While labels aren't inherently bad, when they are attached to harsh judgments that we project onto all people with that label, they become tools of dehumanization.
By Tim Hjersted
Aug 10, 2014
No person or group of people is ever one thing. Inside each of us are a thousand diverse aspects - evolving dimensions.
So when we judge a person, cut off our hearts from them with a label or dismissal, we are killing the human being inside of them. We are interacting with a 2D image, a distortion which hides their full humanity.
"He's so ____." "She's so ____." "They're just a ____." When we reduce someone to a singular label or judgment, every other aspect about them becomes hidden. Everything the person says or does from that point becomes filtered through this stale judgment from the past. This person could act entirely different, say something new or contradict our judgment, but we aren't listening. We're just interacting with the image.
In truth, most of our life revolves around images like these. We create an opinion about a person, an idea, a place - and when we have new experiences of these things we don't process them with a fresh and open mind. We process them through our existing images. But have we ever tried to look at our life without these images?
As J Krishnamurti asks in Freedom From the Known,
"Have you ever experimented with looking at an objective thing like a tree without any of the associations, any of the knowledge you have acquired about it, without any prejudice, any judgment, any words forming a screen between you and the tree and preventing you from seeing it as it actually is? Try it and see what actually takes place when you observe the tree with all your being, with the totality of your energy. In that intensity you will find that there is no observer at all; there is only attention. It is when there is inattention that there is the observer and the observed. When you are looking at something with complete attention there is no space for a conception, a formula or memory."
In the same way, with each person in your life, I hope you will see them with complete attention. See all of who she is, all of who he is. See the beauties, see the shortcomings, see the kindness, see the loving gestures, see the mistakes, see the suffering, see the playful laughing, see the sweet and caring, see it all. See their whole being. Stay connected to the whole of each person.
I realize this is more difficult than it sounds. Our whole society is built upon judging and labeling. When we buy food from the cashier at the deli, we don't see this person like we see ourselves - with her own dreams, desires, fears, and problems. Most of the time we interact with the labels: the cashier, the boss, the stranger, the ex-partner, the new crush, the liberal, the conservative. In grade school the effect is even more polarized: the preps, the hippies, the cheerleaders, the popular kids, the losers, the geeks, the goths, the punks. We categorize and see people further by their particular nationality, race, and sexual orientation, their politics or religion, their social class and physical appearance. But all of these distinctions are only static images, only a flat card-board cut out masking the thousand roles we all have. These labels do not encompass the totality of humanity that is in each one of us, and thus, they are illusions that prevent us from experiencing people as they actually are.
When we throw away our old judgments, our old images, and see a person just as they are in each moment, you and that person become alive! You feel, not just intellectually, but in the core of your being, the fundamental realization that "that which is in me is that which is in you."
Behind the labels, behind the words, behind the thin surface of differences, real or imagined, we share the same basic humanity, the same basic needs, aspirations, and dreams.
This insight seems to directly trigger the empathy centers of the brain. It opens the heart.
Labeling others seems to have the effect of closing off the heart.
|It's okay to use labels, but "know where their functions should end."
This isn't always the case, of course. As biological organisms in this complex and chaotic world, we have no choice but to make judgments in life. We have to make decisions. From birth the mind is trained to sort and to organize life into categories and names. Culture comes in and gives those labels value, assigning distinctions of good and bad. The problem comes in when we rely too heavily on these labels to filter reality. We mistake the filter or label for reality itself.
An obvious example is how the advertising and music and beauty and fashion industries - pretty much all corporate media in our society - reinforce stereotypical images of women as sex objects and little more. The basic de-humanizing effect of seeing women in this one-dimensional context is what opens the door to violence and sexual abuse towards women, and other elements of social inequality.
In the eyes of so many damaged and conditioned men a filter or screen is formed between themselves and women, where they see "tits and ass," an object they feel entitled to, but do not see the human being with all of her multi-dimensional qualities. Somehow a fundamental connection in the brain became severed, and they understand that "I" have needs, that "I" matter, that "my" happiness is important, but the faculty that allows them to see that this truth exists for the other becomes obscured. This blockage is created by judgment. She is just a "slut," they might say.
Making judgments creates a convenient distance for us, an abstract separation created in the mind that blocks off potential feelings of empathy. Without these judgments to insulate us, our aggressive, brutal, subtle acts of disregard for others would horrify us. We could not live with ourselves.
For instance, it would not be easy for the boss of a sweatshop to see the humanity behind his "employees," because that would reveal the logic of holding power over others and exploiting their labor for excessive profit as the mad system that it is. A soldier cannot step into the soul of his enemy, because he would be horrified to realize that he is killing himself. A working-class Republican can not see the humanity in the immigrants he despises, because that would reveal that they are both being oppressed by the same corporate economic forces. A police officer cannot see the humanity and struggle behind a group of protesters, because then he would see that these other human beings are actually fighting for his liberation as well, and that they are, in truth, allies.
