Updated: Aug 10, 2019
Let's talk about labels
Jam jars. Notebook. Ex Libras in old books. Digital files. Categories. Names. Descriptions. Words. Classifications. Presents. Collections. Museums. Galleries. Certain brands. Poetry. Signs. Medicines. Movie titles. Genres. Programming labels. Degrees. New job titles. Wine and beer bottles.
These are just a few of my favourite labels. We can all agree that in most ways these labels are great. But what about those labels that are much more contested? Labels such as race labels, sexual labels, biological labels, gender labels, deficit labels, and negative labels that are used not by people identifying themselves gladly, but to divide and conquer and settle the score.
These labels are important, but not everyone is convinced that they are great or useful. They are ideological labels or moral labels or social ones. We may use them or they may stand in the way of generating new meanings. Wherever we go in life, such labels come out to label us. Sometimes these labels even ambush us. They act as barriers in the way of us having the freedom to be and to do. They're waiting for the social justice warriors (SJWs). Then they're waiting for the status quo warriors (SQWs). New labels are being invented every year, perhaps every day on the urban dictionary. So let's not avoid labels. Let's talk about how not to think about labels. How to move from labels to embracing complexity and curiosity. How ethics is not the same as labelling or lifestyle brands. Let's learn how to think in ways that don't reduce our thoughts to mere labels. Our conversations, our social movements, our politics, our social media debates, and our lives may all be better for it. It's time to bring out our ethics, not just our labels.
The label as our comfort zone
For many people, labels are their happy place. Labels remind them of their most ordered selves and moments of happiness in the safety and comfort of common life. When I moved in with my partner and my first baby last year, we had a few altercations about using the wrong towels. When I labeled those towels on the rack, I stopped picking up the wrong towel. We enjoyed the sense of family these labels generated, and we never clashed over towels again. Labels help us simplify and chart the world, to avoid internal conflict and promote psychological safety. They are an essential part of the efficiency that makes us happy by giving us our desires and our possessions like familiar friends. Labels help us meet up with "our kind", people who share our labels, and they can facilitate - or appear to facilitate - our moments of joy and success. At their best, they work as a form of positive liberty that help us develop the freedom to be and to do.
Labels are our comfort zone. If we stray too far away from the labels that hold us close, we can become lost to risks and paralysed. Labels are so useful that they can even help regulate our emotions.
Naming our feelings has been empirically shown to have a variety of positive effects, including improving our short-term test scores and performance.
Labels are necessary and make us happier.
By being mindful of our emotions we may be able to limit our amygdala, the part of our brain that is responsible for processing negative emotions.
Without labels we might be like the unhappy character Funes in Jorge Luis Borges' short story Funes the Memorious.
Funes, injured in an accident, became incapable of forgetting any memories. His perfect memory turned out to be more of a curse than a blessing. Funes never saw any need to label any of his memories or classify his experiences, and over time he loses the art of thinking or processing his memories. Borges describes Funes as incapable of the basic generalisation required for thinking. To think we may need to, as Borges puts it, 'forget differences, generalize, make abstractions'. Funes as a result becomes 'the solitary and lucid spectator of a multiform, instantaneous and almost intolerably precise world'. What Funes experiences is a state of life in which there are no labels and in which we can be lost to the world.
Losing ourselves in labels
Whether Funes would have turned away from his precise world is arguable, but there is another extreme in labels. Another form of accident in our thinking may provoke an unhappy experience: the extreme of generalising. Labels always carry a risk in making us forget the world. The power and necessity of labels, which help us generalise, are balanced by a weakness. If we lose touch with our experience of the 'teeming world', the empirical sense of precise details, we may in fact be too caught up in thinking only the label itself. There are times when we do need to experience just a taste of the 'teeming world of Funes' in order to improve our thinking. Labels are useful.... until they're not. We should never allow labels to dominate our thinking. Otherwise we can be overly determined by culture.
Culture is responsible for labelling us. Culture is what makes us disabled, as McDermott and Varenne explain. Culture makes us a race. It genders us, and determines a character beyond biological evidence. Culture seeks to determine the meanings and the interpretations of the language that provides us with our label. Culture measures our public performances, and then labels us as fat, sick, abnormal, or whatever it is, countless other labels that name a lack, a shame, a space of otherness and judgement. Empirical reality is one thing: culture is another. Such labels can be much more harmful than helpful, especially if they are mistaken for the essential reality of the person labeled. These labels are rightfully challenged.
