The Labels We Adopt


While I was raised in a very conservative home, I inadvertently chose a career dominated by more liberal-minded people. It is probably not surprising that my friendships with colleagues with very different perspectives would influence my own views.

Jeju Island, South Korea

Jeju Island, South Korea

This was brought home to me in an unusual conversation I had with my parents about socks. You see, it has become important to me to use sustainable materials whenever possible, and I have become enamored of bamboo yarns and fabrics. When I told my parents about my bamboo socks, they teased me by saying I had “gone green,” with the implication that I was becoming liberal in my thinking.  What they didn’t realize was that bamboo socks were just the tip of the iceberg regarding my views on environmental issues, and their reaction showed me the extent to which, at least in that one area, my perspective of the world and the role of humans in it had shifted from that of my parents.

This is a very simple example that points to a larger issue: in my opinion, people today are very quick to apply or adopt labels, especially within families or among friends and colleagues, where they can be used to include or exclude members. However, I often find these labels to be inadequate as a method of describing or understanding a person. Additionally, these terms have very broad applications; depending on which field is under discussion, my own views might swing liberal or conservative.

However, when a person applies these labels to him- or herself, it can reveal how they see themselves and what values they hold. This allows others to catch a glimpse of what Stuart Diamond calls “the pictures in their mind,” or in other words, their perspective, goals, hopes, and fears. “One of the most common labels used deals with our political alliances. Research shows that there are significant differences between the values of liberals and conservatives. One of the tools that explains these differences, and increases understanding of each other’s meanings behind the labels they choose, is the research into morality and politics done by Dr. Jonathan Haidt.

In his 2008 TED Talk, Dr. Haidt describes five dimensions of morality, what he believes to be the basis of all human moral psychology. While I might not define “morality” in the same way he does, his talk provides a vocabulary for talking about social and political differences of opinion by focusing on five areas:

  1. Care/harm – to provide care and protect the weak from harm.
  2. Fairness/cheating – to provide justice and treat others in proportion to their actions.
  3. Loyalty/betrayal – to place priority on your family, community, or nation.
  4. Authority/subversion – to respect traditions and institutions of authority.
  5. Sanctity/degradation – to avoid disgusting items or acts.
Image from

Image from

Survey research indicates that liberals tend to emphasize the first two dimensions, care and fairness, above all, while conservatives tend to give equal importance to all five dimensions.  Dr. Haidt finishes his TED Talk as I would, with a call for liberals and conservatives to practice conscious listening and to work together.

This call for working together is one that needs to be not only repeated but also implemented. Whenever I chance to catch a bit of political talk shows from a conservative or a liberal perspective, I am not struck by how “correct” the speakers seem but by how engulfed in their own perspective they are. I believe the deadlock of Congress is due to this mindset. If we are going to truly achieve a meeting of the minds that can lead to solutions to the many problems facing our country, we need to start by recognizing that those who think differently from us have a system of logic to support their position, a system that makes sense. According to Pastor Bill Shuler, God often uses people who are different from us, first to impact us and help us grow, and second to impact others that we cannot reach ourselves. We need each other, no matter how different. If we cannot first recognize this, we will have no chance of finding joint solutions.

We are charged by the Bible to pursue justice, to act as stewards of the resources we’ve been given, and to strive for Christian unity.  These are issues that will need all perspectives – the liberal, the conservative, the libertarian, the moderate – to find creative solutions.  It is time to start practicing conscious listening, to work on understanding the points of view of all sides, not to insulate ourselves from disagreement, in order to generate creative solutions to the problems that plague our nation.  Only by understanding what each other values, and moving beyond labels, will we be able to fulfill these Biblical mandates.


*Note: I realize that bamboo is not the best sustainable material, requiring large amounts of processing in order to make it into yarn or fabric. I still find it a very interesting fabric.


Links and Resources

Stuart Diamond speaking at Google about the concepts in his book Getting More.

Jonathan Haidt: The moral roots of liberals and conservatives

Moral Foundations Questionnaire: If you are curious to find your position on these five dimensions of morality and how you compare to other readers of this blog (including myself), you can take a quiz at

Scholarly paper on Moral Foundations Theory

66 Bible verses about justice

73 Bible verses about stewardship

74 Bible verses about unity






Add your voice! What are your thoughts on this?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s