The Labels We Use


(system) #1

Over the weekend, I’ve been engaged in an ongoing conversation with Adventist blogger friends about categorizing people. Consider the following terms you might have heard attached to Adventism: Historical, Evangelical, Fundamentalist, Evangelistic, Progressive, Liberal, Conservative. They are loaded terms, all of them. Their connotations evoke emotional responses. They have multiple layers of meaning.

While categories can be helpful when organizing data (think for example about taxonomic descriptors as tools for biological classification), they often prove less useful when applied to people. What exactly is a historical Adventist? What does she believe? Where does she live? What life experiences shape her understanding of God?

Labels also played a prominent role in some of the biggest storylines from the Beijing Olympic Games:

All-Star Athlete, Redeem Team, Greatest Olympian Ever, Lackluster Performance, Longshot, Underdog, Outside Hope. Winner. Loser.

While those terms are descriptive, and may be accurate in some senses, they are also imprecise. How could any of those terms—or any cluster of terms—fully portray the drama: the intense preparation, the stunning victories, the struggles, the bitter letdowns and the complicated human narratives that surround the efforts of every participant in the Games? Even accurate labels fail to portray reality in its fullness.

The political discourse of this election year regularly crosses the line between substantive debate of issues and furious attempt to caricature the other side. So the labels fly:

Out of Touch, Hawkish, Elitist, Panderer, Racist, Celebrity…politics in America has become a naming game, throwing as many stereotypes, caricatures and derisive labels at opponents as possible, hoping that the terms will stick. Has it worked? How would you characterize this year’s candidates? That might provide a clue.

I’ve watched as Adventism has played along (and I’ve caught myself playing along). We label, we tag, we pigeonhole and box people up. Then after taking a step back to admire the strawmen of our own making, we dismantle them with gusto. The worst part is that we do this to each other.

Here is why labeling is obsolete:

Labels are incomplete (insufficient). Labels are necessarily broad generalizations that always fail to do justice to individuals. They reduce rich complexity to flat simplicity. They never tell the whole story, and that’s the point. Labels are intentionally uni-dimensional.

Labels unite…and divide people. They lump people together in bundles of limiting and limited terminology. When you call me a _____________ Adventist, you throw me in a heap with other _____________ Adventists. While categories can provide points of contact between the like-minded, they also draw sharp lines of distinction between people. Labels create insiders and outsiders, “us” and “them”. And because they carry with them value judgments, not merely empirical descriptions, labels too often provide grounds for rejecting people.

Labels dehumanize. They trade humanity for category. Rather than thinking of people as complex combinations of history and culture, genetics and experiences, we instead think of people simply as liberal or conservative, gay or straight, Republican or Democrat, black or white. And speaking of Republican or Democrat, the remarkable story of Joe Lieberman should remind us that people are always far more complicated than labels allow.

The incredible diversity in human experience, beliefs, and biological makeup demands that no two people will ever truly belong in the same generic category with one another. There are shades of similarity and difference, but not absolutely binding classifications.

For that reason, I call on readers of Spectrum and all Adventists to put an end to the naming game. How can we be true to the faith that insists that there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, slave nor free while applying epithets and tags to label each other?


This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/901