We Love Our Labels!

I’m about to crack open a can of worms that can’t be fully dealt with in a single article.  This is a topic that has been strongly on my mind lately and it seems time at least to get it on the record, if only briefly so.

I observe that a great many people seem to label themselves in various ways.   This is a common behavior and we see examples of it every day.  Here are a few examples, just to get the ball rolling:

“I am a Christian.”

“I am a Democrat.”

“I am an environmentalist.”

“I am a scientist.”

“I’m a Constitutionalist.”

“I’m a birther.”

Our labels range from the very general, such as “I’m a Conservative” to the very specific, such as “I’m a mother.”  In the one case, we may be referring to a large or complex body of philosophical tenets, and in the other, to a mere matter of fact that has nothing to do with philosophy.  “I’m a mother”, for example, would be true of any female who has had a child, regardless of her beliefs or behaviors.  Philosophical labels, on the other hand, tend to carry with them at least some level of expectation as to behavior.  For example, we would probably be surprised to see someone who wears a “tree hugger” t-shirt dumping his garbage alongside the highway.  And why?  It is because the term “tree hugger” is generally used of those who have strong concern for the health of the environment.

Though there are exceptions, my impression is that most people tend to label themselves with labels that they find appealing in some fashion.  They do not generally label themselves as their philosophical adversaries might label them.  Indeed, who wears a t-shirt that says “Right-Wing Extremist” or “Raging Liberal”?  And who wears a t-shirt that says “Wild-eyed Conspiracy Theorist”?  No, we tend to call ourselves only what we find appealing.  And we don’t find ourselves driven to find a label for every trait we possess, but only for those that we think are worthy of advertising.  Does anybody wear a t-shirt that says “I’m fat!”, or one that says, “My house is generally messy”?  Likely not.  Yes, the rare person, like Oscar the Grouch, may revel in an unappealing label, but most tend to stick with those labels that they think speak well of them.  In fact, it’s quite similar to clothing fashion.  Who voluntarily wears something that he finds distasteful?

When the Label is Wrong

Have you ever bought something only to discover later that the contents in the package have been mislabeled?  Or have you ever misjudged something by making a wrong assumption based upon what it appeared to be at first glance?  I did this once when I was a kid.  I was hunting for something exciting in the refrigerator when I discovered a mason jar with what appeared to be apple juice in it.  When I took a sip, I discovered that it wasn’t apple juice at all, but my mom’s cooking grease!  Needless to say, it didn’t take much to have enough of that!  And I’m reminded of the episode of M*A*S*H in which some prankster put a toothpaste label on a tube of Preparation H.  The results were quite upsetting!

Events like these can be comical or aggravating—and sometimes both, such as when an event that we find aggravating proves to be hilarious entertainment for our friends!  But I digress.  What I’m getting at here is what happens when a person mislabels himself.

Billy was hired because he had a reputation of being a “great salesman”, but what happens when his performance on the new job proves otherwise?  Tommy was asked to be the group’s treasurer because he was known to be “trustworthy”, but what happens when it is discovered that he has been stealing money from the group?  Sue was supposed to be an “awesome tutor”, but what happens when little Jerry ends up failing his math test even with her tutoring?  Obviously, people get hurt in such situations—and it’s very likely that we have all suffered from people who are so mislabeled.

But what if we are those people?  And what if the inaccurate labels we wear are the ones we have put there ourselves?  Does this hurt anyone?  And do we hurt ourselves in this way?  Well, yes, I think we do hurt both others and ourselves in this way, but the average person may not readily see it like that.

An Exercise in Near-Mindlessness

I suppose a person may adopt a label for any of a number of reasons, some good and some not so good.  Perhaps a label is adopted simply on a whim, such as with the youth who impudently decides she is a “Gator fan” because her family, with whom she does not get along, are Seminole fans.  Or on the opposite extreme, someone may decide after years of study and reflection that he is not a “Republican” in his political philosophy after all, but a “Libertarian”.  Whatever the case may be, an interesting challenge is set once the label is adopted:  Will the person be true to the label he or she wears?  Will he or she even care?

I find that the more deliberation that went into the selection of the label, the more likely is the wearer of the label to abide by it.  For example, there is a difference between the person who calls himself a “constitutionalist” because he has studied the document and finds it a worthy blueprint for our government, and the person who labels himself the same merely because his favorite politician has call himself a constitutionalist.  In the one case, the label is thoroughly considered and in the other, it is quite vain.

