We spend our whole lives putting labels on one another. And if we’re honest, we can admit that one of the main reasons is we’re lazy. If I label someone in my head as a “geek” or “redneck” for example, I can make all sort of assumptions about how that person acts and what that person believes and thinks without ever actually bothering to find out or think about it again. And when we apply the labels to ourselves, you have to figure that the same kind of lazy thinking is at the root. After all, if I call myself a “Democrat” I’m going to feel some pressure to go along with whatever it seems like ALL the other Democrats are saying to both feel like I fit in and to save face with all those people who’ve heard me call myself a Democrat.
Considering how based in lethargy this behavior is, I find it amazing that we spend so much energy in defending these labels.
Supreme Court nominees and Presidents. CEOs and activists. Friends and enemies. Gun rights. Immigration. Full-day or half-day kindergarten. Our views and feelings on these things are dependent to some degree on the labels we apply to ourselves and others. And we throw around the labels with such wild abandon! “Obama is a socialist” is a perfect example — most of the people throwing that one around have no idea what the label even means, but still they apply it and still they act and make decisions based on that label. However, if someone wants to define themselves within the Democrat/Republican or Geek/Nerd spectrums and don’t adhere to the conventional stances, we start crying “heretic” in the name of some ideological purity. All the while we can’t even agree on what the labels mean.
With many things, definitions are accepted as being organic, such as the Geek/Nerd/Dork debate ( of which @toasterlicious wrote about so well recently). There is no Board of Standards setting the definitions of these things, and as @toasterlicious points out, that pretty much makes it useless to debate. But what of those labels such as Democrat or Republican? Is a Democrat someone who only votes for Democratic Party candidates? Is a Republican someone who agrees with their county, state, and national committee platforms . . . even when they may be contradictory or at least somewhat difficult to reconcile? What of Libertarians? Do they have to agree with every single idea Ayn Rand ever uttered or wrote, or even worse Rand Paul? What’s ironic with the libertarians, being the freedom-of-the-individual type folks that they are, they sure spend a lot of time calling each other out for not being a “true” libertarian.
Or one of my personal favorites – “moderates.” Pollsters and political operatives talk about the great silent majority, those turned off by the extremes of both parties. Is a moderate someone who believes in a sort of Judgment of Solomon-type approach to every issue, splitting the difference on say abortion (that ought to be interesting). Or is a moderate someone who holds views from both sides — say maybe socially liberal and fiscally conservative? Take Penn Jillette for example. One might argue he’s extremely socially liberal and extremely fiscally conservative — does that make him a moderate? Where I’m going with this is that labels such as “moderate” are useless – they describe an ideal which in practice is a moving target and can’t be universally applied.
In addition, whether the label is theological, political, or technological, they are all organic as long as they are self-defined (which nearly all of them are). Somethings however are fairly immutable — I can’t call myself a “lawyer” without passing the bar somewhere, and I can’t call myself a “cook” without expecting that someone is going to expect me to make something edible for them at some point. These are things that can be tested to some degree. Things that, while there may be gray areas, are for the most part binary designations. But as usual with the human condition, it’s those gray areas that cause so much problem. And since anyone’s definition of “liberal” is likely different than anyone else’s, all we’re left with is these gray areas that we spend so much time fighting over.
Chances are if you’re reading this, you’ve also seen Kevin Smith’s movie “Dogma” (a favorite movie amongst many of my friends) – one of my favorite scenes in it was this one, where Christ’s heretofore unknown aposotle Rufus explains Christ’s feelings about religion:
Rufus: He still digs humanity, but it bothers Him to see the shit that gets carried out in His name – wars, bigotry, televangelism. But especially the factioning of all the religions. He said humanity took a good idea and, like always, built a belief structure on it.
Bethany : Having beliefs isn’t good?
Rufus : I think it’s better to have ideas. You can change an idea. Changing a belief is trickier. Life should malleable and progressive; working from idea to idea permits that. Beliefs anchor you to certain points and limit growth; new ideas can’t generate. Life becomes stagnant.
Now many of the more skeptical of us nod our heads at this and say “See, that’s the problem with religion, and why I don’t believe in God” and then sadly turnaround and attack those who don’t hold to some abstract atheistic purity or who profess an uncertainty about the existence of God¹. Or the geeks who nod their heads and say “Yeah, see religion isn’t logical and it excludes so much, that’s why I don’t go to church” and then turnaround and engage in some flame war with someone who has a different idea than you do about what’s the perfect OS or game or whatever. All of us within the caves of our self-applied labels are more than happy to point at others and call them out for exclusion and bigortry, all the while ignoring our own — those labels really are a soporific for thinking.
I could have also picked out my friends on the right or who are religious (yes I do have some) but honestly we already know what prudes they are about all sorts of issues, I figured it was pointless to even call them out. I’d much rather focus on the folks who I usually agree with, as we’re supposed to be the ones who are open and accepting. And Kevin Smith’s point is just as easily applied outside of religion, which is something we often seem to forget.
