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the label trap

August 7, 2003

“Think outside the box,” they say. They all want new ideas. But what do we do with the seeds of new ideas?  What we should do is nurture them, give them water and sunlight. Instead, we kill them before they have a chance to sprout. We lock them away in rigid steel boxes, and prevent them from taking root or breathing or spreading.

What am I talking about? In a word, labels.

An example: A sociology class I took for elective credit once, on social deviance. A topic of discussion would come up - maybe capital punishment, or the relationship between crime and poverty, it doesn’t matter what. Students would raise their hands, offering their thoughts and ideas and opinions - not out of any textbook, but just off the top of their head. 

In response, the course lecturer - a young, new teacher, working towards his PhD - would classify each comment. “That’s a Marxist way of looking at that,” he’d say. Or, “that fits with what Durkheim said”.  And so on.  He never seemed to show much interest in the actual substance of the comment or idea; once he classified it as similar to a major theorist, he was satisfied that his work was done and it was time to move along.

Never once did it occur to him to ask what might happen if the student were allowed to continue his original line of thinking.  Perhaps this student would walk straight down the beaten path. But what if she took a left turn somewhere, and ended up someplace a little different? What if she had a new way at looking at an issue, which might help solve a problem even a little bit? After all, we clearly have yet to find the answers for problems like murder or theft or suicide.  We can ill-afford to limit the possibility of coming up with a new approach.

Okay, the chances were perhaps remote that in a class full of seventy-five or so students (most of whom were probably there because the course had a reputation as a “GPA-booster”), the answer to age-old problems would emerge. Most likely, the student in question would have said something obvious or trite. In fairness, the professor was just trying to move things along and teach the material that we needed to know for the final exam.

But what if?

And, more to the point, virtually everything works that way. Not just sociology courses.  Not just academics.  But in almost every milieu. Ideas are classified and filed, and we move along without realizing that we’re stifling our most precious resource - the ability to think - with labels.

Because the minute we label an idea, we put limits on it.  It has to stay within the accepted boundaries.  It can’t fall off the beaten path.  It’s considered bad form to attack the very foundations on which our whole labelling and classification system is built. We’re supposed to add stories to the building without testing the lower ones for cracks.  And sooner or later, if we go on this way, the whole structure will collapse.

I think the worst misuse of labels is in politics. They teach you in politics 101 that there’s this “spectrum” of left and right.  We can’t see the political spectrum; it’s not tangible, there’s no evidence it exists.  And yet, it’s one of the most powerful forces in existence. Like gravity, it affects our perception of the universe and our entire frame of existence.  But unlike gravity, it’s not natural or explicable through the laws of physics.  No, the political spectrum has been artificially imposed by years of political theorists merely accepting this paradigm as evident truth, without questioning it.

So now, as a politician, you have to pick a side.  You say you support social programs, or promotion of minority rights and interests?  Well, you’ve just placed yourself firmly in the leftist camp.  Your friends and campaign advisors and contributors will all expect you to uphold and promote the leftist agenda. You have some options as to how far left you want to go.  But you can’t, for example, come out next week in support of globalization, or large tax breaks for corporations, even if you genuinely believe that they will stimulate the economy and ultimately help the little guy.  It just isn’t done on your side of the spectrum.  Similarly, if you get labelled as “right-wing” or “conservative”, then it would be impossible for you to support, say, increased gun control legislation, for example, or higher welfare payments.  These issues go against the conservative agenda as defined in present-day North America, and you would have zero credibility by trying to adopt them.

But what if the best choices don’t always fall into one of these categories? What if - as I strongly suspect - it would be far better to choose a little from Column A and a little from Column B?  And to add to that some Column C ideas that are neither left nor right?

Labels are dangerous because they’re so limiting.  But also because they’re so unpredictable.  It’s all very well and good to decide that you’re a Leftist. But what if the so-called “peace activist” movement starts adopting causes that you disagree with?  You’ve always thought of yourself as “Left” but some of the Left’s tactics lately - violent protests against globalization, for example, or the tendency to draw false moral equivalences - are making you uncomfortable, so you speak out against them.  Suddenly, you’re a “traitor” to your “side”.  Your friends turn against you and see you as the enemy.  Your principles may not have changed, but the definition of your label has.

But we like everything nice and neat.  Maybe it’s a psychological need that causes us to seek out others like ourselves. A “movement” starts when some people with similar ideas come together and try to define a set of principles.  The theory is good, but sooner or later the label trap happens.  If your group or organization or political affiliation starts doing things that you don’t agree with, it can be very hard to make the split.

Maybe that’s why I’m so reluctant to label others, or to apply labels to myself. I’ve been called both left-wing and right-wing, both atheist and (if you can believe this) religious, and many other things that don’t bear repeating here.  But I’d much prefer to say that I agree with some of what movement so-and-so has to say, rather than to call myself a so-and-soIST.  It’s the “IST” that is perhaps the most dangerous suffix in the English language.

So instead of calling myself Liberal or Conservative, Leftist or Rightist, Humanist or Atheist or Theist, I think I’ll stick with just plain “Sari-ist”.  I’d much prefer to retain my independence than to marry myself to a label. This gives me the ability to accept some of what people have to say and reject the rest.

The labels are where the sticking point happens. We’re so busy trying to pigeonhole each other into neat little categories and frameworks.  And I have this inkling that maybe, just maybe, if we could somehow get past this label trap, then that would be a big turning point. Maybe then, our society - or even the entire world - could take that next giant leap forward.  Get rid of the labels and the rest will follow?  Hey, you never know.