There's another way that we can lose ourselves in labels and begin to label others with as much spite or deficit thinking as these negative labels.
Passionate people who are seeking to change the world, for example the advocates for social justice, environmentalists, vegans and vegetarians, can be so passionate that labels mean the difference between oppressive destruction and a cup of tea at Mildred's. The drama of the label is such that every label that's supposed to be ethical has its passionate advocates who will never alter their perceptions of that label. I know these people well, for I used to be that person who gave my 100% against palm oil, for fair trade, or for cruelty free. I read the ethical consumer guides, and still do. After examining the evidence for how labels didn't meet up with the ethical outcomes they purported to achieve, however, I become racked by doubt. The same is true of boycotts and labels that claim to end oppression. They're just very little evidence they work in ways that make a major difference, or that are meaningful. When I first became the passionate person who sought to change the world, it took me much thinking, examining and curiosity to avoid falling into the zone of the label. I had to struggle to learn how not to fill up labels with such an investment of meaning that I forced them to mean impossibly more than what the label itself was trying to achieve. Labels remain extremely attractive, and for passionate people, they are a terribly seductive comfort zone. More and more we are becoming ethical consumers who favour our labels and brands. 53% of people in the world may actually think that brands are more ethical and can solve more social ills than governments, according to the Edelman Earned Brand report in 2018. If we pin all our hopes on a label, of course, our social movements must be in bad places. We can practice the power of labelling in a simple exercise. Draw up a circle, and imagine that it is full of you. In the circle, let's put our kind of things, those things we put in our in group, and give them labels.
We may be a left-wing libertarian vegan heterosexual white man, or a polyamorous bisexual disabled invert, but whatever these labels are, we can put them in our circle:
Outside the circle is "their kind". We might put everything else that we don't believe in, that we don't value, that is opposite to our beliefs and politics. For some people this is an "out group", the foreign or weird.
In doing this exercise, we may become aware of the way we label others, and ourselves, and how that may have gaps, inconsistencies, and even biases. In actually getting out of the comfort zone of our kind of labels, we may find that their kind of labels don't match our current perception. Have we ever compared? Moving out to meet people we label may change how we label ourselves or use labels.
It's worth reading Gordon W. Allport's The Nature of Prejudice to see how "in-group" labelling plays a large part in our how we see the world.
Tribalism and the narrow circle of politics, the us and them mentality, the football game version of social change, may tell us to stay in our comfort zone, where outrage and labelling has a momentary success.
Ethics, of course, is not satisfied with a moral circle that remains in the "our kind" zone.
Ethics is somewhere outside our labels and the way that they determine our perception. Ethics needs to go out to a teeming world, to encounters with "their kind" and with others, and come back and change our circle. To categorise everything that is our ethics, and everything that is not, is an almost meaningless endeavour for ethical thinking. Ethics is a universal guide to actions, an analytic tool, a prescriptive and a descriptive analysis, but it is not a way of categorising other beliefs according to us / them. Without testing "our kind" with ethics, and even examining "their kind", we have no chance to enlarge our moral circle. Others may care about things we have never considered. We also have no chance to bring our others into an enlarged moral circle if we don't convince them that what's in our circle is ethically important.
Labels may be important for determining our worldview, but staying within them means we lose ourselves, and perhaps even the meaning of our ethics.
Label ≠ ethics
Being ethical is a difficult thing to think about. It's complex, and resistant to labeling. Labels should never be mistaken for markers of what is ethical. They are not a precise guide for us in how to think, and we should always be wary of how they impact our perception of the world. To allow a label to prescribe what we can or cannot do or who we are seems to me to give too much over to the label itself. This prescriptive mania is a hallmark of dogmatic thinking, which allows no access to a 'teeming world'. In social change and ethics, labelling can be problematic. Labels can destroy as much as they facilitate thinking. To find our ethics, we need to consider how we can get out of our comfort zone. We have to leave the circle of labels in which we put ourselves. A label can never make us forget to use, as Bruce Pascoe puts it, "the greatest research tools of all: curiosity and doubt."
Ethics suffers whenever we give way to the labeling fallacy.
Nobody should be expected to explain their ethics based on labels alone. This is a very poor judge of the way that anyone actually has an ethical impact in any precise way.
Labels should never be confused with ethics, just as logic should not be confused with ethics.
The label fallacy is that a label has a solid and determined bearing on the quality of a person's ethical decision making.
We see this all the time when people call themselves radicals or feminists or vegans and vegetarians. It's great to know how you identify yourself. Now show me your ethics, and make it happen.