Take for instance these examples:
- Apple gets attacked for not being “open” enough because they don’t allow the proprietary (and buggy) Adobe Flash on their mobile devices
- It’s a matter of debate within the vegan community about the appropriateness of consuming bee honey, despite the fact that no one can prove that apiary bees are any worse off (and not in fact better off) than wild bees. Especially difficult as bees are notoriously difficult to talk to.
- Many of my friends on left are not only still upset that we didn’t get single-payer health care passed, but feel personally betrayed – all the while seemingly forgetting that there was never any chance of that actually passing and the fact that anything got passed (and more people covered) should be cause for some celebration.
My first point is this: Once sides are taken, each group defends its own bastion of belief as “pure” at the expense of progress. In some ways I believe our culture, based as it is on a historically high level of communication and the comparatively frictionless flow of targeted and customized information, encourages this². People are able to create post-geographic tribes where they watch, read, and interact with only those who are most like them. And when you have a homogeneous tribe, the tribe becomes insular and starts looking to force out or defend against those who are different, the “heretics.”
Right there, that describes a good chunk of the problem with the legislative branches of our state and federal governments, the culture “wars”, and those damn high school cliques (no, I’m not bitter! *grin*). What’s worse is that this idea of absolute intellectual cohesion and conformity is a myth, or at best an exaggeration. So many people go along with the conventional wisdom of whatever group they self-identify with, and usually don’t totally agree on every issue, but are worried about their standing within the group too much to stand up and be different. You may scoff, but if you’re a Apple fanboy, try telling your other fan boy friends about the features of the Zune you really like. I mean come one, having an FM receiver is pretty sweet, right? And why the hell doesn’t my iPod Touch have one? *crickets* from the Apple fanboys. Now you may still agree that the iPod is superior to the Zune (as it is), but it’s not like the defense of the free world comes down to you never saying anything against Apple or in favor of its competitors.
My second point: Compromise is how progress is achieved. As an individual and as a culture, if we can maintain a balance between holding to our convictions and keeping an open mind in order to find a way forward with those we don’t agree with, things will get a lot better around here. We need to accept that compromise doesn’t mean selling out and that vilifying those that don’t pull a Cartman and loudly announce “Screw you guys, I’m going home” means all we have our leaders who vaguely remind us of Eric Cartman. (Though personally I would love to see Obama pull a “I made you eat your parents” on Glenn Beck — I’m petty sometimes)
Ted Kennedy will forever be vilified by those on the right and held up on the highest pedestal by those on the left. But you know what, the reality was that at various points in his life, he was a drunk, a womanizer, and one of the best legislators this country ever had. He was able to reach across to Republicans like Orrin Hatch, Bob Dole, and Jesse Helms and actually get shit done — it wasn’t “perfect” but it was better than leaving problems unresolved.
Apple creates the most consistently usable interfaces of any software company on the planet, but if it doesn’t work for you or if you’d like to do something different than what they’ve ordained, good luck changing it. Microsoft makes crap, but has moved computing further along than any other single company in history.
I could go on, but the point is that no matter how carefully we would like to draw our little lines in the sand, reality is a messy affair ill-suited to high-contrast straight edges. We can go ahead and use all the labels we have been (it’s not like we can stop, it’s hardwired to some extent), but just try to always keep in the back of your mind that it’s an approximation and not a finite value. Spend some time with people you disagree with or that are different from you; arguments may happen, but hopefully discussions will too. Just as important is the need to not be so quick to dismiss those who don’t meet some abstract absolute standard when it comes to identifying with a group. It comes down to thinking of yourself and others in broader terms.
I say all this being the son of two people who are regarded by many as the most partisan Democrats in the commonwealth of Virginia. This is not a conflict, and the explanation also touches why I’m writing this today specifically. My mother, famed Democratic politician and one-time Democratic whip while in the U.S. Congress, was in high school a supporter of Barry Goldwater (a “Goldwater Girl”) and was born and raised in that bastion of conservatism and Jello known as Utah. My father, on the other hand, was an idealistic liberal when they first met and who made sure that while I was a minor, there was a section of their will that charged my guardian (should the need ever exist) to raise me as a Democrat. If those two crazy kids hadn’t managed to find a way forward together, I would not be here today. And they’re still together, 45 years later. So a huge Happy Father’s Day out to my Dad, because while he has taught and shown me so much, I think one of the rarest lessons was the ability to passionately believe in what is right, while maintaining an open mind and engaging with those who see the world differently. Thanks Dad.
¹ Personally, I’m apatheistic — I don’t care, and don’t see how it matters
² To be clear, I’m not against this high level of communication, but the Internet is just a tool, and like any tool you can still use it poorly.