In Mark Zuckerberg’s annual “year in review” video, one quote stood out to me: “Even when we seemed at our most divided, we were still connected.” There’s a dynamic presented here between connectivity and divisiveness. As our society is quickly adopting ultra-connectivity, are we losing our ability to be unified? As we continue down this path of increasing technological proximity, we have a responsibility to work toward more unity. The advent of the new year is a lot like going to the barber for a long overdue haircut. We need to reflect on what made 2016 a year of widespread disunity in order to get a fresh 2017 cut.

Perhaps our issues with unity lie in our obsession with labels. Last month, Tomi Lahren embodied my issues with labeling during an interview with Trevor Noah. Noah asked Lahren if she was a conservative, to which she responded: “I do … I mean I’m a millennial so I really don’t like labels.” The sheer irony involved in Lahren dropping one label for another aside, the picking of one’s own labels hints at a greater issue: group attribution. For example, I’m a Muslim, but that doesn’t mean that all of my opinions are the opinions of Islam or that my actions represent the whole faith. While I would like to think my actions reflect Islam, they don’t. They simply reflect the perception I have of Islam.

However, the very nature of labels convinces us that the label holder is a representative, an ambassador of sorts. Why does this matter? Critiques lodged at groups, whether racial, religious or political, often stem from the actions of a few of the group’s members. As recent graduate Areeba Jibril was quoted in a flyer for the University of Michigan’s Diversity, Equity & Inclusion program, “Diversity is speaking for myself without being seen as the spokesperson for all individuals who share my identities.” 

It’s not that labels aren’t necessary in society. In many cases, they benefit individuals, especially those who are a part of marginalized groups, like with increased efforts to admit non-white students into higher education programs. But most of the time, labeling’s negative side effects, like group attribution and blame redirection, are just plainly counterproductive. Take ISIS as a prime example. Instead of focusing on the political roots of the terrorist group or on the poverty many of its supporters face in Iraq and Syria, many falsely believe the group represents Islam. Even by continuing to be labeled as the “Islamic State,” their status as representatives of the religion is further validated. 

The same goes for the debate about calling radical extremism Islamic extremism. As President Barack Obama said, “We must never accept the premise that they put forward because it is a lie. Nor should we grant these terrorists the religious legitimacy that they seek.” As a result, we have not yet learned about their origins in a way that will affect future foreign policy. Labeling, in a sense, is a cop out. It allows us to say, “Well, they’re a part of that group, and that group has some intrinsic problems which we can’t do anything about.”

We saw this right after the 2016 election as well. Many supporters of Hillary Clinton described the entire red portion of the electoral map as racist, sexist or bigoted. Labeling all Donald Trump voters as illogical and narrow-minded does nothing but ignore the real issues at hand. A common sentiment among those who voted for the president-elect was a feeling of exclusion from the political climate for the eight years since President Obama took office. The problems they see with the United States, like job-access and untrustworthiness of government, should concern all Americans, but when Democrats stop listening before Republicans open their mouths, then the country stands to suffer.

When we label, we’re automatically categorizing based on these surface level characteristics. But when we dig deeper, we see that people share a lot of the same fundamental morals, goals and struggles. If we stay on this path of letting labels be the end of the conversation, then we won’t be able to solve our problems. Labeling is counterproductive, keeping the two sides of the aisle far from each other and strengthening the disunified forces at large.

Martin Luther King Jr. dreamed of a nation devoid of this disuniting labeling, where we are judged by the content of our character rather than the color of our skin. And we, as a society, need to unify now more than ever. A recent Washington Post article explains this Congress is more polarized than it has been in over 100 years. When we’re polarized, we find fewer reasons to listen to each other and fail to progress as a result. 

So as we walk in with our messy haircuts to the barber shop this new year, let’s consider our options. We can vaguely hope for a good outcome and squirm in our chair as the barber botches the hairdo, or we can confidently set limits and guidelines for our hairstylist and leave looking fresh for 2017. Let’s come together in 2017 and limit our divisive labeling while opening our ears to further discourse and conversation.

Ibrahim Ijaz can be reached at iijaz@umich.edu.

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