Donald Trump and the Charleston massacre are examples of hate and labels on steroids. I can wish Trump whisked away by a wand as much as I am still stunned by the Charleston massacre. Hate will always lurk in the shadows or show its face in the daylight. The question is not about ending the hate that some people specialize in but re-framing the way we use labels and talk about one another. There are four tools to stop feeding the monster of hate and hateful labels.
I was not surprised to recently hear two very similar comments. One was from a woman reflecting on an event at which a prominent Democrat was present. This Republican woman said, "Thank goodness I didn't know; I could never speak to a Democrat." The other was from a woman who is a Democrat. She proudly told a group of people, "I cannot be among Republicans." What surprised me was my lack of surprise at such arrogant dismissal.
These two encounters do not constitute hate speech. While we have the right to not engage with certain people, these examples reflect a pernicious way of labeling others. In each case they reveal a privileged and imagined exercise of power on the part of the labeler asserting their own superiority and rectitude over the one being labeled.
These two examples may never result in hatred of the Trump magnitude or Charleston massacre but they provide a bridge to dismissing entire categories of people. When individuals or groups of people are labeled it becomes easier to hate because they have ceased to be as human as we believe we are. It is a denial of the truth that our lives are intertwined and that we need one another whether we like it or not!
It's tempting to blame the labeling and hatred on the culture we live in. Most Americans do not share Trumps hateful views of Mexicans and immigrants. Bullies like him are celebrated by the outsized attention showered on his views. The bully has sparked conversation about how we speak of one another and swift action from corporate America disassociating itself from his views.. Most Americans are aghast at the terror wielded by the Charleston murderer. Charleston has invited conversation and action from groups diverse as NASCAR, the South Carolina legislature and corporate America about the labels associated with the Confederate flag.
So what can we do about the hate speech and the labels of dismissiveness and hatred? Our culture is a reflection of the collective us; we shape the culture in seemingly small and often unnoticed choices each day. It's in our hands and these four tools are part of your toolkit.
Re-frame conversations. You don't have to cringe in silence when another person uses a hateful or demeaning label. You can tell a story about a person being labeled - the immigrant, Mexican, African-American, woman or gay person you know. Stories are difficult to ignore because they are personal and they humanize one another. Your stories will probably reveal your own journey of willing to be vulnerable enough to reassess a stereotype or label that you once used without much thought.
Live with the questions. Some labels are used because they offer certainty or reinforce comfortable but unexamined views. Invite reconsideration of a label. To be authentic you need to have reexamined a label that you use because this is not about trying to force or convince another person of their error. It is about being aware of and living with the questions revealed by the power of language and our shared humanity. Living with the questions allows for the truth that we each evolve when we are willing to reexamine the impact and implications of using an unexamined label about others.
Allow for difference. In the realm of policy and politics labels are all too often a show of bravado or the repeating of the legacy politics that exists among many Americans; the assumption that one side or the other has the franchise on truth. Labels in this realm serve only the professionals who benefit from them and do little for the common good. Your ability to honor difference, to listen and not just talk can create a space in which some of the best ideas can be discussed regardless of which "side" they come from.
Invite respect and compassion. You model this by the language you use, the judgments you make or choose not to make and a willingness to see the humanity of yourself and others that labels often camouflage. You do not have to like the view that a label conveys about the person using it. Respect and compassion invite people to step beyond labels that limit themselves and others. Respect and compassion leave little space for hate and hate speech.
These four tools depend on you using your voice and refusing to cede our collective lives to the bullies and hateful labelers. They require just enough courage to express the love that says we are all in this together as part of one human family.
There will be some who cannot or will not allow themselves to move beyond demeaning labels or acts of hate. You can only be responsible for yourself and your willingness to step above and beyond a diminished way of living. You can be part of re-framing how we think, talk and act as members of a shared country and a common humanity.
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