Tuesday, March 23, 2010

My latest column ...

... Political labels are invariably misleading.


  1. Frank, I can understand your concerns about labels because of their tendency toward imprecision and generalization; however, even though you seem uncomfortable with labels, I stand on the side of supporting them because of their utility. For the moment, setting aside the conservative and liberal labels as they are applicable to political and social attitudes, let me offer an example as illustration in support of my point: as someone in the academy (in a university English department), I am aware that some colleagues will label me as something of a hybrid between old-fashioned New Criticism and old-fashioned Structuralism, but I am not uncomfortable with those labels because they somewhat accurately communicate something (forewarn others) about my general critical attitudes toward literature; I am also aware that I would be uncomfortable if someone were to label me as Marxist because of what that label suggest (and presuppose) about my critical attitudes. Thus, labels—even though sometimes imprecise and unspecific—can have sensible utility; in the case of literary studies, people who view me as the aforementioned hybrid have a good head start on where to begin with me when we talk about literature because of the vocabulary and “philosophy” embraced by my critical perspectives. Now, with that example as the foundation, I would argue that conservative and liberal labels are similarly useful. When someone presents himself (or someone presents him) either as a liberal or a conservative, I have an early insight into what may be the political and social attitudes that serve as foundations for his vocabulary and “philosophy.” This early understanding becomes the starting point from which he and I can discuss and argue issues. Moreover, since the goal of argument is either persuasion (with one side eventually either prevailing upon or yielding to another) or consensus (two opponents eventually agreeing upon common grounds), the early understanding of the audience because of the label (either conservative or liberal) becomes essential in advancing any discussion and argument. This takes us back to my English department example; if the Marxist knows that I am a New Critic, she has a starting point for our discussions and arguments, but if the label (even though it might be a bit imprecise or general) does not exist, she and I waste a lot of time sorting out the essential vocabularies and “philosophies” that will be involved in our discussions and arguments. So, the bottom line is this: even with the shortcomings of labels, I embrace them (cautiously and objectively) because of their essential utility.

  2. R.T., I can only agree with your viewpoint if you include the necessity for precision in labeling or categorizing—but that's also Frank's point, if I read between the lines, that most people do not use labels precisely or accurately. They use them as bludgeons in the usual Us vs. Them rhetorical battles—bludgeons rather than scalpels.

    Your idea of sensible utility in labeling seems completely rational and logical, yet most labels are thrown around in discourse, especially in social and political discourse, as ways of triggering an emotional response rather than a rational one. It's one thing to be called a Marxist in mostly well-behaved intellectual circles, it's quite another thing to have someone yell "Faggot!" at you when you're walking down the street.

    Political discourse lately has been more like the latter; for example, the use of the outcry "Socialism!" by the right whenever the center tries to make something happen for the common wellbeing.