Stop basing your morality on Labels
use logic instead
Alt-right, alt-left, regressive-left, regressive-right, conservative, libertarian — these are all examples of Labels. Not ideologies, mind-you, but Labels — which have a distant ideological cousin. They’re flying around the mainstream media, the Internet, and everyday conversation, with the ease and availability of $1 bills at the local strip-joint. Each of the Label examples mentioned here likely evokes a strong emotional response from you, and from the majority of people in general.
That `emotional response` factor is the essence of what I’m addressing here: Labels are where logic comes to die; they’re ideologies that have become a mere emotions-driven shadow of themselves, a sort of zombie ideology.
Labels, capital L — the seemingly unavoidable death to all reason
In everyday life, labels, lowercase l, are useful: our brains use them to operate more efficiently and to `file` our life experiences into useful pointers we can access quickly (for more in depth information on this fascinating topic, I recommend referring to one of my favourite biology-teachers-I-never-had, Robert Sapolsky).
Keeping it simple and on topic, we were monkeys not long ago — or at least not long ago in evolutionary-years — and the labelling system hasn’t really `kept up with the times`. The labelling system is your grandma still struggling to use an iPad, but being asked to successfully connect her smartwatch to her smartphone. For our not-so-distant-in-evolutionary-scale simian cousins, labelling was simple business: cave meant shelter; small animal meant food; those berries meant death like when you saw your sister eat them, vomit, and never wake up again; family meant safety; big beast meant imminent danger — and so on.
However, in the 21st century, labels are complicated shit. It’s no longer fight, flight, play dead; eat, poop, sleep, mate, die. There’s a lot of pressure on that labelling system, in the world we operate today.
Granted, there is hope: though some days I have my doubts, we are no longer monkeys. However, it does mean we need to become aware of what that `labelling system` is doing just below the surface of our conscious discourse.
To understand this, we’ll play a game: I’ll give you a few labels, and you can try to become aware of that first association that comes to mind, the very first connection your brain makes to that label (no judgement here, it’s just in your head, no one will know). Okay, here we go, some examples of popular `trigger-labels`:
· woman driver;
· person with visible tattoos;
· homeless person;
· stay-at-home dad;
· sex worker;
· mentally ill.
All of these conjure associations in your mind, based on your past experiences, your education, community, and an entire host of similar factors. These labels often come to dictate how we perceive the world, as well as the people in it and the ideas they voice. If, for instance, you have visible tattoos yourself, then the label `person with visible tattoos` conjures feelings of empathy or maybe benevolent curiosity; if, however, the only people with visible tattoos you’ve ever interacted with were racist skinheads at alt-right marches, then the label probably doesn’t conjure positive mental associations, and you might even be expecting someone malevolent. Either extreme you pick, your views are still biased — people with visible tattoos come in all genders, shapes, sizes, educational backgrounds, and ethics levels. Still, such bias is mostly painless in everyday life.
So let’s talk about where it gets really personal: not all labels are created equally. Some labels generate little-to-no emotional response, like `software developer` or `creative person` — which means that even though such labels do trigger mental associations in your brain and you do have some sort of preconceived expectations about what one of those might be like, you don’t generally attach much weight to your own bias, and allow yourself to remain open to debate about what that label means. In less fancy terms, you don’t really give a fuck either way: a programmer is not a strong topic of debate for people outside the field.
`Not giving a fuck` about your own opinions is a really useful thing, come time to confront your preconceptions with contradicting reliable evidence.
Yet, other Labels do generate strong emotional response. Some bare the weight of wars, endless violence, and relentless prejudice. They’re asked to support the weight of entire movements and to represent complex ideologies. They speak for individuals and they speak for the groups those individuals belong to. `Too much of a fuck` is given, and all hope of objectivity is lost; I am too emotionally attached to my own bias to be able to let go. The temptation to fabricate justification for my views rather than change them in accordance with the facts, emerges.
Why do we end-up giving `too much of a fuck` about our preconceptions, to the point where we’re willing to wage war to irrationally defend them? Looking at humanity’s current state of affairs, I see 2 (main) recurring reasons for this reluctance to `install software updates` on our own views:
1) Feeling compelled to agree with your Tribe;
2) feeling like your views are one the same with your identity.
1. My tribe must like me
Or I will face death by social exclusion
People seek to adhere to like-minded groups, we seek community and belonging. We seek community and belonging, for the same reason lots of other animals do: because back when we were monkeys ourselves, a tribe meant increased chances of survival (less death-by-wild-beast, more resources, etc.). So we want people to like us and want us around.
