What’s Wrong With Labels?

Labels often make me cringe for several reasons, namely because certain ones promote dogmatic thinking and they trap people into ideological boxes. For example, suppose I politically or religiously define myself as label “X”. You can likely and accurately predict that I think “Y” about a certain issue given nearly every “X” (assuming logical consistency amongst those being labeled). Labels, especially the types I just mentioned, often subtly strangle the open-mindedness out of people, which is why I think some people tend to avoid committing to certain labels, myself included. Labels often trap people into beliefs that aren’t necessarily their own, but that neatly fit within the ideology dictated by the label. Allowing yourself to be defined by labels, then, seems to be the paragon of rigid thinking.

I don’t, however, think that it’s quite right to blame labels entirely for dogmatic thinking. Thus, I must pose the following question: Is it wise to reject all labels and be some free floating and identity-less being or is it ok to be defined by some labels? In other words, are labels the problem or are the wrong labels the problem?

Open-mindedness, while generally a good quality, is not categorically so. As such, I’ve become increasingly skeptical of the fashionable idea that all labels are inherently bad. I often hear many people outright reject any and all labels for themselves, which, as I mentioned, seems like a logical way to avoid sealing yourself into any ideological boxes. The trouble is, being anti-label does exactly that, it traps you into an idealogical box. I think it also means you don’t have a backbone. For this reason in particular, I’ve become a bit troubled by this brash approach to shunning all labels, even though I think I largely understand the intent behind doing so.

If I label a piece of fruit as an apple I think I’d find very few people who are willing to argue with me on that point (if it was indeed physically what we know to be an apple). An apple is, after-all, an apple. Calling or labeling it something else doesn’t change what it really is from an objective physical perspective. If anti-labelers are willing to concede this point that labels do in fact help us make sense of the world, why, then, are so many people opposed to being labeled themselves or labeling other humans? “Human” itself is a label for a certain type of animal. Just as we can call a piece of fruit an apple due to its physical qualities, we can use descriptive language to label certain types of humans based on their ideas and beliefs. If a human is “X”, it’s only natural to call them “X”. Avoiding calling them “X” doesn’t make them any less “X”.

When you think about it, language is really a complex tool we use in attempt to make sense of this ontological mess that surrounds us. I think the key purpose of language is to communicate ideas and thoughts about the world we experience around us. We do this through labeling things like snakes, well, “snakes”. From an evolutionary perspective, the process of communication would break down in its entirety if when I called something a “snake” you thought it was an “apple”. In essence, we are natural born labelers and clearly labels serve a valuable purpose.

Labels also help us by categorizing what’s beneficial and what’s dangerous to our existence. As tribal animals, we humans need labels (and accurate ones at that) to help us identify who and what is and isn’t a threat to our very existence. As such, I think it’s fair to assume that language is useful to humans and has helped propagate our species. Using labels would thus seem to harbor some evolutionary advantages. To be anti-label would seem to be anti-language, which seems to further support the notion that being anti-label is at odds with our very nature and our existence.

I think many people are afraid of labels because they’re afraid of taking the beliefs that are encompassed within given labels to their logical conclusion. In an essay titled “Keep Your Identity Small“, Paul Graham wrote: “The more labels you have for yourself, the dumber they make you.” I largely agree with the sentiment of Graham’s quote and the essay, but I don’t think he gets it quite right. Having many labels for yourself often does, but doesn’t necessarily, make you any dumber.

It seems that at it’s core, labeling is a rather tricky issue. The problem is that we humans don’t know much about our existence at all. Avoiding labels in their entirety, however, seems like a cop out that is used to merely assuage cognitive dissonance. Many people hold rather complex (value-pluralistic) bundles of beliefs. Yet, there is still a label out there that can classify what they believe. Contrary to the tenets of the fashionable idea of being anti-label, I think it is actually closed-minded to refuse to define yourself by labels. What I think most anti-label people are really opposed to is labels that are wrong or constricting. There is, however, a solution to this problem: avoid labels that are wrong or ones that are too constricting.

If a label doesn’t accurately encompass your views or identity, it would seem only natural to shun it. Fair enough, but there is still some other label that perhaps describes what you now think. If, for example, a certain religious label is formed and it’s known that its members believe in event “Z”, which you have logically concluded is impossible or at least highly unlikely, then it would seem silly to call yourself by that religious label. Not believing in event “Z” doesn’t, however, necessarily exclude from being labeled as a religious person in any capacity.

Considering that there are 22 major religions in world, if you commit to the label of one particular religion at random, the probability that you chose the correct religion is 4.5 percent. There are people from all 22 of these labels who are absolutely convinced that there label is right. Assuming that all 22 labels have an equal likelihood of being correct, the odds aren’t good that you were lucky enough to be born into the proper label. Yet, the label of “theist” still allows for one to believe in a god even if one disagrees or finds aspects of all 22 of the major religions to be factually incorrect. Granted, the idea of theism may still be wrong in entirety, but it seems a more appropriate label for someone who harbors this belief and has found something factually inconsistent about all 22 individual major religions. I’m using theism as an example to demonstrate that some labels are more encompassing than others and still allow you to keep a backbone, e.g., a belief in a god that can’t be factually disproved either.

I’ll use Christianity as a further example. I know people who call themselves Christians, yet reject many of the defining characteristics that make one a Christian. I suspect that for some reason these people feel guilty or bad about rejecting this label from their identity because of cultural and family issues. As I discussed earlier, rejecting Christianity doesn’t mean you must reject all theistic notions of a higher being. Perhaps it’s in our tribal nature, but for whatever reason, I think people have an incredibly difficult time shunning labels, particularly religious ones that they deem at the crux of their identify.

I believe that there are truths to be known in this world. What that logically means is that some labels are flat out wrong, yet there is a certain brand of political correctness that makes it a faux pas to acknowledge this reality. For example, the labels of “Christian” and “Atheist” are both labels that promote dogmatic thinking, which is why I don’t like either one. There is an aphorism written by Kurt Tucholsky that seems fitting to describe what I’m trying to get at. “I prefer a sketpical Catholic to a devout atheist.” Religion is not, however, necessarily a dichotomy. Both of these labels do, however, take a stand on an issue and thus allow those who fit within the label to have a backbone. Furthermore, only one of them (or neither of them) can be correct. If a Christian is correct, an Atheist, by definition, must be wrong and vice versa.

As I discussed earlier, just because I don’t like either of these particular labels doesn’t mean that I have to reject the notion of labels all together. I don’t have to fashionably proclaim that I’m above labels because my beliefs are somehow not able to be labeled. In fact, there is a label out there that accurately labels my religious beliefs. That label is called “Possibillian“. Voltaire summed up what I find attractive about Possibillianism in the following aphorism. “Doubt is not an agreeable position, but certainty is an absurd one.”

My initial thoughts when I started to write this essay seemed to align more with the fashionable anti-label crowd due to my disdain for dogma. I quickly realized, however, that being anti-label is dogmatic itself. Clearly, it would be gross oversimplification to say that all labels are bad. And the beauty of writing essays is that it allows your mind to meander through some deep and often repressed thoughts. It’s possible to start an essay with the belief that you’re anti-label and then quickly realize you aren’t. Labels aren’t the problem, the wrong labels are the problem. Alas, the real trick is figuring out which labels specifically and correctly account for factual truths and which ones are broad enough to account for things we can’t possibly know or understand.


4 Comments on “What’s Wrong With Labels?”

  1. datxomin says:

    You have redefined what you mean by ‘label’ several times. It is not uncommon.

    A qualifier is different than a stereotype which is different than a referrer and so on. “Portuguese women only like sweet oranges” contains a several different labels.

    The recently rediscovered fashion of “unlabeling” is a reaction against, for example, political correctness (and similar coercive social forces). Labels are used as a legerdemain by which some people convince themselves that it is possible to reduce others to one thing and one thing only. For instance, by being labeled a “republican”, one is not allowed to exist outside of its definition. Gun control? Abortion? Equal rights? I decide who you are, I decide what you think, because I have labeled you a “republican”.

    Of course, it is all a mirage. Labels are additive by nature. To describe you, I will need a million labels and will still fall short.

    • Greg Linster says:

      @google-cc64c304ebd42bf74ec96e59c79288fa:disqus Thanks for the thoughtful comment.  As usual, you’ve caused me to mull over some interesting thoughts.
      Thinking that the labels that other people label you are wrong seems distinctly different to me than poorly self-chosen labels.  Perhaps I should have been more definitionally clear about that.  I suppose I’m mostly interested in the labels (or lack thereof) people give to themselves and the cognitive dissonance that often ensues.

      I think part of the backlash against labeling oneself, as you eloquently put it, comes from the perception of allowing others to decide who you are and what you think. 

  2. Akemi Mokoto says:

    Well said blogger dude. Well said. 

  3. Mets says:

    Another problem is how labels tend to change meaning and become more ambiguous over time – what used to mean “apple” now means fruit, except there’s also a common misconception that it means “orange”, and if the misconception becomes even more common, suddenly that’s the new accepted definition. Also, if a political label acquires a negative connotation, the people using that label might replace it with another existing one. For example, American “liberals” are really social democrats.
    So while I still use labels myself, I avoid them when introducing people or groups because of how easily they cause misunderstandings.

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