Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Labels and Identity

Humans love to define things and arrange them into neat little boxes. We find comfort in knowing what a thing does, how it behaves, and where it belongs. When we encounter something new we try to cram it into an existing box and if no such box exists, we create a new one and keep filing away.

Pattern-recognition: the reason we see
faces everywhere
We can thank natural selection for our OCD tendencies. In prehistoric times the ability to recognize patterns and categorize information gave us a massive advantage over the competition. This advantage was further solidified by the development of language and writing. Recording and sharing information with others transformed us from hunter-gatherers to the social actors we are now.

Labels played a crucial part in the evolution of language. They allow us to package a large amount of data--predator, striped, growling, fast--into a small bundle--tiger--so that if you and I are out hunting together and I see a tiger, I don't have to explain in detail what a tiger is: I simply yell "tiger" and because we have a shared understanding of what this label means, we run like hell.

There's a trade-off though. In order to share information expediently we must be prepared to sacrifice a certain amount of detail. For this reason, labels work better with simple objects and ideas. When we apply labels to the complex, nuanced, or ambiguous, they tend to fall short. 

If you were asked to sum yourself up with a single label, what would it be? Would it accurately describe who you are? Of course not. You might be a parent, an artist, a liberal, a Muslim, a skeptic, or any other number of things. A single label could never do you justice.

We're too damn complicated to fit into those neat little boxes we love so much. You might label yourself a vegetarian but eat chicken and fish, label yourself a liberal but support capital punishment. A label may accurately describe parts of you and get other parts completely wrong.

Labels provide a sketch, not a photograph. They're meant to convey meaning with speed, not accuracy and detail.

We invented labels to define objects and ideas in our environment; sometimes they work great and some times they don't. But when we adopt labels wholesale, they begin to define us. We change to fit the labels we internalize, sometimes for better, but more often for worse.

Let me tell you about Tim. 

Tim was lost. Like many people he was looking for meaning in life. He had a decent jobs, friends, and hobbies, but he felt empty inside. "There has to be more to life than this," he often bemoaned. Determined to fill the void, he consulted the most popular book of answers ever written, the Bible.

At first the ancient book beguiled him. It contained fairy tales followed by the barbaric history of a single people claiming to be chosen by God. Tim couldn't understand why so many people resorted to this compilation of bronze-age stories for advice. He skipped ahead, reading a verse here and a verse there until at last he stumbled onto something beautiful. "But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust."

Where the Old Testament confused Tim, Christ's messages of compassion, humility, and love spoke directly to him. He read most of the New Testament and sought the advice of a pastor. He attended a few services and was touched. Something struck a chord in his heart. Perhaps it was the atmosphere of love and acceptance, the unity of the congregation, or the feverish certainty of the pastor. Tim took this as a sign that he had finally found what he so desperately sought.

Tim got baptized.  

Now he begins to look at the Old Testament in a new light. He attempts to justify the atrocities and derive moral lessons from the cruelty of his deity. The story of Job becomes an illustration of virtue. When God stays Abraham's hand, Tim sees this as an act of mercy; yet who was it that commanded Abraham to slay his son in the first place?

Tim doesn't accept these new beliefs because they make sense. They are the luggage that comes with many Christian labels. Christ may have lured Tim toward his newfound faith but now he subscribes to ideas and beliefs that directly oppose the teachings of Christ.

Tim's label is changing him. His mind is now crowded with contradictory ideas, many of which entered his psyche via his new label. Somewhere behind closed doors he still possesses his pre-Christian beliefs about the universe. How does Tim reconcile the Big Bang and evolution with Genesis? "Love thy neighbour" with "their little ones [will be] dashed to death against the ground, their pregnant women ripped open by swords?" How will he react when someone points out the many inconsistencies in the Bible, or the many verses where God commands his people to perform horrible deeds?

These are the pitfalls of subscribing to a label indiscriminately.

This problem is not limited to religion. Political, cultural, and philosophical labels have the same effect. It doesn't even have to be something ideological. Whenever you form an emotional bond with something that transcends you, be it a hockey team, work of art, flag, culture, or television show, your perception of the thing becomes distorted. That's why diehard fans are willing to fight and even riot for their team, why people get into heated arguments about the merits of JRR Tolkien's epic Lord of the Rings trilogy, and why people support corrupt political regimes even when those regimes blatantly violate their rights. 

We want to believe that people are simple, that they are either capitalists or socialists, republicans or democrats, theists or atheists, but all of these labels are gross oversimplifications, not accurate representations. People transcend labels. 

You are not obligated to accept a label wholesale. You can break a label down idea by idea and take only the ones that work for you. Here's how you do it: measure each idea's benefit to your life and the effect it has on those around you; if the idea is beneficial to you, does not contradict your existing moral code, and harms no one, make it your own.

If on the other hand the idea fails in any of these regards, and even though it may be somehow connected to another idea you hold dearly, discard it without hesitation. 

/rant over