the dangerous power of labels

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Sunday, August 24th, 2008

the dangerous power of labels

lately, i’ve been experiencing a little frustration about a recent conversation of which i was a part. this conversation, while significant, was merely a symbol of a growing frustration i’ve had for awhile. now, i will pause and say, for those who don’t know me all that well, that not many things bother me or get to me. and in this case, it isn’t like i’m losing sleep or have some kind of deep-seeded anger, but it’s just that i think this thing is an epidemic within the church and i have begun more and more to experience it.

what i’m talking about (just in case you aren’t astute enough to actually read the title…) are labels. specifically, it’s the idea of attaching some sort of label or name to everyone. you’re a conservative. he’s a liberal. she’s a christian. you’re a pagan. i’m progressive. you’re traditional. and so it could go on forever.
the aforementioned conversation was particularly off-putting to me. i was looking forward to the conversation because, in theory, it should have been a collegial and fruitful conversation. it went completely downhill, though, within 5 minutes because of the questioned that was posed: “are you x or are you y.” (i’m not even going to say what the two labels were, because the point is that they could have been anything…conservative/liberal, progressive/traditional, whatever.) the question was literally out of the blue. there was no precursor or “set-up” for the question. it was basically someone with an agenda that superseded the context of the conversation.
the problem with labels, as evidenced in this conversation, was that they only serve to make a sweeping generalization that draws a line in the sand. in this conversation, to the person asking the question, there was a “right” answer and a “wrong” answer. if i gave the wrong answer, this person was prepared to basically “cut me off” and cease to engage a constructive conversation. the other problem is that i refuse to lower to the point of taking on labels. labels are subjective and only have meaning in certain contexts. what is conservative to one is liberal to another. what is holy to one group is sacrilegious to another. so, when asked the question, instead of choosing, i simply responded with, “i don’t know what those labels mean” and that i don’t use labels to create false and needless dichotomies. it probably sounded pretentious to this person, but it is increasingly truthful in the way i try to engage with others and in the way i engage in seeing the world.
the other day, i watched a portion of a conversation between brian mclaren and southern baptist leader richard land. these two guys are at polar opposites of the theological spectrum, but they were able to engage in a collegial conversation that began with the topic of the danger of labels (more or less trying to define some terms). mclaren made a very poignant remark, stating that using labels is a “shortcut to thinking.” i thought that was a powerful statement and is so evidently truthful. it takes little thought to label someone and put them in a box. to understand someone and see them in an objective light requires patience and effort and skill.
to use a cliché, when you point the finger at others, you have three pointing back at you. this is true in this case for me. i have been bad about doing this to others, but i’ve tried to be committed, over the last few years, to refraining from using these dangerous and powerful labels. i really hope that the rest of the Church can do likewise and begin a movement of change for the better.
i would offer to sing this blog to you, but it’s probably best to leave that to the professionals…here’s a little derek webb for you…


  1. jesse says:

    This makes you a postmodernist…
    How’s that for a label?

    I remember being apart of a postmodern discussion where we talked about how the idea(s) of labels are rejected. Everyone is an individual and no one squarely fits any one type of idea/ label. I think that’s true.

    When we label people it removes the humanity from them and makes them an idea or a label. “I’m against(insert label here) so I can be an ass to the person that represents that.”

    Good thoughts… The problem is that I and many, many, many others want to do it anyway. “I hate conservative fundamentalism so I can be an ass to Rick Warren.”

  2. rob says:

    postmodernist. i love it. labeling someone with a term that has basically yet to develop an authoritative definition… such ironicalityness. i very much like the idea of not being summed up by an ideal, and i also agree in that i have a tendency for shortcuts and a healthy desire to classify people and file them away pretty quickly. this would be where “effort” comes into play. such a simple thought for something so hard by which to abide.

  3. Anonymous says:

    Hummm.Interesting thing about labeling. In your attempt to show some sense of neutrality (Impossible to do so.) You have actually labeled someone as a labeler thus becoming the very thing you say is so dangerous. Funny how that works isn’t it. Trying to walk the middle road is impossible. It may seem in vogue or even intelligent, but in reality is impossible.
    You are becoming what you speak against. Funny how that works isn’t it?

  4. ryanByrd says:

    unfortunately, my commenting system sucks (or i’m too lazy to change it, actually…) and you can’t directly reply to people. so…let me offer a few responses.

    jesse: you’ll have the opportunity to hear more about my thoughts on rick warren when i finally get a chance to post my response to the saddleback presidential forum (i started the blog, but haven’t finished it yet). but, it seems you might be misunderstanding what “conservative fundamentalism” is… i definitely wouldn’t say rick warren is a conservative fundamentalist. you could certainly make an argument for conservative, but i personally would definitely not say fundamentalist.

    rob: i think your comment about “filing people away” is a good bit of imagery. we tend to slap a label on people and then we file them away, never to again consider them.

    anonymous: ah, the anonymous blog commenter… first, i would encourage you to identify yourself in comments. anonymity is not helpful in these types of forums. onto your point, though.

    i would argue that neutrality is far from impossible. difficult, but certainly not impossible.

    also, you seem to be interchanging the concepts of labels and titles (titles simply describe people’s actions or roles). for example, to call me a husband, a father, a pastor or a blogger isn’t labeling me. it simply describes actions in which i engage or roles which i fill. to call me conservative or left-wing or progressive would be to label me. there’s a clear delineation. to say to someone, ‘you’re labeling me or others’ is simply to point out an action in which they’re engaged. it takes no judgment on my part. you are either labeling someone or you are not labeling someone. however, in the case of labels, you’re making a personal and subjective critique of another person. you might label me as a liberal, but that’s only from your subjective point of view. a moment later, i might be labeled conservative. it’s subjective and, consequently, unfair (not to mention divisive and dangerous…).

    so, i would love to further this conversation (with anyone, not just “anonymous”). also, i would request that people identify themselves when leaving comments. anonymous blog comments can lead to vitriolic and unhelpful conversations. they lead many bloggers to shut down commenting and i don’t want to ever get to that point.

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