Tuesday, July 1, 2008

The Care and Feeding of Labels--Part #1

Mankind uses language to organize the world. Through language we can talk about what we see and about what we would like to see. We can report on what is and what isn't present. One of the processes of language is the giving of "names." We look at that sphere in front of us and call it a ball. And all those who speak the same language have through social convention agreed to call that thing a ball--that is its name. There is absolutely no "real" connection between the signifier "ball" and the entity for which it stands. That is why I am a woman in English but a frau in German; both point to the same external entity.

Some people use the word "label" interchangeably with the word "name." In usage, however, they aren't the same thing. Labels are used for classification and division purposes. "Tree" is the name of a class or species defined by us as having particular characteristics that make a tree a tree and not a bush or a flower. But that class can be divided into subgroups or types that, in addition to sharing the required characteristics for being a tree, also share other characteristics not found outside that subgroup. The names of all these subdivisions are more correctly called labels. So now we have something we have labeled evergreen trees and deciduous trees: one class, different divisions. Those divisions can be further subdivided, thus evergreen trees will yield Yews, Spruces, Pines etc. And yes, even these divisions can be further subdivided so we can have Norway spruce, white spruce, Colorado blue spruce, black spruce, and more.

Thus labels are specifically used for putting you into a group. And when they put you in that group anyone hearing that label or seeing it will know that you share the characteristics of others in your group. In fact you can't be in that group unless you have precisely all the characteristics necessary for joining it.

Trees are the really easy part of understanding how labels work. Those labels have horticultural reasons for being. We can talk about needle type or branching habit. We can talk about sun or shade requirements. We can talk about water requirements. And while nature may have some oddities here and there, by and large if you've seen one Yew you've seen them all. What makes them a Yew is clear to everyone.

Huge problems arise, however, when you try to treat people as if they were trees. I'm not talking here about biological classifications--that can be done. I'm talking about the other types of classification and division.

Let's use politics as an illustration. What are you actually saying if you label me as one of the following:

Radical ==Left-wing== Left-wing liberal== Left-leaning== Leftist== Right-wing
Conservative== Ultra-conservative== Arch-conservative== Moderate== Religious right
Democrat== Tax-and-spend-Democrat== Republican== Old-Guard Republican
Regan Republican== Liberal== Libertarian== Independent== Extremist== Contrarian
Soccer mom== Patriot== Flaming liberal== Centrist== Populist== Silent majority
Moral majority== Heartland centrist== Elitist== Special interest lobby== God-fearing
Anarchist== Principled== Unprincipled== Wrong-thinking== Wrong-minded
Dyed-in-the-wool ==NASCAR dads== Security moms ==neocon== Isolationist== Hawk
Dove== Pro-choice== Pro-life== Bleeding heart liberal== Majority== Minority
Oppressed minority.

Yup, that's me, an independent extremist contrarian with moral majority centrist leanings that are right wing conservative except when they are left-leaning centrist. And that's only on the issue of taxing cigarettes. Ask me about something else and you'll get a whole different set of labels.

It should be fairly obvious that merely attaching a label to someone does not 1) tell us anything about what that label actually means and 2) doesn't mean that the label actually fits the person so labeled.

I've belabored this point because next up, in Part #2, I'd like to look at Jewish labeling.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

How ever do you fit your political party into that little tiny space they give you on forms?!