Sticky labels

I don’t like the idea of falling into a category. I can see how categories make life easier for other people, but I like to think I’m more interesting than that.

In my political views, I’m neither left- nor right-wing of economics, but I’m firmly in the social libertarian camp. Yet I hesitate to describe myself as a ‘libertarian’. For one thing, there are a few points of divergence (for example, personally I see smoking bans and firearm restrictions as good things), and although I understand that free markets make more money, I’m not averse to the idea of regulating companies, or the limited redistribution of wealth or paying taxes to fund public services (it’s a matter of scale; how much is too much/too little? Now there’s the rub!).

Another reason I can’t call myself a libertarian – despite having a great deal of sympathy with many of its viewpoints and respect when they are argued for in an intellectually-consistent and coherent fashion – is that people’s perceptions change, according to when and where you are. Some will see ‘libertarian’ and think of classical liberalism rooted in the values of the Enlightenment: humanism, reason and evidence, not deferring to authority, and so on. Others will see it and think of deregulation, selfishness and a survival-of-the-fittest free-for-all. Some will see it only in social terms, or only in economic terms.

My political views might change, or not. What happens to the political labels then? I’ve seen public figures referred to as “ex-[label]s” (or “traitors”, depending on how fervently the observer still holds those views), as if a youthful affiliation should still define them in middle-age.

There are some things we can’t change. To take what should be a relatively uncontentious matter, I am Scottish; I am also British; I am a European. These things are not mutually exclusive, but the past few years have seen a lot of argument (much of it ongoing) over them. Never has the ‘No True Scotsman’ fallacy had so much relevance in public debate.

Depending on the social or economic values you hold, or the political parties you vote for, you might be seen as ‘more’ or ‘less’ Scottish. Do I see myself as ‘Scottish’, ‘British’, ‘more Scottish than British’ (or vice versa), or both equally? Does this even matter? Who cares? What difference does it make to anyone else? Yet people can pounce on whatever answer you give and put their own spin on it. Are you a True Scot? Are you Anti-Scottish? Are you Anti-English? Are you with us, or against us? Is Scottishness based on birth or residency?

I think this brings me to the crux of why I dislike labels. They force arbitrary binary choices on us. We are either [label] or [not-label]. It reduces the acceptance of nuanced differences, of flexibility and change, of the recognition that people are more complex and will defy easy explanations. This, I suspect, is why we see groups splinter.

‘Feminism’ could encompass social/cultural liberals, people fighting for economic equality, being ‘sex-positive’ and easy-going, or censorious and anti-sexualisation, being inclusive of anyone who identifies as a woman, or a ‘Trans-Exclusive Radical Feminist’, and so on. Not all of these things sit well with each other. Socio-economic groups and religious affiliations are the same – being ‘Christian’, ‘Muslim’, or ‘atheist’ will mean different things to different people. Beyond an initial, vague definition, the differences between group members soon swiftly outnumber the viewpoints they have in common.

Labels make it easier to see blocks or groups, rather than multitudes of individuals. Labels mean we see people as ‘all the same’, and downplay their differences. It makes it easier for individuals to set themselves up as mouthpieces for these imagined communities. Any community member who deviates from whatever norm comes with the label is made powerless as a result – no matter how much they might try to speak up to explain “we’re not all like that”, their individual voice will be drowned out by the mouthpiece (and whichever members of the community agree with the mouthpiece). If you end up with two equally powerful but opposing mouthpieces, expect fireworks.

Has the label become meaningless, then? Has it always been meaningless? I don’t know. But I’m finding it harder and harder to take any real meaning from identity labels. All I’m left with is to take arguments on their own merits, regardless of who says them. Sometimes agreeable people say dumb things and disagreeable people say smart things. I don’t want to privilege an argument based on who comes up with it, but on whether or not it makes any sense. Is it based on evidence? Will it improve people’s lives?

I can only speak for myself when I say that I prefer not to identify myself with a label. Perhaps others enjoy feeling like part of something bigger (or more powerful?) when they take a label and adopt it as their identity. I’m just wary of how it can be hijacked (“if you disagree with anything we say or do, you’re not a [label]!”) or ignored (“it’s just those tedious [labels] whingeing about the same old things again”).

Of course, I might change my mind and happily join a group or movement and let others speak on my behalf. Just don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen, though. At the moment, the only one who can speak for Terry is Terry – and not all Terrys are the same.


2 responses to “Sticky labels

  1. “the only one who can speak for Terry is Terry – and not all Terrys are the same.

    And that’s the core of libertarianism in theory—even if the practice of implementation differs (even amongst ideologically “pure” libertarians).


  2. Pingback: Where there’s a will there’s a way? | Observaterry·

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