As a young news reporter, I learned to dodge labels and categorization for the simple reason that it got in the way of my job. I quickly learned that some readers, news sources, and even fellow journalists lived in black and white worlds of “us” and “them” – and they were eager to categorize me.
To be taken seriously, I wanted the information below my byline to be considered by readers on its own merits. And, I wanted sources who were – while not always happy with the news disclosed – at least confident that I was scrupulous in presenting complete, accurate facts and not taking sides.
I continue this dodgeball with labels through a professional life in public relations and marketing. I’ve seen my mission throughout my career as connecting people with ideas and information from which they can make informed decisions … while keeping “me” out of the way of that process.
That’s why I’m intensely uncomfortable taking on the “us” and “them” labels so common in today’s socially and politically polarized society. I know what words like “liberal” and “conservative” mean, but I am not at all comfortable being categorized into one of the many groups that appropriate these ideas as labels.
The same applies to socio-religious terms such as “pro-life” or “evangelical.” Can I be both for the death penalty and pro-life? Can I be evangelical and Catholic?
Viewing the Martin Scorsese film No Direction Home this week, I found refreshing Bob Dylan’s steadfast discomfort with being labeled or categorized. “At a certain point, people seemed to have a distorted, warped view of me for some reason … the spokesman of a generation, the conscience of a this, and that, and the other … that I could not relate to,” he explained.
To be honest, there are labels I apply to myself. I am Christian and Catholic and would call myself both evangelical and pro-life. And yet I hate the idea that others believe they can understand much about me based on those labels.
I believe it is human nature to label and categorize things, including people. And, terms such as journalist, Muslim, conservative and Caucasian may provide some very broad buckets in which people are grouped. But, we can not truly know someone until we’ve taken the time to dialogue with an open mind … to listen to their heart, with the bias turned way down in our ears.
It’s not easy, but this is what our best journalists strive to do. And today they’re out there toiling under much more difficult circumstances than ever I encountered in a newsroom.