No, wait! We were being the good guys!

Published August 20, 2006

Human nature is to label each other and ourselves. We like people who have the same label as we do. We dislike people with a different label.

If I go to a Bucs or Devil Rays game, I'm quicker to dislike an obnoxious fan wearing the visiting team's colors than one on "my" side. The officials make more bad calls against my team. The other team plays dirtier.

Same goes for Democrats vs. Republicans, conservatives vs. liberals, developers vs. tree huggers, or any two arch-rival high schools.

Try a little experiment. Find a roomful of people who agree on something. A local chapter meeting of the Sierra Club or the National Rifle Association, say. All is concord. The members view each other as friends.

Now change the subject. Bring up immigration. Or same-sex marriage. Or corporal punishment. Or school vouchers. Or religion. Or any divisive topic. Harmony quickly falls apart.

Once the labels are changed, so do our judgments of each other - even though the same people are involved. There is some usefulness, after all, in the old warning against talking religion or politics in a social setting.

Here's a recent case of unexpected label changing. It involves a group called the Florida Family Association. Its leader is a fellow named David Caton of Tampa, long a familiar name around here for his various decency campaigns.

The Florida Family Association makes much use of that modern weapon of activism, the Internet. The group constantly peppers its members with e-mails urging them to pressure some company or another to stop advertising on a TV show, or to stop selling adult magazines and so forth.

"T-Mobile Pulls Ads From All Explicit Shows," says one headline from the group's newsletter. "Nissan And Many Other Companies Drop Nip/Tuck," says the headline of an e-mail sent out last week.

So the Florida Family Association thought it nothing unusual when it sent out an e-mail announcing that the Citgo gas station chain had agreed to stop selling "pornographic" materials at its 14,000 stations. It was just one more victory in the ongoing war.

But here is where the plot twists, and the Offended became the Offenders.

Citgo, see, is owned by a company called Petroleos de Venezuela, and hence is controlled ultimately by Hugo Chavez, leader of that nation and a harsh critic of the United States. In fact, a national group called the American Family Association - not to be confused with the unrelated Florida group - has its own Internet and e-mail campaign to boycott Citgo.

All of a sudden, the Florida Family Association found itself on the receiving end of an e-mail onslaught. How dare anyone support an anti-American dictator!

In their own minds, the Florida folks were crusaders for decency - an unambiguous force for good. But to their critics, they were lending comfort to America's enemies.

On Aug. 10, the Florida Family Association backed down - sort of - and sent out a follow-up e-mail under the headline, "FFA apologizes if Good News we reported on Citgo policy change offended you."

The apology said that the original e-mail "did not ask, suggest or encourage anyone to patronize Citgo's branded stations." (Of course, that's the entire point of these campaigns, but never mind.)

"Our mission is to improve and protect our moral environment," Caton wrote. "We do that by influencing corporate and public officials to adopt and enforce public policy with that objective. ...

"I thought our achieving an eight-year goal of influencing every major oil company to adopt these restrictions would be received as good news, perhaps even very good news. That fact that it was not is very disheartening."

Disheartening, maybe, yet an instructive parable about the modern world.

Our culture of disagreement is shaped by cable TV shoutfests, e-mail campaigns and sneering party politics. They divide the world sharply into the right and wrong, the smart and the stupid, the white and the black, and they demand that we not only denounce the latter, but that we do it with contempt in every case.

Working under one set of labels, we are certain in our judgment of who's on which side of the line that divides good and bad. It rarely occurs to us that changing the labels being used jumbles the whole danged thing.