What do you think when you hear the term “Left-wing Liberal”? How about “tea party”? “Right-wing extremist”? “Die-hard Republican”? “Card-carrying member of the NRA”? “Reactionary”? “Obstructionist”? “Moderate”? “Libertarian”? “Independent”? “Neocon”? No matter what you believe, or what your personal political affiliation is (if you have one), the odds are good that those terms conjure up quite a few different images, some of which are bad.
While some of these kinds of labels are meant to be derogatory caricatures of the people we disagree with, many of them are not. The problem is that even the more “harmless” of these words mean significantly different things to the people who use them regularly. A self-identifying Republican thinks “Republican” is a good thing, while a self-identifying Democrat thinks “Republican” is a bad thing. Say the word in front of both of them, and two very different mental pictures will form in their respective heads. From a linguistic and logical standpoint this means that these words are fundamentally useless for worthwhile communication because their meanings have become arbitrary—not depending on context, which would still allow usefulness, but instead depending only on the personal meaning ascribed by the one using it.
I subscribe to many different political or environmental email newsletters. I don’t agree with most of them, but I like to read through the agendas of different organizations just so I get a well-rounded idea of what’s going on around the country. It’s saddening to me that the content from the organization I disagree with most (MoveOn) is usually the least full of distracting propaganda. Don’t get me wrong, they do have many other more subtle forms of propaganda. But the most blatant name-callers of all of them are often the ones that I agree with in principle. I just can’t stand their method of delivery, and I doubt their credibility because they resort to that kind of communication.
Political labels allow for an easy way for group members to identify themselves. However, I am virtually certain that most of the people who consider themselves part of a large group (such as MoveOn or, say, the Tea Party) either don’t agree with 100% of the agenda, or more likely don’t know 100% of the agenda and so cannot truly agree or disagree across the board. It is challenging even among family members to find someone who completely agrees with everything you believe.
Labels create a simple but inaccurate group identity among ideological subscribers, while at the same time they create a shallow but intense divisiveness between “believers” and “non-believers.” People often treat their own political beliefs like religious dogma and use opposite labels on their opponents as spiteful, condescending pejoratives. This makes it easy to fall prey to a logical fallacy commonly known as a straw-man argument. A straw-man argument entails the misrepresentation of the position of our opponent for the purpose of easily shooting it down. Such a position is easy to defeat, but it is not a true victory because we have ascribed viewpoints that the opponent does not really hold. The reality is that people that identify with an opposing group often have worthwhile points, and they are rarely as idiotic as they are made out to be either in our minds or our conversation.
Corruption, deception, and ignorance admittedly run rampant among politicians and their constituents. But when you listen to or talk to others about politics, try to keep in mind what effect some of those seemingly benign labels have, and remember that just because they call themselves something else doesn’t automatically mean they are less than you in any way.