A few years back I met with a young woman who had requested to work with a Christian counselor, so I wasn’t surprised when one of her first questions was, “Are you a Christian?”  I responded, “If I tell you I am a Christian, you will assume some things about me that are not true.  If I tell you I am not a Christian, you will assume other things about me that are not true.”  I then asked her to tell me what it was about having a Christian counselor that was important to her.  Her response began a very productive therapy relationship, but we first had to get beyond the label, “Christian.”

Of course, labels are necessary as mental, verbal, and social shortcuts.  Without them we’d spend all our time explaining every little thing about ourselves in order to get to know one another.  Therefore, we use career labels such as accountant, beautician, pharmacist, or rancher.  We use political labels, Republican, liberal, and socialist.  We use labels to identify race, culture, religion, you get the idea.  Each comes with some efficient, built-in assumptions.  But that’s where their use becomes problematic.

Labels can reduce a person or a group to a single characteristic or simplistic identity.  When I moved from Austin to Central Illinois many years ago, I expected to find a bunch of “northerners and Yankees.”  Instead I found a lot of people who became valued colleagues and dear friends, as well as some folks I didn’t like.  The relationships that developed had very little to do with my initial assumptions of “northerners.”   Fortunately I did not live down to many of their unkind assumptions about “southerners and Texans.”

Even worse than simplifying, we can degrade or dismiss a person or a group with a single word or phrase.  Notice the efficient savagery of labels during this political campaign.  Complex, intelligent, committed people running in both parties are reduced to unprincipled morons.  Once certain labels are introduced, particularly with the approparite sneer, we stop no longer debate the substance of the issue, nor do we see the person.  Instead, we take sides around the label and productive discussion grinds to a halt.

It’s one thing to label people based on choices they’ve made, words they’ve spoken, or actions they’ve taken.  It’s quite another thing to label and judge someone based on who they are.  I didn’t choose to be Caucasian.  I didn’t decide to be male or blue-eyed or heterosexual or left-handed.  I didn’t choose the family or culture into which I was born.  For someone to sneer at me for being a left-handed, blue-eyed heterosexual is ludicrous.  Yet racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other social abuses are based on just such ludicrous notions.

In this political season and in our lives in general, we could all benefit from what a friend of mine calls “respectful curiosity.”  Beginning with respectful curiosity leaves room to discover something more about the person or the group we don’t understand.  It’s hard to be respectfully curious and self-righteous at the same time.  When I am respectfully curious, I often discover that the person whose life on the surface looks radically different from mine is usually dealing as well as they can with most of the same kinds of concerns I am.

Printed in the Abilene Reporter News, Sunday, January 5, 2008