We are all caught in these images together. We are all prisoners of these roles because society has framed our relationship to others in these terms. The boss, the soldier, the police officer - they cannot break free because their paycheck, and hence, their ability to live, depends on upholding these roles.
But beyond simple financial reasons, they are locked into these roles by cultural inertia. Generation after generation, these images are passed to each new generation. Images of colonialism, images of power and social class, images of racism and sexism, images of religious righteousness, of divine entitlement, of patriotism and economic prestige. Whole generations of people have been taught their entire life to identify heavily with these images, to believe they are real. Far more powerful than economic pressures, these cultural images bind the people most damaged in our society into a prison of the mind. They are locked in the same institutionalized madness with the rest of us.
I want to break free.
And not just from these socially polarizing images, but from all images, every image. Is this even possible? I want to find out. Because these images do not just create an immense degree of suffering on a societal level, but in our relationships with our friends and neighbors and intimate partners as well.
If we want to end the suffering that is caused by these images, then we need to come to a deep understanding of how these judgments arise in ourselves.
Holding Up a Mirror...
When I looked inside myself, I found that the act of judging others, forming images of people that put myself above them, is primarily an act to recuse myself of responsibility. It is not easy to accept responsibility for when we may have hurt someone, or when we may have acted unkind or unloving, so we try to ignore it. We judge the person, put them below us, create our own side to the story - then we do not feel so guilty for closing off our heart. We have a good justification in our mind, and we will hold on to it because to let go of our comforting judgments about others we would have to confront ourselves. We would have to point the harsh judgments we afford to others suddenly back in the direction of ourselves, and this can be a very disturbing experience.
We may prefer not to look, not to learn, not to grow, because learning requires difficulty, and it is much easier to go about our lives without questioning our own narratives. It is certainly not easy to face the possibility that our harsh judgments may have caused another person or group of people suffering, directly or in directly, and there was never a good reason for it.
Due to the individualistic, competitive culture we live in, it's no surprise that so many people, when they are honest about it, are mostly concerned about themselves and their very small circle of friends and family. It is always amazing to me when I meet people that can unapologetically state that if they're not "getting anything" from someone they have no problem not loving them. When someone says, "I don't have to care about them, so I won't." It kills me to read blogs by conservatives that would cut social services to properly motivate people to work hard, and that if people starve or find themselves homeless because society no longer has any social safety nets, well, "tough luck."
Most of us, of course, have more flattering narratives. We strive to be loving people. We say we care about others. And this is true, of course, but there is usually a very clear limit to how good we are prepared to be. We strive to be compassionate only up to a point, and it is interesting to see how this acceptable limit to one's compassion has been shaped and defined by our culture as a whole. It goes unspoken, an invisible set of assumptions that define the line between what is considered acceptable consideration and compassion, and acceptable disregard for others.
For instance, we're taught to care for our partners but it's acceptable to not care for our ex-partners. We're taught to care about the people of our own country but it's acceptable to not care about the people of other countries. We're taught to care about people who look and think like us, but it's acceptable to not care about those who are different. We're taught to care about the people who are victims of abuse, but we're encouraged to not care about the perpetrators of abuse who were themselves abused as children by their parents, social peers and culture.
Reading J Krishnamurti's Freedom From the Known made me question this line, revealed the absurdity of it. In its place, his work instilled in me a great desire to love, but not just in the small, limited way we have been taught to love our family and lovers. He challenged me to love everyone, without discrimination.
With this ideal in mind, I find myself coming back to all of these images we can have about people. A judgment might be triggered by any number of images which we have a bias against. Try out these words on yourself: Progressive, conservative, anarchist, capitalist, socialist, American, Syrian, white, black, male, female, transgender, Muslim, Christian, atheist, terrorist, rebel, immigrant, illegal alien, human being.
What images do you see when you visualize each word in your mind? When you think about someone that comes from a certain set of these labels, how much do you filter your experience of them through the labels? When someone speaks, how often do you seize upon certain triggering words in their speech to draw the "true" meaning of their statements using the images you've accumulated of those words? How often, when you interact with someone, do you filter what they are saying and doing through the multiple images you have acquired about them?
Or do you ignore the images that come to your mind and quiet the reaction in your head so you can give your most sincere effort to listening and understanding what they are *trying* to say, despite any particular words or images about them that may rub you the wrong way? What would it be like to let go of all the images we have formed of them and look into their eyes with deep attention, until we can see the full humanity, the full complexity of their being?
A Double Standard?
You might ask yourself at some point, am I myself judging the people that judge others harshly? No. I love them. It is why I write at all. It is why I want to stay connected to people, to continue loving, even when it is difficult.
Would I learn anything from cutting my heart off from someone - an ex-partner, an old friend, a family member, a community member, or someone I disagree with politically? Someone of another nation or religion? Would they learn anything? Would we get any closer to ending the mad and violent nature of our relationships? This may sound like an exaggeration, but violence is not just the violence we see on TV. If we ever hope to end violent wars we must first come to understand the nature of violence in ourselves.
