On the Dangers of Labels

image by Midjourney AI; my own prompt

Fascist. Terrorist. Racist. Any other —ist. Addict. TERF. Anti-Semite. These are labels — nouns — we apply to others, that essentially equate their (often merely alleged or assumed) beliefs, situations, and behaviours with their identities. In some cases we slap on these labels based simply on what we have judged someone ‘must’ believe by virtue of their seeming disagreement with us (eg “You must love Putin then, you —ist!”).

So for example, if you embrace the idea that women should be able to hold and attend events that are closed to people with penises or beards, ergo you are a TERF. You ‘have to’ hate Trans people. Or if you are a white person who has faced relatively little struggle in your personal life, ergo you are a racist. You ‘must’ hate BIPOCs, at least subliminally. You’re just not ‘aware’ of it.

Or if you believe that oppression must be resisted, even with violence if that is necessary, and you express that sentiment by demonstrating and waving a revolutionary flag, ergo you are a terrorist. You ‘must’ hate “our freedoms”, and “hate democracy”.

You are a [insert morally judgemental label here] and therefore we are morally justified in attacking you, punishing you, imprisoning you, even killing you.

And you wear this label for life, regardless of what you said or did or did not say or do, or any possible or nuanced reason why you might have said or done it. We, the accusers, are cop, judge, jury and executioner all in one. And, of course, it is assumed that you did this “of your own free will”, and are hence morally responsible for your beliefs, circumstances, statements and actions. You will be cancelled, you f*ing —ist!”

One of the main problems with such labeling is that if you reject the label, you can be accused of being (guiltily) defensive or in denial. The label thus becomes an ad hominem attack that offers little or no opportunity for rebuttal — hence its appeal to sociopaths and vested interest groups. Prove to me you are not what I say you are. That you are not this label I have attached to you. Which is of course, impossible.

We are living today, IMO, at least in the west, in a society with an obsessive fetish with identity. Perhaps this stems from our general sense of impotence, helplessness, hopelessness — Since there’s essentially nothing we can actually do to improve our situation, we focus instead on who we are, how we self-identify. And on who you (ie you this ‘Other’ we don’t particularly know or like) are, based on the convenient and irrefutable labels at hand. And then we will smugly assert that, by writing critical things about you and Others, and labelling you, blaming you, we are actually doing something.

We do this to ourselves, as well, this equating of our beliefs, situation, behaviours and activities, with who we are. A failure. Victim. Addict (again). “Hi, I’m Jo and I am an addict.” “That’s OK, Jo, with God’s guidance and mercy and your complete surrender to His  and Our will we will rebuild you in 12 steps into a real human again. We’re glad to hear you acknowledge that you are the problem.”

Identity politics, it seems to me, is principally about labeling and self-labeling, mostly divorced from the reality of what we and others actually do or don’t do. It’s an absurd oversimplification to ‘identify’ yourself as anything, but that seems to be where we’ve gotten to. Yet we are not our beliefs, situations, preferences, behaviours and activities (almost all of which are conditioned in us and/or completely outside our control in any case).

This nonsense has now become institutionalized due to the seemingly relentless pressure by identity fanatics to force us all into self-identifying boxes. So now we get government surveys asking us “Do you identify as…” [list of ethnicities; list of genders; list of sexual preferences]. There is no opting out, no “I do not identify as any of these” at the end of the list. WTF? You must identify yourself.  What’s next in muddling demographic information with personal preferences? “Do you identify as… 15-19 years of age, 20-24 years of age…”?

And god (and his 12-step program) help you if you decline to list your ‘preferred pronouns’ — How in the world will others be able to ‘identify’ you when they speak to you, or about you? (Maybe by your name?) My latest answer when asked for my ‘preferred pronouns’ was to answer “tā” — that’s the Mandarin word that stands for he/him/she/her/and it. No other words needed. No preferences. No complications. No offence. And, if you’re British, it can also stand for “thank you”.

If you’re in public life (Jeremy Corbyn, Bernie Sanders, JK Rowling), getting the ‘wrong’ label slapped on you can end your career, or bring you death threats. If you’re a journalist not toeing the party line, or a protester in the streets, the ‘wrong’ label can get you killed. Even if you’re just an average Jo, the ‘wrong’ label by the wrong person can cost you your job, your freedom, your family, your friends, or your life’s savings. There are many ways of ‘canceling’ you.

It can also, I think, cost you your sanity, whether you’re the labeler or the ‘labelee’, and whether it’s a public incident or a private disagreement. When you get fixated on someone based on how you’ve labeled them, or on how they’ve labeled you, rather than focusing on the very specific (and probably complex and misunderstood) action and circumstances that led to the labeling, it can drive you mad. The labeler accuses the ‘labelee’. The ‘labelee’ disputes or denies the label, and is infuriated, and — guess what? — labels back. Down the rabbit hole.

