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Why Labelling and Group Identity Matters in Conflict

Labels are increasingly being used to leverage support for group identities and ideals. Labels such as "#WMC" (White Monopoly Capital), "#Fallists" (referring to the supporters of the University Fees Must Fall movement,"#LFBF" (Land First Black First) or even "#Comrade" have deep meaning and feed strong emotion in each of us in South Africa. Internationally, US President Donald Trump has mastered the art of influencing public opinion and debate with his insidious use of labels such as "#CrookedHillary", "#FakeNews" and "#AmericaFirst". It attempts to create the finite divide based on the premise of "you're either with us or against us".

These labels have power as they are charged with emotion, develop their own meaning, consume the medias attention, entrench differences, are used to harness support for group ideals and have proven to influence change in policies and positions. If left unchecked and unchallenged it can tip the scale toward unfair discrimination.

Labels such as "Terrorist" and "Islamic Fundamentalist", have become so entrenched in dividing people, that it immediately engenders strong views of people and groups. It has contributed to major shifts in international perception of Muslims and has influenced security and policy decisions, that are at times necessary, but are often used to unfairly discriminate. As a brown skinned Muslim I am at times boxed into a group and treated as the "other" and as a threat. There is no factual basis for this conclusion. There is no voluntariness in my association to the assumed group. It is simply assumed and accepted. The experience is frustrating and hurtful. It creates a deep divide between people.

Henry Tajfal in his 1979 seminal work on Social Identity Theory, found that people need to belong to a group as it is an important source of pride and self-esteem which gives us a sense of social identity: a sense of belonging to the social world. To increase our self-image we enhance the status of the group to which we belong. We thus divide the world into “them” and “us” through a process of social categorisation. The central hypothesis is that group members of an in-group will seek to find negative aspects of an out-group, thus enhancing their self-image. To achieve this we use categorisation to place people into groups, we adopt the social identity of the group we belong to and we compare our group with other groups.

Negotiators and influences have mastered the art of using label's and group identity to influence outcomes to their benefit. This has become much easier with the speed at which short and catchy labels and hashtags gain traction through social media. I suggest that this practice is used with care and only when it is appropriate. Its misuse creates deep rooted and negative consequences for people that may take decades to rectify.

South Africa's path to reconciliation has been a slow and treacherous journey due to the persistent and institutionalised abuse of group identity leveraged on the policy of Apartheid. The path to achieving meaningful change for a largely unequal and impoverished population is fraught with challenges. The use of divisive labels which promote differences are used more often to achieve attention and force change. I am concerned that while this may achieve the desired result it will leave deep rooted scars. Can the end really justify the means? Perhaps we need to give more attention to strengthening the constructive voice of the most marginalised people in order to influence meaningful change through legitimate processes. To put it simply we need to listen to the other side and consider the possibility of changing while always being concerned about enhancing our collective human relationship.

Assumed differences and involuntary categorisation of people into groups tends to aggravate conflict and harden positions. However it is easier to manage the real differences which exist where there is a voluntary submission to a group identity, its values and its positions.

I suggest that negotiators consider the following in managing differences:

  • Enhance conflict management processes.

  • Be aware of your own group identity.

  • Be aware of the other parties group identity.

  • Do not assume that a person identifies and belongs to a particular group.

  • Be conscious of your underlying prejudice and stereotypes that will influence your perception of peoples group identity.

  • Do not unconsciously adopt the group identity of the other group without careful thought.

  • Be weary of attempting to break peoples real affiliations to a group identity.

  • Use labels with care and only after strategic thought.

  • Go beyond accepting labels on face value and learn about the people and groups.

  • Improve your listening and speaking skills.

  • Take more time to understand.

  • Differences and diversity are natural and can be enhanced to achieve more value if appropriately managed.


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