Not all people; my People. The People who can keep me safe. My tribe, whichever they may be for me as an individual, and however I may define them today, in the 21st century.
I, for instance, define my People in one word as `nerds`; it’s likely that my ancestors knew of no such formal definitions. However, said ancestors and myself share the same, basic labelling system. Like trying to run a VR game on an iPhone 4S, the labels have become too complex for the machine operating them.
In the modern world, we get way more choice when it comes to our tribe and the people we resonate with. And that’s where the `us vs. them` really starts to kick-in.
We define our group, the People we belong to, via some sort of Label: a universal, one-word definition for the values an entire group of people supposedly stands for. Some of our tribe attachment is cultural, some is a result of the knowledge and preferences we pile on as we go through life. Rarely is it the subject of self-scrutiny — it just sorta…is. We have the cultural background we just do, the friends we just do. And we want those friends to like us.
We pledge our loyalties based on liking the same Netflix shows, on random unquestioned cultural bias, and on having the same rough definition of what constitutes `a little too much to drink last night`. We base it on subjective, narrow criteria. On Labels. It’s why Goth-kids all band together and hate on Bieber-kids. Why fans of opposing soccer teams fight aimlessly in bars about trivial matters, while sitting on a ball of dirt orbiting a massive sphere of fire, in an expanding universe that’s billions upon billions of years old, without ever realizing the irony of this juxtaposition.
I am this Label, you are that Label. This is my Tribe Label.
Once we have our Label, once we define our People, we start to closely associate that Label with feelings of community and belonging; the `ideology` part behind words like Liberal or Conservative becomes clouded in emotional attachment, doomed to bias and lack of critical judgement. We become the Label. It is our people, our community, our belonging, and those opposing it must be either misinformed, or malicious.
I no longer agree and disagree critically and logically with each idea and circumstance presented, I call on my Label to tell me what I believe. In this group, we believe […].
I also call on Labels to tell me what I think about other people; if they voice a single idea falling under a certain Label, they are automatically assumed to be that Label. Hence why there’s literally no using words like `gay ` or `pro-choice` without offending someone, regardless of the context you’re using them in.
It’s an `I am my group`, I speak for the Borg kind of mentality.
But. Apart from my Tribe liking me…
2. I must like me
You will adapt to service Us
The Tribe is not the only entity I need to be on good terms with. The other main entity I need to be liked by, is myself. The reasons for this are pretty obvious, but I will add that, simplistically put, your positive self-image is standing between you and suicide whenever life throws nihilism at you. So it’s pretty damn important.
Still, the weight of my need of positive self-image cannot easily outrank the engrained human compulsion towards group acceptance, so it does mean that I have to rationalize the Tribe’s opinions and beliefs into my own core identity, without encountering any of that unpleasant conflict we refer to as an `identity crisis`.
This results into a sort of identity-morphing adaptation process, in which we rationalize whatever we need to in order to fit it into the narrative. And thus, after all that hard work, the narrative becomes me.
In just 2 simple, subconscious steps, I’ve attached live-or-die emotional-weight to my Labels.
Emotion is not Fact; Labels are just glorified brain-short-cuts
Our capital-L-Labels castrate logic, and then beat it to death with a series of blunt, regurgitated, biased arguments. After that, they embalm and prop-up its corpse in the window so they’d still receive its monthly pension when the mail comes in. Kinda like we did to Alan Turing, whom society had chemically castrated and driven to suicide, right as we proceeded to use his intellectual legacy to create a consumerist-driven world of personal computers.
But if any truth could be forced into existence by the sheer number of people believing it at a certain point in time, we’d still be chemically castrating brilliant, gay engineers.
While we thankfully no longer do that, the progress in our collective ability to debate ideas logically has been insignificant (and I use `insignificant` as a euphemism here). We rely heavily on Labels, and on what our emotions are telling us about them. (Hence why gay rights are still a serious problem in many parts of the world).
However, emotion is not information and holds no intrinsic truth; emotion is a chemical reaction in your brain, triggered by associations you make based on factors like your background, life experiences, and the opinions held true by the group you identify with.
