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ISSUE 117 VOL 4 PUBLISHED 10/10/2003

Labels destroy societal bonds

By Dan Schramm
Staff Writer

Friday, October 10, 2003

Who are you? Are you a jock? A bookworm? A prep or a computer geek? A stoner or straight-edger? Are you a hippie? A Christian? An atheist? Are you Republican or Democrat? A capitalist or a commie? Conservative or liberal? Black or white? Are you an American?

Labels are a convenient way to ignore others; after all, it is easier to categorize people than to slowly uncover the layers comprising a unique individual. Perhaps labeling wouldn’t be so pervasive if we didn’t continually give ourselves labels and wear them with pride (“I’m a feminist,” or “I’m a Lutheran,” or “I’m an alcoholic”).

When we are born, we are all human. At what point in our lives is that no longer enough? The genetic makeup of the human species is 99.98 percent the same as the chimpanzee, and yet even at St. Olaf differences between students sometimes seem irreconcilable. When there is so much unity, why do we obsessively divide ourselves into war parties?

The problem of marginalization through stereotyping has always been an epidemic of human society, and has potentially catastrophic consequences in an era when, in the words of folk singer Greg Brown, "the whole world struggles to become one place." But symptoms of this disease can be observed in places as close to us as the residence halls or the Caf. How many times have we responded to a question about another student with, "Oh, he's just a ," or "She hangs out with ." These descriptions may be true when looking at the small picture, but are ultimately lazy and cause incalculable harm on a larger scale. They create jealousy and bitterness; encourage ignorance and complacency; demean our individuality and foster our latent hatred of the unknown. When stereotypes and caricatures are used politically, they can destroy a community.

Last spring I had the good fortune of being on another continent during the escalation, execution and immediate aftermath of the war in Iraq. From that distant perspective, I saw my country quite literally go insane with patriotic fervor and moral revulsion. Since returning, I have heard from friends that the emotional intensity was just as intense at St. Olaf as in the rest of America. Feelings of resentment and anger between the pro- and anti-war camps continue to linger both on campus and throughout the country; indeed, these feelings may come to shape our political discourse far into the future. This would be a national tragedy.

In a recent column for the New York Times, David Brooks writes that political debate these days could be called the Presidency Wars. “The culture warriors were passionate about abortion, feminism or prayer in schools. But with the presidency warrior, political disagreement, cultural resentment and personal antipathy blend to create a vitriol that is at once a descendant of the old conflicts, but also different.” Have we truly entered an age of Clinton-haters vs. Bush-haters? Have we gotten so caught up in our ideological construction of reality that we can no longer recognize our common humanity? Ours should be a community of individuals, not factions. And this should be true of St. Olaf as much as the rest of the country.

Certainly, restoring dignity to the unique beliefs of the autonomous individual will not be a panacea for all our public quarrels; nonetheless, restoration is necessary for the regeneration of a truly democratic society. We are all many different things, and labeling does justice to no one. Walt Whitman, our great poet laureate of democracy, said it best in a line expressive of himself as much as his nation: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes.”

Staff Writer Dan Schramm is a senior from St. Louis, Mo. He majors in philosophy with a religion emphasis and an environmental studies concentration.

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