People in conversation

To Label or Not to Label? Is that the Question?

Natalie Russ

Let’s talk about labels.

Planned Parenthood’s recent decision to drop the label “pro-choice” reminds me of Essential Partners’ experience with the meaning and impact of labels. As dialogue facilitators, we neither support nor condone choices related to the labels people use and how they use them. But there’s a lot to notice from the facilitator’s chair, especially about how labels impact how we see each other.

A label can bring many gifts. With one word or collection of words we can name an aspect of our identity. In shorthand, we can indicate something we hold dear—a perspective, a belief, a value, a position on an issue. We can align ourselves with others who identify with that label, and congregate around that label into movements. By ascribing meaning to that label, we can put a powerful collective message into the world.

As with many things, these same elements that bring gifts also bring challenges. That same word or collection of words, in its convenience and ease of use, takes on a life of its own. The label becomes ascribed with one meaning, and all those who use it (or to whom it’s assigned) are assumed to possess uniform qualities or beliefs. The real trouble happens when the label seems like “the answer” to the question of who someone is. It is much harder to ask someone who they are and what they believe when we think we already know. Curiosity is one of the first and most enduring casualties of a label.

These elements of labels have been woven through our work since the beginning. From my facilitator’s chair, dialogue is not about shedding labels or divorcing oneself from the gifts they bring. Dialogue is an opportunity to hear from the people behind the label, to reintroduce complexity, to create space for people to be curious about each other and to share for themselves who they are and what they believe.

Planned Parenthood’s decision to drop the label “pro-choice” will doubtless have an impact on the abortion conversation. The labels we use, the labels that are available, the meanings ascribed to them—all of this impacts how we talk and how we see each other.

The next time you enter a conversation on a divisive topic, ask yourself: How do the labels connected with my identity impact the ways I feel seen, heard, or understood by others? In what ways do the labels ascribed to others (both on “my side” and on “the other side”) affect the ways I’m able to see, hear, and understand them? See what surfaces for you. Does asking yourself these questions have any impact on the conversation?