Labels are on everything, from packages to products to people. It’s a simple way for us to determine the ingredients, price, usage, care or ownership of something. Throughout our lives, people assign labels to us that reflect and affect both how others think about our identities and how we feel about ourselves. The labels given may not be negative; they can reflect positive characteristics, set useful expectations, and provide meaningful goals in our lives. However, the words that we use to label each other are often the result of unfounded stereotypes and assumptions. We regularly apply labels to people we barely know or have never even met, with others doing the same to us. Used for good or for bad, labels establish an influence on our identity that is often beyond our control.
Regardless of how open-minded we think we are, all of us end up using labels to differentiate us from one another and ultimately, they end up dividing us from one another. When we label someone, we tend to see everything they do in terms of a fixed set of expectations. We make up stories in our heads that confirm our first impressions, verify prejudices, and ignore conflicting information. And in many cases, these quick judgments are wrong.
Every few years, a provincial or federal election occurs, and we collectively experience an exercise in the psychology behind labelling. Politicians and political parties run election campaigns in a similar way that companies run marketing campaigns for products. They look for labels for their candidate that will align them to the majority of the voting public and also use labels to cast unfavourable views on their opponents. This categorizing of people into specific groups is the basis of identity politics, which we have seen become demonstrated during elections in the United States. Left-wing versus right-wing, conservative versus liberal, UCP versus NDP – the commentary and results from last month’s election clearly showed that identity politics are in full swing in Alberta.
Identity politics divides us into smaller and smaller groups, eventually ending with people feeling even more separated and alone, realizing that even those who share their identified label don’t always share all of their beliefs and values. The comments many voters made after this election supported this view, finding it hard to make an informed choice at the ballot with so many discrepancies happening between the established political parties and their own personal values.
It will be interesting to see how this feeling motivates change in the future and fuels any movement away from the label-filled politics of the past into a new dialogue that puts issues, policies and people first. Shifting away from the ‘us vs them’ narrative gives way for the only way to protect and uphold each individual, through broad-based rights and principles, and that change starts with each of us.
In some ways, all politics is based on identity as the shared vision that we want to build for the future is rooted in the lens through which we view the world. The power comes from acknowledging the differences that personal labels identify in each of us and using those differences, not to exclude others' viewpoints but to build on the collective understanding and shared picture of reality that we have together.
Lisa Holmes is a former Morinville mayor and councillor who lives in St. Albert.