For instance, I’m more likely to have strong emotion attached to the label `software developer` if I’ve had a relationship with one end in emotionally-charged divorce, or if my brother with whom I keep a close relationship works in the field. Likewise, I’m more likely to support gay rights if I have a loving, gay sister and am part of a rational, accepting family, and less inclined to do so, respectively, if I’m a priest of the Catholic Church with a loving gay sister born to a conservative family of people who still hold, in the 21st century, that being gay is somehow a choice or their business to begin with.
Case in point being, once you let that emotional attachment rule over your logic, every idea you formulate will adapt to service the Label, and action must conform to the ideals implied by said Label.
In this group, we are the Label Conservative/Liberal/[…], so we believe a set of this and that, and we hold on to that shit for our dear lives, like contradicting any of the ideas associated with the Label, or even debating them rationally, is the murder of our identity to soon be followed by our complete exclusion from social life, to immediately by followed by a horrifying death alone, in the forest, unsheltered from the elements, to be eaten by predators, our carcass devoured by vultures and other scavengers.
We thus give up any agency over our own moral ideals, in favour of the safety of group belonging and the comfort of a labels-based decision-making system. Self-scrutiny is a tiresome, at times painful, group-exclusion-danger-zone.
Yet, despite our adherence to our Labels, life will exist outside of that universe, doing its thing — meaning, despite the fact that we are Conservative people, and we’ve raised our child in a Conservative environment, with plenty of exposure to the word of our good Lord, the child still had the audacity to turn out to be gay. Occurring with at least some 15,000 studied species other than humans, from primates to some worms with Latin names, homosexuality is as `natural` as it can get, in that it is practiced naturally by species other than our own (unlike, say, genocide). And nature doesn’t give a fuck about your political opinions — try as we may to make a political thing of it.
The way we politicize homosexuality (which, spelled out like that, comes-off as a pretty big asshole move to make in the first place) is symptom of the way we relate to our Labels in general, and the prevalence of using Labels (mere thought-shortcuts with an inflated ego brought-on by our emotional attachment to them) as supposedly some form of irrefutable argument.
`We are people of god and therefore we will not have a gay person living under our roof, be it our own teenage son or anyone else. ` . Like your beliefs are some sort of valid argument that’s supposed to make your son less gay. From where I’m standing, that’s honestly only slight progress from our days of `dealing` with homosexuality via chemical castration.
This Label-become-group-manifesto-become-identity is humanity’s default approach for dealing with each other, our planet, and basically every issue we collectively face. Resistance, is futile; you will adapt your Self and your opinions to service Us; you will be assimilated, your thoughts purged of critical thinking. You will be provided with the group manifesto, and it will speak for you henceforth.
As a society, we seem to have reduced everything to a constant war-of-the-worlds, where the `worlds` are the Labels we’ve each tattooed on our own foreheads, the Labels we live and judge by.
Moving past the Labels and our emotional attachment to them
– or how I came to dream of a world where our opinions are not synonym to our identities
I grew-up with an amazing mother who’s always been on a never-ending quest for self-improvement, and throughout the past 20+ years of self-awareness, I’ve had the privilege of watching her go from Secretary, to Regional HR Manager to a multinational corporation, to life-changing Cognitive-behavioural Therapist; from mysticism-seeking, acupuncture-and-other-pseudoscience curious consumer, to science-consensus-and-scientific-exploration driven secular thinker; from sedentary Garfield to marathon runner — throughout her life, her identity has remained both rock-solid and fluid, allowing her views to be updated as she uncovered new evidence, while remaining true to self-improvement, truth-seeking, curiosity, and a genuine desire to empathize with her fellow human beings. Her quest continues. (1968 — ).
Change of views didn’t come easy for my mother, but it was a joy, a joy of discovery and self-improvement. My mother taught me what an incredible feeling it is to stand tall and proclaim with joy I was wrong! — I was wrong, but now I’m changing my views. The joy of self-scrutiny and self-improvement. Is it painful at times? Yes. Oh, of course it is. I’ve watched her be harshly judged by her tribe for her change in Label definitions and world views all my life.
When she quit a high-end job 6 years ago and opened-up an independent Cognitive-behavioural Therapy practice in the 2nd world of Bucharest, Romania, her Group said she was crazy and people would never come and she would starve. They were mourning what they saw as the murder of Miruna-the-HR-Manager.
When she got a visible tattoo, her Tribe said she would lose all of the many customers she sees in her successful independent psychotherapy practice (the same therapy practice the Tribe prophesized would doom her to starvation) — because of how people would label her in our 2nd would country. They were mourning the death of conventional-Miruna, whom had only existed in their imagination to begin with.
