The Messy Politics of Labelling


We live in a society and culture of labels. I’m not sure when that happened. Maybe it’s always been that way. The first experience for most of us likely began on the playground.

Labels aren’t inherently negative, but we learn to use them early on positively and negatively to include and exclude people. We use labels to define desirable groups (like “cool kids”), and we label others to attempt to distinguish and distance ourselves from groups we find undesirable (like “losers”). We use labels as leverage and as weapons.

We become much more adept at labeling as we grow up. The most sophisticated use of labeling, perhaps, is in politics and “the cultural wars”. The terms gays and queers, for instance, are like playground labels compared to homophobes, xenophobes and misogynists. The latter labels were coined as a way of fighting back and gaining societal leverage for a new set of ideals. The labels helped define who was to be excluded from the new ideology.

The words, most of which have existed for eons, took on new meaning as labels, and new words, like homophobe, blazed the way for cultural revolutions by defining the who was in and who was out. Labeling used in this way is quite effective.

The recent election, I believe, underscores the downside of labeling and the ultimate ineffectiveness of labeling when taken to extremes. Labels draw lines in the sand. Labels signify us and them. Labels are also caricatures, like their cousins, stereotypes.

The labels that the progressive left has been using to wage the war for a new morality has gained them some key ground. They have turned the cultural tables on “traditional values” by creating a new moral language in which the morally loaded words like sinner, heathen, reprobate, blasphemer and others have been replaced in common parlance by equally loaded terms like homophobe, xenophobe, sexist and racist and the new category of criminally culpable action (and even speech) we lump together as “hate”.

These new labels and old words that have taken on new meanings have been game changers and been used strategically. The progressive left recognized long ago how effective they can be, the right not really so much. While right wingers are pretty good at labeling people (like”Killary”), the left used labels to define people groups and to frame and control the issues.

Ultimately, however, labeling may have contributed to the stunning presidential loss of Hillary Clinton to the upstart, Trump.

Donald Trump was labeled sexist, xenophobic, misogynist, bigot, racist and other things. These are the worst of the worst labels, all subsets of the worst label of all – hater.

These labels are intended to shame. They signify a line across which no polite conversation  may venture. People don’t talk to hatemongers. They shame them.

And that’s the problem those labels leave no room for dialogue. When there is no dialogue, there is no understanding.

Political campaigns are hardly the time for polite political discussion. It’s a shame that is the case. But that it’s the reality. That aside, though, the usual political camps were even more buttressed against each other in the recent battle for the White House, and labels played a big part in that entrenchment on both sides.

Post-election, now, people are asking the question: how could Donald Trump, the misogynist, racist, sexist and xenophobe have been elected President of the Unites States? People are asking: how could this country vote for sexism, racism and hatred – all the attributes that go with the labels.

Labels are dismissive conversation stoppers. They also shut off inquiry, which may help to explain why the Democratic party (and media) were so surprised by the election results. Why would anyone want to bother trying to understand “hate”? It is the leper of the labels.

Anyone who has paid attention has heard all the reasons why people voted for Trump (or didn’t vote at all). The people who were surprised (more like shocked) on election day are learning in the postmortem examination why the Democratic effort died, and the unthinkable, deplorable Donald Trump was the victor.

The rhetoric had to recede for the understanding to begin. Yes, there are people who can legitimately be described by the labels. Some might conclude, then, that we have a nation controlled by hatemongers. If that view prevails, the warring will continue, and understanding will continue to be eclipsed by the labels.

I don’t believe that a majority of people in the US can or should be defined by hate.

There is a certain insidious intolerance that is revealed by those who would rather label people than understand them. Every time someone labelled Donald Trump, they labelled the people who felt they could not vote for Hillary Clinton. People leaned toward Trump for any number of reasons – the economy, Obamacare, jobs, abortion, religious freedom, national protection, ISIS, and many others. They were not haters; they voted their consciences based on legitimate issues.

Reasonable people can disagree on the issues, but reasonable people cannot even have a conversation about hate.

Every person who posted, tweeted and acquiesced in calling Trump a xenophobe and misogynist has neighbors, friends and family members who leaned toward Trump for any number of reasons that have nothing to do with hatred. It came as a shock on election night because people who are called those things don’t have conversations with people who have dismissed them as haters. People who are shamed don’t expose themselves to the shaming. They keep quiet and vote their consciences all the same.

It goes the other way too. If Hilary Clinton has won the election, I might writing the same things about all the ways the Trump supporters labelled Hillary Clinton. If you believe that someone is full of hate, or a liar or worse, you are not going to talk to that person (or to the people who support that person). You can’t reason with hatred. Good people can’t tolerate hatred. There is simply no conversation to have.

As with stereotypes, labeling doesn’t tell the whole story. Mislabeling is even worse. It conveys the wrong story.

Coming back to where I started, we label people we don’t like, don’t understand and don’t want to understand. Every time someone calls Trump a sexist xenophobe misogynist, they are calling people who voted for Trump those names. If you assume they voted for him because that’s who they are, you have substituted your self-righteousness for the truth. This tendency to self-righteous judgment used to be the province of the religious elites; it’s become a characteristic of the liberal elites.

But, I am becoming judgmental now myself.

Consider the words of a wise Stanford freshman that I have lifted (without her permission, while hoping for her gracious acquiescence) from a social media post from my sister:

This is a very divisive time in America—full of anger and frustration or triumph and joy, depending on what side of things you are on. In times like these, the urge to stereotype feels easy and comfortable as familiar as a cartoonish character on a sit-com or the butt-end of a party joke. The easy thing to do is rant about how all Trump supporters are ignorant racists or all Trump protestors are whiny and quixotic in their refusal to accept a Trump presidency. It’s easy to think in stereotypes, and these stereotypes perpetuate the status quo. They tap into the human urge to idolize or demonize, to label and categorize the vastness of being human into neat and understandable taxonomy. They make us forget that other people are just as human as we are. But I challenge us to look beyond the obvious and stereotypical.

I struggle with this as much as anyone. As an aspiring novelist, avoiding stereotypical minor characters can be challenging. This is because as the writer, I only give my readers a brief glimpse into the minor characters’ lives. I wrote a rough draft of a realistic fiction novel this summer about environmental problems facing a small suburban town, a confluence of the urban and rural. My main character, a young liberal, has an antagonistic encounter with an older Trump supporter early on in the novel. I realized after workshopping the chapter that my Trump-supporting minor character is the stereotype of an ignorant racist. This character doesn’t feel human, which isn’t an accurate portrayal of Trump supporters because they are real people. People with families and struggles and hobbies and pets and quirks and contradictions and all the curiosities that make people people. When I edit my book, my goal is to make this character a person and not a cardboard effigy of my own anger. Albeit a flawed person, but these flaws, these tendencies for people to be full of contradictions and paradoxes is natural.

I am challenging all of us (myself included) to embrace the contradictions that shape those similar and different from us with intellectual curiosity and empathy. To look beyond the surface of the stereotype into the depths of a person’s life to understand why they believe what they believe and how discussion with them can change yours or their opinions. You can learn something from anyone if you think of your beliefs as an evolving ethic and not a fixed mindset. So don’t block or unfriend people on social media just because they have drastically different ideas than you. Try to understand where they get these ideas, try to talk to them and clarify misconceptions and false beliefs held by both parties instead of hurling insults.

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