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Friday, May 28, 2010
Labels as Alternatives to Thought and Effort

It is when labels become substitutes for serious thought and effort that they do us harm.

The Conversation(s)

The subject was the race for a US Senate seat from Utah, and specifically my support for one of the candidates, Mike Lee. (If you wonder why I support Mike Lee, I'm happy to refer you to my explanation, but the present point is larger than that.)

My interlocutor was . . . well, it hardly matters. The same discussion has repeated itself with old, young, older, younger, male, female. And the medium has varied from Facebook chat to face-to-face conversation.

The tone of the response has ranged from quiet, firm, and respectful to outright sneering, but has usually tended toward the sneer.

The response itself varies little: "Oh, I could never vote for a lawyer."

Never, indeed! I can see why not. Barack Obama is a lawyer. Joe Biden is a lawyer.

Then again, John Adams was a lawyer. Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer. Thirty-five of fifty delegates to the 1787 Constitutional Convention either actually practiced law or at least had legal training.

"I could never vote for a lawyer"? If this is not bigotry -- and here I really want to ask, how is it not bigotry? but will refrain -- it is at least folly. It is too frivolous for momentous times; it is far too shallow for the deep political and economic water in which we presently swim; it is much too easy and convenient to suit our difficult days.

Labels Aren't All Bad

Labels are not altogether harmful. For example, there is some useful meaning in labels such as Republican, Democrat, conservative, moderate, liberal. And my long experience with hot dogs has taught me that, when I see "Ball Park" on the package, the hot dog will be excellent.

Sometimes there isn't time for anything more than a label. A quarterback who has dropped back to pass cannot stop to look up his own and the other team's rosters on the Internet or in the printed program before deciding whether or not to pass the ball to that player who appears to be open in the flat, who may or may not be on his team. He has to rely on a very basic label, the player's uniform, which he can evaluate in an instant.

There probably is some sense in preferring law school grads wearing the labels of Harvard, Yale, Cornell, Stanford, or Chicago to alumni sporting the brand of the Southeastern Bermuda Online School of Law. These are labels which can reasonably be expected to mean something in most cases.

It is when labels become substitutes for serious thought and effort that they do us harm.

Too Shallow for Deep Water

What would you think of me if I told you that I don't care about Tim Bridgewater's politics and principles; I'm voting for the other guy because Bridgewater is a successful -- read that wealthy -- businessman, and that automatically makes him an evil profiteer who has more than his fair share of life's bounties, and who must therefore have ground his wealth out of the defenseless poor?

What would you think of me if I had gone to the Utah State Republican Party Nominating Convention and voted for the one female on the US Senate ballot, not because I know or care about her politics, but because the other candidates were men, and I could never vote for a man?

What if I ignored politics and voted for (or against) candidates simply because they are Catholic, Baptist, Jewish, Muslim, or Mormon?

What if the thing about which I cared most in a candidate was hair? Is it present or not, and in what quantity? What is the color? Hair is a useful label, because we all know that blondes have lower IQs, right? (In fact, I don't know that. Some of the most brilliant people I have ever known are blondes. But work with me here for a minute.) And, obviously, someone who dyes his or her hair blonde aspires to be an airhead, which is probably even worse than being one.

What if I told you I opposed ObamaCare because some of the bill's sponsors were New York Yankees fans or, worse, Los Angeles Lakers fans?

What if I told you that I mostly agreed with an incumbent and mostly disagreed with that incumbent's challenger, but would unquestionably vote for the incompatible challenger over the compatible incumbent? After all, is not the incumbent automatically evil by virtue of being an incumbent? Is not the challenger righteous and good by virtue of being the challenger? Never mind that the incumbent was in the other role as recently as the last election, and let's stipulate that the incumbent has basically governed as that successful campaign promised. Throw the bums out, you know? All of 'em, every time. We know they're bums, because they're in. And when we throw a new batch in, they'll instantly be bums, too, to be thrown out at the next opportunity. (I'm sorry if this sounds familiar.)

Assuming I wasn't just feigning irredeemable vacuity for comedic effect or to make some substantive point, wouldn't you find me dangerously shallow, if I actually believed any of this and acted accordingly? Wouldn't you think me either lazy or foolish for failing to look past the labels, most of which are irrelevant?

Surely you would -- or I have grossly overestimated my readers, which I haven't.

