The Trouble with Labels

“The troubling thing about labels is that we very seldom have the exact same definitions for them,” Colin Wright writes in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be. I am disappointed by how frequently we use labels without giving them much thought. Labels are a necessity and a way to convey a lot of information without having to provide extensive background and definitions for every little thing. Labels are also things we use to signal something about ourselves and they are also something we use to make fun of other people and groups to which we don’t belong. If you are not aware of the labels you use, you are not aware of how frequently you are using them for signaling or just how insulting labels can be to the people you label.

 

Wright continues, “as soon as you decide to watch for them, you realize how many labels we use in every discussion, even beyond the exploratory ones. But it’s worth the effort if you really want to learn, understand, and communicate clearly.” When we use labels haphazardly, we end up talking about different things from our communication partner. My concept of any given label is going to be different from your concept of that label, and even if our ideas are just a little off, what I am saying may not make any sense to you at all. Our conversation could devolve into an argument where we are each trying to argue that something is or is not something else, not realizing that we are both arguing with a different set of definitions for the thing we are arguing about.

 

Beyond just confusing conversation, my biggest fear of labels is that they will become subtle digs and insults at our communication partners. We may throw in a label here or there that we don’t think our interlocutor will recognize, but that will be recognized by other people in our social group. This allows us to make subtle insults at individuals or groups and allows us to talk behind someone’s back, insulting them in a way where we feel superior because they did not even realize that we insulted them. This is typical of the types of arguments we see online, and it is something that has the ability to absolutely destroy productive conversation. It can ruin opportunities to learn and it actively drives us away from becoming a more cohesive society. Recognizing when use labels in this way will help us to have more clear and constructive conversations, and if we can help other people recognize how they use labels, then we can begin to have more productive and rational discussions about the direction our society should move.

Definitions

In his book Becoming Who We Need To Be, author Colin Wright has a chapter about freedom versus security. The ideas we have for freedom and security run against each other and are sometimes very contradictory. One of the things that Wright described, which really stood out to me, about the conflicts between freedom and security is the difference in the definitions and the terms we attach to our ideas of freedom and security. Wright wrote, “What makes this discussion, and many discussions, all the more difficult to have is that opposing sides are often using different definitions of the words in question, and resultantly we might think we’re talking about the same thing, when in fact we’re merely speaking past each other.”

 

What really stood out about his idea is that it applies in almost any public debate we have. Across the United States we use a lot of different words to say and mean the same thing. Our country has a lot of variation in what words we use depending on where we find ourselves and what the culture has grasped onto. In our political lives, we do the same thing based on our political beliefs. Someone who is in favor of expanding access to abortion services is likely to use the term fetus while someone who does not believe that anyone should ever have an abortion is more likely to say unborn child or baby. In the abortion debate, it is clear to see that both sides are using different words to stir up different emotional responses.

 

In other cases, our varying use of definitions in political contexts can be more subtle, nuanced, and confusing. A lot of internet sub-cultures exist and have specific ways of referring to groups of people, to the positive outcomes they want to see, or the negative things that are going on around them. In some ways using the right definition for an uncommon word is unnecessary but shows that you are part of the inside crowd and that you are on the right side (or at least understand one side) of the discussion. If you are not aware of these definitions, there is a good chance you could use a term in a way that seems reasonable to you, but that reveals that you don’t know what the inside group is talking about and that you don’t actually think they way they do about a given issue.

 

When we have conversations, we should work to be very clear about the definitions we use for specific terms. We should be aware of times when our definition of a word is an insider’s definition from a subgroup of the population. We might be using a definition that is only used by some Twitter group, a definition that is only used by people who have studied a topic in college, or a definition that is only used by either Republicans or Democrats. For us to be effective communicators and to make sure we don’t isolate people around us (or ourselves) we have to recognize how these definitions work and how certain words will either bring people into our discussion by signaling we are part of their tribe, or will push people away by signaling that we don’t agree with their beliefs.