Unfortunate labels detract us from the quality of a behaviour. They paralyse us in an act of change. Or they delude us about ethical reality as we head to our mania for a an absolute idea.
Anyone who wants to support social change should avoid "the clean and well-lit prison of one idea", as G. K. Chesterton put it in his searing analysis of orthodoxy.
Veganism is one of those domains in which, unfortunately, too much orthodoxy holds back its capacity to create social change. There is for example a common enough label in veganism of "baby steps" for anyone who takes steps to reduce animal suffering and, say, becomes a vegetarian rather than a vegan. That this label is false and flawed becomes clear if we consider the evidence for such a step. In reducing animal suffering through diet alone, the act of not eating chicken by every analysis is the single biggest step in cutting out animal suffering. An appreciable number of vegans would consider this a "baby step" when, in fact, in relation to just cutting out chicken, every other act of dietary change on the way to vegan is a much smaller step, a baby step if you will. Our perceptions of lifestyles and ethics is fraught with issues and exception cases. Our labels only vaguely gesture to lifestyles, and the lifestyle is a poor substitute to what it takes to develop any discipline in applied ethics. Lifestyles are not like sciences, where we can measure the purity of a lifestyle's impact on animals or a degree of moral debt in any clear way. We can go to one domain - diet - and ignore others, when everything that matters in the difference someone makes, ethically, may be elsewhere, in our broader consumption or just in how we influence people and help them change. A person who alters a momentus government policy may make much more of an impact than a person who buys a certain brand. No one has implemented or invented the methodology for a life cycle analysis for individuals, but perhaps one day when the current adventures in consumer data come to their conclusion, we will perform these analyses.
Lifestyles for now just don't work with that discipline and clarity. Unlike mathematics. 😁👇
Don't use labels to commit fallacies
Let's pause here to reflect and label some of the wide variety of fallacies that are associated with labels. Fallacies are what philosophers or logicians would consider errors of thinking, Here are a few of them: Nominal fallacy In science, the nominal fallacy is the belief that "to name it is to tame it". This belief persists even where the name alone does not have any explanatory value. Vague names can be disastrous for explanation. We can consider everything "instinct", we can consider our friends "successes", or our child as "intelligent", or we can name a virus, but we can also have no clear understanding of what is actually causing a phenomenon or what that phenomenon actually does. For biologist Stuart Firestein, this is too common in the biological sciences, especially in teaching. Simply naming a phenomenon does not allow us to know a phenomenon.
Informal label A label can be used with no meaning behind it. For example, do we need to know that so-and-so is christian, or left wing, to explain how they carry out a basic function in their life? A christian might not use a toilet in a christian way, if there is such a thing. Loaded labels Words can also be loaded. We can use words to simply convince others, without actually explaining what it does. Organic foods may be labelled, but are they really safer, healthier or even more environmentally friendly? Science when it digs into the details, suggests that they aren't. Can the label explain the phenomenon of each and every product or behaviour or symptom, or must each specific instance be tested to confirm the value of the label?
Guilt by association
Another common informal fallacy is guilt by association. An example from Jonathan Haber in the Huffington Post: "Bernie Sanders is a Socialist just like Stalin! Which is why I'll never vote for a murderous communist." The fallacy is the belief that just because I have labelled a person and given that label associations or even that person have labelled themselves, that every person who uses or can be identified with that label is the same in behaviour, in this case murderous behaviour. Virtue by association Another version of this fallacy is the belief that everyone with a certain label is equally as ethical. This one is very damaging to understanding ethics. It can lead to the belief that all left wing people, for example, are ethically astute, which would be a strange label belief. Or that all vegans are equally as helpful for helping animals or reducing their exploitation or suffering. Often, cognitive dissonance is such, that when someone with an ethical label appears not to behave so ethically, they become disloyal to a label. They may even be subject to a strange form of the Scotchman's fallacy, in which the violator of the prescriptions of a label is deemed to no longer deserve the label and, what is more, never belonged to that label, just as no scotchman puts sugar in their porridge, and to do so they'd no longer be Scottish. Just because you belong to a label, or you claim your club, doesn't mean you deserve a special status. Your status doesn't convince just because your wear a badge, and you're not immune to being a bad specimen of a human being.
