Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Nouns Are Labels

a well-known label
A few of us were discussing a local politician's claim that he doesn't like to "apply labels". Well, we all label things! That’s what nouns are for. They speed up the conversations by assigning a name to something, instead of having to describe it every time we  want to talk about it: house, car, dog, cat, black, white, racist, homophobe, islamophobe, bigot, liar.

The only time labels are a bad thing is when they are used to deceive. For example, calling someone a liar when they are merely mistaken (e.g., WMD’s in Iraq); calling someone a racist when we criticize the political principles of a man who happens to be black; calling someone a homophobe when we object to someone’s lifestyle; calling someone an islamophobe when we criticize a demonstrably toxic culture and belief system. When labels are used to suppress important topics of discussion, instead of to facilitate debate, then they're bad.

Sometimes people deliberately mis-label themselves: “Progressives” embraced Marxism and communism in the first half of the 20th century. Their principles were strongly repudiated during WWII, and so they rebranded themselves as “Liberals”, which is nearly the exact opposite of what they really are: Illiberals. The founders were liberals, but because the ‘progressives’ hijacked the word “liberal”, we now have to call the founders and their present day followers “classical liberals”. The word “libertarian” almost nails it, except that the “Libertarian” party has sullied that name, because they have a few pretty wacky beliefs too.

Labels are fine as long as we define our terms honestly. Labels are a shorthand for big concepts.

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