Surely you have heard the phrases, "I'm not into labels" or "I don't want to be labeled". It is a very common thing to say nowadays, and represents an overall apathy to philosophical matters (or whatever subject the phrase comes up in). I first want to say that I completely respect these people, since most of them are really just trying to avoid a fight about something that they don't care about it. But I wanted to discuss the concept of labels within society, and maybe tease out why some people use them, what they are for, and whether they should be used at all.
A Rose By Any Other Label...
First of all, let's get down to the basic question: what is a label? Essentially 'label' is nothing more than another word for 'name'. The only real difference is the term 'label' forms a word picture of some kind of visual "name-tag" being placed upon the thing named. It is clear that no one is really against naming things, but yet they are against labeling. This is almost contradictory.
Almost. What people are really against is having a name forced upon them that they don't want, and that is the key. Naming/labelling is incredibly important, and innate to the nature of man, but it also a very powerful thing.
Consider Adam. Adam's first role within the garden was to name everything that was around him. Why? I mean, didn't God have name for these things? It is important to recognize that within the Hebrew thought, the concept of naming something was exerting your power over it. By naming it, you brought it under your dominion: you define it. Thus by having Adam name everything, God was giving Adam dominion over the Earth.
Though this concept isn't quite as conscience within the minds of our culture, it is still true, and we know it on an intuitive level. When someone else applies a label to us, they are, to some degree, exerting some kind of control over us. They are defining us. That's not always comfortable (especially if we don't like or don't identify with the label being applied). Additionally, the person themselves are also somewhat aware of it, for those that insist on a label for you are usually people who are attempting to categorize you to assess how they are supposed to interact with you (often in terms of "friend or foe"). Let's face it, labels of the basic building blocks of organization, and many people want or need to organize the people they know.
This brings up a second word picture that the term 'label' offers. There is the one picture, mentioned above, of the name-tag that defines me, but the far more disturbing image is the box label. I'm much more comfortable with the name-tag that is there to help distinguish me from others, but not so much with being put in a box with a bunch of people I don't like so I can be filed away, perhaps even discarded.
With all of this, it is quite easy to see why people don't like to be labeled.
So, Labels Are Bad?
Not at all! Labels are a necessary part of human interaction! Like I said above, labeling serves very important functions.
First it defines a thing. It is not wrong for things to be defined. Can you imagine what conversation would be like if we didn't have names for things? Imagine if every time I wanted to refer to John, I would have to describe him because he didn't have a name. Indeed, if we had no names at all, imagining trying to describe him without such words as 'hair', 'shirt', 'male', 'head', 'eyes', and even 'age'. Likewise imagine political conversations if we had no names for positions, and a person would have to describe their entire political platform at the beginning of every conversation. I mean we could do it, but who would want to! If you think that I am wrong, just look at the words that are usually used to replace labels (given that the person is trying to abandon "labeling").
Second it organizes things. As much as no one wants to be organized, it is important for one to organize their social life. I want to know who my friends are. I want to know who my family is. I want to be able to quickly identify who is going to support me in a discussion on politics or theology. This is incredibly helpful, and makes life, well, livable.
Third it works as a short-hand. This is sort of already implied with what I said above, but it is important to note separately. It is often helpful within a conversation though to define a concept and then label it for further reference. For those who frequent this site, I often reference the Machine Gun Hermeneutic. This is a term that I invented, but whenever I refer to it, I link to the first article I wrote on it. The truth is I wrote that article for the purpose of defining a label that I was intending to use. That is the value of labeling.
The real problem is in the mismanagement of labels. Many labels in our society are misused, sometimes out of ignorance, sometimes out of malevolence.
Here's an example from a movie. Have you ever seen Hot Fuzz? Hysterical movie, though I would not recommend it to those who are sensitive (though I do recommend it to everyone else). There is one scene where the main character is being asked whether he believes in God. He says no. So the questioner (a priest unfortunately) says, "So you're an atheist?" He says that it more that he isn't certain about the concept of God, to which which the questioner responds, "Ah, you're an agnostic then." It is true that any belief that is unsure about the existence of God can be called an agnostic belief, but technically (as I understand), one is "an agnostic" if they assert that the existence of God cannot be known. However, the term is often used to label those who are simply unsure, as if they actually fell on the spectrum or something.
Another example is a label I take on myself: Arminian. The concept of Arminianism is that God extends his grace to all, and enables all to come to Him, but that only a few respond to this grace (this is a gross oversimplification, but I discuss it in more detail elsewhere). However, many attempt to define Arminianism as "salvation by works" or "man-centered" or "anything that believes in free-will" even though these are fallacious definitions. Indeed, many attach other labels which are completely foreign to the stance.
But it is incredibly important that we don't try to abandon labels or avoid them. Instead we need to own and defend them.
You see, the real problem is not that you are being labeled, but that other people are the ones doing it. When you label or name something, you are exerting power over it. Therefore the problem is other people trying to have power over you. The solution is not to not be labeled (since they label you anyway), but that instead you control which labels are attached to you.
For instance, I don't see myself as a conservative (politically speaking). That is not a label that I attach to myself. However, I do use the labels federalist and capitalist, and if someone calls me conservative, I can correct by using the terms that I define myself as. Yes, I am on the right side of politics, but not for the same reasons as many, and thus I don't really belong in the same category. On the other hand, I don't mind the label "right-winged" for that implies a spectrum rather than a political philosophy, and that is the side of the spectrum I'm on.
Therefore, to answer the question that I labeled this post with: Yes, I am into labels, and I hope that you will be to. Let us just take the time to understand and appropriately choose the labels we use.