Are you a Democrat or Republican? A Christian, or maybe Muslim? An Atheist? What’s your stance on abortion: Pro-Life or Pro-Choice? What’s your ethnicity?
Labels for political parties, religions, races, genders, classes, languages, nationalities, ideologies, etc are everywhere and more or less unavoidable. And, unfortunately, they frequently create rigid thinking and monolithic stereotypes that can often result in violence.
I’m sure most Applied Sentience readers are nodding their heads and need no convincing on this front. So, that being said, I’d like to take on the challenge and argue that labels are useful, even beautiful.
Story time! One of my favorite stories concerning debates over labels happened during a Picnic at the Park event held by the Center for Inquiry NYC. A few of us were discussing the topic and one ‘Anti-Labeler,’ as I like to call them, went on about how he doesn’t identify with anything regarding culture or religion. Why? Because of the pervasive violence and group conflict associated with the practice of labeling.
So a quick note about my own background: I did my masters field research on ethno-religious violence and its relationship to education in Bosnia. So I certainly hope it’s clear, reader, that I don’t disagree with this guy’s basic point on identity and inter-group violence. But I found it delicious when minutes later, after the conversation had long since moved on, that I heard him relating how great it was that he could so easily find CFI and other groups like this. All he had to do was search “humanists” or “skeptics” or “atheists” and like magic he found a group of like-minded people!
1. Labels & Communication
This first point is a simple one. We need labels purely to communicate about things that are important to us. Words that identify groups based on what political party they vote for, side they take on a debate, or religious worldview they subscribe to are here to stay. The only alternative is to either 1) completely lose the ability to talk about these groups and the points they stand for, or 2) describe in grueling detail the specific group we’d like to refer to. So instead of ‘Democrat’ we’d talk about “people-that-vote-for-politicians-with-the-A-B-C-D-E-platform.” Oh, and please make sure A or B in that platform doesn’t include an ideological stance – like pro-choice – or a social group – like a minority!
If we shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, then we need to make our labeling practices better… but I’ll get to that later on.
2. Taking Ownership & Making Change
Are labels an evil we’re forced to live with? No. They have a whole range of beneficial uses.
Labels not only help us communicate, they help us organize. For instance, like the Anti-Labeler in my story, they help us find those people who share what is important to us – be it a cultural background, sexual orientation, worldview, or whatever. We’d have a hard time organizing a united front if our common banner included a full description of the group in question.
More importantly, however, labels provide power same as they take it away. They can be used to trample a group into the mud. But, like the famous metaphor of the lotus, labels can be repurposed as a point of pride. There are well known, successful cases in the African American and LGBT communities that readily come to mind. Right now the same is very explicitly being down with the ‘Atheist’ and ‘Secular’ labels. So while labels create stereotypes, they’re just as important for fighting them.
3. Communities are Necessary for Well Being…
… and symbols, which include labels, are necessary to provide a strong sense of community.
One of the first things we do at Camp Quest every summer is have each cabin pick a name and cheer. The kids brainstorm and vote and always come up with something fun. Everyone enjoys the process and throughout the week there are shouts and laughs when the cabin names are called.
Lots of things, of course, are needed to provide a sense of identity and belonging. Cabin names certainly don’t guarantee the small group of campers will become best friends and work together as a unit. But they certainly do provide an easy and enduring symbol to build that initial nucleus. Just as labels can provide a point of pride and united banner to fight against others’ stereotypes, they also can provide a sense of belonging to something important and larger than you. They are a way of concretely identifying with what you find valuable. Christianity or Humanism aren’t just abstract sets of principles, but become a thing you can identify as being. Further, you can share these labels with others who find them valuable and therefore be a Christian, Humanist, or whatever together.
Using Labels Responsibly
There are (at least) two norms we need in order to use labels responsibly.
First, remember nuance.
The biggest problem with labels is that they often come to imply a rigid set of beliefs or a monolithic stereotype. All Muslims cherish jihad by the sword and all Irishmen drink like it’s their job, right?
What we need to remember in order to use labels responsibly is that, although labels refer to some particular trait people in the group have in common, they don’t mean in any way, shape, or form that every trait they have they have in common. There is a lot of variety within groups. This is especially the case with religion and politics were the beliefs and practices at a label’s core are often heavily debated, not to mention what most members of the group believe and practice changes over time.
Second, remember choice.
There are two parts to this. First, with religious, ideological, and political labels, we need a norm where people can come and go freely. Too often people become stuck because to change your beliefs means you’re a traitor or stupid or whatever else. If fluidity of identity and participation is the acceptable norm then obviously-right-us-vs-willingly-ignorant-them mentalities have a much more difficult time forming.
Second, these kinds of labels often trap their members and end up dictating their beliefs. You must believe X or Y because you are a Christian or Democrat. Instead we need, you are a Christian or Democrat because you believe X or Y. In other words, unfortunately, labels often determine beliefs instead of beliefs determining labels. A label should be something that you try on and wear around town because it is what you found fits. Again, if fluidity becomes the acceptable norm then labels will lose the dictatorial control they often have in determining what their members believe and do.
In short, labels should refer to something diverse, internally debated, and changing. And if labels are fluid choices then in-out group boundaries become more permeable and less hegemonic.
Paul Chiariello (Chief Editor, Rutgers & Yale University) Paul Chiariello graduated from Rutgers in 2009 after studying Philosophy and Anthropology. Currently he is on the Board of Directors of the Rutgers Humanist Community, Co-founder of the Yale Humanist Community, and Director of the Humanism & Philo Curriculum for Camp Quest. Paul has a MSc in Sociology of Edu from Oxford, completing his field research in Bosnia on religious identity conflict. He also spent a year studying philosophy of ethics and religion at Yale on a PhD fellowship. He has worked with research organizations and schools DC, the UN, Uganda, Kenya, India, Indonesia and Germany.