Written by Will Griffith

What are labels and what can they do to further divide or decrease the divide?

Labels are a part of humanity.  We place labels on things so we know what we are dealing with or looking at. We label everything.  Food has brands, ingredients, sometimes even reviews. We label home supplies and these include warning labels.  Harmful if swallowed, skin irritation, nausea, or even death. 

Then we have the work place. Businesses that use chemicals have Safety Data Sheets, or SDS books/ databases full of labels and information on the stuff being used everyday or once in a while.  These tell you everything you could possibly wonder from chemical composition, to the color and odor, to the possible risks there are when using it and the first aid precautions. We also label our supply closets for ease of access.  “A place for everything and everything in its place.” 

Labels give our world order.  It provides a sense of security to those of us who struggle with messes or chaotic environments.  Labels answer questions about something before we have to ask. We see the label and we assume the contents are what the label describes.  

Have you ever been in a situation where the label was wrong? Maybe someone put the wrong thing in the wrong place or it was a case of false advertisement.  What thoughts or emotions run through your head? Would they be pleasant for someone else to hear? Did you just place your own label on that product or the person that put it there? So that next time you come across them or it, you now mistrust them because that’s listed on their new label you gave them?

People don’t stop at labeling things,  we label each other.  We place labels based on experiences, good or bad.  This person is funny, this person is boring. If I interact with them, this is the experience I will have.  This person is bossy, this person is a pushover, this person is scary. After we amass a certain amount of labels, we start filling out our SDS book or database. 

After we have the information we feel is enough we begin placing people in groups based on where we think they belong.  People we call friends, and family. People we call enemies or threats. People who are loyal or people who will betray. People who are dependable and people who are not.  We place these labels on them and we see the label instead of the person before we interact.  Sometimes we put labels on people based on others who seem similar so we automatically place them in these categories instead of learning about them first.  

Sometimes we put someone in a category they don’t belong in because it was us who mislabeled them, for better or worse.  We lump someone bad in with the good or we lump someone good in with the bad in the extreme side of things. More often than not, it’s not as cut and dry as that because people are not cut and dry.  We change and morph, we rise up and fall down.  We live up to and fall short of expectations.  

When we place labels on people we place limitations on them as well.  There is no room for mercy, grace, or growth.  Unfortunately, placing labels is natural to us.  They alert us of danger and inform us of safety, but we don’t stop there and those labels are often misinformed.  Stereotypes are often to blame, but stereotypes are often based on some level of truth or experience, but the danger there is when we let that stereotype define the group instead of the individual.  

Division and discord begin when we read the label before we assess the person standing before us.  When we let feelings guide our decisions instead of facts or logic. Experiences can shape our perception but it is colored by our emotion through it.  So, two people can experience the same thing and walk away with two very different memories of that experience. And that is what will go on the label. 

So, by now I bet you’re wondering, ok, now what? What do we do with this or where do we go? 

From here, the direction is inward.  Introspection.  Examine yourself and your labels. When you meet someone do you know who they are based on their clothes, hair or how they talk? Do you know who they are based on their degrees or job title? Do you know who they are based on your familial relationship to them or who someone says they are to you?  Next time you meet someone for the first time or someone you’ve known for a while take notice of your thoughts and feelings when you see them. Are they true? Are they correct?  Take notice of how your emotions or preconceptions color the world and the people around you and examine them.  Are they true? Are they correct?  

Before you place a label, take your time and fill out the SDS correctly.  For as many times as you have mislabeled others, you have been mislabeled, too. Take your time. Look and watch. Listen and hear. Learn about them before you place that label. Remember: how things are and how things feel can be two very different things regardless of whether it’s in the moment or in a memory.  Don’t let yourself place limitations, expectations or assumptions on others before you find out of what they are truly made.  Labels are limitations to what someone or something can truly be.  It’s a box with the lid closed. 

Often times, when we talk about labels it is about the labels placed on us or the labels we place on ourselves, or about how wrong or damaging they are.  When I was asked to discuss the topic of labels and division, my first thought went inward, to the labels I put on others and this is what came out of that inward look. 

2 Corinthians 13:5 ESV Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!

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