Quick, Label Me!

Labels are not concerned with the accurate description of people. In fact, they work against description by allowing us to avoid dealing with the person — who is confusing — by pointing to an abstraction — which is simple. We replace the infinite, complex man with the immediately recognizable “liberal.”

This evident in that the labels “liberal” and “conservative” — in themselves — mean nothing. A man who is liberal is a man who allows, and a man who is conservative is one who conserves, but the precise quality of their allowing or conserving depends entirely on the fashions of the present age. It was certainly “liberal” to advocate for allowing abortion in the 1960′s. It was certainly “conservative” to resist this change. But now abortion is the norm, a right, and an essential quality of women’s health, making the promotion of abortion no longer liberal, but conservative, an effort to conserve the well-established institution of child killing. Still, we label abortion supporters “liberal” and “progressive,” because labels are not concerned with truth in description, but with leveling people into manageable terms.

Two men may be united under the common banner of being “pro-life,” but this label does not refer to the fact of their unity, that is, whether they really agree with each other. I could be called “pro-life” in my opposition to capital punishment, as could a man who supports the United States’ use of capital punishment. The label “pro-life” has nothing to do with our unity over the issue of protecting life, rather, it operates so as to level our disagreements, crush our distinctions, and unite us — not in the fact — but in the abstraction of “pro-life person,” a person who — as has been generally decided — opposes abortion. Our unity is feigned.

Labels do not describe us, they reduce the human person into an easily manageable set of traits, and they become intolerably restrictive. An atheist friend of mine finds himself in this precise position. The word “atheist” has long been removed from its descriptive purpose, and now sits on that hazy, haloed throne as a “label,” carrying with it the weight of “New Atheism” which he detests for irretrievably linking “atheism” with “anti-theism”. But this is the point of labels, they are for subsuming people, for grinding away distinctions and replacing ourselves with caricatures.

The word “gay” has long ceased describing a characteristic of a particular person and has instead become a label. It is a leveling mechanism. The only reason we can say with straight faces that, “Opposition to gay marriage is hateful to gays,” knowing — as we must — that there are men and women who are gay and yet oppose gay marriage, is that the label “gay” levels all those people sexually attracted to members of their own sex into neat categories for our use. Thus the gay best-friend, thus the fashionista, thus our godawful objectification of men with same-sex attraction into “the gay man,” the political pawn, or the “fag.”  “The gays,” we say, and thus impose a sense of unity that doesn’t exist, in the precise way unity amidst “conservatives” does not exist outside of the mind.

Any label used to unite two people into common existence does so not by establishing community but by leveling distinctions. We thirst for community, but community is a unity of persons, not abstractions, a unity of real individuals united with all their distinctions, not a unity “freethinkers” or “traditionalists” or any leveled category or sub-category. Community holds people in common as the family holds people in common, rooting them in flesh and blood, in tangible fact, not just in a useful construct of the mind.

The family does not shy from the distinctions of its members, but relishes them as personal expressions of a common oneness. The family is a phenomenon of love, in which one man can say to another “we are one, you mine and I yours,” and mean it as ontological reality. All true community is a phenomenon of love. Abstractions-applied-to-people are a distortion of community, and thus a distortion of love. Labels say “we are one,” but it is not the people who are one, it is their common trait, elevated above any real distinctions in the labeler’s mind and falsely applied back to real people. When Kierkegaard said, “If you label me, you negate me” he was absolutely right, for the label — insofar as it is applied to the person — destroys the person, breathing the breath God into a non-existent compilation of parts, giving the “conservative” an artificial life above and beyond the person. It is only in bitter irony or ignorance that we speak of a brotherhood amongst “conservatives,” “freethinkers,” or “the pro-choice movement.”

But let me be absolutely clear: We are the enemy. The problem with a general, hipster-hatred of labels is that it that the enemy becomes a mysterious “they” who imposes labels from above and should be resisted through the power of indie rock. It is true that “they” — primarily those involved in mass media — organize and manipulate society through the brilliant and loudly-applauded use of labels. How often and how easily we watch, read and listen to individuas being negated into bite-size categories, into “reactionary,” “religious,” “ideological,” “leftist,” “homosexual activists,” etcetera ad nauseam. But the media is only feeding us what we are kicking and screaming for. Labels work to make the immense difficulty that is human life easy.