When I looked into violence deeply in myself, I discovered that separating myself at all from another human being is a subtle form of violence. We judge people. We cut them off. This is violence. In this chaotic world, we have become so desensitized by the noise and static of gross physical violence, we have lost the sensitivity in our being to perceive the subtle forms, our hearts have become so wounded.
What I have found, when I allow my heart to become very sensitive, is that anything less than love hurts. Even subtle forms of separation between people in my life hurts, and I want to bridge the gap until we can embrace each other again as the family that we truly are. This is what letting go of illusions feels like for me. It is to realize that beneath our differences, we are all family. It is to let go of all separating emotions and bring the other into my heart - to realize myself in her, to realize myself in him or them.
When I have done this, thinking about people who have judged me harshly or who judge others harshly, I saw that they have likely been deeply wounded by our society, and their harsh judgments are a survival strategy to protect themselves from pain. They cut off their hearts from others so they do not have to feel the other's pain. They may have accumulated many walls around their heart, so actions that may appear callous to the outsider may be an expression of a deeper tragedy - all those years that we did not see that resulted in their heart becoming so walled off. We suffer now because their suffering is spilling over.
In Practical Terms
Now, I realize that there is a certain physical limitation to how compassionate and thoughtful we can be in the 24 hours of each day. We can't be personally responsible for the well-fare of everyone. Physically this is impossible. The question comes down to how we define our "sphere of responsibility."
Through my actions with the people I interact with, and the conversations I have with them, and the time we spend together - I am in relationship with this person, and I have an effect on their life. Have you ever made a personal choice that permanently affected the life of another? Taught them a lesson, negative or positive, that shaped the course of their future events? If you have, then hopefully you understand the gravity of what I mean by our "sphere of responsibility." Suddenly you may feel like Spider-man, realizing that "with great power comes great responsibility."
In your epiphany, you realize that we are not disconnected islands unto ourselves, able to do whatever we want without repercussion. Everything is connected. We are all strings on the web together. And our actions send pulses on the web that vibrate deep.
I have not fleshed out fully any answers to this question of responsibility. I can feel an answer intuitively, a kind of gut reaction that makes my heart ache when I think about the lack of compassion that so many people feel justified in maintaining. But I am looking into it myself. I am exploring with you. What does it mean to be a mature, compassionate, wise human being? How would a person like this think, not in abstract flowery language, but in concrete terms? How have they re-wired the physical circuitry of their brains to think and feel and love on a deep and expansive level? Let's discover together.
I am interested in your thoughts on this. Tentatively, I will say that we are responsible to give people our time and our thoughtfulness to the degree that our lives are tied to theirs, as friends, as partners, as ex-partners, or whatever relationship we have to them in society. If you imagine your circle of friends and partners over the course of your life as darts on a dartboard, with you in the center, your degree of responsibility is greater proportional to how close they are to you at the center. Your level of sacrifice and commitment increases the longer you know them, the more your immediate relationship affects them.
At the heart of being responsible is what Thich Nhat Hanh lovingly calls "mindfulness" - being mindful of people's needs and feelings, of honestly and openly sharing your own needs, and asking what a person needs when they find it difficult to say.
Mindfulness means looking at the people in our life with complete attention. We temporarily suspend the desires of our own self so that we can see things from another's point of view. Usually, in our daily life, our perceptions are driven by what we desire. When we're hungry, all we can see is food. When we're aroused, all we can see are the sexual bodies we're attracted to. When we're pissed off, all we can see is the person and event that pissed us off. In each case, our perceptions are narrowed down to the tiny spectrum of our own desires. This is a kind of one-pointed perception. In contrast, when we practice mindful looking, we temporarily suspend our one-pointed view and attempt to see all views, as many views as possible. We take in our whole 360-degree environment as if our consciousness resides in each person, with all their multi-dimensional complexity.
Mindfulness means being aware of who we really are, beyond the clothes, beyond the artificial labels and categories of language. We see this very essential, very universal quality in ourselves and every single person on planet earth.
If we are talking about the end of a romantic relationship, mindfulness means that we will still treat the other person with consideration; we will treat them like family.
Of course, this whole paradigm of how we love others applies not just to our partners, but everyone we come in contact with in our life - for the 30 seconds we interact with the cashier at the grocery store, to the five minutes we give to a lost stranger looking for directions, to a friend that had a rough day and wants to grab something to eat, to the person we've been dating for a few weeks that we're no longer interested in dating anymore, to the person we've been with for two years, to an old ex-partner that has now become one of our best friends.
We can be mindful of them for the time and duration that our fate is entwined with theirs, whether it is for 30 seconds or several decades. We love people as much as is possible in the time that our life floats into the sphere of theirs before it inevitably continues on, in the continuous stream of interactions that we experience with countless other beings in the world.
Tim Hjersted is a co-founder of Films For Action. He is based in Lawrence, Kansas.