When labels are vainly donned, they reveal some disturbing facts about their wearers.  Consider the incongruities presented by the following scenarios:

  1. Gern tells us he’s for “getting back to the Constitution”, yet Gern has never once invested the 45 minutes it takes to read the Constitution.
  2. Ralph assures us that he is an avid “Christian”, yet we can observe that Ralph is anything but an avid student of the teachings of Christ.  We see that he has no intention of becoming an expert on the Christian teachings in the Bible.
  3. Lurlene tells us she is a “health nut”, but we see her routinely ingesting all manner of foods, additives, and chemicals that have repeatedly and soundly been denounced by others as unhealthy.
  4. Chumley tells us he’s a “seeker of truth”, but we witness that he fails to edit his blog post accordingly when he has been corrected as to some matter of fact.
  5. Fred boasts that he’s a “scientist” and that all his beliefs are derived from actual evidence, and not from mere conjecture, hearsay, or mythology, as most of the rest of the world operates.  Yet Fred has never done his own experimentation to validate the conclusions he believes to be true.  He believes it because he was told, or because he read it in a trusted professor’s book.

Behaviors like these are either ignorant or hypocritical (or perhaps some of each), and yet they are so prevalent in our culture as to amount to a veritable philosophical epidemic.  And no one wears a t-shirt that says “I’m either ignorant or hypocritical…or perhaps some of each.”  No, that would not be an appealing notion of oneself, even if it were true!  So they continue in these misnomers, even after they have been exposed.

Holding On For Dear Life

When the “constitutionalist” has been exposed as one who cares so little about the document that he has never once read it, does he then reject the label thenceforward in the interest of accuracy?  Amazingly, many do not!  And when a “Christian” has been exposed as someone who doesn’t really have an ardent interest in learning and understanding the teachings of Jesus, does he continue to wear the label?  Again, many do.  When a “seeker of truth” is exposed as not caring enough about the truth to correct himself when he is proven wrong, does he cease to fancy himself as a “seeker”?  Many do not.

So what’s up with this?  People with “black” skin do not normally call themselves “white” and people over six feet in height do not normally call themselves “short”.  So why do people tend to cling to philosophical labels after they have been shown to be something other than what the label purports to define?

Isn’t it the very nature of the labeling process to manufacture a label that accurately identifies the contents?  When we want to distinguish between the spray bottle that has a cleaning mixture of vinegar and water and the ironing spray bottle with water only, do we put a “water” label on both?!  Of course not.  Getting it right is the whole purpose behind putting a label on a bottle in the first place.  Who wants to wear a shirt that was ironed with vinegar water?

Why, then, are so very many people content to wear philosophical labels that they know, or should know, are not accurate labels for them?

Whatever the motive, we may be certain that it does not come from a healthy and mature pursuit of the truth.  I believe that it often comes from vanity—from the drive to perceive ourselves as better than we truly are, or to be so perceived by others.  It is dishonesty, therefore, that drives it, and what a great dysfunction this represents.  Clearly, the individual in question has greater things in mind for himself, for he aspires to some lofty label, yet he is so easily contented merely with the notion of his new label and so easily satisfied without ever attaining to an actual practice of the philosophy that label espouses!

Interestingly, God warned the Hebrews of this very sort of behavior when he commanded:

“You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes His name in vain.  (Exodus 20:7 NKJV)

Many think this is merely a prohibition against cursing by use of God’s name.  I believe, however, that it was a warning against the inaccurate use of labels.  I believe that God was saying here that they ought not to call themselves by God’s name if they are not truly devoted to his values and precepts.  And in particular, those in Israel had been called “God’s chosen people”, by none other than God himself.  But he warns them in several places not to automatically assume themselves to be among that number if they are not wanting in their hearts and minds to be like God.

People Hate to Be Lied About—right?

If I accuse you of theft when you have stolen nothing, you’ll be incensed, right?  And if I accuse you of arrogance when you’re just trying to help by correcting me, you’ll be offended, or at least saddened, right?  Then why don’t you hate to be labeled inaccurately in good ways?

When you can play two musical instruments well and your friend says of you, “Rufus can play any instrument!”, do you hate the mischaracterization?  Or when another says “Rufus is an awesome golfer” and you know that you have only mediocre skills, do you hate the mischaracterization as much as you hate being falsely accused of stealing?

If not, why not?  Why is the truth of the matter so important in the one case, but not in the other?

Though this article is about all manner of self labels, here’s a real eye-opener from the world of Christianity (emphasis added):

2 Corinthians 13:5 Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you–unless, of course, you fail the test?  (NASB)

Apparently, the author did not consider that a person was a “Christian” simply because the person thought he was, but only if the person actually lived according to the various tenets that were germane to the religion.  How “radical”, right?

Making the Distinctions

Many today choose labels to distinguish themselves from others.  Some examples of this are:

“I’m a Reagan Republican.”

“I’m an African American.”

“I’m a real conservative.”

“I’m a Southern Baptist.”

“I’m a strict constructionist.”

Some of these popular labels are problematic, however, whether in their ostensible meaning, or in their application.  Is a “Reagan Republican”, for example, in support of everything Reagan did as president, such as his multiple violations of the Constitution and his controversial “arms for hostages” deal with Iran and Nicaragua?

