Does the current political climate create knots in your stomach? Do you feel like you’re walking on eggshells with family, friends, or colleagues? Here I share some of the damaging effects of stereotyping and labeling yourself and others. I offer some simple tips for reducing their impacts.
While I use political examples, these concepts also apply to many other areas of life. I sometimes coach clients on recognizing self-imposed labels and limiting beliefs.
The Damaging Effects of Stereotyping and Labeling
Humans crave predictability and certainty, in the (often misleading) form of neat boxes. It’s normal, and it can create a sense of safety. “I can trust that person to act and think in a certain way, because they’re in the same box as I am!”
But this approach has a cost. Slapping labels on yourself and your ideas, or on others and their ideas, has many negative impacts. These are just a few:
- It perpetuates “us versus them” and condescending attitudes. (“Those Republicans are all crazy.”)
- It makes it harder to hear others’ viewpoints, or to learn from them. You’ve pre-concluded that they’re coming from a non-trustworthy source, based upon the label and stereotypes assigned to the source. (“I’ve heard he’s a liberal enviro-weenie. I can’t believe anything he says.”)
- It can lead to charged conversations becoming personal attacks, or at the very least feeling like them, when they’re actually more about differences in thinking. (“I am a Democrat, and he just said he hates Democrats. I guess we’re not really friends!”)
- It makes you more prone to emotional manipulation and divisiveness. When someone says something negative about the group with which you strongly identify, you feel an even stronger need to attack back on behalf of your group. (Candidate Cringwalder is attacking all Tea Party folks again with his vicious lies. Rally the troops!)
- It assumes that different categories are mutually exclusive, when they may actually have much overlap. (“I have nothing in common with Jai. She’s Libertarian and I’m Green Party.”)
- It manipulates you to make a lot of assumptions about a person or source based upon the definition or stereotype of a label that’s been fed to you. That stereotype may be based upon the most extreme–and therefore most visible–members of a group. It may be outdated or over-generalized. (“Janita identifies with a candidate whom the media says is Socialist. I already know where she’s coming from.”)
- Social psychology tells us that when we publicly state a strong position on something, we feel more pressure to maintain that position, even in light of opposing evidence.
How to Reduce the Power of Labels and Stereotypes
Given the above, here’s a simple exercise to try:
Instead of saying to yourself or others, “I am a Conservative / Democrat / Liberal / Libertarian / Republican / Socialist / other,”
“Many of my thoughts are ______ in nature,”
“I often vote ______.”
Consider other phrasings that replace “I am” with something that’s less permanent, absolute, and self-labeling in nature.
Encourage your friends and family to give this a try, too.
I’ve found that my own current beliefs and values span several of the political party and ideology labels listed in the graphic above. I have at least something in common with all of them. The same might be true for you.
Granted, nobody can completely free themselves from stereotyping, prejudice, and labels. We’re all human, and we all have biases. Group affiliations are often important and useful for organizing to create change. It’s all about moderation, and making sure you don’t trade in your critical thinking abilities. Increasing your awareness will help you and those around you.
For additional perspectives on managing labels and reducing stereotypes, check out Avoiding “Holier Than Thou” and Honesty on Racism, Sexism, Classism, & Prejudice: Transcending “PC Shoulds.”