Much earlier, when she became a single mother at the age of 22, her People said she was selfish for not `sticking by the [biological] father`. My country was a mere few months communism-reign-of-terror-free, and such a thing was inconceivable for her Tribe. In 1990’s Romania, the term `single mother` wasn’t even a thing, you’d try to explain the notion and people would immediately offer their condolences — death was the implied way into becoming a single mother, absent evident and severe physical abuse.
Sometime after my mother’s `divorced` status failed to produce my untimely death, my father came into my life. I was about 2 years old when my father and I first saw each other, and in my first memory of him, he’s watching TV near my crib, in the living-room. I think it was a soccer game. I was kinda jealous of my mom spending less time with me when he first moved in, but he made me feel safe, even though he wasn’t very touchy-friendly as a person and his voice didn’t sound melodic like my mother’s.
So at the opposite end of the spectrum, I’ve had the challenging, beautiful, would-not-trade-for-anything quest of growing-up with my father — a reliable, analytical thinker, whose identity is twins-conjoined-at-the-head-level-inseparable from his Labels on the world.
An accomplished, formally-educated Engineer of the Practical World (he specializes in making people do stuff they didn’t know were inefficient more efficiently, and in making those pretty 3D-renders of houses actually do real-world 21st century house-stuff), my father’s been so severely under-appreciated by his own parents that it makes me sad to think about.
A holder of The Ultimate Truth about how things should be done, my father learned a sort of resigned tolerance for the fact that others cannot abide by his truths, a wisdom his own parents never possessed. For instance, he will openly admit that he still regrets software development never stuck with me earlier on in life, but has stopped trying to bully my artist self into living the software developer dream.
Fearing for my just-barely-above-the-poverty-line life as an artist, `while having had the mental abilities to achieve a more secure lifestyle`, he nowadays only mentions it if I explicitly bring it up. I try to tell him that, while it is a breathtakingly fascinating field, I would personally be so unhappy with the career that I’d be driven to suicide; what I want to do, is make people empathize with points of view.
It’s what makes me happy, or sad the least, I try to offer, to which my father scoffs, as if the argument is completely invalid, and I’ve just offered him an episode of `Ancient Aliens` as proof for the origins of the human species.
Throughout his life, my father has fought the notion that to divorce a Label you held in good regards, is to kill your Identity. In effect, it is to believe that your opinions are who you are, that your opinions are you. To renounce them in the face of new evidence is to kill a part of yourself.
While my father has fought the war well, and his views have evolved over time to encompass the possibility of the existence of some other worlds outside his own, and even to allow for the possibility of those worlds being something other than bullshit, it is not a self-war I wish upon anyone. Worse yet, some aren’t willing to fight it. I consider people like my father the middle-class-hero figures of a generation: brought up to live and die by the Labels of his Tribe, but fighting as best he can to be tolerant despite what standards he forces upon himself. He is the exception, rather than the rule, in the way humans of the 21st century deal with their emotional attachment to their own opinions.
I think changing our views, whatever they may be, in the face of evidence, however wrong we might have previously been, can be an act of joy. I think anyone can, like my mother, choose to find joy in having been wrong — because to allow the possibility of being wrong is to allow the possibility of growth and discovery.
What I suggest you try, is using your own words to define the people and concepts you come across, as well as using your own logic to analyse the validity of an idea, rather than falling onto the beliefs and ideologies of your People to make the decisions for you. A random person then is not `a republican` or `a libertarian` — they are who their actions prove them to be. An idea is not `conservative` or `progressive` — those are lazy Labels of the mases, and they are of no use to you. Lose the lazy, automatic labelling system; become aware of your perceptions and cognitions; think; question everything, but mostly yourself.
To disregard Labels and think logically for yourself, all I-may-have-been-wrong risks considered, is an amazing feeling of self-triumph, of beating the nature that is your emotional attachment to Labels and the group that holds them, and proving yourself above the temptation of seeing the world divided between either my Labels or Wrong and Dangerous. It’s to choose to become the single mother of your own ideas, despite the post-communist world telling you that to divorce your Labels is starvation and selfish death — in doing so, you will allow the possibility of finding a better father to the children that are your own ideas.
If you’ve found my philosophical-rambling in any way challenging or interesting, please consider sharing my work with your fellow-humans.
And most of all, thank you for taking the time to debate with me.