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How labels keep us from real understanding

No group represents every individual within it; labels do more harm than good. To most people, this would seem to be a simple message; then why do we so often forget this? To do so shuts down communication and slows progress.

This has been most recently demonstrated in the media coverage of Pope Francis. The religious leader made headlines for endorsing evolution and the Big Bang Theory, with mixed reaction. Many media sources declared this a progressive new step for the Church, some priests within the church voiced their outrage, and critics who did their research pointed out that the Catholic Church has accepted these scientific theories for years. This confusing glut of press on one person’s statements mires two important problems with labels.


Firstly, the Catholic Church in this instance is suffering from a key issue with labels: misrepresentation. The Catholic Church is often misrepresented as being “anti-science”, which is why a majority of the media reacted with surprise to Pope Francis’s remarks. Instead of taking the time to consider the Pope’s ideas, many people simply reacted in surprise to their labels being challenged. Misrepresentation distracts from the exchange of new ideas and gets people hung up on their biases rather than facts. In this case, Pope Francis has a lot of good ideas and fresh perspectives to offer the public, but their communication cannot be fully realized until the mainstream media can get over prejudices associated with the Catholic label. Misrepresentation is slowing Francis’s reinvention of his church, although, granted, there are still leaders within the organization that align more with the stereotypes associated with the Catholic label.

This brings to me to the biggest problem with labels: they sacrifice individualism. Treating groups as homogeneous entities is harmful to free thinking and the communication of ideas, and this latest example regarding the Catholic Church is the perfect proof of this. When Pope Francis reiterated a tenant of the Papacy, that evolutionary and creation science, he received backlash from several Catholic priests. For example, minister Ken Ham wrote that Francis showed a “lack of understanding of who Scripture claims God is—the all-powerful Creator who is capable of doing what is impossible to man.” Division like this within the Catholic Church demonstrates that large groups for any cause are rarely completely unified in their beliefs. While the Pope does have say over what the “official” views of the church are, the word of the Pope cannot mandate beliefs for every self-identified Catholic out in the world.

The reason labels are so harmful is because it reduces progressive thinking to assumptions. One can’t really say what makes a Catholic a Catholic beyond a belief in the Holy Trinity because of the wide variance of other values. The prejudice that comes with labels divides us from each other and slows the communication of new ideas. We need to take the time to ask each other “what do you believe in?” and not make assumptions based on if they’re “Christian” or not; or, more apt for this particular season, “why do you support [x] policies?” and not assume things based on if they’re liberal or conservative. Stripping down labels breaks barriers between ourselves and exposes us to fresh ideas and unique viewpoints. From politics to the Papacy, take the time to open your mind.

Collegian Columnist Sean Kennedy can be reached at or on Twitter by @seanskenn.

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