A Defense of Social Labels

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.

openlysecular-620x350More 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)
DSC_0484Paul 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.

8 responses to “A Defense of Social Labels

  1. The current US political system encourages people to support the platforms of their party. That’s just what happens in first-past-the-post republics/two-party systems. To get rid of that ideology, you have to first fundamentally change the way our government works.


    • What fundamental changes? These are the things that actually need to be changed the one thing that is on no platform not even the Libertarians. Remove the 100 plus year old law that limits the number of seats in the House of Representatives. No where in the US Constitution does it state a set number of seats other than the Senate. This is why two parties are locked as the defacto parties even though other parties DO EXIST. The number of reps should be based on the overall increasing population as it was meant to be and not fixed and just shuffled around making each rep represent less and less people with some states losing rep as other states get larger. This law needs to be repealed and if so a Constitutional Amendment that states each rep can only represent so many constituents so congress cannot dick with it again. We started off with a 1:30,000 ratio. Currently we have over 700K in some cases per rep. That number needs to severely be brought down. More Reps means less people per rep and MORE representation as each will have better access to their congressional member not to mention it will cost a lot less to run for any of those offices making it more plausible for other parties to be elected to Congress.

      The main thing you have to change though is people need to vote. There cannot be any other party in office if only 30% vote. People can whine all they want that the system is rigged but third parties do run for office. It is on their ballot if they actually read them not to mention a lot of other things need to be voted on as well.

      We have to get rid of Citizens United and make the campaigns public funded It is a lot easier to control elections if only 30% come out to vote.

      We do not need to fundamentally change our constitution other than the things I just mentioned.


        • There is nothing in our US Constitution that states two party rule. Do you even vote? There ARE third parties. They typically do not get very many votes. MOST third parties are actually splinters of the two MAIN parties known as MAJORITY parties. Parties are based on ideology.

          The video does not address the issue that the House of Representatives is not really Representative due to the high number of constituents for each rep. So by keeping the SAME number we have not changed this and in some states a Rep has 900K constituents who only vote for the ONE seat. It does not matter how many candidates run because only ONE will win. So tell me again by being able to select more than one I actually have someone who represents me better? It will still come down to I have to accept a candidate I did not initially vote for and I have to accept my choices. As well as is it still not true that if who I voted for in the end loses that the winning candidate actually does not represent me still since I did not vote for them? By theory they are supposed to but of those 900K many people will be left with voting for someone they feel is just a lesser evil. Some states now only have 1 rep. How can any one rep represent an entire state? And monkeys and lions could have similar ideology such as crossover which if you actually looked at the parties today you see much crossover.

          This as well does not change how govt works btw. This is just talking about VOTING. Congress will still operate the same way.

          Most third parties do not get into national office due to MONEY. They lack the funds to go big which is why we see them run for state and local more but even then most people do not KNOW who they are because again LACK OF MONEY to get their voice out there. With Citizens United money will just flow to the two biggest parties anyway. That money could flow to any 3rd party right now as well but it is not. There is no law that it cannot. TV time is not free btw. It cost money to advertise and the more constituents you have the more it will cost to run for election. And just because you can vote for more than one candidate does not mean people will. This is why Libertarians typically run as Republicans. You do know Libertarian is a party right? This is why Greens will run as a Democrat. You do know that Green is a party, right? They go where the money is. How many people simply vote Republican who then turn around and want to limit social services but those that voted for them do not want this? The vote because they identify as a Conservative and hence vote Republican by default. Most of the voting public are not educated enough and only go by what is advertised to them. So being allowed to vote for more than 1 does not change this.

          We need to drop the number of constituents down from current numbers to say 1:100K. 100K people is still a hell of a lot of people. This would seriously screw with the current gerrymandering that has taken place which is another issue, making the districts more fair. No more odd shaped districts based on HOW they voted but just that they are voters. But that as well means that state who has 900K now gets NINE reps and a much better odds of being actually represented to their ideals. Now instead of having to reach 900K you only have to reach 100K.

          In reality it would allow more monkeys or lions to GET HEARD so people KNOW who they are. As is people go to the polls blind and only knowing what was advertised to them at best. Which is why two props that should had passed here in California did not because there were more money in negative advertising that just lied to people.

          So any Monkey Lion system is not going to change any of this but give you some illusion that you have more voting say when most people will just be blindly poking dots. Far too many voters as well decide AT THE POLLS as well and not beforehand.


  2. I am one of your “anti-labelers.” But I reluctantly have taken on some labels, most recently and welcomely humanist, because of several reasons you have put forward. I recognize how messy and inexact language is, which is part of the problem with labels, but also recognize that we need to work with them anyway. Your definitions of labels as internally debated and always changing is an understanding I can get on board with.

    A phenomenon I’ve noticed is that with the label “humanist” specifically, many people do not know what it is. I have often encountered people who have adopted the humanism label because of a misguided attempt to distance themselves from anti-male feminism. Alternatively people have never heard the term before. Even when I own the label, I end up explaining it anyway. And I know from experience that the way I describe humanism in a nutshell can be quite different from other nutshells.


    • The issue with labels are when people use them as an absolute. Some labels are absolute though like Homo Sapiens Sapiens. Humans. Those are both labels as well as you accepted the Anti Labeler label. Wendy Webber is also a label you accept.

      I am an atheist, Liberal, and Secular Humanist and I understand that each one is not rigid except the atheist because all it means is without deity belief. It does not say what my sociopolitical views are.

      You as well can go online to many humanist sites and in fact humanism has adopted the Bill of Human Rights that the UN adopted at its inception. If someone asks you well what is a humanist just slam them with that. It is pretty much a giant nutshell.


  3. Pingback: Why the Terms Social Justice Warrior & New Atheist are Useless | Applied Sentience·

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