How Negative Labels Destroy Logic and Polarize People
We live in a highly polarized world, don’t we?
It’s hard to talk about practically anything at all (especially politics) without the risk of offending somebody who has a different opinion than you do.
In times gone by, most Americans had similar core beliefs and values. But today it’s not like that at all. Practically all of us belong to micro “denominations” of thought. Anybody who is not part of our “denomination” is seen as a threat, an enemy. It’s “us vs. them,” the “in group” and the “out group.”
We see this broadly in such categories as:
- Republicans vs. Democrats
- Believers vs. Atheists
- Christians vs. Muslims
- Creationists vs. Evolutionists
- Pro-Life vs. Pro-Choice
And so on.
These fairly innocuous labels by themselves can cause us to turn off our critical thinking. “Oh, you’re a _______? Well, then, you’re an idiot!”
All of us have a tendency to do this… to shut down, turn off our brains, and denigrate any person who wears a label that’s different than the one we wear. You’ve probably seen this behavior in forums or comment threads where one person forms an argument and another person responds with an ad hominem attack instead of addressing the argument itself.
Now the labels I listed above have both positive and negative connotations attached to them. So if you identify with either a label on the left or the right, you will see it as positive if you’re part of that group, and you will see it as negative if you’re not part of that group. That’s why I said these labels are “innocuous.”
Are there labels that are more polarizing than the ones listed above? Absolutely.
The most polarizing areas of inquiry often come with their own labels invented by one group to disparage another group. For example:
- “Conspiracy Theorists”
- “Pro Lifers”
- “Right Wingers”
- “Gun Grabbers”
- “Holocaust Deniers”
- “Jew Haters”
- “Self-Hating Jews”
Anytime a derogatory label is applied to another person, it essentially shuts down all critical thinking and any opportunity to understand the differing viewpoint. Cogent discussion of the argument ceases and is replaced by name calling and mudslinging.
Labels are powerful. Everything you think you know about a group of people is summed up in the label you apply to them — even if your assumptions are incorrect or you don’t fully understand their position.
For this reason, labels are also powerfully divisive. They perpetuate misunderstanding and an unwillingness to associate with “outside” groups who think differently than you do.
If you ever want to truly understand an issue from all sides — even those you disagree with — you must avoid using derogatory labels and focus on the merits of each position, apart from your personal biases.
Difficult to do? Absolutely. But necessary if we want to develop relationships with people of different persuasions. And especially necessary if we ever want to gently persuade them to a different point of view.
-Ryan M. Healy