Or what about the “African American”?  Was he born in Africa, or has he even visited there?

And how can anyone be a “real” conservative when no consistent definition of “conservative” exists anywhere?  Indeed, even if he strongly believes in 99% of everything the “conservative” talkers support, but is adamantly opposed to America’s unquenchable empirical war lust, they will all tell him that he is not a “real conservative”, will they not?

Similarly, how can any person claim to be a “Luthodist” or a “Basbyterian” when he flatly disagrees with his church institution on some point of doctrine or practice?  Does the label somehow indicate a less-than-complete support of the institution’s doctrines and practices?  If so, why does no one were a t-shirt that says, “I’m mostly proud to be a Basbyterian!” or “I’m 97.5% Luthodist!”?  No, the implication of a typical label is complete adherence.  And this also argues against the member who, while having no particular disagreement with the doctrines of his institution, has simply never studied those doctrines in order to know whether he should properly agree or not!

Many people support a number of causes outwardly when they have no good idea of what all they are supporting.  They’ll say, “I support our troops!”, but they have no idea that a great deal of what “our troops” do nowadays violates the very oath those troops took to “support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”  Nor does the average citizen feel responsible as an American for the carnage that is sometimes inflicted by our troops on innocent civilians.

Similarly, someone may be proud to be a Demublican, but has no idea of the ongoing artifice and scheme that comprises the Demublican National Committee, nor of the incorrigible culture of corruption that exists within the party’s hierarchy.

Meanwhile, the citizen’s church may be involved in or responsible for all manner of corruption of which he is unaware because he simply has no interest in its corporate policies and behaviors.  Or his favorite charity, for which he puts a bumper sticker on his car, may also be corrupt, and he would never know it.

Hard for a “Facebook” Society

The things I’m discussing here are difficult for our “Facebook” society.  When human conversation has been largely reduced to clicking “Like” in response to a one-liner notion, I suppose there’s a certain danger in making too much out of the labels a person has chosen for himself.  Could it be that he’s a “Liberal” (whatever that’s supposed to mean) simply because he admires some “Liberal” person he sees in the media or in office?  Could it be that she adopted the “Christian” label simply because she went to church once and liked it or because some sermon he heard once on TV stirred his emotions?

Che Guevara T-Shirt

Well, that sure would explain a lot, wouldn’t it?  Surely there are many who think more deeply than this, but can’t we see that there are many who do not?

Perhaps no better example exists of this phenomenon than the popularity of clothing branded with the image of Che Guevara, an Argentinian political leader about whom many know absolutely nothing.  Guevara is described this way by Wikipedia:

an Argentine Marxist revolutionary, physician, author, intellectual, guerrilla leader, diplomat, and military theorist. A major figure of the Cuban Revolution, his stylized visage has become a ubiquitous countercultural symbol of rebellion and global insignia within popular culture.  (See article.)

How interesting, then, that so very few people who wear his image would ever describe themselves by similar terms.  Why, then, are they wearing it?

Nothing more than the slightest of notions, however vain and/or fleeting they may be, is necessary for the adoption of a label.  And nothing more than habit is necessary for the continued wearing of that label.  This is all that is required for the individual to adopt and to wear the label.  But look what it does to everybody else!  Look how our culture is filled with such advertisements—people, causes, companies, ideas—things put forth merely for profit in many cases, or even for subversion of sound principle—ignorant things, stupid things, incorrect things, fallacious and irrational arguments, and vain notions.  Consider these:

  • “War is good for the economy.”
  • “We’re making the world safe for Democracy.”
  • “America: Love it or leave it!”
  • “You’ve got to hit rock bottom before you can really change.”
  • “Coke adds life!”
  • “Get out the vote.”
  • “Vote for the lesser of two evils.”
  • “You deserve a break today!”
  • “A nutritious part of this balanced breakfast.”
  • etc.

Our society is filled with such bad notions and assertions.  It simply does not matter that they can be disproved by fact, logic, and sourcing.  No, what matters is the popularity with which they are adopted.  And why?  Because popular adoption equates to money and/or power for someone.  For every vain notion that is believed by some member of the public, something is gained by the party promoting that notion.  People rarely realize that they are being used, however—that their very minds are the marketplace in which marketers vie for attention.  They tend to think that they have freely chosen which ideas to value, and perhaps that is true to some extent, but that “choice” is oftentimes not a well-considered choice—not one that they would have created from scratch, had they not had somebody else frame it for them in the first place.  For example, who would ever come up with the idea that the best strategy for our country is to find two “evil” choices for president, and then to choose from among them the one who is the “lesser evil”?  No one would design such a system on his own, just as no one spends his Saturday morning pondering whether he would prefer to drink arsenic over strychnine.

