Ever since infancy, we have rapidly developed an advanced mental filing system to make the world less overwhelming: we notice something, we cross-reference it with everything that is already familiar to us, and quickly label it as either Harmless or Dangerous, Cute or Scary, and so on. But where do those labels come from?
One problem is that we label everything unconsciously and automatically as individuals and the second problem is that we do it collectively as a culture. We use preassigned labels for whatever we don’t understand by looking for society’s pre-existing categories as a guide. These values may have been set by our parents, our close circle of friends, or worse yet, the internet.
Many of our thoughts, opinions, and beliefs, it turns out, are founded on information we subconsciously receive from sources as unreliable as the grapevine. We see this when a celebrity recommends something, for example, and it immediately becomes an overnight success. There is nothing inherently wrong with having leaders like that, but there’s a difference between leaders who tell you what to think and those who invite you to think for yourself. We apparently love it when other people do the thinking for us, yet we insist on referring to ourselves as independently-thinking individuals.
As children and teenagers, many of us attached ourselves to popular beliefs in order to be popular. But as adults, I think it’s our inherent responsibility to question those beliefs. If we never step outside of our small circle of friends and family, we end up living in an echo box, agreeing with everyone who agrees with us, and unfriending or disowning anyone who does not.