Am I a Liberal? On Using Labels Responsibly


Call me postmodern, but I am no fan of labels. I accept that they are often unavoidable, helpful, sometimes even necessary. Labels are printed on our food packages and sewn onto the necks of our t-shirts. They are displayed on the front of our businesses and, in some professions, attached to the end of our names like a caboose. I can’t imagine anyone would argue for getting rid of such labels.

But in other cases, labels can obscure, mislead, and even harm. In America’s culture wars, for example, labels are often used as weapons rather than descriptors. When we call someone “anti-God” or “anti-gay” or “unpatriotic,” we’re often not trying to express the full orbed positions held by that person. We’re trying to scare other people away. We’re saying, “They are other. They are not like you. They should not be trusted.” Labeling someone can push others into a defensive posture so that they’ve drawn conclusions about the labeled person before they’ve actually considered what that person has to say.

Language carries baggage. So when we ascribe a label to someone, we’re not just applying the literal meaning of the word to them. We’re also applying the culturally ascribed meaning of that word to them, whether or not we intend it. In so doing, we fail to acknowledge that there are a number of variations under most labels. The moniker “evangelical,” for example, often assumes that the group is monolithic, when in fact, it is not. Evangelicals include a range of individuals and beliefs from  silver-haired fundamentalists to young, socially-conscious activists.

In this way, relying on labels often fails to acknowledge the complexities of issues and individuals. They train us to see other people as parts of giant, homogenous blobs. And they rob us of the space we need to evolve and develop without being accused of flip-flopping. If not applied properly and responsibly, labels can become crutches for the intellectually lazy used to scare rather than inform.

This brings me to the title question of this column: “Am I a liberal?” I ask because I was recently labeled that way by a conservative thought leader writing for a conservative publication. The irony of his assessment was that he—the conservative—was writing in defense of the Obama administration while calling me “a liberal Baptist.” As apparently compelling evidence, he cited an article where I spent more than 1000 words criticizing the President’s drone policy. Are you starting to see the problem here?


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