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.

Talking to People We Disagree With

It is hard to talk to people you disagree with and I’m sure that each year across the United States thousands of Thanksgiving dinners are ruined when someone kicks off a bitter argument with their uncle. Colin Wright gives us a template to use when talking to someone with whom we disagree in his book Becoming Who We Need To Be:

 

“There’s a discussion method I like to use when I’m having a conversation with someone with whom I disagree, but who seems to be open to sharing their thoughts and learning about my opposing view-points. The rules are that neither of us will aim to offend or assume offense is intended by the other, that we primarily ask questions and give answers, focusing on saying why we believe what we do rather than saying why we don’t believe the opposite, and we avoid using labels. If we do use labels at any point, they have to be thoroughly defined.”

 

I think these are terrific rules to use for having a meaningful conversation with someone. The final point, avoiding labels, is really crucial. Our labels are often quite mean without us intending them to be mean. To people we disagree with, our labels are often ways to straw-man their entire set of views or identity (calling someone a Bible-Thumper is a clear example which implies they are unthinkingly fanatical about religion). Forcing yourself and your communication partner to define labels helps you to both draw out new connections you previously had not made. When you have to define what you mean by the labels you offhandedly use, you will become more precise with your thinking and your own arguments will become more clear for people who don’t always use the same label that you so casually use.

 

Wright’s other rules help ensure the disagreement moves in a reasonable direction. When you only say, “I don’t believe XYZ” and don’t offer a different interpretation or understanding of reality, then you are really just causing havoc. It should also be acceptable for you or someone else to say, “I don’t believe XYZ, but I don’t know exactly what would replace it.” Being honest about your doubts and your lack of complete alternatives is a better way to have a conversation than to engage in a back and forth version of “your idea is stupid.”

 

One suggestion I would have for anyone trying to implement Wright’s disagreement model is to be very careful with the types of questions that you ask. It is important not to ask fake “gotcha” questions. I wrote about fake questions in the context of coaching, and it is easy in debate to do the same thing. When you ask a fake question you are not trying to get more information from the other person, but instead trying to make them look dumb. Certainly you will both ask each other questions that reveal areas of thought that are not fully developed, but the key is not to reveal these areas in an attempt to win an argument, but to find the boundary of well thought versus unconsidered possibilities.