And, always bubbling under the surface, there is the trauma that drives our propensity to label in the first place — what we fear, or hate. We think that labeling it will help get it straight, clear, out in the open, or keep it under control, but it almost always makes things worse.

There is of course no cure for our labeling mania, which is not a new phenomenon, though our dumbed-down discourse and facile ‘social’ (actually antisocial) media seem to be feeding it. And there’s no cure for identity politics in general. They are symptoms of our fearful, angry times.

I’ve gone back over a bunch of my blog posts and, yes, there are a lot of labels in there. And in almost no case did those labels add anything useful, or solve anything, or even make me feel better. They just reflected my own fear, or hatred, or sense of helplessness, or trauma, or perhaps my ignorance. And perhaps they vindicated or articulated others’ fear and hatred, stirred up their sense of righteous indignation when they read them. Toxic fuels, our labels.

I rest my case.

(As implied above, I think our propensity to use labels to identify people stems from our conditioning, and very often from our trauma — things that I believe we have no control over. And I’ve also implied in my previous writing my growing sense that trauma, tragically, cannot really be ‘healed’. The implications of that for a civilization in the accelerating stage of collapse are pretty dark. I’ve started writing a follow-up to this article about all that, but it may be too dismal and hopeless to share.)

This entry was posted in How the World Really Works, Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to On the Dangers of Labels

  1. Vera says:

    Nice! I applaud.

    Does it mean you will stop calling vaccination skeptics “anti-vaxxers”?

  2. Brutus says:

    Labels are unavoidable cognitive categories we all use intuitively, especially when making snap judgments regarding potential threats real or imagined. However, with those operating in bad faith, labels have morphed into power plays to launch preemptive attacks and put everyone, anyone, on the defensive. My retort whenever someone tries that with me is to accuse them of eating babies. Now defend my baseless attack!

  3. Joe Clarkson says:

    There is of course no cure for our labeling mania

    The problem is that historically there actually has been a proven cure for a labeling mania – just kill all the people with the wrong label. Voila, no need to use labels any more, at least for a while. The ultimate expression of this, and of labeling itself, is the battlefield as cure and different military uniforms as labels.

    But can the people willing to use that cure be labeled? If the cure is successful, they get to be labeled as heros. So, as long as there are men and testosterone, labeling will always happen and always need a cure.

  4. Steve Hinton says:

    Great insights. This labelling stuff is horrendous
    But I wonder if you have ever really done a 12 step program. It arose in the 1920s and predates labelling. Step one involves admitting you have a problem. Addiction is a disease or sickness.Although you see depictions on tv of groups with people saying I’m an addict, the meaning is I have this affliction and it’s the start of recognising it’s not you. I say this because I’d hate for your readers who are struggling to discount 12 step. And there is no God involved in the way you put it. You ask for help from any higher power that might be out there. And believe me, when you have tried everything else you are ready to at least be open to help from the universe.

  5. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks Steve. I have only witnessed a 12-step program and its meetings once, and then spoken with attendees, and read more about such programs. What I witnessed personally was quite horrific — people being forced to say certain sentences and respond to others in rote fashion in a manner that was unquestionably demeaning and humiliating. My concern with it, aside from the fact that its ‘success’ rate according to unbiased studies is absolutely dismal, is that it is compulsory for many people ‘sentenced’ for crimes, and that it consumes huge amounts of public and private money and resources — it’s a cash cow industry ($1,000/day for those ‘in residence’). And you’re (self-)labeled an ‘addict’ (or whatever) for life, so you have to keep coming back forever. If the only answer is a placebo which works fine for some people but not for most, there must be a more modest and less extravagant one we could come up with.

  6. JuanitoViejo says:

    “…too dismal and hopeless to share.” Dave! That’s why I come to your website: twenty plus years telling it how you see, and changing as the light shifts. I can only read about a third of your prodigious output each week, then I go for a walk and just…notice. Reading your reflections moves me into a kind of broken hearted compassion for all life.

  7. Dave Pollard says:

    Aww, thanks Juanito! So I’ve written the second part and will clean it up and publish it next week. Pretty dark. Forewarned is forearmed and all that…

  8. Vera says:

    I am such a blurter! Dave, what I meant to say is… I would love to know… this insight of yours, are you intending to actually do it? And how do you cross from knowing in theory to knowing in practice? I struggle with that.

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Since I have no free will, I suppose I will either do it, or I won’t. My plan is to reread my posts before publishing (and to pay attention during conversations) to reduce the number of labels that I apply to people (and to organizations, and to nations) in them. That’s a tall order, when the blog’s purpose is to chronicle collapse and hence to look for patterns, which are inevitably prone to labeling. But I’ll try.

  10. Vera says:

    Yes. Trying to do it via willpower makes no sense.

    Remember, Dave, Brutus, Joe, when the doomosphere was still coherent, we were onto not Othering?
    And then…, everybody started Othering other people with such determination and gusto, I am still reeling. What the heck happened to us?

Comments are closed.