Steven A. Isaacson

The Label Machine

Labeling. Categorizing. As humans, we partake in these activities frequently. When engaging in a conversation, we tend to stuff people with particular views and positions into boxes and corners of our preconceived notions and judgments. However, this approach is highly detrimental to all measures of discourse and seeks to undermine the nuances and complexities that each person on Earth possesses at some level or another.

What happens, though, when the person does not fit into the label or identity given to them? How does the level of trust and respect fluctuate with labels? These questions, up until recently, have not been posed widespread. But it is critical that we answer them and work to fix the culture of hostility that is perpetuated by the ”us-versus-them” paradigm.

Conversation is comprised of several components, one of which being mutual respect. This, to me, is the cornerstone and the essential foundation of dialogue. In order to fully understand and accept someone’s view, there must be an underlying level of respect, and this comes with forming a relationship with the individual about something else not related to the hot topic at hand.

From my personal experience, I discuss complicated topics with people with whom I disagree because I am able to connect with them on other topics, such as student loan debt, unrepresentative school administrations, and even marching band. It is then easy to have a conversation about hot topics such as Israel or American politics, because we already have something in common, a point on which we build our relationship. However, this does not work out unless all parties are willing to make peace and respectful dialogue work.

From this mutual understanding, we are then able to open our eyes, open our minds, and hear clearly what the other person is saying. If there is no underlying relationship with the other person, it often happens that minds close, fences go up, and conflict arises in the presence of controversial topics. Once one opens their mind, they will be able to have a civil discussion or debate. But most importantly, none of this works out if the parties at hand are not willing to cooperate to make the situation work.

Let us employ an example for this framework, a tactic that the Boston-based non-profit organization The David Project, practices in its Israel advocacy endeavors. It is often seen on college campuses and other adult conversations around the world that being “pro-Israel” or “anti-Israel” means that you pass a checklist of arbitrarily posited views and positions. For a lot of people, being “anti-Israel” means that you support Hamas, that you hate Jews, and that you think Israel should not exist. Meanwhile, being “pro-Israel” means you think that somehow Israel can do no wrong and that everything Israel does is right. These labels, while unifying in theory, end up destroying any chance of originality and nuance, separating people more than it brings them together.

Instead of labeling, let us skip the categorizing stage and learn about the person’s actual views. Most of the time they are special and nuanced; however, this is not discovered because people are not willing to take the steps needed to have civil, respectful debate. Advocates on both sides of an issue would rather resort to trench “warfare,” than come out of their safe groups of people and news outlets. They don’t want to listen to another narrative or someone else’s reality.

I can consider myself a supporter of the state of Israel and criticize its policies and laws, just the same way that I can support the United States of America and criticize its policies and laws. People are so very often confused when I do not fit into their ideal checklist of being “pro-Israel.” They are perplexed. But this topic doesn’t just have to be about Israel. What is so great about this framework is that it can literally be applied to any topic, any conflict, or any discussion. It is comparable to an equation. The numbers (the framework) are there for you, just simply replace the variables with your topic and players, and you have a brand new working equation for a separate topic.

It is imperative that, in order for peace and productive solutions to be a reality, we as people, as humans, must cease acting as perpetual label machines, seeking to set a standard for all people based on their views. We must begin to see each other as humans first, before seeking viewpoints. Conflicts are complex, complicated phenomena, so why are we not treating the players involved as such? I would argue that this question must be answered first, before we can even wish to see world peace. Because if we do not, all we’ll get is whirled peas.

About the Author
Steven Isaacson is a sophomore at Clark University, studying Political Science and Women's and Gender Studies. A student fellow with The David Project, Steven firmly believes that the most efficient way to achieve success as an advocate is through active listening and mutual respect. A Pro-Israel advocate on his Clark campus in central MA, Steven faces new challenges everyday in bringing two or more seemingly dissimilar groups together for discourse.
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