By claiming the label “pro-life,” I eliminate any need to explain and develop a philosophy invested in the protection of life. Who I am is pro-life. It says so on my bumper sticker. You don’t need to hear my theories about potentiality, just talk to my movement. Similarly, if I can label a human person making a distinct claim as a “homosexual activist,” I can avoid dealing with his claim and his personhood. Instead, I can bravely deal with “homosexual activism,” a simple, objectified, concept easy to reduce to ashes or elevate to the status of untouchable divinity. It is no problem that we are unable justify our lives, our beliefs, and our actions in themselves and before Eternity, for — by latching on like leeches to the hazy flesh of abstraction — we are nourished with instant-justification. We are “conservatives” now. We are “Thomists,” and if you’ve a problem with my subjective existence, my beliefs and my principles, you can take it up with Thomism.

What else can we say of the explosion of labels that is the result of the LGBTQ movement, that frenzied invention of new, scientifically categorized sexualities and orientations and the subsequent, compassionate application of these to the foreheads of every human being in existence. The very kids who wanted an end to objectification and name-calling have developed the most intricate system of objectification known to man. Our genital urges are now couched in the language of identity, expressing who we are, be it heterosexual, homosexual, pansexual, bisexual, metrosexual, omnisexual, sapiosexual, asexual, transgender, lesbian, gay, queer, questioning, heteroromantic, biromantic, or any of the rest, and thus who we are has further become a choice amongst labels, each one defined, each one manageable, each one safely boxed away as a mental construct we the apply to the person: You are asexual. God bless you for coming out. What we pretend to want is an accurate description. What we really want is a label to be assumed into.

Go on, find your label. There is no peace like being subsumed into a categorical system.

A label allows us to subsume ourselves into an abstract, and thereby cease dealing with immense difficulties of being our unique, particular ourselves. When I am truly silent and truly alone, I am alone with an I who finds himself living with no immediately discernible purpose, alone with an who — quite naturally — feels the difficult desire to do good and avoid evil, to love the beautiful, to know the truth, an with a conscience that constantly reminds me of my own inability to do any of these things, an that doesn’t age but still is and feels like the same eternal I that lived and breathed at 10 years old. This is the I return to when I am stripped of every external — of my ideology, career, possessions, class, race, and status — the I that must simply be, approaching death. This is, of course, terrifying.

To exist as the self that I am is to be removed from the millions of false systems by which I prop myself up and impregnate myself with value, to be peeled like an orange and held to the mouth of Eternity, that Awful Present Moment who judges who I am in the dark of here-and-now. Since I am guilty, bored, broken and can hardly bear to become the self who I am, I take refuge under the mighty pinions of labels. Who am I and where am I going? Am I living as I should? Will I die happy? Can I face Eternity?

Well, I’m a white, heterosexual, conservative, middle-class male who is becoming educated, a writer and an American with a book collection, Apple products, this many friends and these relations. I am even a Christian. See? Living is easy. I have been successfully labeled. Now, back to sleep.

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  • Nick

    I think labeling is a bit of a catch-22 situation. If you label, you run the risk of denying the infinite complexity of the person, assuming things about them that might not be the case, or glossing over the nuance of a thing by using categories that are far too general. But at the same time, a person’s sexuality, religion, gender, class, etc. do contribute to who they are, quite substantially, and it is proper to recognize the attributes they hold in common. Which is why I, contra Kierkegaard, proudly wear the label “Christian” as a means of identification (for example).

    Labels also imply, or seek to fulfill, a desire for membership and belonging. Identification as “Christian” points to my membership in the universal church. Hobbyists pick themselves out with labels, by calling themselves coin collectors, stamp collectors, boaters, fishermen, skiers, or so forth. Wearing the label “pro-life” demonstrates my alliance with a number of like-minded people. Yes, the label is imprecise, but I wonder if that’s a reason to rail against it, or whether we should just say “c’est la vie” and move on. Sexuality is far trickier because, rather than actually referencing something that is real, they try to name things that actually don’t exist, and naming has a way of fixing something (or a non-thing) into a person’s consciousness. Which means that the label actually, in a sense, makes the man, and, in this case, makes the man something that is not good.

    I love Kierkegaard and understand that you do as well (the picture and quotes gave it away). But how, exactly, do you reconcile his pietism, subjectivism, individualism, etc. with your Catholic beliefs (if you even seek to do so)? He seems to lend himself much more easily to mainline evangelical Protestantism than the Roman Catholic Church (indeed, many identify him as one of the formative influences on American evangelicalism).

  • Thew

    Labels are useful creatures that afford us creativity and freedom if used the right way. The only label that is proper to apply to me is my name. Every other label ought to be associated with some facet of me. Thus, insofar as I love history I am conservative, insofar as I like invention I am a progressive. If I far prefer history to inventing then I could choose to refer to myself as a conservative, with the understanding that “conservative” defines a trait I have but only helps describes me as a person. As you rightly notice a liberal position often becomes a conservative one and vice versa, leading to irony such as today “liberals” are the champions of conservation of the environment. It’s not so much our use of labels but our laziness with the use of language that causes problems in communication and thus establishing true community.

