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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Labels

Labels are short tags that we put on things to describe or categorize them. The "things" of which I speak may be ideas, movements, items, or even people. Labels are useful so that we don't have to keep using the long descriptions. "Calvinist" is a short label that would (theoretically) help describe a somewhat wordy set of theological viewpoints on various doctrines. "Pornography" is a label that groups a whole set of things like pictures, videos, words, magazines, books, a whole range of things that are now classified as ... pornographic. And so on. We have lots of labels for people. They are "short", "fat", "skinny", "beautiful", "ugly", "smart", all sorts of things without qualification or explanation. (Example: A 6'2" man would be "short" to a 7' tall fellow. However, we'd only get the label, not the explanation.) We just label people and things, and then we can move on and deal with them as a group.

Labels have their shortcomings. Many labels carry emotional baggage. "Fundamentalist" is a label that is generally viewed as seriously negative. The fact that it simply refers to "strict adherence to any set of basic ideas or principles" doesn't phase a soul, it seems. It is still viewed as negative, even dangerous. The fact that the movement known as fundamentalism "arose in the early part of the 20th century in reaction to modernism and that stresses the infallibility of the Bible not only in matters of faith and morals but also as a literal historical record, holding as essential to Christian faith belief in such doctrines as the creation of the world, the virgin birth, physical resurrection, atonement by the sacrificial death of Christ, and the Second Coming" doesn't much matter. Even those who agree with all that don't want the "fundamentalist" label. It's ... bad to be a fundamentalist.

One of the labels that bothers me quite a bit is "poverty" and its siblings. This label is problematic to me because 1) it is full of emotional baggage while 2) not being clearly spelled out or understood. As an example, I've seen poverty. I've been in places where people lived in one-room mud huts with dirt floors, no windows, no furniture. I was offered a nice meal of beans cooked on a grate over a fire because that was the only "stove" on which to cook the only food in the house. Funny thing ... these people in deep poverty didn't seem to know that they were poor. They weren't miserable. They weren't unhappy. They weren't outraged. They were just fine with their standard of living. So ... how do we categorize "poverty" and make the label meaningful? When I was in the Air Force I lived a fairly comfortable life -- wife, two kids, roof over our heads, two cars, a TV, all the comforts -- but the government classified us, on military income, as "sub-poverty". Really? That was the face of poverty? I believe there is such a thing as poverty. I think that we should work to help those in poverty. I just don't think that, from our vantage point as the richest country in the world, that we have a clue what it is. But throw out that "poverty" label and we're almost coerced by a basic sense of compassion to help ... without actually knowing what it is. "You agree that we need to fight poverty, right?" How does one respond to that? "Define poverty"? You can't go there. Now you're trying to wiggle out of it. You see? Too much baggage and not enough definition.

Another label that has been tossed around recently is "torture". The dictionary defines the word as "a method of inflicting such pain." Now, that's as generic as it gets. So, a parent that causes a child "pain" by putting them in a time out is inflicting torture ... right? No, of course not! Let's be more specific. Okay, we're all aware of this idea: "The act of inflicting excruciating pain, as punishment or revenge, as a means of getting a confession or information, or for sheer cruelty." Yeah, yeah ... that is torture. Now we're all on the same page. But ... are we? Again, the label has both of the problems as "poverty". It is full of emotional baggage while being vaguely defined. Bob (a fictional person, for any Bobs out there) thinks that tickling a prisoner until he cries is "inflicting excruciating pain", while Ted (Bob's fictional counterpart) is quite sure that waterboarding isn't torture at all because there is no "excruciating pain". Remove definitions, substitute the label, and Bob and Ted would likely agree that "torture is wrong" while not agreeing at all on what that means ... and not knowing it. "You believe that torture is wrong, right?" Again, you can't ask for boundaries -- "What exactly do you mean by torture?" -- because now you're trying to justify what "everyone knows" is torture, you scum! Too much baggage and not enough definition.

These are just two examples, two current reasons that I have such a hard time with labels. So many carry too much baggage and not enough definition. We're trying to make things easier, but we're not getting there. We're using shorthand to help in communication and, in the end, fail to both communicate and to address the problem. Unfortunately, finding a better solution isn't on the agenda. Maybe if we cared more about communicating what we intend and allowed less emotional baggage on our pet projects it might be a step in the right direction. Maybe.

2 comments:

Dan said...

Labels are important in a five second sound bite world, especially when the purpose of those sound bites is to deceive some while informing others. In this way "news"... ahh talking points can be delivered in code speak with differing meanings to differing worldviews. Your article suggests that you understand this and normally hear both messages and it bothers you. Me too.

Stan said...

Your New World Order Dictionary is really good for some of these labels. Then there are the religious ones ... sheesh! Can we actually use these things without abusing them?