneres shared a thought that keeps replaying in my mind as I observe current affairs, “…we all love our country, we just have different ideas about what’s best for it, which is part of what makes America great. And I believe we can all come together because if you take away the labels, you realize we’re far more alike than we are different.”
We are living in a world of labels…determined by who you are, what you do, or your views on any issue. We are constantly defining and being defined. Some of this stems from our need to set boundaries in our minds. We know who we are when we know what we are not. Unfortunately, labeling also stems from fear of “the other.” If I don’t agree with you, and I label you as different from me or not good, then I can justify the way I feel and the things I think about you. Wayne Dyer often stated, “when you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” This works for both looking at people in a positive way as it does when we are critical of them. If we seek to see the good in others, while it might take effort with some, we will eventually find it and likewise if we are looking to find fault. The danger of labeling is that it is all about prejudice…literally meaning we “pre-judge” someone before receiving them and close off the possibility for honest connection.
When I was running for office I had certain labels attached to me because of my political stances, and individuals would decide whether I was a good or bad person just on that alone without ever having a deeper conversation on why I had those beliefs. As a candidate, I found the most powerful thing I could do was to listen and give someone space to tell their story. Often when we made space and time, we could find common ground. On the other hand, one individual said she had a score that she could look at to determine what kind of person I was based on data they collected from my voting behavior. She made all kinds of assumptions (which were wrong) about me without ever giving me a chance. We missed an opportunity to connect because she made up her mind in advance. She pre-judged me. This happens again and again, and one expects it when running for office, but is this what we want for our world in everyday life? Cutting ourselves off from each other because of pre-judged labels? This limits the possibilities for our world and resolution to our most pressing issues.
Leaders don’t have to be just elected officials. Every day people like you and me can help reshape the dialogues in our communities. In order to make this happen, we are going to have to take some risks. What would it be like when we let go of labels and pre-judging? Does it make us more vulnerable and possibly lead to confrontation? Maybe. But if we are willing to see each other as human beings, perhaps there will be an opportunity to experience something deeper. By reconnecting with each other on common ground, we can stop defining ourselves and others and find true freedom and equality at last!