Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Problem With Labels

Check out this discussion between Conor Friedersdorf and Conn Carroll on Bloggingheads in which they discuss labels and labeling (e.g. conservative, liberal,etc.) Specifically, Carroll likes them and thinks they are a useful shortcut. Friedersdorf disagrees.

I find myself much closer to Friedersdorf. Labels can be alright as long as people using them and reading (or hearing or whatever) them remember that they are not always accurate, that they are mental shortcuts that are not capable of fully describing a person.

Unfortunately, this typically does not happen. We divide everything into oversimplified black and white groups. As such, one label becomes a signal of good and its opposite becomes the moniker of the scary other, the bad (like...conservative and liberal). We form teams. The team you belong to is obviously the good team and so the other team is the enemy. That also means that someone supposedly part of your team who disagrees with you in some way must clearly not be on your team whatever you may agree on. He or she is apostate and must be cast out like Carroll does with Andrew Sullivan.

What this means is that a label can end up obfuscating just as often as it clarifies. A journalist or blogger or anyone writing for an online audience is typically trying to explain a topic or their views on said topic. If using a label is not going to aid in that endeavor, then it should not be used. Carroll's argument that these labels help him understand a writer and their biases and the "holes" in their arguments was just bizarre. A person's ideas should stand on their own. You shouldn't need to know what label they are in your world-view in order to judge the merit of the argument. Carroll's use of labels this way allows him to agree with anyone on his team whatever the merit of their position and disagree with someone with the wrong label in the same manner.

In fact the reason I don't like to call myself a liberal or a conservative or any other label is because it is too easy to make that a neat little box to put someone in and I don't feel like I fit in a box like that at least not politically. Some labels are okay - male (nothing confusing about that...for me), dork/nerd (uhm...I play Dungeons & Dragons, love Star Trek, read Lord of the Rings over and over, can recite quite a bit of pi off the top of my head, so there's no real disputing of that one), father (I've tried not claiming my two daughters; it didn't work). Maybe there are a few others that I can accept. But when it comes to politics, I think it's far too broad a subject and the labels far too meaningless to let one apply to me. Do I typically lean left? Yeah. Do I agree with orthodox liberals (whatever those may be) on everything? Definitely not. As Friedersdorf said, calling me a liberal would not tell you much about how I thought politically.

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