There was a good while where I didn’t know whether the phrase “Don’t label me” was a joke or if it was a serious statement. That phrase would usually come up during situations where people say “Don’t be such an X” or “If you believe that, then you must be X”. For the most part people can say this phrase jokingly, but we can’t ignore the fact that a growing number of people try to avoid labels in some sense. Even if it’s just an attempt for that person to feel unique there must be some validity to this idea.
The main issue with labeling certain ideas is that there is no inherent meaning in the label itself. To illustrate this we can look at two of the most common labels used in politics, the split between liberal and conservative. When I speak of a person who is liberal, I myself have a very specific idea of what that word means. The problem is, the person I’m talking with may have a different conception of what liberal means. For instance, I may have in mind that I’m speaking of classical liberal political philosophy as a whole, while the person I’m talking to may think of being liberal on a specific issue. Even then, if we were to agree on a single definition there will still be confusion. Say that just for convenience we decide to use the Oxford Dictionary definition of liberal:
Favouring individual liberty, free trade, and moderate political and social reform.
Given this definition there is still room for miscommunication. In the first part of the sentence it begs the question, “How much individual liberty are we presupposing?”It could be the difference between the freedom of speech or having mandatory house searches every day, depending on what each person views as a good amount of individual liberty. The point here is this: We generally have no clue what someone else means when they use a classifying term, and even when we define that term two people may have miscommunication based on their own understanding of the definition. Another way to think about is, that even if an anarchist and a fascist both agree on that definition of liberal, they both have very different conceptions on what that definition implies. A fascist may support free trade and political reform, but if you ask me that does not make him a liberal.
But these are merely labels about ideas, we can also analyze the labels for concrete groups. For instance there is the statement “I am a democrat.” What does this mean? Well it could mean both that I am a registered democrat and go vote democrat every election, or it could mean I am a registered democrat but have never voted in my life. Or if a person says they are a democrat they could mean that they aren’t even registered to vote at all but they still support the ideals of a democrat. If this turns out to be the case, which ideals do they support? Do they support every single ideal on the democratic platform, do they support the majority of them? Maybe they really only care about a single issue, such as the environment, and that’s enough to call themselves a democrat even if they don’t care about any other issue. Maybe a person doesn’t even know what he means by democrat, and he just uses the word because he heard a friend say it, how do you continue the discussion from there?
The point is when somebody asks “Are you an X?” they are really asking just so they can make a set of assumptions about you based on their own personal understanding of what that term means. For this the only proper response to avoid a complete misunderstanding is “I would avoid calling myself X, but this is what I believe.” Of course there will always be some kind of miscommunication, but this is the first step we can take to avoid it.
I understand that to an extant labels are useful. Humans have some innate need to categorize everything so that they can make sense of the world, and despite this need it’s irrelevant. I can argue all day whether a certain artist was a modernist or a postmodernist, and it doesn’t matter. Those are subjective labels. What really matters is the content that the artist produces and how we can better enjoy and understand it. Therefore, it doesn’t matter if a person is liberal or conservative, what really matters is the specific beliefs that they hold.