On labeling and name-calling

For example: “You’re a liberal.”

Well, I’m not going to pretend that I don’t know why someone might say that to me. If you have to categorize every thought in the world using one or the other of two labels (“liberal” or “conservative”), I can understand applying the label “liberal” to some things I have said.

But it’s jarring to me to hear someone say that, because I have always thought of myself as a conservative person, and my progressive friends, I’m pretty sure, would tell you they think of me that way as well.

Here is how I am seeing those two labels these days (and also other labels: radical, racist, Trumpist, SJW, whatever).

Sometimes they are a convenient shorthand. I use some of them myself sometimes, in certain contexts, because—especially with people who don’t think independently much—if you know one thing they think, or one public personality they admire they admire (or not), you know what they “think” about all kinds of things. I put “think” in quotes because there may be no actual thinking. Just predictable reaction.

But sometimes people do think. Often, perhaps. Perhaps more often than we imagine? And then labels are an excuse for paying no attention to the merits of what they actually think and say. And often these days, someone gets called by a label because of one thing they say, or a few things they say, and the label does not at all fit other things they say. Labeling them makes us deaf and blind to the complexity (or even incoherence, which is not always a bad thing, at least as a stage on the way to a higher level of integration) of what they are really saying, of who they really are.

How do I know that labeling someone makes you deaf and blind to the complex reality of that person? Because people have done it to me. Also: I have done it to others. For me, the temptation is not to call people names to their face. It is not to call people I disagree with libs. I’m not generally a name-caller in direct conversations. For me, the temptation is to think of people as Trumpists, and sometimes call them that, but in the third person, more often as a group than individually.

I am trying to do it less. Should you also try to do it less?

It is analytically useful to observe common patterns and characteristics of thought and behavior: realism, idealism, traditionalism, Platonism; and in politics liberalism, conservatism, Trumpism, communism, socialism, fascism, authoritarianism. The list could go on. This is using labels to categorize and understand phenomena at a distance (e.g., social and intellectual movements). The problem is in moving from observing common patterns across large numbers of people (-isms) to applying reductive labels to individuals, applying labels in order to excuse ourselves from understanding phenomena up close (e.g., that person standing in front of you!).

Labeling individual people in that way is justifiable, perhaps, when you can demonstrate conclusively that they have already done it to themselves: that they have become automatic, robotic, in their adherence to every tenet and implication of some system or movement with which they identify, or some leader to whom they have given their heart, mind, and soul; that they have stopped observing and thinking for themselves and now just react according to a fixed pattern. Are you sure they have done that? Maybe then it is justifiable to label and dismiss them. But is it helpful if you want to try to converse with them? If you want to demonstrate respect for them? No.

Many of the angry, impatient, or exasperated voices (radio, TV, internet) that so many people are spending so many hours listening to these days use quick labeling to reduce, denounce, and dismiss rather than risk listening. All the time. This is the strategy they model for us—and many of us have learned it well and now do it all the time in our own conversations (or, really, non-conversations and anti-conversations). If you hear someone say something that you disagree with: (1) Apply to that person the label that you use for people you scorn or hate. Then (2) recite your stock denunciation of the entire, supposedly uniform, class of people denoted by that label. And voilà, (3) you can ignore the actual words, thoughts, and deeds of the living human person before you.

Apply the label, cancel the person.

But it is neither helpful nor truthful to categorize everyone under two labels. Nor smart. Intelligence and truthfulness depend heavily on observing differences, making distinctions. The lazy and untruthful habit of reducing everything to two (or a few) labels is making us all stupider. And less honest. And angrier.

There is a better way.

Consider the roots of these words. “Conservative” is about holding on to something. It is about conserving things that are of value. “Liberal” is about freedom. It is about liberating ourselves and others from things that are of negative value, things that oppress or confine or distort.

Let’s try this: When we hear someone express an idea that is not immediately congenial to us, we examine it carefully and think about what is worth conserving, and what calls for liberating. Where, to what extent, do we need more continuity and stability, and where do we need more change and freedom? Wouldn’t it be much better to ask these questions than to just slap the label “conservative” or “liberal” on everyone? Wouldn’t that make us more intelligent, more collaborative, more constructive? We would not all agree about everything! But we could at least have a better chance of finding ways to coexist, to be mutually respectful.

There is no good reason to categorize every thought in the world, and every person in the world, using one or the other of two labels. There are very good reasons not to. Among them: “You shall not bear false witness” and “Love thy neighbor as thyself.”

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