Name calling Name calling is another informal fallacious argument that is a key form of labelling others. Rather than actually arguing against someone whose behaviour or beliefs you disagree with for ethical reasons, the tendency is to short-circuit a discussion by terminating in an exercise of name-calling: racist! fascist! homophobe! ableist! lefttard! snowflake! and so on. The person being called names may in fact show every appearance of being these things, but what is being labelled is the person, not the behaviour or even the belief. The main issue with this is that an ad hominem argument - or argument against the person - replaces an argument against a specific behaviour or an argument about how a belief is flawed. The person named has lost all rights to having a discussion, at this point. Not only is the explanatory value of the label completely lost, but for the name caller the chance to persuade a certain person from persisting in a behaviour or from holding a belief is lost. Or even just the change to explain that behaviour or belief and its impact on everyone around them is lost. Conversation fail.
Definition fallacy Nominalism by way of definition is another fallacy that can descend into absurdity and even end ethical discussion. Before an argument can terminate in some agreement that different ethical actions are possible, out comes everyone's favourite false deus ex machina, the dictionary. This strange behaviour has been written about before at Literary Change and even has a logical fallacy label: argumentum ad dictionarium. Nothing can ruin an ethical discussion than disputing definition. The meaning may be clear, but the conversation is over because one or more parties don't want to admit that an argument might be compelling. False precision is a killer.
Use language, not just labels
Linguistic researchers recently claimed to have found evidence that the recursive nature of human language may be only 70,000 years old, dated to the emergence of recognisably modern artifacts. A genetic mutation in the prefrontal cortex in just two children, the Romulus and Remus of our language, may have allowed humans to discover and teach recursion, and increased our chimp-like vocabulary of a few hundred words to an infinite set of meanings.
Two children began swapping their limited set of labels, or sounds, and worked out that you can repeat these labels slightly differently each time and with an infinite variety. This inexhaustibility of meaning must have been a remarkable discovery. It may have also given the parents many late nights, as their children refused to go to bed and stop screaming. Imagine that. It may have been thanks to these noisy, excitable children with mutated prefrontal cortexes, humans now have a remarkable ability to use language in such a way that it is not limited. Language can generate limitless system of repetitions that requires continually new interpretations. Linguists call this kind of language a recursive one. Adjectives and adverbs can 'nest' and the words can generate fresh meanings. The switch from limited to infinite is a remarkable one, but this human achievement may be rather recent and perhaps tenuous, held together by our acceptance of experiment and innovation and by the always present need to overcome cultural barriers. These barriers are still there, of course. There may be a strong temptation not to fully utilise the astounding discovery of the first two children of linguistic social change, and to limit our labels.
Our culture is always at risk of slipping back into the silence of labels. Words don't offer appear to everyone to be a resource in which repetition with difference opens up a teeming world of meaning. Just like parents with sleepless children, we may want quiet nights, and for many people words are always best treated like ordered labels. If you slot them into the right order, you can close your world to meaning and achieve what some might think of as ethical greatness. But we must do better than our ancestors or tired parents. Language and our capacity to make meaning is never limited by a finite set of labels or the clean prison of a single idea.
Let's not regress into the dogma of labelling and the confusion of domination and quiet authoritarianism.
Let's not move from Flunes to Bouvard and Pécuchet in Flaubert's unfinished masterpiece, those eccentric characters who lose touch with the world and even their own village.
Let's not seek to classify and label the world to such a degree that we end up in the disaster of thinking that struggles to cope with experience and meaning. Ethics with poetry moves us forward.
Recover our senses slowly
No one is immune from delusion, and for some people, labels facilitate extraordinary and popular delusions. Popular delusions are one thing, and truth is another.
To paraphrase Charles Mackay, we may think in herds, and succumb to popular delusions in herds, while we only recover our senses slowly, and one by one.
Don't stop at showing me your labels. I don't want to merely know if you label yourself an atheist, christian, religious, left-wing and radical, right-wing and conservative, or what not. Your particular brand of delusion is your own. I want to know your ethics. Show me your good society. Show me how your fairness will work and not reward the lucky at the expense of the unlucky. Show me how you will ensure the most vulnerable members of our community are not exposed to violence, oppression and exploitation. Show me how you will make everything that matters better, how you will spark joy. Show me how you will take your ideas and make them the process of my daily life. Show me that this process is a kind and good life, is better than how I live my life now. Don't preach labels. Preach the how of social change. Even when we may have discovered a better way of being, a better ethics, one is ill advised to dispense with doubt and curiosity. We can practice our ethics, and show people how we do it. But we should never lose our curiosity about what may work better. Otherwise, we're in the comfort zone of labels. We're not living up to the adventure that is ethics. Let's recover our senses slowly, and one by one. Show me your ethics not your label.