This is a question that has been rolling around in my head since Amy Vernon asked it in response to an open call for conversation last week. My short answer coached the problem in politics, but the problem is much more hardwired into human beings than we might think. If it wasn't political labels that drive the diatribe and prevent problem solving, it would be something else.
It might be religious labels. It might be ethnic labels. It might be occupational labels. Or it might be the books we read. The music we like. The clothes we wear. The activities we pursue. The experiences we've had. The places we live. The places where we were born. The people we know.
We wake up every day with several thousand labels around our necks. We let them shape us and allow them to shape our perception of other people. We make ourselves slaves to them. And there is no end to how many we might make up. It's why we have nice things. And it's why we can't have nice things.
We've been indoctrinated into addiction. It took our entire childhood.
The truth is we spend most of our childhoods being indoctrinated into labels that make life easier and harder because every label carries an agenda. That's the point. Someone invented them to give life directions, expectations, and excuses. And then our parents and guardians conspire to pass them along just as most of us will when we have children too.
They aren't the only ones. Every peer and role model you ever had did the same thing, for better and worse. Many labels are moving targets, falling in and out of popularity with minorities and majorities.
It doesn't really matter what those labels might be. They blind us by casting bigger shadows than the people who wear them, they bind us to limitations and opportunities, and they consciously and subconsciously tint the lens that we wear when we try to solve problems as individuals and groups.
The only people not overtaken by them have to make a conscious effort to recognize them for what they are, strive to be objective even when it feels impossible, and struggle to retain their sense of self-esteem while not subscribing to stereotypes that the greater society values. It's one of the most difficult things anyone can do in life because people are genuinely afraid that all they can be are their labels.
Who would you be if labels didn't define you? Besides happy, I mean.
After I asked her to write down the definition of everything she considered to be a "good mother," we both took a breath to admire the sheer weight of expectations. Without going into too much detail, suffice to say that the label she had placed on a pedestal was unreachable and unachievable.
Mostly, her list included everything she thought her mom did right, the opposite of everything her mom did wrong, several dozen expectations that are currently popular in society, several dozens values dedicated by faith (even though she was agnostic at the time), and so on and so forth. Once she took it all in and could laugh at how grandiose her job description was, I offered an alternative concept.
"Just like your husband married you and not the idea of a 'good wife,' your son wants to be raised by you and not the idea of a 'good mother,'" I said. "If you are you and do everything from a perspective of unconditional love, then you will be better than a 'good mother' because no one can be you better."
You would be surprised how great people can be when they aren't paralyzed by labels. She did fine.
So what does that have to do with solving problems? Almost everything.
Have you ever noticed that some of the most explosive companies in history have come out of nowhere? There is a reason for that. They are generally started by entrepreneurs solving a specific problem or changing the status quo.
Why can't big companies do the same? Some of them can, but the advantage belongs to the startup in that they haven't saddled themselves with labels, policies and office politics. People focus on the objective at hand, without any other distractions. Their teams aren't always proven as much as they are ready to prove themselves. And whatever idea they've been turning over is all that really matters.
So let's say the problem is more altruistic, like thirsty children. How do we solve it? Charity: Water says the best way to solve it is to build water projects that put clean, drinkable water closer to the source.
All that stands in their way to deliver it is labels. Some people don't like their business model. Some people don't like that the founder is Christian. Some people don't like their partner organizations. Some people don't like that the program helps people abroad as opposed to at home. Some people worry about project sustainability. Some people want to support another charity. And the list goes on.
Nobody is exempt and the test is self-evident. Think of an agency that solves our water problem. Now impart different labels on it, one at a time inserting the label ahead of the word agency. Like this: "_______" agency for water.
Christian. Islamic. Jewish. Satanic. Democrat. Republican. Libertarian. Jeffersonian. Secretive. Communist. Domestic. Conservative. Liberal. International. African. Jamaican. Japanese. Home-Based. Government. And so on and so forth. Which one would you give to?
If you're being honest, certain descriptions might have elicited a positive or negative emotional reaction. It might have been slight, but your prejudices exist, possibly based on your proximity or positive and negative experiences with people who have claimed to represent those things or what you have been told to expect from such people. In swapping the labels, you may even forget the problem.
How do you overcome prejudices and agendas to solve problems?
My oversimplified definition of public relations applies here. While I have more academic definitions, I often say that public relations is the art and science of making "we" out of "us and them." If you want to solve problems without being plagued by agendas, the only possibility is to ask people to temporarily check their labels (not their values) at the door.
It's a tall order to be sure, especially because most people don't even know they exist. They do. They exist on a grand scale, such as those who judge us by the color of our skin. And they exist on a small scale such as how much we might weigh or the shine of our shoes. So if you find someone to set those things aside, even for a little while, then hold onto them tight. They are rare individuals.
At least, that is what I think. I would love to know what you think. I'd also love to know what Dr. Steve Nguyen thinks, and Roger Dooley, and Sandeep Gauntam, or anyone who makes psychology a primary interest as opposed to me, about two classes short of that degree (it was my minor).
Of course, we need not stop with psychologists or people with a bent for the human condition. Anyone can chime in, especially Amy Vernon, who opened the box on this relevant topic. And if this topic is too far removed, that's fine too. What would you like to talk about? The comments are open. Let's talk.