Sunday, 5 July 2009

La Belle Label.

In my other blog (over here) I got into a discussion with a couple of guys and the thorny issue of labels came ups. I favoured the classic Oreos label and they prefer the modern and groovy Snickers label. Or perhaps it wasn't that sort of label. Yeah, on second thoughts maybe it was political labels. I say they have almost no usefulness, others think they serve a purpose.

The problem I have with them is complex. For starters there is the lack of flexibility. If I define myself as a realist, I am seen to think within a certain box, the way I interpret the world around me is coloured by a certain system. And this is not just the way others view me; having told the world I am a realist I begin to train myself to think like a realist. And this is all very well, except that, untrammelled, it becomes a runaway train. I know (at least online “know”) many neo-cons who feel compelled to support a Cheney style attitude that torture is ok if it protects the USA from attack. At least one of these I know to have been an active Amnesty member before 9/11, who abhors torture. Having announced loudly and often that he is a neo-con, however, he now feels that he cannot stray from the fold without somehow being treacherous.

As most people soon realise (and I worked out a few weeks after I rushed into my first-week-as-an-undergrad declaration of realism, for most people no one paradigm will cover all of their thoughts, rather they fall into the grey areas that form the borderlands of differing worldviews. The way that we combat this is to start adding prefixes and suffixes, and so certain Republicans beacame no longer conservative but neo-conservative and I become a neo-realist, adopting a very slightly different position than previously. Of course this can end with ridiculous tags as people vary the already-varied paradigms and add a new prefix.

All of this works fine if we're just sticking within a single field, one international relations geek says to another what he thinks about Iran, the reply starts with “Well I'm a neo-liberal, so...” and being a part of the clique the geek knows what the rest of the sentence is. But then the world isn't that simple I also have opinions on domestic politics , economics, philosophy, in fact all sorts, and if I want to be in with the, well I was going to say cool kids but lets face it all these interests land me squarely in the nerd camp, then I need to identify myself. Of course it could be simple, we could use the terms to mean at least roughly the same thing. We could, but we don't. I am a liberal in domestic politics, which is not the same thing as a liberal in international relations.

And right there's another problem, the labels don't even mean the same thing in the two most prominent English speaking nations (that's right the Falkland Islands and St Helena). I have received all of my education in the UK, liberalism is still the term used here to define the dominant political paradigm of the developed world, a centrist, multi-party democratic, broadly market led society with individual freedom. A more committed liberal like me might wish for more individual freedom, less state intervention and a greater use of utilitarianism, but generally western society is liberal. To get the same meaning in the USA I would have to describe myself as libertarian; the term liberal is hurled as an insult at, and increasingly chosen by, socialists. The things that the American right attributes to liberals would make any liberal foam at the mouth.

Which brings us on to the other big flaw, labels are self chosen and self described on one level; I am a liberal, I am trying to make an impression on the USA so I call myself a libertarian, I know what this means and I tell you what it means; on another level the labels are externally chosen, you oppose me and so you shout all over the US press that I am a self described liberal; if that doesn't work then you look at my small government preferences and where I say libertarian you say anarchist; suddenly I'm a lot more scary.

So Labels are both too broad and too narrow, over-flexible and not flexible enough, self-chosen an externally imposed. How can something that contradictory be useful? I would say that it can't.

But what would I know? I'm just a neo-realist-quasi-capitalist-liberal-free-market-monetarist-utilitarian-running-dog.


ward said...

I must say you make a very good point and also a very strong one at that. Now that I consider it, perhaps the reason I find labels "convenient" is simply because it is the system I'm trained to work in. Instead of actually taking the time to get to know someone, I ask them for a label and make a set of assumptions based on that label. Laziness is what it is, truthfully. I also have to agree that it tends to cause one to conform to the ideas of their "clique" in order to avoid being ostracized. Then there is also the language/culture barrier, where in one country a certain label means something else entirely. I think it is also important to mention that labels don't really convey how one prioritizes their positions. So I agree there is a great deal of ineffectiveness in the use of labels (and that's not just political but also racial), but when confronted with the question, how does one respond?

A Pedant said...

That's a tricky point. I guess being non-specific works, instead of asserting "I'm a conservative" you could try, "well I'm broadly conservative". What I often do is to stress the main point that my ideology revolves around: "well I've always felt that the rights and freedom of the individual are paramount".

I suppose it is something that as a "classical" liberal I do have to decide, is the person I am talking to going to understand what I mean by lieral, or are they going to think I'm a thundering socialist?

ward said...

Well, rarely does the label "liberal" associate me with any particular ideologies I object to, so it's not really a problem for me. I have to admit I consider myself more of a utilitarian than a socialist and I'm hardly a fan of the whole "political correctness" kick, but still generally the liberal label fits me. The problem is the label is used as a brush to paint people who I'd hardly consider liberal even by this country's standards. So yeah, the labels also carry with them the idea you follow a certain party, support a certain candidate, and pretty much tow the line. Which is complete trash.