Labels Redux, or That Darned Right-Wing Librul!
In a recent post, E.D. Kain ponders the issue of labels, particularly self-labeling.
I would just note that the self-labeling acrobatics in question are not merely to find an appropriate label for myself, but to help understand the political positions these labels hinge upon more entirely. I believe in the power of naming things… Our language shapes our society and our culture.
Our political language is especially important but is rarely specific enough: we have, in a sense, double-plus ungood political nomenclature. We speak in cudgels, which is perhaps natural in this context, since politics is inherently violent. But I want to speak of things with greater specificity, not less.
Of course the flip-side of self-labeling is other-labeling.* In my very short tenure here I have been called a right-winger (here, in the Nov. 15, 12:38 p.m. comment), and a “typical librul bloviator,” (here, in the Nov. 22, 2:37 p.m. comment). I must be doing something right, eh?
Is there power in naming things? I’m sure there is. Commenters who “name” me are likely to thereby establish their own frame by which they forever after see me, although it’s a frame that’s unfamiliar to me, and appears to refer to a complete stranger. Label me right-wing, and all I can see is my support for same-sex marriage and legalization of drugs, and my opposition to efforts to bring religion into the classroom. Label me liberal and all I can see is my staunch support for free markets and gun rights, and my opposition to command-and-control regulation. I once met a person in San Francisco who was also named James Hanley, and whom I think was pretty liberal–perhaps one of these labels refers to him, and perhaps there is yet a third James Hanley out there to whom the other one refers to? Does anyone happen to know where he lives? Texas? Idaho? Or is he unhappily stuck in a blue state?
It is in part out of this general frustration with labeling that my “discussion” with another commenter became rather more rancorous than I would like. I was asking the commenter to self-label, so that I could understand him better, but he–at least initially–refused. Obviously it is our free choice to refuse to label ourselves, but it is–perhaps unfairly–a dangerous strategy as it leaves the field wide open for others to do the labeling. And given any opportunity, opponents will do so. I was at a political consultants meeting last Thursday and Friday, in which the issue of defining (labeling) one’s opponent before they could define (label) themselves, and defining (labeling) oneself before one’s opponent could do so, was a major topic of conversation. As a political strategy, such labeling of others is obviously necessary, but it’s ugly and I can’t admire it as a generalized behavior. Certainly not in a forum for debate, rather than in an arena for contestation.
So, ironically, I was trying to avoid doing it to my discussion partner, in an attempt that went…well, let’s not say not tragically wrong, which would be overly dramatic, but perhaps comedically awry. Comedic, because as it turned out, there was an apparent miscommunication, such that his reluctance to satisfy my request appears to have been a consequence of having the impression that I had already labeled him (as either evil or stupid). I remain unsure, but it seems plausible that my request that he label himself for my convenience had the appearance of me asking, “Are you stupid, evil, or what?” I swear, that wasn’t my intent. As E.D. said, naming has power, and we speak in cudgels. That is, to name others is to cudgel them. I had no intention, initially, of cudgeling said discussion partner, but due to the appearance that I already had, the debate went the direction of general cudgeling. I regret that, and I apologize.
For my own part, as a (sort of, semi, quasi) libertarian I have become rather familiar with that particular type of cudgeling from those who seem to have difficulty imagining a world of more than a single dimension. My first experience with it was in 1999, when in my student evaluations I had one student object to my “rah rah, go America fascism,” while another complained that he was “sick of all these left-wing teachers at this school.” It was bemusing, and somewhat upsetting, at the time. Since then it has become one of those mildly amusing but still rather annoying little regularities of life, like my neighbor’s habit of tuning his radio to the local ranchera station when he’s working in the back yard.
Other-labeling can’t be stopped. Indeed it’s a natural human behavior (we create categories to help us make sense of the world, so political labeling is not a fundamentally different behavior than defining species or arguing about the distinctions between speed metal and thrash metal). But to those few–those unhappy few–who think there’s some sufficiency in labeling me as either left or right, all I can do is refer back to the distinction between a forum for debate and an arena for contestation. There are no prizes available here for “successfully” mis-labeling me (whatever success would mean in this context). I’m really not either left or right. And for the life of me I can’t understand why that’s such a hard thing for some people to figure out.
*My apologies for the ugly terminology, which is repulsively sociological, but nevertheless the most accurate term I can at present come up with to to label (of course) this behavior.