Ground Zero Mosque or Islamic Community Center?

Undocumented immigrant or illegal alien?

Tax cuts or tax relief?

Civilian deaths or collateral damage?

We are reminded of labels’ potency every time we listen to the news. The louder the rhetoric becomes, the more labels get charged with power.

By naming things, we create a reality, and that reality colors the worlds we have created by the labels we use. People and things become what we name them. Complex issues get reduced to a catchy, easy-to-remember phrases and sound bites.

Labels can be useful — try to have a conversation with out them. And they can be dangerous, because we quickly forget that by creating a label, we have breathed into it independent life.  We project power on our creations and allow ourselves to be defined and ruled by them. And too often, we sail along oblivious to the danger that comes with exercising our genius for using words to create truth.

Labels also are a tempting way to distort reality and deceive ourselves. We saw a powerful and unsettling example of this in a documentary about the war in Afghanistan we recently viewed. The camera cut between scenes of dead civilians and their mourning families and a emotionally distraught Army sergeant. He lamented that the Army’s mission of winning was over the hearts of the people was derailed when “locals” were accidentally killed and injured.

How do you rob labels of their power? By looking behind them. By deconstructing the assumptions upon which they are founded. By wading past the sound bites and getting neck-deep in the complexities. By remembering that labels can create illusions and delusions, and are not reality.