Tactics and Tools

People Are More Than Labels

Author Alan Shlemon Published on 02/23/2021

My family recently finished watching the Divergent trilogy. The dystopian narrative imagines a future where people in society are split up into factions based on values and aptitude. One faction is brave, another is honest, another is intelligent, etc. Of course, not every member of the society fits neatly into one of these categories. Some people have characteristics that fit multiple factions. Part of the plot includes a fight to overturn the faction system.

Naturally, our family got into a discussion about how our modern society has its own faction system with labels for different groups: Democrat, Republican, libertarian, conservative, liberal, pro-life, pro-choice, Christian, Muslim, gay, artist, athlete, etc. Although we don’t live in exactly the same dystopian world of the Divergent series, one important point that carries over from the movie is that people don’t always fit neatly into categories. It’s easy to misunderstand who a person is and/or what they believe if you don’t take the time to get to know them. People and their views are almost always more nuanced than what we might conclude based on a label.

For example (and I’ve spoken with several people like this), imagine a girl who identifies herself as “pro-choice.” A typical pro-life Christian might assume this person is a feminist who believes abortion should be legal for any reason throughout all nine months of pregnancy. It’s possible this is her view, but being pro-choice could mean many different things. Though she might agree with the general idea of a woman’s “right to choose,” she could believe that abortion is wrong as a method of birth control, that abortion is wrong after the first trimester, and that abortion is wrong in a case where the unborn has Down syndrome. In other words, she could identify as “pro-choice” but be morally opposed to the vast majority of abortions. That’s why it would be a mistake to draw a conclusion about her views based merely on her self-designation of “pro-choice.”

The same is true with the label “Christian.” When I meet a stranger and they tell me they’re a Christian, I honestly don’t have any idea what they actually believe. There’s a tremendous variety of beliefs that can fall under that label. That’s also true of “Muslim,” “gay,” “conservative,” and a whole host of other labels. We shouldn’t settle for our preconceived notions of who people are. It often leads to misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and failed relationships.

The solution is to follow two simple steps. First, resist the urge to jump to conclusions about people. Realize that people hold far more nuanced views than what their labels suggest. Don’t assume you understand a person because he’s identified himself in some way. It’s not that you can’t conclude anything about a person, but it often means that you can learn a lot more about them.

Second, take the time to learn and understand people. As we’ve often talked about here at Stand to Reason, Lieutenant Columbo is your friend. The “Columbo Tactic” is about the art of asking questions in a gracious way. The more you learn about another person, the better you’ll understand them, and you’ll be less likely to misrepresent them. Plus, taking the time to learn about them also helps you respond in a more relevant way. Francis Schaeffer said, “If I have only an hour with someone, I will spend the first 55 minutes asking questions and finding out what is troubling their heart and mind, and then in the last 5 minutes I will share something of the truth.” By taking the time to learn about their values and their life, you’ll be better equipped to know what to say when (and if) you decide to say something.

When we settle for our understanding of others based on a mere label, we limit our capacity to understand one another and short circuit healthy relationships. That’s one reason why the world in Divergent was better off once they eliminated factions. People could be understood for the complicated beings they truly were. We can reap the same benefit in our world if we no longer settle for seeing people as a mere label.