Political labels considered harmful

Tags:  opinions

I’m an anarcho-syndicalist, a reactionary, a paleo-libertarian, a distributist, a scientific socialist, an atheist! And the list goes on… I’ve had that discussion many a times in real life and wanted to finally put it into text.

Mind you, my point is not to suggest that we shouldn’t discuss ideology or that ideology in and of itself is useless. My issue is the urge to attach labels, and people basing their whole identity around a set of labels, which results in more division, stifling free thought, and viewing things from an “us an them” standpoint. Also note that the title says “political labels” and not labels in general. While I have a general aversion towards labelling, I believe political labels are a very special case and arguarbly the most troublesome kinds of labels and I’ll explain why later in this post.

People turn into ideologues

ideologue /ˈaɪ.di.ə.lɑɡ/: an often blindly partisan advocate or adherent of a particular ideology.

— Merriam-Webster dictionary

Highly politicized people tend to forget that people should think as individuals and not ideologues. Simply picking a political label and going with it, as if you’ve found the perfect ideology, the perfect plan to fix society, is a pretty one-dimensional and narrow-minded way of thinking. Many do not even attach labels to themselves because they actually believe in said ideology, but because they want to fit into a particular group. This is a very natural and human behavior, but in the case of politics, it turns open discussion to tribal rivalry, and renders people incapable of thinking for themselves. We can clearly see politics slowly becoming a kind of civic religion, or even replacing actual religion.

Take any political group (centrists not included) and see this rivalry in action. A progressive will blindly reject anything conservative not because he genuinely sat down and thought the opposing argument through, but because it’s an enemy ideology. And although I’m not the biggest fan of modern progressivism, I only picked this as an example. This, sadly, applies to all other political groups, be them left, right, up, down or diagonal.

By attaching a label to yourself, you’re stripping away the ability to think, and there’s good reason why this happens, it’s not some conspiracy I just made up. For example, if I declare myself to be an X, I have to “toe the party line” and support X group’s ideas, otherwise I’m not an X, I’m something else, and so the label means nothing, it’s a LARP.

Labels are restrictive, not descriptive

…because people are complex; so too, are their politics. As such, political labels tend to be more restrictive than descriptive and, ultimately, they miss a key point — people aren’t defined by politics; people define politics. Labels are no substitute for experience. Allowing them to become so has rendered possible many of our most divisive political issues — from identity politics and partisanship to fake news and echo chambers.

Too often, labels become an attempt to turn the complicated into the simple. And people and politics aren’t simple.

Individuals are incredibly diverse and often hold a wide-range of political views depending on the subject or circumstances. It’s why political labels need so many caveats and hyphens — Alt-right, Far Left (or Right), Progressive Liberal, Moderate Republican, etc. It’s also why political labels are rife for exploitation.

For many, the complexity and gravity of political issues leaves them perplexed and frustrated. Understandably, people assume labels to align with political ideologies in the hope of having their views represented; however, labels divide just as easily as they associate

Excerpts from this article

Labels as a tool for ostracization

Oftentimes we use labels to dismiss someone’s ideas. Say for example someone has views against immigration. An open-borders person’s first reaction would be to shout racist accusations at them, and thus label them as a racist, far-right, or what have you, without really judging their points based on merit or facts, but based on emotion and bias. This is a very simple an easy way to gain moral high ground in a debate or ostracize someone. And this has always happened. Christians, muslims, nazis, communists, all attaching labels to their enemies to portray them as undesirables and worthy of contempt.

The same thing is happening today in the West. Any criticism of something foreign is “racist”, not being sympathetic to left wing ideology makes you “far-right”, questioning the Covid vaccines makes you an “anti-vaxxer”. Or a few decades ago, when anything remotely liberal could be considered “hippie” or “communist”. You can see this kind of labelling is not very helpful, and the truth is that the pendulum always swings both directions.

Labels are not always attached to someone based on their actual views, but on someone else’s perception of their views, and/or with the intent of vilifying them. How does this make labelling at least accurate in the first place? That’s the primary reason my post focuses on political labels, because when it comes to other domains, say religion, although division is still a thing, labels usually are accurate. For example, you can be sure when someone’s a muslim or a christian, but the situation is way more nuanced when it comes to politics, because it’s a very fluid and subjective domain.

Between the 1940s and 1970s, Greece, my home country, had experienced a civil war, political persecution and a CIA-backed military junta. During the civil war, there were two camps you could join: the nationalists, backed by NATO, and communists, backed by the Soviet Union. Eventually, the communists lost, but polarization was so high, that persecution of them continued during the dictatorship (1967-1974). The issue was, that one was labelled arbitrarily, and simply landing on the “wrong” side was as easy as simply listening to the wrong music or having been born in a family with leftist ancestors. Others, snitched on their neighbours, or even family members, on suspicion of political heresy. Mind you, there were persecuted people that had nothing to do with leftism or communism, but not being sympathetic to the regime meant you were automatically a communist (think about my previous points).

The reason behind this tangent is to give an example of how misleading labelling can be, and how easy it is to use it as a tool to dehumanize someone. In times of turmoil, labels are a weapon.

Another example is the Bolshevik regime using the term kulak to target dissident peasants:

Kulak, in particular, became a term of abuse directed by party propaganda against peasants who incurred the wrath of the authorities through failure to comply with demands for the delivery of grain.

— Edward Hallet Carr in “The Russian Revolution from Lenin to Stalin, 1919-1927”

My proposal and personal approach

Whenever I get asked about my ideology, people who expect me to respond with a simplistic term such as “left” or “right”, are usually annoyed. For one, I really don’t think I 100% agree with any particular ideology, and second, I don’t want to reduce the capacity to think for myself to a political label and create all sorts of biases before I even start to express any view. I find it nearly impossible to explain my whole political worldview with just a term — and that’s not because I think I am some kind of intellectual with very unique thoughts, but because one’s politics really cannot be accurately defined with just a word.

I know I know

“You are a radical centrist…”

Or my favorite:

“You just don’t wanna to admit you’re a [insert ideology here]”

You’re probably thinking, or at least, these are the usual reactions. But that’s far from the truth. There are ideologies which I think have more merit than others, that I’m more attracted towards and tend to agree with, but I don’t like the LARPing aspect of ideologies. I cringe with people using labels as a badge of honor and the main part of their identity. It’s almost always the case that people who are keen on labelling are the most insufferable in a discussion, because their goal is not to have a healthy conversation, but to prove that their side is the right one.

So, what am I proposing, anyway? I think the single most important point I’d make is to develop critical and independent thinking. Blindly accepting or denying an idea because the ideology you’re subscribed to says so, is really no different than following a religion.

Studying various ideologies — yes, even those you don’t like — is important, and my personal goal is to extract the good things from each ideology, use my intuition and common sense, and form my own worldview, instead of going with the Zeitgeist, or sticking with a particular ideology just to be part of a social club. Yes, anyone who takes a political stance does fall into some broad category, but there really is no point in obsessing over the label you go with, like it’s a football team. Nature gave us a brain for a reason, use it!