Our brains naturally label things for short-hand processing. That usually works well with ordinary behavior and practical problem-solving.

But it creates disasters of thought in complex social and political issues, not to mention family interactions; I see a lot more negative labels and characterizations now than ever before in my 5 years of practice as a therapist.

The proliferation of negative labels and characterizations in public discourse is both a result of and catalyst for the current culture wars, in which everyone loses. They create a hostile and polarized environment, where people are more likely to engage in conflict, aggression, and discrimination. They inevitably reduce empathy and trust among users.

More subtly, using negative labels influences how we process information and make decisions. They trigger cognitive biases, such as confirmation bias, where people tend to seek and interpret information that confirms existing beliefs, while ignoring or discounting all other evidence.

It’s easy to fall into a trap of reactivity when it comes to negative labels and characterizations. We’re likely to use them in reaction to others using them, which will cause others to react to us using them. Emotional reactivity tends to make parties more extreme, not more moderate.

Think of your own experience. When you label someone, does it change behavior for the better or stimulate more behaviors or attitudes you don’t like? When someone labels you, does it activate your capacity for reflection and thoughtful analysis, or does it trigger knee-jerk negative labelling in response?

Negative labels and characterizations are substitutes for thought and analysis. They’re often emotional signals of membership in a tribe that stands in stark opposition to other tribes. Tribalism means that propositions are judged not by merit or lack thereof but by who is making them. Consider how often you see news media characterize positions with dismissive labels, such as “woke” or “conservative”.

Think again of your own experience. Do you like the way you feel when you use negative labels to dehumanize someone else? Are you able to have a pleasant, productive day after using them? Or do you experience momentary self-righteousness that takes prolonged resentment to maintain?

The self-righteousness embedded in the use of negative labels blinds us to their effects on both the users and the recipients. Consider an adaptation of the techniques of neutralization, developed by Gresham Sykes and David Matza to explain how criminals rationalize their behavior.

People who use negative labels and characterizations practice:

  • Denial of responsibility (I’m just describing someone)
  • Denial of injury (those I describe are not human enough to be hurt)
  • Denial of victim (they had it coming)
  • Condemnation of the condemners (I’m the victim)
  • Appeal to higher loyalties (decent people, if not God, agree with me)

Intolerance of Uncertainty and Ambiguity

Regular use of negative labels implies intolerance of disagreement, which rises from the dread of uncertainty and ambiguity. If we can tolerate them, uncertainty and ambiguity drive us to learn more, accomplish more, and connect to one another; they make us smarter and more compassionate, if we can tolerate them.

However, the common reaction to uncertainty and ambiguity is not to learn and connect. We tend to deny uncertainty and ambiguity with dogma, superstition, delusions, drugs, inflated ego, attempts to control other people, resentment, anger, and, of course, negative labels and characterizations.

Life can be hard for those who can’t tolerate uncertainty and ambiguity – reality simply won’t cooperate with their conception of it. But life can also be exciting and filled with value, for those who embrace its inherent uncertainty and ambiguity.

Here’s a little exercise that can help break the use of negative labels and characterizations. Write a meaningful paragraph of at least 100 words, describing a person or group of people whose behavior or ideas you oppose, without using negative labels or characterizations. If you’re able to do it, you should feel better about yourself, more empowered, less resentful, and more rational.

Empower Yourself on Social Media

First, accept that we cannot trust the thought processes of anyone who uses negative labels and characterizations, including ourselves. When you stop using them, in favor of analysis based on facts and logic, you’ll feel more intellectually alive.

If a post on the Internet has a comment section, ask the author to express the points without the use of negative labels or characterizations.

Once we recognize that the use of negative labels and characterizations is inherently prejudiced, amounting to little more than slurs, we can begin to clean up the verbal pollution that currently infests public discourse and media.