Even Worse

As bad as it is to use labels as an alternative to thought and effort, it may be worse to prowl around looking for the slightest pretext to slap toxic labels on people -- labels which don't actually fit those people, but which will inspire the lumpenproletariat to respond to the labels without examining the substance. Certainly, it damages our politics. Here are three examples, one local, one national, and one somewhere in between.

Part of me is at least a little pleased whenever I see voters giving the Alpine School Board some grief. They've earned it by their obstructionism, name-calling, sleight-of-hand, condescension, and other misbehavior involving the math curriculum, among other things. And I cringe as much as anyone when I read, in large painted letters at a certain District building, that the organization's mission is to "enculturate" rather than to teach, and that it is "democracy" which we value, instead of our less dangerous form of government, the democratic, constitutional republic. (I acknowledge some philosophical discontent with the stated mission, to be sure, but the primary abomination here is linguistic. Anyone who uses the word enculturate in polite company should probably be caned on that basis alone.)

That said, when the Board is assailed by a relentless gaggle of voters who label anything they don't like "socialism" or "communism" -- even if it bears no great historical or theoretical resemblance to either -- I find myself regretting that said voters are so caught up in labels that they waste much of their energy trying to blow up real, arguably significant issues into cataclysmic ones. I regret even more that whatever merit their position may have is overwhelmed and discredited by their obsession with convenient labels which don't fit very well. (See this March story about parents complaining. See this story on the school board refusing to be bullied and insisting on following proper procedures, rather than just arbitrarily caving in. Sorry, folks. To demand that a governing body bypass its established and reasonable procedures in order to satisfy you immediately on your pet issue is to beg for defeat at best, and for tyranny at worst.

In our national debate on immigration -- which has yet to rise convincingly to the honorable level of serious debate -- a large faction of Americans seems to favor very draconian measures. At our border we should build a wall, no, make that two walls, and shoot anyone caught in between. And we should throw anyone we catch in the country illegally back over the wall, as quickly and unceremoniously as bureaucratically possible. This particular faction instantly labels any suggestion that is ever so slightly more nuanced, more comprehensive, or more humane as "amnesty," even if it doesn't not involve any kind of amnesty. Anything they can label amnesty, and anyone advocating it, is perpetually in season, with no bag limit. In other words, anyone advocating "amnesty," even if it's not really amnesty, receives a political death sentence from this faction.

In this climate it is impossible to have a responsible and effective discussion of illegal immigration and work toward a reasonable, humane, feasible solution. This will be the case until some brilliant soul stumbles upon an antidote for label poisoning, or until the population at large and politicians in particular build up some immunity to the label and the glue.

Happily, such an immunity may actually be developing in another prominent case of label abuse: earmarks. To those who embrace labels independent of substance, "earmark" means any sort of spending by Congress that the person applying the label doesn't like. This is not the technical definition of earmark. In a recent debate featuring all eight candidates for Utah's available seat in the US Senate, the subject of earmarks came up. Several candidates fumed about earmarks in some expensive bills they didn't like. Then they looked stupid when Senator Bennett's turn came, and he explained not only that none of a given pork-saturated bill's spending was in earmarks, but also why that was so. (The White House refused to allow Congress any control over the bill's spending, and earmarks would have granted some control.)

In the delegates' responses at to this at the debate, I thought I detected some evidence that many were seeing beyond the label and appreciated the candidates who did the same. Coincidentally or otherwise, all the candidates who rushed to apply (or react to) a misapplied "earmark" label were eliminated in the first ballot at convention a few days later. One wonders, would any of them have fared better, had he or she been more inclined to seek substantive mastery of an issue, rather than to settle for labels and sound bites?

Parting Thoughts

Again, I'm not decrying the use of labels generally. Words themselves are labels; we can scarcely do without them. But when we use labels on people, especially, as shortcuts which bypass serious thought and effort -- or to distract others from engaging in that same serious thought and effort -- we do ourselves and our politics a grave disservice. You might even say we label ourselves as fools and/or bigots. (Bigotry, after all, is a special sort of foolishness, is it not?)

Shall we end where we began? If you're voting in the Republican primary in Utah next month, vote for Mike Lee (my preference) or Tim Bridgewater (the other good choice) because you've studied the candidates and their views, as well as the times in which we live, and you think that one candidate will be better than another in the US Senate for the next six years. Don't do it because, in your shallow and bigoted view, all lawyers are sharks or all successful business people are thieves and villains.

Scratch the surface, y'know?

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