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Labels and Civility: irreconcilable or synergistic?

Author: perkinsk

One contributing factor to polarization on our campuses, our towns and cities, and seemingly the whole nation, is the almost-automatic labeling of others based on a few cues. Skin color, accents, and apparel are examples of what is used to label others – sometimes as rapists and murderers and other times as righteous and patriotic. And once a label is applied to one person or a group of people, it is hard to walk it back.

Are labels a bad thing? Not really. They are a human thing. Everybody uses labels. The placing of new things – people, products, experiences, events – into categories is integral to how our minds work. Using cues from the senses to categorize new things gives us a shortcut to knowing how to respond to this new thing. In day-to-day life, there is seldom enough time or energy to process all the information that is hitting our senses, and when we are feeling threatened or anxious by changes in our environment and the speed at which information is coming at us, it seems even more important to our sense of safety to quickly categorize new information and know how to respond. The typical person will categorize new things hundreds of times every day. And everybody has strong emotional attachments to some labels, possibly because of the intensity – positive or negative – of past experiences with other things to which that label was attached in the past. Those labels are the hardest to disengage.

Part of what has happened in our society over the last few years is that the quick and sometimes reckless use of emotionally charged labels has been encouraged. Starting in the 1960s, there was a concerted effort by government, educators, civic leaders and well-intentioned citizens to push back on the use of emotionally charged labels that had been part of our socialized category schemes and used to make quick judgments and act in certain ways toward some groups based on skin color, ethnic or national background, gender orientation, religious affiliation, and other characteristics. For many people alive today, those old labels and their associated responses had been strongly reinforced by family and community members, by entertainment sources such as TV programs and movies, and by popular media. And it took a lot of effort and encouragement to replace those labels and responses with ones that allowed for a more compassionate and less judgmental view of others. For younger people, it was likely easier to replace old labels with new ones, because the old ones had been less reinforced and also because our ability to create new mental schemes degrades over time, suggesting that young people may find it easier to create new labels and associations than older people.

Between the 1960s and the 2000s, we seemed to have made progress on our campuses, in our towns and cities, and as a society. The old labels were still around, to be sure, but they were used less often, and the incidence of quick judgments that led to unjust treatment was reduced.  It took effort, mental and emotional discipline, and the encouragement of others, to replace old labels with new ones, but it was happening. And a strong source on influence in that change was media dialogue that consistently reinforced the new labels – the ones that were more complex and less prone to unjust and divisive treatment of others. People who might otherwise have difficulty replacing strongly reinforced labels were encouraged and strengthened by the example of respected and highly visible media personalities.

The results from those efforts cannot be overlooked. During those years, the U.S. endured significant economic and social jolts, ranging from oil crises to multiple wars, and from the dislocation of some industries by relentless global competition. In contrast to other societies that have suffered similarly, U.S. recovery from such jolts has been historically quicker and more successful; the diversity of thought and talent, and less-restrictive labels, made it possible for the workforce to contribute to innovative new products and services, and approaches to problems. By pushing back on limiting and often unfair labels, opportunities were created for people who would have otherwise been prohibited from applying their talents. Pushing back on labels did not prevent crises from occurring or problems from arising, but it contributed to our overcoming them more quickly and effectively.

Something has happened in U.S. society that has set back some of that progress. Old labels have been brought back and reinforced by highly visible media and political personalities, and people have in effect been given permission to once again rely on labels that are easier to use but also fraught with the dangers of unjust treatment and lost opportunity. And the cost of that trend is evident in social divisions, violence, and the closing off of innovative thinking on how to solve major problems. If diversity of thought and talent is curtailed by labels and associations that overshadow the beauty of people different from us, the end result is likely to be slower and less effective responses to inescapable change.

Wanting to go back to what is familiar and easier to process is natural in all people when they are under stress. It is part of our human makeup. But it is not the whole of our human makeup.  We are also gifted with the ability to hold up such labels and reactions to critical analysis, and to alter our willingness to apply them when the cost of doing so is made clear. And we are gifted with the means of helping one another in those pursuits. In the U.S., part of the responsibility assigned to mass media, in exchange for the rights and protections it enjoys, is to encourage people to be better – toward themselves, one another and the nation. We need to return to the gentle and yet firm encouragement of pushing back against simple and unjust labels, and once again embrace mental schemes that help us see one another more richly and fairly.

José Antonio Rosa is a professor of marketing at Iowa State University, where he also holds a faculty fellow appointment in the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. In that role, he is working on several initiatives focused on equity, diversity and inclusion for the university and its constituencies, one of which is a wide-reaching campaign to encourage civility between all members of the Iowa State University community.

Civility in communications is the focus of the 2019 Greenlee Summit, Sept. 5 and 6 at Iowa State University. For more information and to register, visit: