Today’s blog post is about labels.
I’ve spoken about labels in the past with many people from all walks of life, and I’ve often made the case that the labels you give someone doesn’t really matter, and I don’t really care what people label me.
I still hold to this, but some nuance and understanding is actually necessary here, because people often assume that because I believe labels don’t matter so much, this somehow becomes a generalization that all labels don’t matter and that they’re useless.
No, that’s not what I mean and have never meant it as such. I’m a language teacher by trade – trust me on this, labels are exceptionally important, but let me explain what I mean when I say they ultimately don’t matter.
It’s a contextual thing. Let’s first clarify the importance of labeling things ie. naming them.
It is critically important and essentially required that one be able to label and name things as they are. This is a basic form of survival – labels have value in that they tell you what things are. A cup is a cup. Blue cup is blue cup. Don’t touch poison frogs. Touch non-poisonous mushrooms.
These are all words that label particular entities in reality that help you identify and navigate effectively. They’re obviously important and I really don’t think there is any room for argument. It is basically agreed upon that naming things is necessary for survival.
Where labels become somewhat of an issue for me is in the realm of the human. Clearly, we identify human beings as human beings, and we apply words and descriptors to attributes of human beings in order to identify certain aspects of them. Female, male, white, black, etc. These are non-essential characteristics, but we apply those labels to particular humans in order to provide more detail about that person. They’re not the essentials of humans, but they are characteristics that have use in the world.
Can they be used maliciously? Yes, definitely. Should they be? Moral question, but my very quick and surefire answer is no. People are judged by their character and thereby their actions.
And right there is where I lie. The labeling of an individual is fine. Using these labels as a way to describe human beings is fine. Judgement in the moral realm? No.
Let’s take another example and my primary area of focus: calling people by ideologies or philosophical systems. I think there is certainly value in identifying people’s ideas based on particular systems of thought ie. someone who agrees with Ayn Rand in totality is an Objectivist. I’d say that it is a fair assumption to make.
But I think that agreement with a system does not necessarily mean anything. The actions in reality are what matter, and it is where proper judgement lies. Remember – words/labels are meaningless if they are not tied to reality. Floating abstractions mean nothing.
Let’s say one calls themselves an Objectivist. Objectivist’s in my experience are very good people and fiercely passionate about their ideas – and they live according to their values.
But let’s say someone who calls themselves an Objectivist lies, cheats and steals while simultaneously continuing to talk about the goodness of one’s philosophical system.
There’s a contradiction there, because one is not practicing what they preach. The label, while useful to identify certain systems of thought, does not matter because the actions are the evidence.
Conversely, you meet someone who calls themselves a nihilist or is called one by others, yet beyond this they are doing what they love in life, leave others alone, act in accordance to their values and have strong principles in some form – in this example, let’s say liberty.
Again, it’s somewhat of a contradiction because a nihilist would be defined as one who sees things as ultimately meaningless – but all the actions are more in accordance with other systems of thought.
None of this removes the importance of labels, but I think people often invert the hierarchy of importance. They place the label as a higher priority than the actions.
This is a mistake, and it’s what I mean when I say “the labels don’t matter”. I have been called a number of things – some have called me an Objectivist, others a nihilist, some an Aristotelian, and a few an Existentialist. Hell, even a Buddhist.
But the people who judge me best are the people who do not apply the labels to me. They see what I do, not what I say or claim, and judge from there. The medium is always the main message – one can claim honesty while being a liar, just as one can claim indifference while fighting for your freedom.
Apply the label after the actions and character of the person, not before. Only then, labels with humans become a useful tool in distinguishing between people of various systems of belief, philosophies, etc. You can take a guess with labels, but always be active minded and willing to change those guesses if you are wrong. Never evade, always learn more.
If I recall correctly, the wonderful Leonard Peikoff has done a lecture on this topic in particular which is very useful. I can’t recall the name, but I think it may have been “What Judgement Requires”. It’s worth looking for.