By David Hegg
I have several quirks that too often show up in conversations. One of them is that I am intrigued by the weird phrases and terms we throw around that communicate something quite different from the actual words. Recently, I heard someone express chagrin for having been “pigeonholed.” That struck me funny as I envisioned an adult human male being stuffed into a pigeon nesting box through a hole in the front. I went on to say so, and the weird looks of my conversation partners told me once again my sense of humor was unappreciated. But let’s think about what this phrase from the pigeon world actually means.
To be “pigeonholed” is to be assigned to a particular class or category without an accurate assessment of one’s qualities or characteristics. Simply put, it is to be given a label that communicates the group, worldview, or lane to which you belong based on incomplete knowledge of who you really are and what you actually believe. It means to be stuffed into a hole that actually doesn’t fit! Yes, “pigeonholing” is an accepted form of that pernicious toxin called prejudice.
Sadly, we’ve become a nation of pigeonholers. Maybe it is the fault of our infatuation with social media that allows us to issue biting conclusions in a sentence or two. We can critique, eviscerate, mock, and most importantly, pigeonhole anyone and anything with a few key strokes.
Or maybe it is the fault of our information-glutted age where we are bombarded with so much information daily that our brains insist on compartmentalizing people quickly and easily by means of convenient labels. We read about someone and we immediately pigeonhole them as conservative or liberal, honest or deceitful, moral or immoral, good or bad. Perhaps nowhere is this more common, or more dangerous than in politics where party labels no longer describe an individual’s true beliefs and character, but rather identify the power club to which they are forced to offer blind allegiance.
Perhaps what is even worse than being pigeonholed is allowing yourself to be pigeonholed and not fight back. I suspect each of you reading this are, like me, guilty both of pigeonholing others, and also complaining when someone tries to stuff you into that little hole. Funny, isn’t it? We do it all the time to others but hate it when someone does it to us.
As a Christ-follower, and a pastor whose life revolves around teaching and living out the biblical worldview, I get pigeonholed all the time. Almost everyone in my world has an expectation, indeed a settled belief, about what I think, believe, and should be doing. And, truthfully, I consider it part of the cost of the path God has called me to walk. We’re all going to get pigeonholed from time to time. That’s just how life works.
But acceptance doesn’t mean non-resistance. Basically, pigeonholing is just plain wrong. It is prejudice, and the sworn enemy of the open-mindedness we need to exist as a healthy society.
If you want to know what I believe about something, ask me. If you want to know what a particular candidate believes, read his material, attend her “meet and greets” and ask. If you want to label someone, start by getting some firsthand information from them, and maybe even ask them to define themselves before shoving them into one of your pre-packaged moral, political, or religious boxes.
In other words, see people as people first, rather than as members of some group or ideological faction. Remember, no label can ever tell you all you need to know about someone. As much as we may find it convenient to pigeonhole people, the consequences of acting on labels rather than knowledge have proven to be disastrous.
As we start a new year, let’s invest in the hard work of truth-finding, rather than the convenient habit of pigeonholing. The decisions we make have long-lasting consequences, and we owe it to ourselves, and our neighbors to make them based on what is real rather than what’s on the label. Let the pigeons have their holes while we maintain our integrity, repudiating prejudice in favor of seeing, asking, and listening to discover just who others are, and what they believe.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a local resident.“Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.