THE SANTA CLARA
May 8, 2014
Part of the problem with discourse today is our obsession with calling people names.
Not necessarily in the sense of childhood mockery, but rather in the seemingly innocuous labels we impart on people every day.
This is somewhat unavoidable. The whole point of a noun is to give voice to something’s identity. It’s how we explain that the food is on the table, not on the Chihuahua. But the consequence is that without looking right at what’s being described, we draw conclusions about it that the noun alone did not explain.
In regards to people, we call these stereotypes.
Longtime politicos bemoan the end of cooperation, when opposition members often collaborated. This is because the ideas of what “Democrats” and “Republicans” are have become twisted. Someone willing to work with the other side is now seen as allowing a wretched type of person to reign supreme, even when that type is nothing more than a caricature of reality.
No wonder George Washington advised against political parties in his Farewell Address. He knew a label has immense power to divide.
It extends beyond politics. Our gender, our race, our profession, even our possessions are ways by which we are labeled. These invariably come with biases and assumptions that might be entirely inaccurate, but nevertheless come to be who we are known as to others.
Too often have I heard people round up groups and dismiss them all on the actions of a few. If one feminist upset them, then all feminists are evil. If one Ferrari cut them off, then all Ferrari drivers are selfish, arrogant jerks. The common line is, “No surprise they did that, they’re a ____.”
Labels box someone into a category that may only define them in part, but it is that part onto which critics latch. A label is, by definition, an absolute, and absolutism is (almost) never the right answer.
We are better than this.
I understand the desire to give someone a label. It’s an evolutionary shortcut, defining friend or foe, prey or predator. And not every label is inherently inaccurate. The problem is that we are giving in to the stereotypes attached to these labels and taking them as gospel.
If this is my own final address, then I reiterate Washington’s last wish on a greater scale. Don’t jump to conclusions about people you haven’t met. Don’t take a shortcut and default to the lowest base noun. Take the time to get to know people. Will you always like what you find? Of course not.
But no one fits snugly into a box. They deserve the opportunity to prove the stereotype wrong.
Jonathan Tomczak is a senior political science and history double major and editor of the Opinion section.