Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Labels: Good or Bad?

Labels. They're everywhere. They're in parenting. Politics. Religion. Sexuality. We are constantly using labels to define ourselves. Why? And are labels really such a bad thing, or do they serve a positive purpose?

I think there are pros and cons to labels. On the positive side, when we see that we identify with the stated purposes of certain groups, it's convenient to be able to use that label to give others an idea of where we stand. Attachment parenting. Libertarian. Emergent. Democrat. Baptist. Gay. Muslim. Christian. Republican. Those labels all evoke certain thoughts and images in our heads, and if the labels are accurately understood by the people we're talking to, they can be a positive thing and an aid in getting to know people better. And labels can create unity. As a parent, if I see someone else label themselves as an attachment parent, I know right away that we are going to have certain goals in common, and possibly certain practices as well.

On the other hand, labels can also create division, especially when they are misunderstood.

I've noticed over the past several years the tendency for Christians to be hesitant to label themselves as such, going with terms like "Jesus follower" instead. Why? Because for many people, the label "Christian" is a loaded one. It often evokes a mental image of legalism, judgment, materialism, and a whole host of other things that are not true to the heart of Christ. Many people feel that the proper response is to distance themselves from the label that brings up negative feelings for so many. And I can completely understand that.

At the same time, though, I wonder if we should distance ourselves from labels that have become misunderstood, or if we should seek to redeem those labels by keeping them and showing what they really mean. But that brings me to another question-- do labels keep their original meaning even when they bring up other connotations for large segments of the population? Or does the actual meaning of the label change along with the popular perception of it?

Another alternative would be to throw out labels entirely. Perhaps it would be a good thing to simply live our lives according to what we believe, have honest conversations with people about our thoughts on things like parenting, politics, religion, and so forth, and never bring labels into it.

I tend to believe that there is value in sticking with the original definitions of labels and seeking to clarify their purpose when people misunderstand. At the same time, there is also value in abandoning labels that are creating division.

Labels are complicated. They can bring unity and clarity, but they can also cause division and misunderstanding. Their meanings can change over time, at least in people's minds if not in the strict definition of them.

I'd be really interested in hearing thoughts from people who are well-versed in social psychology or linguistics. I definitely think both of these things play a part in the dynamics and understanding of labels within a culture.


  1. I think often that a dangerous thing about labels is that people very often find their personal identity in them. They then tend to have a very difficult time accepting others that don't identify with that particular label. And because their personal identity is wrapped up in it they then pass judgement on others who don't subscribe to their classification.

    I also think that labels in general are an easy way of letting others know where you stand, the down-side to this is that if people already have a pre-judgement on what that label means then more than likely that is going to cause an automatic distance between you. Unfortunately, even if they are wrong on what they believe the label stands for, you'll not get the chance to redeem it because they probably won't indicate that this is the reason for their disconnection.

    That's not to say that all labels are bad; there are just pros and cons that have to be weighed.

  2. I completely agree. I wonder if there is a better way to approach these kinds of things?