I was watching a math class on You Tube about imaginary and complex numbers. Professor Leonard began by saying, “First let’s start with our definition: What is an imaginary number?” He then explained the label was confusing because it didn’t mean these numbers are fiction, or completely made up. They exist! They just aren’t on the real number line.
This is what I love about great math and science teachers. They make sure we are on the same page with the labels and definitions before going details.
Interactions in conversation are more challenging. I came across a discussion of a good friend and one of his Facebook friends. The discussion was getting heated, as the man was saying everyone has a right to their opinions. My friend responded with, of course, but that opinion is expressing Nazi sentiment. Are you really ok with that?
His friend responded that if that’s their opinion it’s still to be valued? I was confused by his constant pushing on how even hatred is valuable and worthy of listening to. Then I realized, this was not about Nazi’s, or anti-semitism. His issue was regarding opinions and free speech. He seemed to be confusing the two.
I explained I am very much in support of free speech, as is my friend, but as soon as words leave your lips, the rest of us have the right to discernment as to whether what you said makes sense, has any truth, or as he was putting it, value.
He stated emphatically that all opinions were to be valued because they are coming from Humans. I said ok, we are not going to agree, as I always support free speech, but I am always going to judge what people say and go from there based on my experience, knowledge, etc.
Once we had our definition clear on free speech, and defined “value” for humans’ opinions, I realized there was no point in arguing. He was attached to his view that everything a person said matters, and I am fixed on mine that their right to speak matters, but whether there is value is to be decided.
Sometimes we have to step back, reread, or ask questions to make sure we understand if we agree on the label or definition. We can even deny the true definition of something because of emotional baggage. I have been guilty of this.
For a long while after my divorce, I’d make broad statements about all men. I recall talking with my good friend and dive instructor, telling her my fears of dating because all men were bossy and suffocating. She pointed out quickly that Jason, her husband, was not bossy and suffocating. “But that’s different!” I argued. “Jason is . . . ” I stopped, and she finished for me, “Jason, IS a man.” My definition of man was screwed up for a long time, until I could let a lot of that baggage go. “Men are people,” Laureen said to me often, pointing out my stereotypes didn’t fit Jason, and he was also a man.
Stereotypes are labels, and labels are often stereotypes. The labels and definitions we use often are skewed. We can be downright blinded by them. Defining labels and uncovering definitions that may differ can be so helpful in conversation. Even something that seems obvious like Free Speech can get fuzzy.
I’m welcoming mindfulness of labels back my daily awareness, allowing my math and science teachers to be examples of how this can be incorporated into conversation, hopefully providing insight early in the discussion. And when I can see we are not going to get beyond label definitions, I can step away from discussion. Sometimes we are just not going to agree.