  • Lukas Halim

    “Was it Kierkegaard or Dick Van Patten who said ‘If you label me, you negate me?’”
    -Wayne Campbell (Mike Myers)

  • http://www.facebook.com/clara.vansmoorenburg Clara VanSmoorenburg

    *Sits a minute in stunned silence, and then…* WOW!! BRAVO! BRAVO! I Loved the last six paragraphs, but the last three nearly made me weep. They are beautiful! Well done, Marc, well done. Bravo, I say, Sir, Bravo!

  • TheodoreSeeber

    I want to be known as a Catholic. If I succeed in every other label in my life being subsumed to that, I will have achieved my life goal.

  • http://www.facebook.com/joseph.kruse Joseph Kruse

    I love watching the development of your philosophy. Your earlier writings have moments of platonism and naive realism; later, the influence of Aristotle was apparent and welcome; now, you’re thoughtfully integrating the moderns and producing some of your best writing. In school, I went into Existentialism kicking and screaming, but its amazing how those schools of thought can breathe new life into faves like Bonaventure (still underrated) and Aquinas.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kaeleigh.kissofdeath Kaeleigh Kissofdeath

    “And they will know we are Christian by our love” :) Perhaps if we all were less ready to throw out our self-labels and inquire as to others’ we might be forced to get to know them and be known :)

  • cbwh

    I label myself. I wouldn’t want myself to be confused with the sort of ‘teen life mass’ type cafeteria-Catholics, with their vernacular, their guitars, their ‘sign of peace’ makeout festivals. I’m a Tridentine Roman Catholic. To me, anything else is ‘Catholic Lite’. So, yes. I’m going to make the distinction.

    • poundcake

      pretty sure this is EXACTLY what marc was talking about… you just negated an entire group of people who go to lifeteen mass as not being ‘real Catholics’ the way you are.

      Some of the most devout people I know attend lifeteen masses. Some even play guitars in the band.

      Take the plank out of your own eye before you write off everyone who attends lifeteen mass as being ‘Catholic Lite’ and sooo inferior to YOU, the REAL catholic. jeez.

      • Teresa

        A classic sorites paradox – how much can a Catholic reject and still be considered a Catholic. Keyword: considered.

        • Sam

          Consideration will always be in the eye of the beholder.

          • Luke Burgess

            Real question Sam is: Given what actions of a fake Catholic can a Catholic finally be able to draw the line and inform others this fake Catholic is not real?

            Example: Nancy Pelosi

            I see this line at the moment the person is openly encouraging others to commit what Catholics have defined as sin.
            By openly: They are aware what the Catholic Church teaches on it and they make sure the person(s) being encouraged understands.

  • Dave G.

    Label wrongly used can be bad. But labels also remind us of the other side: we are communal creatures. While I am unique in the world and there is no other like me (whew), I’m also part of bigger things. Labeling me “Catholic” would be nice, because i am. I’m part of other things as well, things and beliefs and ideals held by others like me. If used in the wrong way, of course, it can be bad. But it’s not so easy as just no labels at all.

  • fats

    is Christ calling Pharisees “hypocrites” a label?

    • Barfly_Kokhba

      Haha, the silence is deafening.

      You have asked an excellent question. Jesus was an ass-whipping (literally), table-flipping, name-calling iconoclast; a rebel, a doubter and a pot-stirrer. In other words, He was fully human….and yet also fully God.

      But a lot of modern Christians (I won’t name names) seem to want to mythologize Him into some sort of peace-and-love, king-of-the-hippies type of cat who sleep-walked around a provincial Roman ghetto in spotless white robes with a halo around His head, spouting Zen koans.

      That is not the reality that we find in the Gospels. He was a sorrowful, resilient, angry, thoughtful and enigmatic man, and He confronted Almighty God the Father with doubts about divine constancy during His most crucial trial. He couldn’t be more fallible and real.

    • Barfly_Kokhba

      Oh, and if you want my theory as to why Christians insist on casting Jesus as the laid-back Hippie King of Rome? Because so many of them have sold out to Caesar, and they know it, and they’re ashamed of their own weakness. And they don’t want to admit that the Christ found in the Church’s own Gospels does not match the Christ they have presented to the world. The Christ of our Gospel came to bring a sword, not an EU-approved disposable olive oil cruet.

