When the Labelmaker Sticks

While I know that most people tend to lump me in among the conservatives when it comes to labeling, I actually haven’t called myself a conservative in many years. In fact, I don’t really call myself by any label, and I don’t think I have done so on this weblog. There’s a good reason for that. Labels tend to cause more problems than they solve, as Jeff Jarvis is discovering.

For those who haven’t stopped by Jeff’s excellent blog, Jeff considers himself a liberal. Oliver Willis, however, has pronounced sentence: Jeff is not a liberal. Oliver is upset with Jeff because Jeff often highlights problems he sees with liberals. Jeff, understandably, isn’t sure what gives Oliver the authority to make such a proclamation, and finds it presumptuous and offensive. Armed Liberal and Michael Totten have jumped in to defend Jeff, while Mithras agrees with Oliver. The argument appears to be centered on whether or not Jeff has the ‘right’ to call himself a liberal. Oliver and Mithras say no, while Michael and Armed Liberal disagree. Personally, I think the whole thing is rather silly.

Who can tell me what a liberal is? I believe that abortion and drug use should be legal, the death penalty should be abolished, and that the government should err on the side of the speaker when it comes to first amendment issues. Does that make me a liberal? Those are, after all, pretty solidly in line with commonly understood liberal doctrines. Then again, I also believe people should have the right to own personal weapons, that the welfare state should be dismantled, and that over half of the government is unconstitutional. So I must be a conservative, (and a pretty far-right one, too)right? But wait, I don’t really fit into either label, so what can I be called?

Well, I’d prefer to be called Andrew, or Andy by my friends. Slapping a label on me, or on anyone, is just a means of pigeonholing people so we don’t have to think about them any more. Oliver declares someone a conservative, he doesn’t need to worry about their arguments any more. It’s a simple syllogism (and it is used constantly on both sides of the aisle). Conservatism is bad. Jeff is a conservative. Therefore, Jeff is bad. (Change Oliver to Bill, change Jeff to Oliver, and change conservative to liberal and you’ve got the same thing from the other side.) It’s intellectually lazy, and it leads to the two sides of the blogosphere only interacting when it’s time to snipe at each other, rather than taking on each other’s ideas.

Labels can have value, and we all have to have filtering mechanisms so that we’re not swamped with data. But too often (and I certainly don’t exempt myself from this), we use labels to save ourselves the time of actually thinking. I certainly don’t spend enough time visiting blogs posted by people I disagree with, because I frequently end up telling myself that they’re just going to be on the opposite side of the issue from me, and they won’t bother arguing the point with me, so why should I bother? So instead of at least making an effort to explain why my way is better (or, horror of horrors, discovering that my way isn’t better, and that someone else has a pretty smart way of looking at things), I take the easy way out and don’t bother. That certainly doesn’t make my arguments any stronger. Nor does it help Oliver’s. So take a shot, Oliver; you’re a damn smart guy, from everything I’ve heard and seen. If you’ve got an issue with Jarvis or Totten, instead of arguing over whether or not they’re liberals, take on the substantive issues. You might surprise us all.

 

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