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The use and abuse of political labeling

The use and abuse of political labeling

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There are many ways of lying. Some are blatantly bad; others are more subtle and, therefore, worse — because they are less recognizable.

I would focus on this form of mendacity: the practice of labeling people and ideas.

In addressing this matter, I ignore an old saying: “We speak of the sins for which we have no mind and avoid the ones toward which we are inclined.” We are all guilty of this sin of labeling. So I may conclude these remarks the way the comedian Mort Sahl closed his monologues: “Is there anyone here I haven’t offended?”

My thesis can be stated in two sentences. Every label tends to be a lie: at best, an imprecise tool of language; at worst, an insidiously irresponsible weapon of attack. But, since labels seem to be an unavoidable form of communication, we ought, at least, to define them clearly before we use them.

Let us begin by recognizing that the need for labels, as a kind of linguistic shorthand, stems from our inability to cope with the complex issues of life more precisely. We generate labels to simplify and make these issues more manageable. We pigeonhole people and ideas with this linguistic shorthand.

But the first test of the usefulness of a word is whether it means the same thing to the listener and the speaker. And labels seldom do.

For example, the term “liberal” could be describing an attitude toward change: open-minded and flexible, as opposed to dogmatic. Or it could be referring to a position on an issue: a liberal view. But, if that liberal view were held with doctrinaire rigidity, it would represent the exact opposite of the first definition.

In the political realm, we tend to use these labels in a relative sense: describing someone as “liberal” or “conservative” in the context of prevailing thought. For example, ideas that were considered “liberal” (if not radical) when first proposed in the 1920s are now supported in both party platforms. To maintain those views today is a “conservative” stance.

We also tend to judge someone else’s views in relation to where we stand on the issue. That’s why the John Birch Society saw President Eisenhower as very “liberal,” while left-wing “radicals” thought President John Kennedy was too conservative.

If we return to the first definition of “liberal,” as flexible toward change, most of us have to admit that we are liberal on some issues and conservative on others. For example, the typical “liberal” attitude toward public aid to parochial schools is really conservative: It does not want to change the historic provision of separation of church and state by letting the government fund parochial schools — even when they are doing a better job of educating inner-city children. Labels are, at best, inaccurate and imprecise. They purchase simplicity at the price of clarity.

The second fact that must be recognized is that when labels are used as weapons to attack and discredit a person or idea, they are insidiously irresponsible. They exploit base emotions and encourage a mindlessness that buries reason along with its victims

“McCarthyism” is a label coined to describe the Wisconsin senator’s practice of destroying someone’s credibility by fastening the label “communist” upon them. A variation of this red-baiting tactic was that of guilt by association — i.e., if someone takes the same position on an issue that a communist takes, he must be “one of them.”

Yet, as I said earlier, in spite of their limitations, we are probably going to have to live with labels. So, our task is to define them more precisely. I would focus on doing so with the political labels “liberal” and “conservative.”

The first thing I would suggest is that we rid ourselves of the right-to-left concept of those positions, abandoning the notion that to the left of center we have liberals, then socialists, then communists, and to right we have conservatives, reactionaries, then fascists.

Among the many things wrong with that political spectrum is the suggestion that the extremes are opposites — when, in fact, they are more alike than different. Neither the “far right” nor the “far left” would grant freedom of expression to those who do not share their views; both tend toward conspiracy theories, and both would use any means to achieve their ends, including lies, violence and torture. They are also both, characteristically, lacking in a sense of humor.

The right-to-left spectrum also implies that a step toward liberalism is a step toward communism and a step toward conservatism is a step toward fascism. Neither is true.

How then do we define liberal and conservative politically and define them meaningfully?

We can begin by rejecting the popular misconceptions. For example, some people contend that conservatives are on the side of property rights as opposed to human rights, and that liberals are in favor of big government at the expense of individual freedom. Both exemplify irresponsible labeling. Placing property rights above human rights is not genuine conservatism, it’s greed. And no intelligent liberal wants unnecessarily to expand the federal bureaucracy; only the power-hungry of both parties seek that.

The fact is that we cannot return to the limited government of the 18th century and deal effectively with the complexities of modern life. “The government which governs best” is not that which governs least — but that which governs most effectively. Both liberals and conservatives know that.

So, I propose a new way to think about political labels, based on a belief that every important, political issue involves tension between two valid concerns: a regard for the welfare of persons and a commitment to the preservation of principles.

A liberal would argue that principles exist only to serve persons, and if, in a given situation, they do not serve the cause of human need, they may be altered or abandoned. A conservative would insist that the long-range interests of persons are always best served by maintaining time-tested principles and, therefore, would tend to resist altering or abandoning them.

I suggest that both points of view are valid perspectives, which thoughtful persons might hold. Therefore, responsible liberals and conservatives are needed to balance each other in a free society.

The practice of labeling persons is dehumanizing, a way of turning a human being into an “it” and that is a sin. In the extreme, it is the kind of demonizing that is threatening to tear our world apart.

Is there anyone out there I haven’t offended?


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