Still on the Bandwagon?

So you took a notion one day to hop aboard some bandwagon and to put on the t-shirt they gave you.  But are you still on the wagon? And should you still be on the wagon?  Are you off the wagon but still wearing the t-shirt they gave you?  Are you on the wagon, but have since removed the t-shirt?

These are good questions and they represent the various states we may find ourselves in from time to time.  But these are questions for thinking people; non-thinking people simply will not care.

Rethinking The Labels

I’ve worn and discarded several labels in my time, mostly because I would come in time to recognize certain fallacies or contradictions in them.  I have left groups that systemically failed to achieve their stated goals.  I have shunned labels that turned out to be indefinable or arbitrary.  I have rejected membership where the accompanying label didn’t seem to match the true prime directive of the institution.

I like some things that some “conservative” people say, and some things that some “liberal” people say, yet each camp is filled with notions I find repulsive.  And lest someone assume that this makes me, therefore, a “centrist”, I shun that, too, as a meaningless and indefinable label.  Unless you can demonstrate that all “centrists” agree with me, it’s pretty clear to me that I’m not a “centrist”.

I no longer feel compelled to “join” or to “belong to”—nor to be “known by” my affiliations.  Indeed, I find such affiliations to be so counterproductive to the maturation of our society that I wince when you discover me reading some certain book because of whatever you might assume is my motivation for reading it.  I turn down the political talk radio when approaching a drive-through in my car for fear that some bystander might hear Limbaugh and assume that I’m a supporter of his, or that they’ll hear NPR and assume that I’m a “liberal”.

Am I afraid of what people think?  No, not really.  After all, I’m a blogger and I write about controversial things all the time, when I could rather be silent if I feared the conflict.  Instead, I’m afraid of what people won’t think.  What they won’t think is, “Oh, he’s listening to Limbaugh; he must be analyzing the rhetoric for errors.”  No, what they’ll do is to label me as a “conservative” or a “Republican”, when I am neither.   And it will be much harder to set them straight than if they never had the notion in the first place.

So the next time you tell someone that you are a Demublican or a Republicrat, maybe you shouldn’t be so quick to take offense when they point out that your party violates the Constitution regularly, because it does!  Indeed, even your own party claims to believe in constitutional government, so why aren’t you upset when your own party’s incumbent politicians vote to violate the Constitution?

And the next time you tell someone that you are a “Christian”, maybe you shouldn’t be shocked if they expect you to be considerably more educated in the Bible than you are, or if they expect you to correct yourself immediately when one of your doctrinal errors is demonstrated.  And if you’re for “getting back to the Constitution”, don’t be shocked if they expect that you should have read the document or that you should have already figured out that “getting back to the Constitution” (because we have so far to go) would be just about as tumultuous as having another Civil War.

See, some of us believe that a label ought to mean something more than that you simply have a notion to “like” something.  For some of us, philosophy is a deliberate way of life, and not just a checkout line “impulse item”.  And how interesting it is that so many like to think of themselves as philosophers and yet refuse to think any deeper than the label itself.  They are not thinking; they only think they’re thinking!

“If you make people think they’re thinking, they’ll love you; But if you really make them think, they’ll hate you.”  ~Don Marquis (1878-1937)

I argued earlier in this article that people generally tend to label themselves only with such labels as they find appealing, or that they believe will be found appealing by those people whose opinions they value.  I suppose there may be some value in railing against such people in hopes that they might just be embarrassed into adopting different paradigms.   Regardless of how we get there, however, the real goal here is to reach the moment in which the individual is inclined to rethink his position freely in his own mind.  Consider these examples:

  • “You know, life is better when I spend my time trying to help others than when I’m just trying to find entertainment.”
  • “Gee, they say ‘Coke adds life’, but I think it’s shortening my life, as well as compromising the quality of my life.”
  • “Funny, I always said that war is good for the economy, but now that I ponder the facts, I see that it’s only good for the economy of certain companies.  And besides that, I never stopped to question, until now, how being ‘good for the economy’ is any justification for the great loss of life.”
  • “OK, I’ve been saying for years that I support the Constitution; I suppose I should put my money where my mouth is and actually read it at least once.”
  • “Gee, I sure do say a lot of things, but I don’t really know if they’re really true or not.  I’m going to start paying attention to that.”
  • “I’m a member of this organization, but I have no idea who owns it and what their true agendas are.  Nor have I thoroughly studied its beliefs, teachings, and practices.  Maybe I should look into that before I continue to consider myself a member.”

For all we know, folks, when we wear someone else’s label, we’re just being “useful idiots” for someone else’s schemes.    Perhaps it’s time to toss out a few t-shirts and cancel a few memberships until we’ve had time to think through some things at a deeper level than ever before.  There is probably not a person alive who hasn’t been duped by our hearsay society at one time or another.  Have you?


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