If there’s one thing I’ve discussed quite a bit on this blog, it’s the fickle nature of some people which forces them to pick sides and stick with them rather than remain in an open-minded state. The burden of having your beliefs probed and the structures you’ve formed tested can be a heavy one, and part of what compounds the problem is the need some of these people also have for labels. Perhaps you’ve engaged in debate about this before, or have your own opinion on it, but labels have begun to annoy me once again and for a variety of reasons. When I say labels I am referring to what I call the ‘pick a side’ mentality, which is essentially the need to identify things in either-or terms. It must be this or that, you must either be with us or against us. I want to discuss what a dangerous limitation this is to put on yourself or others.

I’m not exactly a being that shies away from controversy, so I’ll open this building on a conversation I had last night. It was that of ‘creationism’ versus ‘evolutionary theory’. I was referred to an overview of the topic by a friend as a matter of interest and little else, and indeed I did find it interesting. But the first thing I actually said was: why does it have to be either or in the extreme sense? This was in response to an annoyance I had in reading about the debates between those who deem themselves ‘creationists’ and those who conform to evolutionary theory. I am religious, as I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog, and I can tell you that neither proposition or stance can be proven as absolute fact. So why limit yourself by picking a side and sticking with it, and denouncing the potential merit which could exist in either stance? For example, a belief in creationism could heighten spirituality or encourage personal development through religious enrichment, while evolutionary theory can be observed and can enhance your scientific understanding of biological change in species over generations. You certainly don’t have to entirely agree with or subscribe to either, but what I am saying here is to avoid closing yourself off to the potential merits and benefits that could be derived from them.

Perhaps I can get how some religious folk might feel aspects of evolutionary theory goes against fundamental beliefs about creation, while followers of evolutionary theory and science basically feel creationism is a rather extravagant story that yields no scientific answer. Whatever floats your boat. But the reason I opened with that is because I want to look at a larger picture, and that is essentially the self-induced limitation of labels. I’m sure you’ve heard that most often a solution exists in finding a middle ground between two extremes, yet despite this logical viewpoint (that I try to frequently apply where possible), I still see how often picking a side means refusing to accept or acknowledge anything of the opposing side. You could say that this is an extension actually of what I discussed recently regarding the most irrational cause of conflict: difference. Maybe I started this heavy, so let’s use a more simple and harmless example shall we?

I’m a big time Liverpool supporter. I’ll give you a moment to either boo me and leave this blog, or cheer, or remain dead-eyed with indifference. Despite my affiliation to the club though and my passionate devotion to it, I am still capable of being fair and honest towards the club and other clubs, as well as liking other clubs or players from other teams. So often though I observe on the internet, as it’s a breeding ground for rather warped and senseless behaviour, people shying away from healthy and competitive banter to engage in heated, biased and tactless attacks on everything an opposing club does. Instead of embracing a balanced stance, it’s more like everything their club does is faultless and they can’t even acknowledge or praise something another club does. It’s funny but here I’m linking yet another previous blog post into this, and that’s the topic of the danger of emotional attachment when you’re close-minded.

I’ve done some dancing around now, but I think the above examples are satisfactory in giving an idea of the danger of labels. It’s fine to be part of a group or faction or to subscribe to a set of beliefs, of course it is, but it absolutely cannot be at the expense of accepting, acknowledging and engaging with other opposing groups and beliefs. To do that is to stunt your personal development, narrow your view and furthermore proclaim yourself to be wilfully ignorant. You should strive to be free of cognitive limitations and try to be open-minded in how you approach those who differ to you in belief. However there is another danger that emerges here, and that is the polar opposite problem which involves being so open-minded about everything that you effectively stand for nothing. You don’t actually have a stance at all. You may have heard something about that, in the sense that one who stands for nothing will fall for anything.

But Azhar (my name), surely we’re now entertaining the possibility of a rather big contradiction! You’re saying we should avoid labels and be open-minded, but then also saying that being too open-minded means standing for nothing, which can effectively mean resorting to labelling yourself if you choose a stance?

Perhaps that’s the question on your mind, and to that I’d say: well damn that escalated quickly, philosophically speaking. Jokes aside, you may recall something I also wrote in that same paragraph, and that’s my belief that you may very well subscribe to a belief or stance, but not at the expense of taking in information to the contrary. Then maybe I should amend the title to ‘unwavering or strict’ labels are limitations, and hinder growth. In more academic terms, refrain from adhering to the confirmation bias, which is to only ever search for information which validates your existing beliefs. If you find yourself in the middle of two extremes, that’s where you should want to be. Engage with both sides, gouge the merit from both sides and then make an informed decision on what you believe, whether it combines both elements or is in favour of one over the other. Extremism, most of the time, is not very helpful.

In closing it’s important to avoid the psychological flaw of restricting your mind and personal development. Not everything requires a label or an ‘us or them’ mentality. I’d venture a guess as to say that most things do not. Picking a side should not mean excluding all other information which opposes that side. At the same time, strive to be open-minded at all times but not to the extent that you effectively do not have an opinion or stance, or at least aren’t working your way towards one. If you shift your focus to personal development and the acquisition of knowledge over pointless squabbles over difference or pick-a-side mentality, you will absolutely not just be healthier mentally, but on a better path to growth.

After all, rigid either-or labels are limitations and are just another form of extremism in the end.

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