    • Barfly_Kokhba

      Hmm, apparently Disqus formats the message replies in descending chronological order, which is rather odd. But in light of that fact, please read my messages starting from the bottom and proceeding to here. Well, I suppose it’s too late since you’ve already read this particular one, but after this message start with the bottom one, ‘the first shall be last’

  • oldnuke

    “Never accept a label in place of a story.”

    I can’t accept credit for this saying. It’s Sherry Weddell’s. Accepting labels, including the labels that Catholics use for each other and their beliefs and motivations, has obscured the problems that are leading to the Church’s greatest problems. We’re going to need to learn to talk to each other again if we do not want to become a tiny minority in Western culture.

  • http://twitter.com/MudblodCatholic Gabriel Blanchard

    I happen to be gay, and, while I appreciate (in both senses of the term) the widespread Catholic discomfort with such terms, I think the question is more complicated than that. For one thing, we do, I think, need shorthand terms that signify something, for the simple reason that our brains are too small to deal with anything as huge as a human being, except in the context of an intimate personal relationship. And that’s fine, but we can’t have intimate personal relationships with everybody (not in this life, anyway), and yet we must still interact with myriads of myriads — many times more than we could hope to know on anything more than a nod-hello basis. Provided we leaven our mental categories with wisdom, charity, and the knowledge that they are rules of thumb and not of metaphysics, I don’t think it either needful or possible to avoid them.

    About LGBT persons in particular, though, I feel I perceive a definite double-standard. I have often heard general rebukes of, and occasional been personally rebuked for, using words like ‘gay’ because they’re imagined to be restrictive and demeaning categorizations (as opposed to, say, adjectives). I have never once heard a rebuke, or even (save here, if I’m reading your closing paragraph correctly) a reservation, about the use of terms like ‘straight’ or ‘heterosexual.’ The assumptions about what words demean only ever seem to run in one direction, and — given that, believe it or not, most people in the queer community do regard themselves as being far more than their sexuality, and (rightly or wrongly) feel rather that it is Christians who demean them and their relationships by condemning them as such, without examining them on an individual basis — I think that such things rather increase the Church’s perceived homophobia than lessen it. I wonder, too, whether it may not foster a certain degree of mild homophobia; but this comment is already getting pretty wall-of-text, so I’ll stop here.

  • Barfly_Kokhba

    Labels? How about this for a statement about labels: “Who is my ‘brother?’ Who is my ‘mother?”

  • fats

    In my opinion, too many people place too much emphasis on labels, for good or bad, we cannot speak a sentence without being excoriated for our words by being called “haters” or ” intolerant” or just plain fools ( more labels). Today’s society wants the easy fix, and wants tolerance above all else, and sadly, that includes tolerating sin and sinful actions at the expense of Truth. Labels are a good thing, it is part of the language, It is the spirit in which they are used that is the issue.

  • Catholic Lutheran Redneck

    I’m sorry for your atheist friend, but it is no “new-atheism” that irreversibly links atheism to “anti-theism”. The words core itself defines these two names being one.
    A- is the absence of something.
    Theist- is a person who follows God.

    So A-Theist is a definition of someone who wishes for all theists to be absent, thus being Anti-Theist.

    Maybe your friend should have categorized himself as being an A-Deus?

  • John Doman

    Marc, I see that you’re more fully developing your ideas about labels, and I think that’s a good thing. My own view (which has already been repeated by others here) is that labels are a form of shorthand, and while they are neccesary, they can indeed be dangerous. But thank you for recognizing that the “hipster-hatred” of labels can also be problematic – and where it’s most problematic is in politics.
    Labels are very useful in politics, and always have been, and always will be. This is because of the nature of politics itself – or rather, the nature of government.
    There has always been a scale on which one’s political ideas can be judged. On one extreme is state power. On the other is individual power. State vs. individual. Left vs. Right. This scale, of course, is nothing new; it goes back to Plato’s republic. It’s far older than the labels of Liberal and Conservative, but it just so happens that in America in 2013, “Left/Liberal” conforms to the state power side of the scale, and “right/Conservative” conforms to the other.
    What’s my point? Well, only that if anyone says “My political ideas can’t be classified. I don’t like being labeled as right/left,” that person is, by definition, mistaken. Um, yes, you can. (general you, not you, Marc). 100% one side or the other is rare, and usually only held by the insane and dangerous (anarchists, totalitarians). But all political ideas fall somewhere on the scale. They must. And there’s nothing wrong with identifying them as such, as long as you don’t let the person’s political opinions define him to you totally. That’ll never happen, right? ;)
    By they way, I should add that I totally LOVE your blog. I first heard about it from my brother Joey’s podcast, and been hooked ever since. Keep on trucking.