The Problem of Labels

Name Badge CollageThis is an ongoing issue for quite a while and as time has gone on, I’ve largely changed my mind on the effectiveness of most labels, simply because I think that most of them get in the way of clarity, not help it.  I’ve talked about this to some degree before, both on the blog and on the podcast, especially with regard to political labels.  I don’t find that they really mean much.  Liberal.  Conservative.  They give a very basic overview of the kinds of views that a person might hold but they really don’t tell you much about what they actually believe.

This becomes an issue because I meet so many people who will say “I am a conservative” and then hold lots of views that I don’t think are traditionally conservative.  Or you get the people who say “I am a liberal”, yet many of their views don’t fit into traditional liberalism.  And of course, libertarianism often features a host of mutually exclusive views parading under the common libertarian flag.

At best, a label might, and I stress ‘might’, give you a place to start a conversation, at least it might narrow things down somewhat and save you from asking a lot of really long-winded questions. Honestly though, I’ve found that it really doesn’t allow you to save a whole lot of time because different people mean different things by different labels.  I’ve met people who say they’re “independent”, but are instead staunchly conservative, yet refuse to use that label for fear of being lumped in with the neo-cons of the Republican Party.  I’ve met self-professed liberals who honestly don’t hold many liberal views and, of course, the majority of the Republican Party claims to be conservative, yet lacks the slightest hint of fiscal responsibility.  It’s made me wonder if using the labels is useful at all, considering you have to explore what the person really thinks about various issues to know their actual position anyhow.  You’re not saving any time, you’re just taking a step which may or may not be meaningful down the line.

So what do we do?  Humans have a natural desire to categorize and organize things so it’s unlikely that the idea of labels is going to go away any time soon.  Maybe it’s just these specific labels that are problematic and we need to do away with them and select new ones?  Unfortunately, I think that these specific labels are pretty much ingrained in society and even if we did manage to get rid of them, we’d just run into the same problem after a couple of decades using the new labels, whatever those turned out to be.  Maybe the solution, as klugey as it may be, is to simply  be more careful with the labels, to apply them fairly and honestly to everyone and not to try to double think the situation.  If you’re a conservative, be a conservative.  Don’t worry about who other people might try to lump you in with.  Be what you are.  If you’re a liberal, be a liberal, but don’t try to pretend you’re a liberal because you think that’s what people expect you to be.  If you’re a libertarian… well, you’re an idiot and who cares what you think anyhow. 🙂

Labels get in the way more often than not and we allow them to be even more problematic than they ought to be. Maybe it isn’t the labels that are the issue, maybe it’s us.  Something to think about.