The human race loves to label itself, particularly those that seem different from us. We often label based on physical appearance. Someone is tall or short, old or young, thin or overweight, pretty or homely and it goes on and on. We also like to label by personality. Someone is happy or grumpy, positive or negative, shy or outgoing. We particularly enjoy labeling people by their beliefs or viewpoints. There are liberals, conservatives and independents. There are Protestants and Catholics. There are Christians, Jews and atheists. There are gays, straights and bisexuals. And finally we habitually label people by there status in life. They are upper class, middle class or lower class. They live in a gated community or in a bad part of town. They are well off or they are homeless. In every case we make a supreme effort to force everyone we come in contact with into a narrow definition that we understand so we can either accept or reject them based on nothing more than our on prejudices and pre-conceived notions.

However, the main reason we like to label people is so that we can make sure they are just like us. If they are white, Christian, conservative and heterosexual we can include them in our group. But if they are gay, liberal, atheists, socialists or people of color we must be on guard and keep them at a distance. And more importantly, if they do not deserve to be in our group than that automatically makes them inferior to us. By labeling we pick and choose who is worthy of our time and attention and who we wish to avoid. Labeling leads to stereotyping, intolerance and bigotry, and it is a heartbreaking fact that labels can kill. This is especially true in extreme poverty. To be labeled as “poor” immediately sets a bias and a framework of beliefs that turns that person into a victim. And while it is true that individuals who are struggling in poverty do need our assistance, they do not want our pity. They only desire the opportunity to be equals with the same chance at life that we enjoy. They want the same things for their children that we demand. They are certainly not interested in being considered victims. They simply want to be equal human beings that deserve our respect and compassion.

Unfortunately, a portion of the world believes that anyone who is trapped in a lower economic class is beneath them. They look down on them and consider their lives to be less valuable. They do not want to associate with such people or have any contact with them at all. Those individuals are shunted away and forced to live in squalor in slums that are out of sight of those who enjoy lives of privilege. We label them as being “undesirable” and “unworthy” of us. To put limitations on someone else’s life because of a label you assign to them is clearly wrong. Who are we to say that entire groups should be treated unfairly or left out in life just because we say they are “poor”, or “black” or “gay” or “non-Christian”?

We do not have the right to add to someone’s misery with our own narrow mindedness. We should not superimpose our limited way of thinking on others. It is morally wrong that 18,000 children die from hunger issues each day because we don’t like the color of their skin, or the religious faith of their parents or the military viewpoint of their nation. When a child starves to death because we have devalued their life with a senseless label, just so that we can justify our indifference and our selfishness, it is an atrocity. We cannot use labels to pick and choose who lives or dies. We do not have that authority.

We are all part of the same human family. We transcend labels. We can’t allow them to define us or hold us back. But for those in extreme poverty if is incredibly difficult to fight the characterizations that prompt the feelings of bigotry and hatred. When your human rights have been stripped away, along with your dignity, it is almost impossible to rise up against the false labels that continue to harm you and your children. That is why we have to help them overcome the limitations imposed on them from the outside world. We have to fight back against the inaccuracies and falsehoods that many still believe about those in poverty. We have to speak up for those who simply want to be acknowledged as our equals, which is exactly what they are.

None of us wants to be unfairly identified in a way that prohibits us, and none of us wants our children to be labeled in a negative way before they’ve even had a chance in life – and yet that is what continually happens to those in extreme poverty. Instead of focusing exclusively on their ethnicity or their religious beliefs or their political viewpoints we must accept them as complete human beings just as we expect the same for ourselves. Anything less is morally wrong.  Labels make us think of them as less than full partners in the human race.

In extreme poverty we often use classifications to focus on and target specific groups who need our help. This is a useful tool to identify needs within certain areas, but it is often taken too far. Just as the physician sometimes refers to her patient by his ailment instead of his name we often refer to human beings in poverty as the HIV population or homeless refugees or the illiterate. All of these designations can obscure the fact that we are talking about real flesh and blood human beings. Just as statistics have a way of numbing us to the actual suffering of people, labeling removes the individual misery from our consciousness and replaces it with a generic type of wording that does not properly convey the horror that is occurring in these lives. That is why we can no longer hide behind labels.

We must see the pain that a father in Ethiopia feels as he shovels dirt into the face of his dead child. We must feel the agony of the mother in India who tightly clutches her little girl to her breast as her daughter dies from cholera. We must realize the horror of a young woman in Sierra Leone who struggles alone in agony before dying during a breech birth. We must see each individual’s courageous daily struggle against insurmountable odds, and we must refuse to make their lives even more difficult with labels born of ignorance and laziness. We can learn to understand others without classifying them. We can accept them as equal members of the human family. We can give them the respect they deserve, and we can ensure that they are allowed to enjoy the same human rights that we expect. In doing so we will not only improve their lives we will also become better human beings ourselves, and that in itself will help change the world.


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