We all have labels for our self and others. It is hard to live without picking up one or two as we progress along the merry yellow brick road of existence. The most basic relate to our age, sex, nationality and ethnicity. Others point to our job, relationship status, sexual orientation and religious beliefs. When we meet someone we often ask key questions so that we can mentally place them in certain pigeonholes. It helps us to learn something about people without having to ask the same questions over and over. If we know someone if a fireman, we have a pretty fair idea about what he does in his job, likewise for a secretary, actress, farmer and accountant.
So, where’s the problem?
Well, there is none just so long as we don’t go confusing labels with reality or believing that our past experience of certain labels means that others sharing that label will have the same or similar characteristics. But no one would ever believe that all people from the same country were the same, surely? Or that there is no such thing as a nice Democrat/Jehovah’s Witness/Iraqi/Creationist/*insert your own prejudice here*. Notice the effect each of those words have on your mind. Some will have none, others might make you tense slightly. And this is just a word with no person in sight.
I imagine we can all bring to mind situations in which we bring our past interactions to our current communication with people of a certain nationality, religion or political outlook, and fail to approach someone with a completely open mind. In some ways this is to be expected, as there is no doubt that labels can give some indication of what might happen and I would be foolish to suggest otherwise. However, when labels close us off from others purely based on perceived difference, even before they have spoken a word, this can lead to the kind of divisions that end up resulting in prolonged conflict. Looking to our differences, rather than our similarities as human beings, and identifying with our national, religious and ethnic labels means that battle lines will continue to be drawn and old wounds reopened, even ones that have nothing to do with us personally.
Labels of friend and enemy are particularly important, as once bestowed we tend to have an inherent assumption that these will stay fixed. But, who among us have not have a friend or lover become an enemy or vice-versa? Stories of love stretching across conflict take on a poignancy that has served to make great literature such as Romeo and Juliet. Yet, take away the labels, and we are merely left with two people who happen to fall for each other. Why such a surprise?
Wouldn’t it be better to put labels aside and listen openly to what the other person has to say without filtering it through our usual cultural and historical prejudices? In this way we can treat each moment and interaction on its own merits and respond appropriately. Look at how you would probably react differently to the same post made respectively by a friend, stranger or person you dislike. I find I tend to give friends far more leeway when they say something apparently stupid. Why not extend that courtesy to everyone?
His Holiness Dalai Lama says that there are only two things we need to know about other people, and even animals: like us, they all want to be happy and, like us, they all want to avoid suffering. Sometimes, their ideas of what will make them happy may seem to be skewed (at least from our perspective) but these two things remain true nonetheless. Connection with others is one of the things that brings happiness to most of us so it would seem to be futile to cut people off by virtue of words which we take to hold some inherent truth. We are, after all, sharing a small blue planet with 6 billion others (and countless other sentient and non-sentient creatures) who are far more similar to our self than they are different.
So, when considering opposing points of view, it is good to remember that however deluded you think someone is, they are merely trying to be happy just like you. Whereas one harsh word often sparks another in return, kindness tends to produce kindness. I know which I’d prefer.